Ordeal of hostage-taking began more than a decade ago in Iran Tragedy in 3 acts had its origin in Islamic fundamentalism

December 05, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- The tragic hostage ordeal that appeared to have ended yesterday with the release of Terry Anderson began more than a decade ago in Iran, where a primitive, brutish form of politics was reinvented.

The experience left three American hostages dead and the lives of hundreds of friends and relatives scarred forever. It alerted Americans to the vulnerability of caring about the life of a single citizen. The ordeal brought down one president, Jimmy Carter, practically disgraced another, Ronald Reagan, and bedeviled President Bush as well.

The conclusion of the experience was influenced by disparate events throughout the Middle East, including revolutions, several wars and a prison escape in Kuwait.

But it was in Iran that the awful drama's basic plot was worked out and first performed. If this is the end, it will have been a drama in three acts that has included many violent, terrifying scenes, involving great villains, scoundrels and some quiet heroes.

Act One opened more than a decade ago, in November 1979 when several thousand young Iranians scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran, captured the American personnel there and held them for 444 days.

They taught that absolutism worked. All the evidence was that holding Western hostages guaranteed attention for a cause. A large, attentive audience of the disaffected absorbed the lesson. Every group that was outgunned or felt misunderstood or mistreated by the West learned that the taking of hostages could humble the powerful -- even the United States.

Many elements for the rest of the drama were present at the start.

* Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian spiritual leader, was awakening a politically dormant part of the Muslim world, the Shiites. They accounted for almost all Iran as well as a majority of the inhabitants of southern Lebanon.

* Supporters of the ayatollah held the United States responsible for the brutality of the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi, whom they had overthrown. The United States was blamed for every problem in the region, and whatever was not attributed to the Americans was said to be the fault of Israel, Washington's chief ally in the region.

* For the United States, the most daunting problem was figuring out who had influence over the hostage-takers.

* A difference in values guaranteed the two sides would misunderstand and mistrust each other. One side warned of grave consequences if any of the hostages were harmed; the other placed an entirely different value on the individual and on life, for it believed in martyrdom, in which to die on behalf of Islam would guarantee a glorious afterlife.

All the ingredients to promote enduring hostility thus were brought together: a downtrodden minority; the discovery of someone to blame; the chaos of revolution; and a clash of cultures that ensured that neither side would comprehend the concerns of the other.

After 444 days, the hostages in Tehran were released. None of the captors' original demands were met -- the return of the shah for trial, the confiscation of his assets in the United States, and the delivery of arms bought by the shah's government. No matter.

The shah was dead. The hostage-takers had effectively ended the career of President Carter. Within Iran, they had helped solidify the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini and his fundamentalist brand of Islam.

The Lebanon experience

Act Two opened in Lebanon in 1982.

Israel was carrying out a full-scale invasion of its northern neighbor and had the Palestine Liberation Organization as its target, and especially the PLO's headquarters in Beirut, the capital.

Israeli forces pushed northward through Shiite villages of the South where they were warmly welcomed with flowers by inhabitants tired of Palestinian domination.

But within a few months, when the Israelis showed no signs of leaving, the flowers were replaced with bombs. Israel's campaign gave rival Shiite militias a common enemy -- Israel, the French and U.S. soldiers brought in as part of the multinational force to help restore order. The religious fundamentalism being promoted by Iran flourished in the fertile ground of Lebanese resentment.

One sign of Iran's success was the appearance of a militia called Hezbollah, the Party of God. Hezbollah called for Lebanon to become an Islamic republic -- like Iran. It called for holy war against Israel, and for holy war against the U.S. -- again, like Iran.

Another group, the Islamic Jihad, made its violent entrance a short time later. Its calling card was a car bomb that demolished the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983, killing 63 people.

Islamic Jihad focused its efforts against the powers that could prevent Lebanon from imitating the Iranian model: the United States, France and Israel. In October 1983, separate bombs killed 240 Marines at their headquarters in Beirut and 58 French soldiers at their barracks. A month later, a bomb killed 62 at an Israeli headquarters in the southern Lebanon city of Tyre.

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