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.
Accordingly, Peter Stuart reported in the Christian Science Monitor of 29 January that Congressional hearings were likely to be scheduled on the ‘terms of the hostage release agreement...treatment of the hostages...embassy security’ and – as a kind of afterthought – ‘future US-Iran relations’. Very much in keeping with the narrowly focused range of problems explored by the media during the crisis (with few exceptions), there was no careful scrutiny of what the Iranian trauma has meant, what it suggests about the future, what might be learned from it. The London Sunday Times reported on 26 January that before he left office President Carter advised the State Department to ‘focus all public attention on building up a wave of resentment against the Iranians’. Whether or not this was true, it appeared at least to be plausible, since no public official, and few columnists and journalists, were interested in re-evaluating the long American history of intervention in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world. There was much talk of stationing forces in the Middle East: conversely, when the Islamic summit was held in Taif during the last week in January, the US media all but ignored it.
Ideas about retribution and loud assertions about American force were accompanied by a symphonic elaboration of the hostages’ ordeal and triumphant return. The victims were directly transmuted into heroes (understandably upsetting various Veterans’ and former POW groups), and symbols of freedom, their captors into subhuman beasts. To this end the New York Times said editorially on 22 January, ‘Let there be rage and revulsion in those first hours of release,’ and then, having reflected for a while, came up with the following questions on 28 January: ‘What should have been done? Mining harbours, or landing marines, or dropping a few bombs might frighten rational foes. But was Iran – is Iran – rational?’ Certainly, as Fred Halliday wrote in the Los Angeles Times on 25 January, there was much to be critical of in Iran, religion and unceasing revolutionary turmoil having proved themselves incapable of providing a modern state with the kind of day-to-day decisions likely to benefit the population at large. Internationally, Iran was isolated and vulnerable. And certainly it was just as clear that the students at the Embassy had not been gentle with their prisoners. Yet not even the 52 themselves went as far as saying that they had been tortured or systematically brutalised: this emerges in the transcript of their news conference at West Point (see the New York Times, 28 January), where Elizabeth Swift says quite explicitly that Newsweek lied about what she said, inventing a story about torture (much amplified by the media) that had nothing to do with the facts.