Former Secretary of Defense Chair, Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy; Major, U.S. Army, Desert One
Executive Director, Gulf/2000 Project, Columbia University; Former Principal White House Aide for Iran, Carter Administration
Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
International Correspondent, NPR
Director, Desert One, Cabin Creek Films
Panelists discuss the Iranian hostage crisis and the implications of the failed rescue attempt for U.S.-Iran relations for the next forty years.
AMOS: Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting from the Lessons From History Series: The Iranian Hostage Crisis with James Roberts, Gary Sick, and Ray Takeyh, and of course, Barbara Kopple. I'm Deborah Amos, international correspondent for NPR, and I'll be presiding over today's discussion. And I'm going to begin by turning it over to Barbara Kopple.
KOPPLE: Thank you so much. I'm thrilled that this film has been viewed by four hundred participants of the Council of Foreign Relations. And to me, making this film was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The film, as we all know, is about the Iran hostage crisis where, you know, Iranian students took over the American Embassy and held fifty-two people hostage for 444 days. It's also about the mission to free the hostages. What was so wonderful for me is that I got to really talk to people everywhere—whether it was inside the White House, whether it was the military, whether it was the people on the mission, whether it was people who were held hostage, plus their families and plus the families of people who lost people during this mission. I had an amazing team of producers—Dave Cassidy, Eric Foreman, a wonderful editor Francisco Bello, a wonderful animator; we called him Mr. Z. He came from Iran and he lives in Brooklyn now so he really knew that topography. And what we wanted to do in this film was really recreate that mission, so that people who were on it would say, “Wow, that's exactly as I remember it.” One of the important things also is that we got the Iranian perspective. And we also were able to film President Carter and Ted Koppel and Vice President Mondale—so we had an overview. And why we made this film also was to have presentations like this, where people could really use the film, you know, as a battering ram and then discuss what happened. So, I could go on and on, but I was moved. People, I think, in this film have gotten the respect, I hope, and love that they needed. And to me, they're heroes. And, you know, President Carter is also a hero. I felt he's always a humanist and a diplomat. And maybe that will fire up some of our, you know, guys who are going to talk about it. But without further ado, I'll let the guys talk. (Laughs.)
AMOS: (Laughs.) And one female. Two, actually.
KOPPLE: Yes, the moderator. Yes, our great, brilliant moderator.
AMOS: It’s really an extraordinary film. And now we're going to talk to people who were actually in the room where it happened, as the title of an infamous book is. I wanted to ask all of you, and I want to start with James Roberts in particular, what did you see in this film that surprised you that you didn't know, that is a revelation after all these years?
ROBERTS: Well, for me, the two most surprising aspects were the telephone calls between President Carter and General Jones, and I was stunned by the civility and aplomb with which the president took the ever worsening news. Each phone call was a little worse than the last one. And yet he never exploded, never yelled at people, never even said, "How could this be?" To me, that was an amazing display of holding your temper and being a principle-centered leader and not letting your emotions get out in front. The second thing that I found wonderful was the boy on the bus. Because of course, we all saw the forty people on the bus, and they were all huddled together in the sand and the kind of twilight out there in the middle of the desert. And to have him come up and tell his side of the story was just wonderful. And so those were my two, the two real learning pieces in the film that struck me.
AMOS: And the boy in the bus smiles through his entire interview. He is so pleased to be a part of this remarkable history. And you're right, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. And it's really extraordinary to watch it unfold. Ray, did you see anything that you were surprised by?
TAKEYH: I think almost exactly the same that Mr. Roberts was commenting—the discipline with which Jimmy Carter took the news and as the news deteriorated. And the fact that the landing took place at a location that was supposed to be deserted, but it has so much traffic. It wasn't just the bus, it was the oil tanker that was blowing up. It was in flames in the middle of nowhere. That kind of surprised me. And also one thing that one of the military officers who participated said he didn't think that the mission was going to work, because it was so complicated and all the pieces had to move at exactly the same way, and exactly in a perfect sort of a synchronicity. And I always thought Operation Eagle Claw was an extraordinarily complicated military logistics, just as one, fly to Tehran, get the buses, get out, switch back. And I think affirmation of that by some of the people was also important. It was all together, I will say, rather an extraordinary film, and particularly the team conversations that I had not known existed before.
AMOS: And Gary Sick, I'll ask the same question to you.
