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Digital History ID 3364

 

Tragically, American foreign policy has historically supported many countries that hold power through murder, torture, and other violations of human rights--practices that are an affront to basic American values. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the United States began to show a growing regard for the human rights practices of its allies. Carter was convinced that American foreign policy should embody the country's basic moral beliefs. In 1977, Congress began to require reports on human rights conditions in countries receiving American aid.

Iran has been one of the most frequently cited nations accused of practicing torture. Estimates of the number of political prisoners in Iran ranged from 25,000 to 100,000. It was widely believed that most of them had been tortured by SAVAK, the secret police.

Since the end of World War II, Iran had been a valuable friend of the United States in the troubled Middle East. In 1953, the CIA had worked to ensure the power of the young shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. During the next 25 years, the shah often repaid the debt. He allowed the United States to establish electronic listening posts in Northern Iran along the border of the Soviet Union, and during the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo, he continued to sell oil to the United States. The shah also bought arms from the United States, helping to ease the American balance of payments problem. Few world leaders were more loyal to the United States.

Like his predecessors, President Carter was willing to overlook the shah's violations of human rights. Carter visited Iran in late December 1977 to demonstrate American support. He applauded Iran as "an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world" and praised Mohammad Reza as a great leader who had won "the respect and the admiration and love" of his people.

The shah was indeed popular among wealthy Iranians, but in the slums of Teheran and in rural, poverty stricken villages, there was little respect, admiration, or love for his regime. Led by a fundamentalist Islamic clergy and emboldened by want, the masses of Iranians turned against the shah and his Westernization policies. In early fall of 1978, the revolutionary surges in Iran gained force. The shah, who had once seemed so powerful and secure, was paralyzed by indecision, alternating between ruthless suppression and attempts to liberalize his regime. In Washington, Carter also vacillated, uncertain whether to stand firmly behind the shah or to cut his losses and prepare to deal with a new government in Iran.

In January 1979, the shah fled to Egypt. Exiled religious leader, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, returned to Iran, preaching the doctrine that the United States was the "Great Satan" behind the shah. Relations between the United States and the new Iranian government were terrible, but Iranian officials warned that they would become infinitely worse if the shah were granted asylum. Nevertheless, Carter permitted the shah to enter the United States for treatment of lymphoma. The reaction in Iran was severe.

On November 4, 1979, Iranian supporters of Khomeini invaded the American embassy in Teheran and captured 66 Americans, 13 of whom were freed several weeks later. The rest were held hostage for 444 days and were the objects of intense political interest and media coverage.

Carter was helpless. Because Iran was not a stable country in any recognizable sense, its government was not susceptible to pressure. Iran's demands--the return of the shah to Iran and the admission of U.S. guilt in supporting the shah--were unacceptable. Carter devoted far too much attention to the almost insoluble problem. The hostages stayed in the public spotlight, in part, because Carter kept them there.

Carter's foreign policy problems mounted in December 1979, when the Soviet Union sent tanks into Afghanistan. In response, the Carter administration embargoed grain and high-technology exports to the Soviet Union and boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow (the Soviet Union gradually withdrew its troops a decade later).

As public disapproval of the president's handling of the Iran crisis increased, some Carter advisers advocated the use of force to free the hostages. At first Carter disagreed, but eventually, he authorized a rescue attempt. It failed, and Carter's position became even worse. Negotiations finally brought the hostages' release, but they also brought humiliation to Carter. The hostages were held until minutes after Ronald Reagan, Carter's successor, had taken the oath of office as president.

When Carter left office in January 1981, many Americans judged his presidency a failure. Instead of being remembered for the good he accomplished for the Middle East at Camp David, he was remembered for what he failed to accomplish. The Iranian hostage crisis had become emblematic of the perception that America's role in the world had declined.

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