Before We Move on, Let's Remember Ronald Reagan's First Victory Against Terrorism

News Abroad

Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is http://www.danielpipes.org.

The first American victory in the war on terror was won by Ronald Reagan, and it happened on Jan. 20, 1981, the first day of his presidency.

That was when the jihadists running the Islamic Republic of Iran released 52 American hostages precisely as Reagan took the oath of office. After 444 days of humbling Jimmy Carter, the rulers in Tehran decided to conclude their drama at the U.S. embassy before they had to face the new president. This marked the first of Reagan's foreign policy successes.

To begin, some background: When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran in February 1979, he established the first modern Islamist regime, one drawing on fascist and communist methods but with the quite different goal of implementing Islamic law (the Shari‘a). Like the Taliban regime that later came to power in Afghanistan, the Khomeinists claimed to have the answers to all life's questions. They created a totalitarian order intent on controlling every aspect of Iranian life domestically and spreading the revolution abroad.

In common with all radical utopian despots, Khomeini viewed the United States as the main obstacle to implementing his program. Like the Taliban leaders later, he attacked individual Americans. Only in his case, he settled for the Americans conveniently on Iranian soil, rather than going to the trouble of attacking New York and Washington.

On November 4, 1979, a mob indirectly under Khomeini's direction seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, an action that encouraged Islamist confidence and unleashed Muslim fury against Americans worldwide. That fury then took violent form when Khomeini inaccurately declared that the capture of the Great Mosque of Mecca on November 20 was a U.S.-led assault on the sanctities of Islam. (In fact, it was carried out by a group of bin Laden-like fanatics.)

A wave of anti-American mob attacks then followed in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The worst of the violence was in Libya and Pakistan; in the latter country, four deaths resulted – among the first fatalities of militant Islam's war on America.

In reaction, Jimmy Carter hemmed like Bill Clinton and hawed like John Kerry. He got bogged down in diplomatic details and lost sight of principles and goals. For example, he responded in part to the embassy takeover by hoping"to convince and to persuade the Iranian leaders that the real danger to their nation lies in the north, in the Soviet Union."

He responded to diplomatic efforts like a technician:"It's up to the Iranians" to make the next move, he said in late 1980."I think it would certainly be to their advantage and to ours to resolve this issue without any further delay. I think our answers are adequate. I believe the Iranian proposal was a basis for a resolution of the differences."

In contrast, as president-elect, Ronald Reagan took a bold stance. He called the Iranian captors" criminals and kidnappers" and he called the political leaders"kidnappers." If they understood from his insults, he added,"that they shouldn't be waiting for me [to take office], I'd be very happy."

Reagan and his aides adopted a threatening tone."We'll just have to do something to bring [the hostages] home," he warned. Edwin Meese III, his transition chief, spoke more explicitly:"the Iranians should be prepared that this country will take whatever action is appropriate" and they"ought to think over very carefully the fact that it would certainly be to their advantage to get the hostages back now."

Reagan's tough words and tough reputation won the United States a rare bloodless victory over militant Islam. Even a senior Carter administration official, though preferring to emphasize his boss's mistakes over Reagan's strengths, grudgingly acknowledged that"we probably would not be getting the hostages out now if Carter had been reelected."

Unfortunately, Reagan's later record toward militant Islam was less impressive, notably his 1983 retreat from Beirut and his administration's 1985-86 arms transfers to Tehran.

That said, the triumph from the dawn of Reagan's presidency reminds us of two points in the aftermath of his death on June 5: he had to deal with the problem of terrorism that plagues this era; and his stalwart, patriotic stance succeeded not just versus the Soviet Union but also against its successor totalitarian movement, militant Islam.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The students and radicals who seized the American embassy in Teheran in 1979 were misguided and barbaric fools but not "terrorists" (in the normal definition of the word - those who "systematically use terror" in the name of some utopian ideal). No Americans were killed (to my, or Pipe's recollection), there were no suicide bombings, no assassinations or buildings blown up.

For anyone really interested in Reagan and terrorism, look at what that lately much mythologized president did in Beirut, Central America, and Afghanistan.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I would not dignify Pipe's amoral motives by calling them a "particular ideology". He has been on a personal alarm-raising crusade about fanatical Islamic movements for many years. Nothing wrong with that per se: Islamic terrorism IS a big problem and it was not taken seriously enough prior to 9-11.

Like many narrow minds attached to large egos, however, Pipes has let his moment of glory 2-3 years ago go to his swollen head, and he now thinks he can abandon common sense, and waylay every topic that comes down the pike, i.e. the Reagan memorializing, to be contorted and rammed into his straightjacket agenda of hate- and fear-mongering.

What HNN's excuse is for making this ahistorical one-track mind their number 1 outside columnist remains unclear.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

David Irving, Ted Kozinski, and Jane Fonda have also had
their "stuff published in the outside world", and at least some their "stuff" pertains to "current issues", yet they do not appear twice a month on HNN.

John Stephen Kipper - 6/21/2004

Ah, but Peter K. Clarke appears on HNN even more often than Pipes! At least his "stuff" is more current than the Unabomber and Hanoi Jane, but not much more illuminating.