SICK: I very much share the idea that, I mean, the fact that this was a really extraordinary film. And I also agree with Jim about the transcript of the satellite phone conversations, which I had never heard, ever knew that they existed at all. I'd heard both Carter and Brzezinski describe the discussions that went on, but I didn't have any idea that there was a transcript to those. And, I guess one thing that I would point to because I share everything that's been said before, and there were some other little bits and pieces in there, bits of film that I remembered but didn't know that they existed, including the sweep of the operation center when all of us were called in that night when the hostages were taken. And Ted Koppel, no relation to our filmmaker, made a sweep with a team through that room. And I don't think other people realize it was just people around the desk. But that was the beginning of Nightline. That was the beginning of Ted Koppel's really deep involvement in the thing and also very much part of the beginning of the fact that Americans were bombarded on television night after night after night. That was the beginning of it. And I'm not sure that that was clear.
There's one other little point that I would make which isn't really something new, but I think doesn't get the attention that it deserves, maybe intentionally. And that is that the second helicopter, the one that basically had a flashing light on its screen, and decided that they would have to fly back to the carrier to see what was going wrong, and then come back—when they made that decision. And after all they're flying through a cloud in the middle of the night, it was heroic just being there. But when they turned around, they were about thirty minutes from the landing site, which was clear. And that was the difference. If they had gone on to the landing site, the outcome would have become very different. The flashing light, as far as I know, was a false alarm. It didn't, in fact, put the helicopter out of operation. I've never heard that report afterwards, except that it was a fairly common factor. So little things make a lot of difference and everybody is right, you know, that this was really, really a close thing. And there were lots of moving parts, and you couldn't afford for something major to go wrong. And the dust cloud was basically what went wrong.
AMOS: One of the things that's interesting about this film, it's two compelling stories—one that we know very well, and that is the hostage crisis. And I think most Americans know less about the rescue, they know that it happened, but the details are, in my view, what's new. And I'm old enough to have lived through all of it. As I read the reviews last night, there's one theme that keeps coming up, and that is the Ted Koppel comment where he says, you know, "Jimmy Carter said there would be no military action and that was the dumbest thing he did." And I wondered because there was military action, and it started almost immediately after the hostages were taken. And I wondered what you thought about that comment that Koppel made. Some of the reviewers said, yes indeed, that was the worst thing that Jimmy Carter ever did. Was it?
SICK: I must say that looking at it from the White House, we were all really upset when he said that. You remember, he said that privately to a group of family members. And over at the State Department, he was meeting with all the families. A lot of people thought that was a mistake in the first place—getting too close to the thing, personalizing it too much is not a good idea. And it was certainly understandable that he said, "Okay, I'm not going to do anything that's going to get your people killed." Well, that's a natural thing to say to the families. But the other thing is that it was inevitable that that was going to leak almost immediately, and it did. And it basically undercut any kind of threat or any kind of negotiation process that may in the end, not have made a great deal of difference, because my own view is that Khomeini had decided to use this for domestic political purposes, which had nothing to do with the United States, had nothing to do with the hostages, had nothing to do with any of this. But it was getting an Islamic Republic, the intended revolution. And the people thought they were fighting to get rid of the Shah, but they didn't think they were fighting to get an Islamic theocracy. And he had to convince them with that. And so, using the hostage crisis for domestic purposes, rallied around the flag, gave him an advantage, and he used it. So negotiating with the guy, when that was the game he was playing, was very hard to negotiate. And I think, in fact, that the likelihood of actually talking him out of it was pretty slim.
AMOS: Ray, what made the difference do you think?
TAKEYH: Pardon me.
AMOS: Would it have made a difference if Carter had left the military option on the table?
SICK: That’s what I'm saying, I don't think so actually.
AMOS: I’m asking Ray if he thinks so.
TAKEYH: I’m not sure about that stage. On November 4, 1979, when the embassy was seized—for three days afterwards, Khomeini doesn't actually say anything. He wants to see what the American reaction is. If the American reaction was privately saying to him unless you release them, oil embargo and all that, I think that might have made a difference. He did not take ownership of the hostage crisis for three days, and then Carter started talking about going to the United Nations and so forth, then he became more determined to proceed for all the reasons that Gary suggested. But I want to put a little more detail to the domestic situation that Gary correctly attributed the hostage crisis to. In December, during that whole summer of 1979, there is a constitution convention being created in Iran. And the idea of a supreme religious leader is being introduced in the constitution for the first time. And it's actually very controversial. By November, Khomeini needs a crisis with the United States because the referendum for the constitution that includes provisions for the supreme religious leader is in December 1979. He needs a crisis to galvanize the public, as Gary suggested, and the embassy was sitting there. I think at some point, you know, Khomeini would need a crisis with the United States and the embassy was always available. The question then becomes, after December ’79, when he gets his constitution with all the provisions in it, why did it go on for another 444 days? And that has to do with other aspects of the domestic political situation that Gary talked about. But could Jimmy Carter's more robust response have made a difference? Maybe not at the stage where he said he’d rule out military action, but in the first three or four days—possibly—because once Khomeini took ownership of it publicly, then it's very difficult to reverse because of the political dividends that Gary was talking about.
