Jimmy Carter on Iran, Hostages and the Hikers

Email a Friend

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every day at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer Show, former President Jimmy Carter talked about the Iran hostage crisis that dominated the last years of his presidency and the release of Sarah Shourd, one of three American hikers imprisoned in Tehran. He also discussed what it meant to support the mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Carter was promoting his latest book, White House Diary.

Carter defended his handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, which in many ways came to define his presidency and was instrumental in the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980.

There were tremendous pressures on the right wing for me to bomb Iran or to launch a military attack, which I think would have resulted in the dealth of all our hostages. And there was some pressure on the other side to be more apologetic and so forth than I was inclined to do.

The hostage takers held the American embassy in Tehran from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981. One of their demands was the return of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, for trial in Iran. Carter said it would have been a bad idea to honor that demand.

I didn’t think we should succumb to blackmail and threats, and to send the shah back to Iran to be tried and executed was not something that I would have done. Also, I never would have apologized to the Iranian government because we had nothing about which to apologize. And I would never pay them ransom for hostages either. So I was holding the American reputation intact, and so that was one of the criteria that I faced.

Carter repeatedly dismissed suggestions that American Cold War intervention in the region triggered the Iranian revolution. In 1953, the United States orchestrated an overthrow of the elected Iranian government to restore the Shah to power. The 1979 Iranian revolution, and the subsequent rise of political Islam, was a second attempt to remove Pahlavi.

I don’t think we owe them any apology. They’ve abused us more than we have them, but you have to remember that after the shah left Iran and after Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary government took over, we immediately restored diplomatic relations between our country and theirs. I was willing to get along well with them. In fact, that’s why we had diplomats in Tehran because we did have full diplomatic relations with the revolutionary government in Iran. And my hope for the last 30 years has been that we would reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran, have diplomats in Tehran, so there would always be a constant avenue of communication between the United States and Iran no matter how much difference of opinion we had on different issues.

Carter also defended his administration's support of the mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, saying that preserving access to the region's oil was essential. Many of the mujahideen became the basis for the radical takeover of Afghanistan, which eventually led its service as a host country for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Brian Lehrer asked Carter if he worried that supporting the mujahideen led to the spread of radical Islam.

No, I did not. We were deeply concerned about threat to American security from the Soviet's invation of Af. Because if they had been successful in Afghanistan, they very well could have moved into Pakistan and other adjacent countries and threatened all supplies of oil from that enormous region to the outside world. So I was very stern about trying to restrain the Soviet advance.

He drew a distinction between former mujahideen and Al Qaeda operatives, refusing to engage in a discussion of uinintended consequences.

So we gave secret help to the freedom fighters in Afghanistan, who were ultimately successful in expelling the Soviet Union. And the Al Qaeda people were from Saudi Arabia, and they were welcomed into Afghanistan by some of the former freedom fighters. But most of the freedom fighters have never been involved with Al Queda, although some of them have.

Regarding more current relations with Iran, Carter said he hoped the American hikers currently being held in Tehran would soon be released. One of the three, Sarah Shourd, was released over the weekend. Carter said the hikers were prisoners, not hostages.

I don’t call them hostages now. They’re just prisoners who violated Iran’s sovereignty by crossing the border between Iraq and Iran, inadvertently they claim, and I go along with that. I just got back from North Korea, bringing out a prisoner who crossed the border from China, walked across a frozen river and was captured. We have to realize that those countries have a very different framework for law and violation of their borders than we do. My hope is that we will see the release of the hikers.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York this week for the start of the United Nations General Assembly. He said the United States should release Iranians in American custody because Iran freed Shourd.