Ken Melvin - 6/21/2004

Mr. Pipes: How very kind of you to give us your view from your perspective. 'Tis a bit awkward, this position you're holding. Do you emerge and straighten up from time to time?

Andrew D. Todd - 6/21/2004

Oh, I don't know, Pipes is getting this stuff published in the outside world. He's not just writing it for HNN. We have to document his errors, with footnotes when possible. HNN isn't just for HNN people. Google indexes HNN. It's like the local newspaper sending a cub reporter around to the history department to find of what the people in the grad student lounge have to say about a current issue.

Michael Green - 6/20/2004

Mr. Pipes unfortunately--but unsurprisingly, given his track record--takes historical events out of their context so that he may beat the drum for his particular ideology. Even more interestingly, he claims to know what the hostage-takers and the Iranian government were thinking. If his understanding of the Middle East and terrorism is equal to that of the occupant of the White House whose actions on those subjects constitute offenses for which he should be impeached and indicted--and which Mr. Pipes defends--then it is no wonder that Mr. Pipes reaches such ridiculous conclusions.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/20/2004


I assume you have not been surprised reading Pipe's(does
he uses it too much, oh what?) new ode of glory meant for
the old right-wing poem titled "Ronald Reagan - The Savior" purporting to revive the becoming obsolete Big
Lies of Right Wing West and support present White House agenda. This "historian" has been around Right Wing corner for long time by now and casually places his conclusions beyond the facts and logic of history to justify his a-la-US-uber-alles ideological dogmas.

Noone, of the even less obvious ideologues, elaborates on
two most crucial issues in the search for the causes of
the modern Islamic anti-American exteremism/terrorism: the permanent Arab-Israeli conflict with the US overwhelmingly one-sided position in the conflict and
the US sponsorship and support for the most reactionary, corrupted, and anti-democratic groups/regimes in the Muslim world(Shah in Iran, Monarchy in Saudi Arabia, Sadat in Egypt, earlier Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Taliban/mudgaahedines in Afganistan, etc.) that empoverish(ed) their own populus for the sake of the Western multi-national corporations and the local elite.
Those are/were the major causes of the powerful wave of Islamic terrorism, not the ridiculous claims of their envy towards "our freedoms", or some mystic genetic hatred Islamists allegedly have against all infidels(though the latter does play some role to support the two
major causes mentioned.)
To my recollection, the only democratic regime of Mosadeq in Iranian history was overthrown by CIA agents
and bribed by them Iranian thugs in 1953.

Andrew D. Todd - 6/20/2004

Daniel Pipes neglects one or two trifling points.

One point is that Carter sent in the Special Forces, under the command of a man named Col. Charlie Beckwith, in an attempt to get the hostages out. The attempt failed of course, due to adverse weather and accidents, and perhaps, an element of "a bridge too far". Let us understand each other. Does Daniel Pipes consider that Col. Beckwith was also an appeaser? By contrast, Reagan's loud bellicosity sidestepped the minor point that the Soviet Union had not yet collapsed. The Soviets had more forces available, closer to the middle east. In the late 1970's their forces in the Caucasus, Transcaucasus, and Turkestan military districts consisted of three armored divisions, two airborne divisions, and nineteen motorized rifle divisions. They didn't have very many tanks... only about five thousand or so, and about the same number of APC's. Informed opinion ran to the view that the Soviet Union wanted a coastline on the Indian Ocean, and might simply take it at an opportune moment. Apart from such minor trifles as the Red Army, one might believe that the Iranians were somehow intimidated by Reagan.

The second point is that by holding onto the hostages, the Iranians were voting for Reagan, that is, they were seeking to discredit Carter in the hope that Reagan would be elected. They chose to release the hostages minutes after Reagan's inauguration as a public announcement that Reagan owed them a debt of gratitude; that he owed them a presidency. About four or five years before the hostage crisis, back in the old Shah's time, an Iranian friend told me, jokingly, not to worry about the oil embargo, because he would give me a barrel. This was Hassan's jest, of course, but let us take it seriously. If the Iranians had preferred Jimmy Carter, they could easily have given him both the hostages and some cheap oil to tide him over until after the election. Instead, they did a favor for Ronald Reagan. Why?

The answer is that the Iranians feared Jimmy Carter much more than they feared Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter was committed to energy independence. Carter was the last president to understand anything about technology, because he was a disciple of Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy. Carter understood things that most politicians simply cannot understand. Building energy plants is a long job. It cannot be done with the stroke of a pen, and you have to stick with it. But the end result would have been to destroy the economic power of the oil nations once and for all. Once and for all. That was what terrified the Iranians.

By some odd coincidence, Ronald Reagan cut back on funds for energy independence. That of course made the Iranians very happy. Reagan was a movie actor, obsessed with appearances rather than realities, and I doubt he really understood the seriousness of what he was doing.


Col. Charlie A. Beckwith, USA (Ret)., with Donald Knox, _Delta Force_, 1983.

Ray Bonds, Air Vice Marshall S. W. B. Menaul, et. al., _The Soviet War Machine_, 1976, see especially, Bill Gunston's order of battle table, p. 176.