AMOS: James Roberts, so do you think, it's the same question essentially, but does Carter get credit for getting all the hostages back alive? And the deaths come from an accident, not from anything that happens in the field that is kinetic.
ROBERTS: Right, I think for those of us who were involved in the beginning of the planning, literally a day or two after—so the 5th or 6th of November 1979—I was called to the Pentagon, did a Farsi language test, volunteered to be part of the effort. From then on, there was a value, an operational security value, to having the president say that we weren't going to use any military means, because it allowed, if there were little tidbits that came out or little pieces, it gave you some something to fall back on, you know a story to fall back on. So I think that was important. And there were no good military options. I mean, when you have, I can't remember in the beginning, I think there were seventy-plus hostages, because the hostage takers released people during the fall, I can't remember exactly how many, but there are many releases during the fall, of women and minorities and other sick people. But the idea was that all of those people would be at higher risk if you took a military action other than a hostage rescue.
AMOS: And there was no mention of those in the Canadian Embassy?
ROBERTS: Well, thankfully.
AMOS: Yes. I'd like to bring Barbara back into this, you know, listening to all of you and, you know, I remember very well, the events of those times, but it's not ancient history—it's thirty years ago. And so...
ROBERTS: Forty. (Laughs.)
SICK: We’re all older than we were.
AMOS: I think that audiences who were alive when this happened,what is it that you want them to take away from that? And I'll ask the three panelists as well, what is it, what is the message forty years later on this event?
KOPPLE: Is this to me?
AMOS: Yes, please.
KOPPLE: Yes, okay. I want them to see what people were willing to give up for what they believed in. And I think that that's a very inspirational piece right now, right in our country, to see that people really care about each other, and are willing to do things that could sacrifice their lives, their families, and everything else for what they feel is right. Also, I would love young people to be able to really relate to the military because sometimes young people don't relate and they don't understand the rigorousness and the training, and everything else that goes into making somebody, you know, decide to go on this kind of mission. A lot of young people have seen this film, and really what they're blown away by is the courage of the people, and also what the hostages had to go through, and the beauty of President Carter. They learned a lot about him through seeing this, and also Mondale.
AMOS: There’s that wonderful scene that you have with John Limbert, who, Khomeini walks in, and he…(laughs)…and because he understands the culture, he understands the language. And there's that wonderful moment where—I've never seen that before, it was just terrific.
KOPPLE: Yes, wait, let me just add one other thing. And the most important thing is, bringing up John Limbert. John Limbert, when he was released, was asked by the press what he felt about the Iranian people. And what he said was, "I feel they're wonderful people, they have art, they have culture." And he married an Iranian woman. And to this day, he has not been able to take his children back to their roots. And that's so important. So if this film could bridge the gap, and let us really look at each other's history and culture, and if there's some way for hope for us, you know, reuniting, that would be wonderful, too.
AMOS: Ray, what do you think that people should take away, generations who weren't alive when this happened, what should they take away from this?
TAKEYH: Well, I think this film is a very important historical contribution. But I do think it should begin a conversation about re-evaluating the Carter presidency and Carter's approach to Iran, which has been much criticized. Jimmy Carter did not lose Iran, as is often suggested. Not a single decision that Jimmy Carter could make could have saved the Shah. So, in that sense, he's been decried for something that he should not be held responsible for. Number two, the less that Jimmy Carter wins, to release the American hostages without jeopardizing the possibility of resumed relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, that I think, was in the background, that we want to solve this crisis, we want to get people back, but we want to do so with two imperatives. Number one, not to essentially hurt any of the hostages—have them killed—but also the subtext is not to do so in a way that could jeopardize the possibility, as John Limbert suggested, at rapprochement, or renormalization of relations with the regime. And those two imperatives make negotiations very difficult, because there's much more forceful actions Jimmy Carter could have taken but he chose not to, because of those two reasons.
AMOS: Gary Sick, we're forty years later, we don't have good relations with the Iranians. Part of that is because of what happened forty years ago. So what do you think that people should take away from the film now and understanding why there's so much tension between us?
SICK: Well, I would say that the fact that we don't have good relations with Iran right now, actually, this was the beginning point. And that's why I think this movie is really important because it in effect—you forget that this was America's very first contact with political Islam. It's the first time we really had to come to grips with it. And we didn't know much about it. So we were confused and didn't really understand what was going on. And then other people, a lot of people, didn't believe that it was real, that it was just a temporary aberration. We now know better. It was also the very first televised foreign policy crisis, which this was when television was relatively new, and Americans were drowned in images of, you know, angry young men shaking their fist and yelling "Death to America" every single night. It shaped the American psyche in a way that I think has never been, that actually affects our activities every single day to this moment. There are other things that go on.
