When Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats, and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.”
—Donald Trump, September 9, 2016
This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people.
—Donald Trump, May 21, 2017
Trump looks at Iran and sees barbaric criminals making obscene gestures at him. Jimmy Carter saw the ward in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Carter’s dismissive first impression of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who took power in the middle of his term, was “nutty.” After 444 days of a hostage crisis, his opinion hadn’t changed much: he called the ayatollah “crazy.” Carter’s lone Iran expert has said the administration’s understanding of the Islamic world was based on “almost unrelieved ignorance,” so there was no one to help the president take seriously the vast movement the ayatollah embodied. Others deserve more blame for the catastrophic turn of events in the Middle East, but Carter was the first president to fiddle while Tehran burned.
It's almost impossible to deal with a crazy man. Jimmy Carter
In 1976, in the wake of Watergate, Carter ran what you might call a morality-forward campaign. His decency, more than his record or his agenda, was the basis of his appeal. He promised voters, “I will never lie to you.” He talked openly about his Christian faith. He ostentatiously rejected ostentation, suiting up in jeans, hanging out in the pit at NASCAR races, and snubbing the Hollywood celebrities from whom he had to raise money. He gaffed by telling a Playboy interviewer, “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” but even this confession made him seem more strange than sinful.
In foreign policy, the recently concluded Vietnam War set the context, and Carter promised to put human rights front and center for a change. President Nixon had prized the flexibility to do whatever narrow self-interest seemed to call for in the moment. He believed he needed South Africa, so he didn’t worry too much about Apartheid. He believed he needed anybody else besides the duly elected socialist president of Chile, so he helped start the coup that brought the brutal Augusto Pinochet to power. In 1975, a congressional committee revealed that the CIA had interfered not just in Chile but in Guatemala, Ecuador, Cuba, Indonesia, and Iran. Americans were eager to feel less disgusted. “We will not behave in foreign places so as to violate our rules and standards here at home,” Carter said in his inaugural address. The United States would “help shape a just and peaceful world that is truly humane.”
Except the Iran part of the world. Carter seems to have felt worse than some of his predecessors about propping up the repressive regime of the shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, but domestic political considerations, inertia, and oil blotted out his campaign promises and his conscience in the end.
The ignominious pro-shah policy tradition that Carter inherited dated back to Eisenhower. By 1953, the United States was fed up with Iran’s government. The prime minister had nationalized the oil industry, violating a legal if predatory contract that gave the United Kingdom control over Iran’s most valuable commodity. He also kept flirting with the Soviets. So Eisenhower and the CIA dispatched Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, who bore the exquisite name Kermit, to topple the government and replace it with the shah, the son of an old monarchical family, who promised to be more pliable.
The first thing the shah did was split Iran’s oil profits 50/50 with the West, but now the United States, and not just the United Kingdom, was entitled to a piece of the pie. The second thing he did was spend lavishly on himself (but not his people). The third thing was create SAVAK, a vicious security force, to track and torture his opponents.
Eisenhower, richer and rid of a Communist threat, expressed his gratitude by sending more than $1 billion in aid. Nixon upped the ante and sold the shah, who loved to look at weapons catalogues, many billions of dollars worth of murder gadgets, including F-14s, F-16s, and F-18s. Apparently, he liked anything in the F series.
The shah’s rule can be summed up in one image. In 1971, he threw himself a party, catered by Maxim’s of Paris, that cost $200 million. That’s $1.2 billion today. The average Iranian earned $250 that year.
Into this breach rode Jimmy Carter, the world’s #1 champion of human rights. Unfortunately, at the time, he also happened to be the world’s #1 failure at solving the oil crisis. By the 1970s, the United States bought more oil than it produced. The countries of the Middle East took advantage of these new market conditions by cutting production and jacking up prices. Americans waiting for hours to pay more for gas were angry. There were reports that a pregnant woman in California got beaten up for trying to cut in line. Carter, steadily losing popularity, had a limited appetite for trying something new in the Middle East.
