The president’s approach to the Islamic Republic appears stuck in 1979.
President Trump’s threat over the weekend to strike Iranian cultural sites was just another entry in the “shocking, not surprising” list: It’s hardly the first time the president has called for the U.S. to commit war crimes. But the specificity of the threat was peculiar:
Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.
It’s no calumny to say that Trump isn’t much for details or history; he and his allies will usually admit the same. Yet here the president was making a very specific reference to 444-day kidnapping of Americans in Tehran from 1979 to 1981. What gives?
Trump may show little interest in history or detail, but he has a few obsessions which recur frequently, and which explain much about the president’s otherwise puzzling approach to certain issues. For example, Trump continues to speak about immigration as though countries are deciding who to send overseas, an idea that seems to stem from the Mariel boatlift. The Iran hostage crisis seems to be another of these: a long-running fixation which has remained not only the central lens, but perhaps the only lens, through which Trump views relations with Tehran.
On Factba.se, an invaluable compendium of Trump’s interviews, public remarks, tweets, and more, the first mention of Iran and hostages comes in an October 1980 interview with journalist Rona Barrett. “It should really be a country that gets the respect of other countries,” Trump says. He goes on:
Trump: When you get the respect of the other countries, then the other countries tend to do a little bit as you do, and you can create the right attitudes. The Iranian situation is a case in point. That they hold our hostages is just absolutely, and totally ridiculous. That this country sits back and allows a country such as Iran to hold our hostages, to my way of thinking, is a horror, and I don’t think they’d do it with other countries. I honestly don’t think they’d do it with other countries.
Barrett: Obviously you’re advocating that we should have gone in there with troops, et cetera, and brought our boys out like Vietnam.
Trump: I absolutely feel that, yes. I don’t think there’s any question, and there is no question in my mind. I think right now we’d be an oil-rich nation, and I believe that we should have done it, and I’m very disappointed that we didn’t do it, and I don’t think anybody would have held us in abeyance. I don’t think anybody would have been angry with us, and we had every right to do it at the time. I think we’ve lost the opportunity.
(Amusingly, when Barrett asked Trump, a famous draft-dodger, whether he would have wanted to be part of the team that went in, he replied, “I wouldn’t have wanted to be, but I would have done it.” He also demurred when she asked whether he’d want to run for president, because TV had ruined the process: “Abraham Lincoln would probably not be electable today because of television.”)
Here we can see the essential ingredients of Trump’s approach to Iran and the Middle East today: an obsession with respect, especially perceived disrespect; an impulse toward quick, short military action; the desire to take oil; and a focus on the hostage crisis. These have persisted ever since.
In 2010, as Trump was restarting his political career (and campaigning against an Islamic center in lower Manhattan), he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I'll never forget when Iran had the hostages. And Jimmy Carter was helpless. It was just sad. And Ronald Reagan came in and he said those hostages will be delivered immediately. They were let go. They were let go. It was respect. We don't have respect from the rest of the world.”
The following year he said something similar to Steve Forbes:
People forget Iran. They had our hostages, and Jimmy Carter was the president, and it was pathetic. We'd still have those hostages there today, if a Jimmy Carter were still president. And Ronald Reagan said something to the effect that, ‘They won't be there one day, if I'm president.’ As soon as he was elected, amazingly, the hostages were released. It was amazing, right? But it wasn't amazing to me. And he meant it. He wasn't playing games, he meant it.... Had Jimmy Carter won that election—would've been a very sad day for the country, for a lot of other reasons—but that whole hostage situation. We had respect. We were respected as a nation.
Two years later, he tweeted:
Donald J. Trump✔@realDonaldTrump
US froze $8B in Iranian assets during ’79 Hostage Crisis. Now Obama is giving it back to Iran while Christian Pastor is jailed. Don't do it!
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The consistency of Trump’s views on Iran over the decades is remarkable because his positions on practically everything else (the Iraq war, his party affiliation, abortion, health care) have shifted, sometimes repeatedly, over the years. But the issues where he has been consistent are those, like trade protectionism and immigration, on which his views were forged in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Trump was a young man. There are also the issues on which he has been most persistent as president—and most impervious to persuasion or new information.
While Trump was exaggerating a bit when he told Forbes that “people forget Iran,” it is also true that the hostage crisis seems to loom larger in his memory than with the public at large. In general, that manifests itself in an antipathy to Iran that feels greater than that exhibited by many other American leaders, even given the country’s status as a longstanding antagonist in the Middle East. His antipathy also seems more visceral than strategically calculated.
Trump’s lingering obsession with the hostage crisis also seems to have produced in a particular interest in American hostages abroad. From Otto Warmbier in North Korea to Andrew Brunson in Turkey to, yes, A$AP Rocky in Sweden, Trump has made bringing Americans imprisoned overseas a particular focus for his administration, and he has loudly celebrated when successful; it’s no coincidence that his national-security adviser, Robert O’Brien, was promoted from being Trump’s top hostage negotiator.
The fixation also helps explain Trump’s fury at the agreement struck by the Obama administration to freeze Iran’s nuclear program. Many conservatives opposed the deal, but Trump’s objections seemed like a thing apart—they were not grounded in knowledge of the region, nor in any sophisticated understanding of nuclear proliferation, but rather in hatred of Iran.
Though he railed against the deal, he has not clearly articulated what about the deal he dislikes or would have changed, other than the fact that the U.S. freed up frozen Iranian funds. (No one tell Trump that Reagan, his hero on Iran matters, sold arms to Iran in violation of U.S. law.) Unlike some critics who argue the U.S. should not negotiate with Tehran, Trump says he would simply negotiate a better deal. Given his superficial understanding of the deal, and his results in other international negotiations, this is dubious.
The question in this moment, as when Obama negotiated the Iran deal, was not whether the seizure of American hostages should be forgiven or forgotten, but whether it is possible to forge a relationship that might be more advantageous to the United States, and perhaps even to instill some of the respect from Tehran that Trump craves. The hostage crisis was a low point, and refusing to move beyond it creates a foreign policy dead end. If it’s always 1979, it’s always 1979.