I did want to just mention briefly, that the question that Ray brought up, and that is about the first three or four days. For the first three or four days, I would say everybody, and I do include here the hostage takers themselves, the students who took the embassy, they thought it was a sit-in, and they thought they were going to make a political point. And then the government would intervene, as it had a few months earlier, and say, okay boys, that's it, you've made your point now, go home, and things would go back to normal. And taking drastic action at that particular moment was not going to improve things, if that's in fact what it was. What happened was when Khomeini decided to join the students, then all of a sudden, it became something quite different. And the people went from a sit-in to actually running a prison. And that was a new thing that had to be dealt with. And so I would argue that that first half-dozen days, waiting for Khomeini to make up his mind when, in fact, his own cabinet was so appalled by the fact that he didn't, in fact throw them out of the embassy and return things to normal, that they resigned. And basically, he ended up with no government and he had to actually put in a new one. So, it was confusing. And all the hostage takers have written memoirs by now and that's one of the things about forty years is that they've had the chance, and the story they tell, is that they decided to go in, make a political point. And they were astounded when the government actually joined them, and they suddenly found themselves operating in very different ways than what they had anticipated.
AMOS: Let me ask...
TAKEYH: Can I comment on that? Because I think we can, forty years later, there is a circumstantial case that can be made, and I intend to make it, that Khomeini actually knew about the hostage crisis and actually instigated that. And what is that case? And as Gary suggested, some of the hostages have returned. The key figure is Mousavi Khoeiniha, who was an intermediary between the students and Khomeini himself. And one of the hostage takers who went on to become a minister essentially says that, and I'm going to quote him, he said to Mousavi Khoeiniha, "If the imam is against it, its use would be immediately known to us. And tell us in two days." And in two days, Khomeini of course endorsed it. Another hostage taker says that actually Khomeini's son, who acted as his chief of staff, Ahmad Khomeini, was very much involved in—and I don't want to bother people with names—but the head of the security and Komitehs, the late Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani has written his memoirs suggesting foreknowledge by Khomeini. So Khomeini didn't even join the students, he instigated the crisis and then embraced it later. There is a circumstantial case that can be made that the hostage crisis, more or less started by students, and exploited by Khomeini, was started by Khomeini and exploited by him. It's a small point, but it's an important point. And also, I don't believe something that has been discussed here and it was discussed in the film—the Shah’s entry into the United States. I don't believe that was that significant of a factor. I think that embassy was going to be breached, because the Iranian government needed a domestic crisis to reorder its internal political practices. And so long as there was an embassy there, it was a tantalizing target at some point, at some ways.
Now, the reason why the embassy was, as Gary knows, there was a lot of pressure for closing it. And the staff was reduced rather dramatically, because Carter wanted to pull hope for a possibility of resumed relations with Iran. And there was a lot of discussion between the provisional government and the Carter administration, including intelligence sharing, where American CIA officials were going into Iran and telling him to be cautious and worry about the possibility of attack from Iraq. So then the idea of an embassy being there, which was there for other legitimate reasons, needed a target that the Khomeini camp was going to use at some point, and to instigate the crisis that they domestically needed. But I want to go back to the point, that it is my belief, and it's been my belief based upon circumstantial evidence that I've seen, that Ayatollah Khomeini had a foreknowledge of the hostage crisis, and in fact, he did instigate it.
AMOS: James Roberts, let me ask you before we go to Q&A, was there lessons learned in the military that stand for forty years based on that rescue mission?
ROBERTS: Yes, but before I answer that, I just want to say I was there on the 14th of February, when the embassy was taken over the first time. And that was a much different takeover. That was a flat-out gun battle, in which we were told not to return fire. But the hostage takers on the 14th of February shot their way into the embassy, shot up everything in the embassy that had the Shah’s likeness on it. And then the government negotiated for our release. And so I'm sure that in Washington there was pause, because we had done this all once before on the 14th of February, and it worked out okay. So, I mean, when you think about what was the administration thinking, I think you have to take the previous case into account and think about what happened then. Now to your question, there are hundreds of lessons learned. The two biggest ones I think—the first one was captured eloquently by four-star General Pete Schoomaker, who was a squadron commander on the mission. And one of his catchphrases was "never confuse enthusiasm with capability." And the other one is kind of mine. And that is that fate really doesn't care about the justice of your cause. And I say that because the great majority of the people on the mission were Vietnam vets. And for most of us, the years of that insurgency and counterinsurgency and sticky, dirty war had left a desire for an opportunity to use military force, here’s a catchphrase: "on the side of the angels." And of course, the Iranian government was turning its back on close to two thousand years of diplomatic history. Our embassies in Japan and Germany, after we declared war in World War II, were not treated at all like what was going on in Iran. And so many of us thought, if there's ever a time to use military force, this is a justified use of military force. And obviously, like I said, fate doesn't care.
