On 20 January 1981 the 52 Americans held prisoner in the US Embassy for 444 days finally left Iran. A few days later they arrived in the United States to be greeted by the country's genuine happiness at seeing them back. The 'hostage return', as it was to be called, became a week-long media event. There were many, frequently intrusive and maudlin hours of live TV coverage, as the 'returnees' were transported to Algeria, then to Germany, then to West Point, to Washington, and then at last to their various home towns; most American newspapers and national weeklies ran supplements on the return, ranging from learned analyses of how the final agreement between Iran and the United States was arrived at, and what it involved, to celebrations of American heroism and Iranian barbarism; interspersed were personal stories of the hostage ordeal, often embroidered by enterprising journalists, and what seemed an alarmingly available number of psychiatrists eager to explain what the hostages were really going through. Insofar as there was serious discussion of the past and of the future, discussion that went beyond the level of the yellow ribbons designated as symbolic of Iranian captivity, the new Administration set the tone, and determined the limits. Analysis of the past was focused on whether or not the US should have made (and ought to honour) the agreement with Iran. On 31 January 1981 the New Republic predictably attacked 'the ransom', and the Carter Administration for giving in to terrorists; then it condemned the whole 'legally controvertible proposition' of dealing with Iranian demands, as well as the use of Algeria as an intermediary, which is 'well practised at giving refuge to terrorists and laundering the ransoms they bring'. Discussion of the future was constrained by the Reagan Administration's declared war on terrorism: this, not human rights, was to be the main new priority of US policy, even to the extent of supporting 'moderately repressive regimes' if they happen to be allies.
LRB 19 March 1981 | PDF Download