What A New Film Gets Right About The Iranian Hostage Crisis
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
By: Arash Azizi
*Initially published at Washington Post
The specter of history looms large over the contentious relationship between Iran and the United States. As the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 just passed its 40th anniversary, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple has waded into the topic with “Desert One,” a documentary on the botched U.S. operation to rescue the hostages, which is having its New York premiere this week at the Doc NYC festival.
The film features interviews with Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, then-CIA official Robert Gates, some of the 52 hostages and many of the soldiers who survived the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw — and the families of the eight men who didn’t. On the Iranian side, there are two crucial interviews, one with Faeze Moslehi, a female hostage-taker, and the other with a passerby who, as a child, happened to be traveling on the desert road where the American helicopters landed to start their ill-fated operation.
By using oral histories from both sides of the conflict, Kopple sheds light on the deep resentments that undergirded the crisis. In its presentation of Iranian history, in particular, the film reveals how the hostage crisis was far from the triumphant defeat of America that Iran likes to claim it was. It helped solidify the authoritarian tendencies of the nascent Islamic Republic and plagued its diplomatic relations with the West from the outset. Kopple’s film shows how the hostage crisis sits at the intersection of so many grand historical processes: The Iranian revolution of 1979, the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the rise of Ronald Reagan, the pioneering use of Special Operations forces (Eagle Claw was the first U.S. Army Delta Force operation) and the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle with far-reaching consequences for democratic politics. Its portrayal of the Carter administration is hard-hitting. Never-before-released telephone records and interviews with Carter’s advisers show a commander in chief who was tactically inept. He struggled to find balance between his noninterventionist instincts and a difficult reality in Iran. The film argues that by giving a public promise early on to never use military force (as opposed to the now familiar “all options on the table” that even President Barack Obama repeated at the height of diplomatic negotiations with Tehran), Carter effectively incentivized the Iranians to keep the hostages. But the film is also powerful in how it grapples with Iran’s history. It takes a broader view to show not just the hostage-taking but how the event helped shame the new Islamic Republic that the hostage-takers had helped to found. Most of the revolutionary students who led the hostage-taking evolved to form the liberal wing of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and later expressed regret for their actions. Iran’s official position firmly backs the hostage-taking; each year, the anniversary is celebrated around the country at publicly organized “Death to USA” demonstrations. Near the city of Tabas in eastern Iran lies the exact location where the U.S. choppers landed, nicknamed “Desert One” by the military. The site has become a tourist attraction where what the Iranian regime claimed was a God-given victory over the Americans is celebrated. Some hostage-takers have defended their actions in the years since by citing the embassy takeover as a preventive measure against a possible U.S. military intervention. The memory of the U.S.-backed coup of 1953, which had brought down the country’s last democratically elected government, was fresh in 1979. There were legitimate fears about U.S. interventions that had deposed many independent governments, with the 1973 coup in Chile being the most recent major example. But, as the account shown in the film makes clear, the hostage-taking also jeopardized the new post-revolutionary government. By helping to create justification for an American attack that much of the world community might not oppose, weakening the liberal and democratic elements inside Iran, and making Iran into a top news item in the United States and around the world, the event sowed the seeds of dangerous Iranophobia worldwide. How the revolutionaries treated their hostages also mattered. Wanting to prove the justice of their cause to the world, the students took measures such as releasing African American staffers and organizing exhibits about U.S. imperialism in the embassy. They wanted to invite to the embassy every victim of American aggression, such as Palestinians and the Irish. They also claimed to be taking hospitable care of the hostages.
But the film shows otherwise. A hostage speaks of having been left in handcuffs for two weeks, making sleep or using the toilet extremely difficult. As a number of hostages dramatically remember, a mock execution was held early on that seriously traumatized them. The most chilling sign of inhumanity is perhaps the treatment of the burned corpses of the eight U.S. soldiers who died trying to rescue their fellow Americans. Their charred bodes were brought to the embassy by the cleric and judge Sadegh Khalkhali, infamous for having ordered the execution of thousands in the early years of the revolution. Brandishing the darkened corpses, Khalkhali boasted: “I’ve brought you chocolate!” Shockingly enough, the hostage-taker Moslehi recounts the event 40 years later with relish and laughter and not a sign of remorse, contradicting the most basic values of Iranian and Islamic culture. This evidence of cruel mistreatment of the hostages and the wanton disregard shown to human life helps shatter the myth of hostage-takers as “hospitable hosts” that the Iranian government propagates. While the film shows deep currents of hate and violence on both sides, a glimmer of hope for future reconciliation does surprisingly emerge from its narrative. This is best captured in the unique voice of U.S. diplomat John Limbert. Even in the heady days of early 1981, right after his captivity ended, Limbert urged reconciliation. In the more hopeful days, when Obama pursued successful diplomacy with Tehran, the Persian-fluent Limbert came out of retirement to serve as his top Iran diplomat, paving the road for an interim historic nuclear deal with Iran in 2013. Limbert’s very presence strikes an optimistic note. For if a former hostage of Iran could join the advisory board of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and work toward peace, a different future is surely possible for the two countries. Advocates of reconciliation between nations sometimes wish to brush the challenging episodes of history away and urge both sides to simply “forget” them. But the specters of history are not exorcised if they are just ignored. What is needed is a proper historical reckoning with the Iran hostage crisis. This means recognizing both the genuine grievances that Iranians have against U.S. aggression and the pain and suffering felt by many innocent Americans who were caught up in the whirlwind of early post-revolutionary Iran.