The other thing that struck me is kind of ironic is when you listen to the Iranian officials, it's as though they stopped the rescue mission. And of course, nothing could be further from the truth. So for them, the angels were on their side and they turned it into a success. But those are two. Then there are all kinds of technical things about the distance a helicopter can fly and in-flight refueling—a million of those. The other big one is, you have to have a team where everybody is ready to go the entire distance. And I go back to Gary's comment earlier about the helicopter that turned around—inexcusable. They had to, you know, one helicopter sat down inside Iranian airspace, the second helicopter stopped and picked up that crew, they flew on, and that guy was the commander of the helicopter unit. And he turned around and went back to the carrier. So by the time we got to Desert One, we were at six helicopters. And we could have been at seven, at least, probably eight. So everybody has to be in it with their heart and their soul and you need, what the special ops community has today, which is a very high quotient of physical and mental toughness.
AMOS: Thank you for that. At this time, I'd like to invite listeners to join our conversation with your questions, a reminder that this virtual meeting is on the record. Please limit yourself to one question and keep it concise to allow for as many questions as possible. And now we will see if we can pull this off technically, because it's not easy to do.
STAFF: We will take our first question from Robert Jervis.
Q: Thank you from Columbia University, a colleague of Gary's. So one comment, which is I believe, the hostages were roughed up and mistreated, which is not what was said in the film. If that's correct, I'd like it to be confirmed. The question is mostly for Gary, and for Mr. Roberts, following on his remarks at the end, it looks like both the intelligence was bad and the planning was bad. That is, shouldn't we have known about the sandstorm and known about the road. And given the time we had, why wasn't the group, with all its courage, why wasn't it better trained, better drilled, better prepared? Thank you.
ROBERTS: Sure, can you hear me, Robert?
ROBERTS: The intelligence is always a challenge in a hostage rescue situation because you pray that everybody is in the same building, but you're not sure. But you're absolutely right. One of the challenges of a clandestine special operation is how many people are you going to bring in to read on to the operation in order to gain the knowledge necessary, while still maintaining the absolute security. Because for a mission like this, if your security is breached, in advance, you're all going to die. And so there's this perpetual balance between how many people do we quote—“read on to the project”—and how tight do we keep security. And I must say that the task force commanders and the Pentagon and everybody were extremely anxious about maintaining the operational security for the mission. You're right, there were probably hundreds of US Army helicopter pilots, who had flown in Iran down through the decades that we were there, and who had encountered haboobs, and who would have been able to give a very good briefing on how to cope in that environment. They were never consulted. They were never read onto the mission. And so, we got what we got. And again, with every special operation, this tension between how many people do you read on and how do you maintain your security was critical. And that was a critical shortcoming, without a doubt.
SICK: Can I say a word, Deb? First of all, this was the first time out of the chute for Delta Force for all practical purposes. I mean, this was the beginning of American special ops and in what has turned into this almost superhuman capability that we have today, which is remarkable. And I believe, Jim, I'm not incorrect saying that that was the beginning, that that was really, the lessons that were learned in that operation were, in fact, used of all this. Just a quick word. Some people might find it amusing about the dust clouds. The reality is that the satellites, you know, Iran, like everyplace else in the world, has weather stations that are scattered around the country and various key points. Those are unclassified and they broadcast openly and people can read them. So we had access to everything that was being produced. The problem was, they just had a revolution. Those hadn't been kept up, a lot of them were not working at all. And so we were reduced mostly to having satellite coverage for the weather forecast. And you may not know, but it's one thing to look at a cloud horizontally—it’s something very different to look at it vertically. If you look from above on the satellite, you don't even see the cloud. It just doesn't exist. And it's just a fact of life. And people did know. I mean, there were people who knew about these phenomena in the south of Iran. And it's absolutely true. But I think it's also true that they knew about it, but nobody was wanting them. You really got to be ready for that and describe what the circumstances were, and I think they really weren't prepared for what happened.
ROBERTS: Yes, just one minor correction. Ten years before Desert One, the U.S. special operations community mounted an amazing raid, equally as audacious—damn near equally as audacious—at the prison camp in Son Tay. And that raid was put together by U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Air Force guys. And they flew in the dark night and arrived at the right place. They crashed the helicopter inside the compound, and regrettably the POW's were not in that compound. So that was the zenith of U.S. special operations capability post-World War II. And in the intervening decade, the services drew down the special operations capabilities in each service, in order to build up capacity to confront the Soviet Union. And so when ten years later came along, there were nowhere near the kinds of toys and boys on the shelf that had existed previously. Now, yes, Delta had been formed and was trained and ready, but their portion of the mission was just pure inside-the-building hostage rescue, shoot the terrorists, rescue the hostages. All the other parts were put together with forces that were on the shelf and not ready to do this kind of an operation.