A siege which would topple a president and compel us all to recognize a revolutionary new force: radical Islam. BBC documentary
So on his first visit to Tehran, he made it clear to the shah exactly where he stood. At a New Year’s Eve party in 1977/1978, he gave a toast in which he assured “Your Majesty” that “there is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship.” This fealty, he told the shah, was due to “the respect and the admiration and the love which your people give you.” Twelve months later, his people expressed their love by forcing him into exile. Ten months after that, when Carter let the shah enter the United States, a group of Iranian university students overran the American embassy and took everyone inside hostage.
Now, Carter shifted from talking out of both sides of his mouth to talking out of his ass. Carter didn’t know what to do. Diplomacy as he conceived of it didn’t seem to be working. Khomeini didn’t behave like Churchill or DeGaulle—or Khrushchev or Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps the ayatollah himself put it best when he said, “Carter still has not comprehended what kind of people he is facing and what school of thought he is playing with.”
Carter insisted on viewing the region as a battlefield of the Cold War. The Soviets were being aggressive next door in Afghanistan, and Carter expected Iranians to appreciate the existential threat of Communism the way he did. If only someone could get them to understand “that the unwarranted Iranian quarrel with the United States hampers their response to this far greater danger to them.”
Eventually, he got desperate. Carter worried that the ayatollah might hold show trials of the hostages, so he prepared for the possibility by engaging Cravath, the New York law firm, to prepare a 106-page brief. The ayatollah announced to the world that the Iranian people considered Carter “the most repulsive member of the human race,” and Carter acted as if this were a job for a white-shoe Perry Mason.
Carter finally concluded, “It’s almost impossible to deal with a crazy man.” Crazy is in the eye of the beholder, but if the ayatollah’s approach was crazy, it was also exceedingly rational. His concern was solidifying his legitimacy as the leader of revolutionary Iran. “This has united our people,” he told an associate. “Our opponents dare not act against us. We can put the [Islamic] constitutions to the people’s vote without difficulty, and carry out the presidential and parliamentary elections. When we have finished all these jobs we can let the hostages go.” Which they did, hours after Ronald Reagan took office.
It’s likely there was nothing Carter could have done to free the hostages. But in both his support of the shah and his flummoxed reaction to the crisis, Carter missed an opportunity to move American policy in the direction he talked about during his campaign. The ayatollah was a trendsetter, but Carter was blind to the trend; all he saw was a weirdo.
In early 1979, Carter’s national security advisor wrote a memo feeling around for a path forward in the Middle East. It ended, “Our emphasis on moral as well as material values, our support for a world of diversity, and our commitment to social justice should place us in a strong position to deepen our dialogue with the Muslim world.” It would have been better if he, or anyone who came after him, had taken the suggestion to heart.
In his post-presidential career, Carter’s been famous for talking to bad actors like Khomeini. Maybe that’s what he learned from his mistakes. Trump learned to see a scimitar hiding under every turban.
To start, Taken Hostage by David Farber is an excellent book. It’s short, it’s a fun read, it provides a lot of context without ever seeming random or sprawling, and it’s relevance today is obvious. I really enjoyed it. I also relied heavily on it, because my understanding of this topic can also be characterized as “almost unrelieved ignorance.” I want to be honest about that. I am no expert. But when I read the basic stuff about Carter, this kept being the most interesting topic. I considered writing about the Camp David Accords and its failure to address the Palestinian issue. Carter’s showy moralism these days annoys me, even though I admire a lot of the work the Carter Center has done. I found his book about the Palestinians especially grandstanding, because he actually had a chance to do something about the problem as president and didn’t take it. I found an article, here, that does a great job of saying what I was going to say, and I wanted to learn more about Iran anyway. On Carter in general, Julian Zelizer’s entry in the American Presidents series is fine, but for putting your finger on the Carter presidency, I suggest the very enjoyable What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President, by Kevin Mattson. Douglas Brinkley, who has written a book about everything, wrote one about Carter’s post-presidency that is just unpopular enough not to be available on Kindle but just popular enough to be checked out at my local library, so I didn’t get a chance to read it. It’s on order, and upon reading it I will file an addendum if appropriate.