No American who was alive and alert in the early 1980s will ever forget the Iran hostage crisis. Militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, captured American diplomats and staff and held 52 of them captive for 444 days. In the United States, the television news program "Nightline" emerged to give nightly updates on the crisis, with anchorman Ted Koppel beginning each report by announcing that it was now "Day 53" or "Day 318" of the crisis. For Americans, still recovering from defeat in Vietnam, the hostage crisis was a searing ordeal. It stunned the nation and undermined Jimmy Carter's presidency. Many Americans see it as the pivotal episode in the history of U.S.-Iranian relations.
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Iranians, however, have a very different view.
Bruce Laingen, a career diplomat who was chief of the U.S. embassy staff, was the highest-ranking hostage. One day, after Laingen had spent more than a year as a hostage, one of his captors visited him in his solitary cell. Laingen exploded in rage, shouting at his jailer that this hostage-taking was immoral, illegal and "totally wrong." The jailer waited for him to finish, then replied without sympathy.
"You have nothing to complain about," he told Laingen. "The United States took our whole country hostage in 1953."
Few Americans remembered that Iran had descended into dictatorship after the United States overthrew the most democratic government it had ever known. "Mr. President, do you think it was proper for the United States to restore the shah to the throne in 1953 against the popular will within Iran?" a reporter asked President Carter at a news conference during the hostage crisis. "That's ancient history," Carter replied.
Not for Iranians. "In the popular mind, the hostage crisis was seen as justified by what had happened in 1953," says Vali Nasr, an Iranian-born professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts. "People saw it as an act of national assertiveness, of Iran standing up and taking charge of its own destiny. The humiliation of 1953 was exorcised by the taking of American hostages in 1979."
This chasm of perception reflects the enormous gap in the way Americans and Iranians viewed—and continue to view—one another. It will be hard for them to reconcile their differences unless they begin seeing the world through each other's eyes.
Iran's assertiveness on the global stage—especially its defiant pursuit of what it sees as its sovereign right to a nuclear program—is in part the product of traumatic events that have shaped its national consciousness over the course of generations. In fact, all of 20th-century Iranian history can be seen as leading to this confrontation. That history has been dominated by a single burning passion: to destroy the power that foreigners have long held over Iran.
Many countries in the Middle East are modern inventions, carved out of the Ottoman Empire by victorious European powers following the end of World War I. That is not the case with Iran, one of the world's oldest and proudest nations. Half a millennium before the birth of Christ, the great conquerors Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes built the Persian Empire into a far-reaching power. When Europe was descending into the Dark Age, Persian poets were creating works of timeless beauty, and Persian scientists were studying mathematics, medicine and astronomy. Over the centuries, the nation that would become Iran thrived as it assimilated influences from Egypt, Greece and India.
Persian armies were not always victorious. They failed to turn back invading Arabs who conquered Persia in the seventh century, decisively reshaping it by introducing Islam. But the Persians turned even this defeat into a kind of victory by adopting their own form of Islam, Shiism, which allowed them to maintain the distinct identity they have always cherished. Shiite Muslims broke ranks with the majority Sunnis as a result of a succession dispute following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632.