AMOS: Okay, Teagan, you want to go to the next question, please.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Maryum Saifee.
Q: Thank you—Maryum Saifee. Assuming we have a new administration, what should the first hundred days look like in reshaping U.S.–Iranian bilateral relations? This is for anyone, Professor Sick, but anyone on the panel, thanks.
SICK: Well, that's taking us pretty far afield from the movie. But I'm happy to at least say a word. I think, at a minimum, there's going to be an attempt to recreate some relationship with Iran. But I think we shouldn't underestimate how much has been destroyed along the way. Whatever you think about the JCPOA—the Iran nuclear deal—and I know people love it or they hate it. But whatever you think about it, at the end of the day, having negotiated that, we had a relationship with people at the highest level in Iran. We were able to talk to them, we had phone numbers back and forth, and people would develop a personal relationship—that's all gone. So if you were going to do it, you not only have to start over again, but you actually have to build back something that has been destroyed. And so it is at the very minimum going to be extraordinarily difficult. But I'll leave it at that.
TAKEYH: This is far afield as Gary suggested. If there's a new administration, led by Vice President Biden, I would say you look at the Trump records, see what worked and what didn't, as opposed to being sort of categorical about it. Most administrations come in and categorically reject the inheritance that they have. We'll see what worked and what didn't. If it's a continued Trump administration, I'm going to say the same thing. Look back at the past four years and see what strategies and tactics worked and what didn't and what objectives are realizable and which are not.
AMOS: Okay, Teagan.
ROBERTS: Can I...?
AMOS: Yes, certainly.
ROBERTS: I just want to quote Ambassador Laingen, who was one of the hostages, and gave me a phrase that's been forever useful and that was "mutual demonization." And from the hostage crisis until the JCPOA, the right-wing in each of our respective governments would set upon its own administration and the enemy, quote-unquote, and demonize the hell out of it. And I was stunned to watch the JCPOA come along step by step by step. And there was no demonization from our side, or from their side, at least no shut-down demonization. And that to me was full of hope and full of promise. And of course, we have, as Gary said, squandered that, and it would be a tough row to hoe to reestablish, get back to no demonization. Even just domestically in the U.S. there will be rampant demonization against any Biden move to reestablish the JCPOA. That's just my two cents.
AMOS: Thank you. Teagan.
STAFF: We will take our next question from Joseph Votel.
Q: Yes, good afternoon. This is General Joe Votel. First of all, great discussion this afternoon and wonderful film. My question is directed towards Gary, but the others may want to comment here. What observations can you take away from this experience based on the interaction between military commanders, the president, and the national security staff? What did you learn out of this and what can we take away from it?
SICK: Well, that's an absolutely wonderful question that probably deserves an hour or so seminar for itself. One of the things that I was struck again, watching the movie, was that Carter pushed his military people to come up with a plan. He questioned them at length about it. And then he really stayed back and stood out of the way. And that conversation that he had with General Jones at the end when things were all going wrong, he wasn't jumping in and micromanaging and saying let's do this, or let's do that. He was leaving it up to the folks who had done it. And although you can tell the pain in Carter's voice, you can also feel the pain in General Jones who had to report to him that everything was going to hell, and of course, Jones couldn't do anything about it either at that point—it was all being done on the ground. So the fact that the commander in chief didn't get in and micromanage, didn't save the day, you know, and the fact that he was keeping his cool at the end, as admirable as that is, didn't solve the problem. And basically, this is the point where I think Jim Roberts has it absolutely right, that you got to have the real capability. They never did a dress rehearsal. That came out in the movie. And I think that was huge, because those people were actually meeting each other for the first time on the ground, you know, and operational security is absolutely essential in this. But at the same time, operational security that keeps you from being prepared and working together is catastrophic. And I think that was certainly one lesson that we took away from the thing. The other lesson that I take away from it in terms of the civilian-military side is that, you know, I think we've moved a long way since that time. And one, our military has a capability that it didn't have in those days. And it's become almost standard; we rely on it almost routine. That’s looking at it from the outside. But the same problem is there as far as decision-making and how you put the military together with the civilian. And whatever it is, the civilian decisions in this case, we were left with a situation in which everybody came away with a terrible taste in their mouth. And we've had to live that ever since. And it's part of our life and our relationship with Iran.
AMOS: Right, Jim?
ROBERTS: And just on a lighter note, the key takeaway for the civilian leadership is when the special ops community is going to go do something involving helicopters, you should bet on the fact that they're going to crash one. Because we crashed one intentionally in Son Tay, we crashed one unintentionally at Desert One, we crashed one unintentionally in Panama, and we crashed one unintentionally at Abbottabad. So you should just tell the president at the get-go, "Hey, these are damn unreliable machines and one of them is going to crash." Thank you.
AMOS: (Laughs.) That's a good lesson after forty years. Teagan?
STAFF: We will take our next question from Mark Feldman.
Q: I’m one of those who knew something about the hostage crisis, having been deeply involved as a State Department lawyer during those 444 days and the acting legal advisor in the early months of the Reagan administration. But I knew nothing of this and I do have one question, that I may interest you to know that I first heard about it from the foreign ministry in Bonn, two or three days before the operation. I happened to be there in the office of a gentleman named von Richthofen. He was head of the North American desk, and he asked me what we were doing about military activities. And I said, “I haven't heard of nothing like that.” And he said, “That's precisely what we're worried about.” My question, and it was a powerful, moving film, and I'm very grateful to have seen it. My question, though, is tell us if you care to, why there was no mention of Cyrus Vance and the bureaucratic politics of this crisis and his resignation? And if anyone on the panel, that's for Barbara, and anyone on the panel cares to elaborate on what Vance's thinking was because he never shared it with me or I don't know how widely he may have shared it. Did he think it would not work, did he think it was political? But I'm most interested in knowing, it's clear to me that there was, or I think it was a deliberate decision not to pose that sensitive issue in the film. But I'd like to hear what you have to say.
KOPPLE: Hi, it's Barbara. We had a scene all cut that we were going to put into the film, but it sort of went into the weeds for us. And so we decided not to put it in because the idea of the film was the mission. And that would have just gotten into more involved, you know, White House politics. It was one of the last things to go, but it's what we did.
SICK: Can I just say one word? Clearly I had a lot of sessions with Cy Vance after that and after he had resigned. Actually, I was part of a book project at the Council on Foreign Relations that went on for months. And we had meetings one session after another. And so I got the chance to hear Vance talk about this quite a bit. And not an inside story by any means, but the reality is he, I think, accepted Jim's point that something was going to crash, and that basically it wasn't going to work. He was opposed to an operation that was going to get the United States and Iran into a military confrontation. And he saw that as a loss for us. And he thought, in fact, that the hostages could be removed diplomatically. Ultimately, of course, they were. But he was prepared to wait. And I think Jimmy Carter wasn't prepared to wait.
AMOS: Anybody else or should we go on?
STAFF: We will take the next question from Brit Farmer.
Q: Hi there, I'm Brit McCandless Farmer with 60 Minutes. I think this film really changes perspective of the administration's handling of the situation. And I'm curious to know your thoughts on the impact of the news media, on public opinion of President Carter's military response, or perhaps what they perceived as a lack thereof, specifically Walter Cronkite's nightly numbering—that’s the way it was on this, you know, the 28th day of the hostage crisis in Iran—and what impact that had on how the public perceives the administration's response?
TAKEYH: I’ll just say one thing. There are two Carter administration's policies toward Iran—one during the revolution, one during the hostage crisis. And it is my judgement during the revolution that the administration did all the right things. But it was incapable of conditioning the outcome because the United States in this particular case was not capable of conditioning the outcomes. And whenever the outcomes go the way they go, as determined by local actors, we tend to blame ourselves for it. His handling of the hostage crisis, well that, as I said, it could may have been resolved earlier than it went on for 444 days. But then the problem for the Carter administration, President Carter's diplomacy, and political fortunes was that they were entangled in Iran's domestic political rivalries that Gary touched upon. And once you get into that, then the issue becomes impossible to resolve.
I do have to say that at some point as far as the Iranians were concerned, that during the hostage negotiations—and it's in the book that Gary referenced that was produced by CFR—the Iranians actually did not fear Carter that much during the latter stages of the hostage crisis. And one of the things that Carter's negotiators were telling the Iranians is that you better resolve this issue with us, because the person coming after us might be far more belligerent. The person coming after him was, of course, Ronald Reagan and the Republicans. That reflects to me that Carter's own negotiators recognized that the currency of his credibility in Tehran had declined rather dramatically. Perhaps no fault of his own, but the perception of weakness I think, generated from the hostage negotiations that went on as far as it did.
SICK: You know, I certainly don't disagree with that. The reality is the negotiations—the serious negotiations—all happened after Carter lost the election. Carter lost to Reagan, and then set about like, I think, no other lame-duck president in the history of this country, and spent that whole period between the election and January 21, literally, up to the moment when Reagan took the oath of office, dealing with Iran. He was a lame duck during that entire period, and there's no question because credibility with Iran was very low.
On the other hand, one of the things, talking about the media and the effect that it had, there were some things that were missed by the media. And one of the things was, for instance, in the Algiers Accords, to actually resolve the thing. That was the agreement at the end that was done to release the hostages. And in that, Iran had about $12 billion tucked away that the United States had access to, so we blocked that. And of that money, Iran got back less than $4 billion of it. And I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation one time, and in reality, given the money that Iran spent on this whole thing, the money they lost, it cost Iran $300,000 per hostage, per day. The taking of them in terms of the amount of money that they lost in the course of this thing—that's pretty huge. It also makes me think it's probably not going to happen again. But I personally think that the drumbeat of the media day after day, and the Cronkite thing, was extraordinarily important, as was as I said previously, you know, that having those ferocious, bearded young men standing in American living rooms shouting "Death to America" night after night after night, has to create an image of Iran that I think endures today. I think it changes everything that we're doing today and it has a great deal to do—so if for instance, a new administration wants to undertake a different policy toward Iran, they're going to have to deal with that legacy. And that's why I think this movie is really useful. And I think it does make a point that needs to be made, because we're going to need all the help we can get if we're going to get back to any kind of a relationship with Iran.
ROBERTS: I would just like to remind everybody that this was a very, very turbulent time in that part of the world. On the 14th of February, '79, I mentioned the embassy in Tehran was virtually overrun by gunfire, nobody was killed, a marine was injured, and one Iranian was killed. I believe that on the same day, the embassy in Kabul, I think it was, was overrun. And a few days later, our ambassador there was killed when the Russians tried a botched rescue attempt—maybe botched, maybe not—and then on the 4th of November, you have the hostage crisis that we're talking about. On the 25th of December, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. And in August of 1980, Iraq attacks Iran. Yeah, Iraq attacks Iran. So it's easy for us to look through the microscope at this crisis. But when you back up and get the bigger view, you've got a piece of real estate coming apart at the seams in all directions. And at that point in time, we had no military forces in the region. We had no real strike capability close by. It was a completely different world, and I think it's just important to have the bigger optic at the same time.
AMOS: Do we have time for one more question? I know that the Council likes to get out precisely on time. But can we do one more?
STAFF: Yes, we can do one more question. We will take our last question from Abbas Barzegar.
Q: Hi there. Abbas Barzegar—George Mason University. Quickly, thank you first of all to everybody. But quickly, obviously the diplomatic channels for renegotiation with the JCPOA will be blocked. It'll be very difficult for everybody, we all understand that. What is the role, if any, of civil society and academia to pursue some kind of, you know, Track II dialogue context? What would those subject areas be—interfaith dialogue, climate change, migration, security, economy? What would those topics look like?
SICK: I can say those channels already exist. There is no shortage of past history of Iranians talking to Americans on a Track II basis—semi-officials carrying messages back and forth to their respective governments. The interfaith dialogue is very strong and is going strong right now. Even in the midst of all of this, it's still going strong. So there are channels that are available that can be tapped. But I have to say, Track II is nice, and I think is useful. But in this case, nothing happens until you get to Track I. You've got to have governments talking to each other, and they have to speak with authority. And speaking through secondary sources, having nice conversations, and relaying those back to their governments—unless there's a will at the top to really make things happen, it's not going to happen.
TAKEYH: Thank you. I'll just say that this is a time when the Iranian government routinely and systematically arrests academics and activists that go to Iran. It is a government that has equated research with espionage. That makes the dialogue very difficult between the two sides and that will continue to be an obstacle, the idea that there are many Iranian-Americans in prison on unfair charges today. The fact that it's a very difficult country to have access to—and that decision about denial of access and arbitrarily imprisoned Iranian-Americans—lies exclusively at the Islamic Republic that has cut us off on important channels of dialogue.
AMOS: Jim. Last word.
ROBERTS: Well, I thank you first, for hosting this. And thank you to all the participants. General Votel, always great to hear your voice out there. I think the film does what it was intended to do. And the legacy of the film, the legacy of the mission, is twofold. One, rebuilding the special operations community from what it was then, passing the law that created a four-star command, giving them some money, giving them a voice in the Pentagon, and building the capabilities that we have today. If we had to do the same thing today, it would still be a very long reach. But we could probably do it, we would probably crash a helicopter someplace along the way.
The other legacy is the Special Operations Warrior Fund. With the death of those eight service members, the special operations community came together and said that children of special operators who were killed in the line of duty would be able to go to college. And that Warrior Fund is doing a great job of making college available to all the children of all of the special operators who've been killed in the line of duty since the 24th of April of 1980, until today. So those are two key things that we should remember.
AMOS: That’s a great last word. Thank you very much. And thanks, everybody for joining our virtual meeting. I want to thank the panelists. I have a couple of announcements. Please note that the audio and the video of today's meeting will be posted on the CFR website, and the Council will be taking a short break. Programming and events will begin again on September 8 with the Foreign Affairs issue launch. Thanks, everybody. This is a great, great hour. Sorry, we didn't have more time.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Deb.
AMOS: Thank you.