Iran: Dancing in the Spotlight

The 1979 photograph is eerie: a blindfolded American hostage being led by a bearded, gaunt-looking militant student amongst an angry mob of onlookers and demonstrators. The famous footage has come to symbolize the terror of the 1979-80 Iranian Hostage Crisis, which saw 52 Americans being held captive in Iran for 444 days. The humiliating crisis may have been buried in Americans’ psyches — after all, 25 years have passed — but that particular image, of the bearded militant and the blindfolded American, has resurfaced in the press as of late.

On 25 June, the ultraconservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected president in a shocking landslide victory. His victory has resulted in a series of serious allegations; namely that he was one of the captors during the hostage crisis. Specifically, he has been identified by half a dozen hostages as the militant in the infamous photograph.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Bush Administration asked for a clear explanation of Ahmadinejad’s role during the crisis. “The administration also pledged to conduct its own investigation into Ahmadinejad’s past after several of the 52 American held hostage in the embassy said in tough, unequivocal statements that they had recognized the next Iranian leader as one of their captors.” (30 June 2005)

On the heels of the controversy over Ahhmadijenad’s role during the hostage crisis, other allegations also came to light: Austria announced that it was instigating its own investigation into Ahmadinejad’s role in the murder of the Kurdish opposition leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Vienna in 1989. According to the BBC, an Iranian spokesman flatly denied the accusations: “These accusations are ridiculous and without foundation and, for this reason, we have summoned the Austrian ambassador to the ministry of foreign affairs to demand an explanation.” (5 July 2005)

Should these allegations prove true, US-Iranian relations, which have been marred since the hostage takeover, could go from bad to worse. What is more troubling, however, is that Iranians cast their votes to elect a hardliner as opposed to the moderate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had promised to improve Iranian-Western relations. Despite allegations of vote rigging, and President Bush’s charge that the Iranian elections were flawed, the 49-year-old Ahmadinejad is poised to return Iran back to its original 1979 revolutionary philosophy and hardcore Islamic ideals. One of Ahmadinejad’s first moves after gaining victory was to visit the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb, prompting the Islamic Republic News Agency to claim: “Ahmadinejad renewed his allegiance with the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Imam Khomeini at his mausoleum in southern Tehran Sunday morning.”

There is a joke amongst the Iranian exile community that since the Iranian revolution, Iran has had a habit of taking one step forward and three steps back. The country’s reformists are constantly at odds with the hardcore religious fundamentalists who control the power, and Ahmadinejad’s victory also scores a coup for Iran’s fundamentalists. Ahmadinejad also enjoyed the full backing of the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards. His opponent, Rafsanjani, had depicted himself as the last barrier to religious extremism, but to no avail.

Vis-à-vis the US, relations will only worsen as the new hardline president will continue efforts of enriching Iran’s nuclear program (which Bush has claimed will not be tolerated), and continue to support anti-Israeli opposition groups such as Hizbollah. As the Chinese news agency, Xinhuanet reported, in his first post-election conference, Ahmadinejad said that: “Iran will develop ties with almost all countries in the world except for the United States. It cannot develop relations with a country which always keeps a hostile attitude toward us.” (26 June 2005)

Inside Iran, what few social improvements have been made will clearly banish. As mayor of Tehran, Ahmadinejad was responsible for cracking down on male-female relations, even demanding that men and women ride separate elevators in office buildings. His hardline stance resembles Khomeini’s era during which strict separation of the sexes was de rigeur, and revolutionary guards roaming the streets reprimanded women who wore their hejabs loosely. Ahmadinejad had focused his election strategy on vowing to help the poor and unemployed, but what is most likely is that he will focus on banning what few freedoms the Iranian people have been permitted since the revolution. His reign could spell bad news, especially for the press and women’s rights. He has proclaimed that he will fight “corruption” which in the Islamic Republic of Iran can be translated into curbing social freedoms.

When the brouhaha of the Ahmadinejad-as-hostage-taker controversy first erupted, a few former hostages questioned why Iran had never been punished for the kidnapping. The answer most likely lies in the October Surprise theory (first brought to light by Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Council staff, Gary Sick), which showed evidence that the Reagan camp had negotiated with the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages to ensure a Reagan Presidential victory. True to form, Reagan won, the hostages were released as he was inaugurated, and Iran went unpunished. A few years later, the Iran-Contra scandal came to light, adding more fuel to the argument that the Republicans and the Islamic Republic of Iran enjoyed cozy relations.

Now, however, Bush has been placed between a rock and a hard place. Should the allegations that Ahmadinejad was a hostage-taker prove true, a response and appropriate action is warranted from Washington. Regarding the issue of nuclear programs, Bush has frequently claimed that an Iran with nuclear capabilities will not be accepted. As the Jerusalem Post reported, Ahmadinejad claimed that “the Iranian nation is a great, alert nation, and will protect its nuclear right seriously.” (5 July 2005)

Iran is banking on the fact that the US will only engage in a war of harmless threats as it has done in the past, and leave it alone. However, if Bush’s threats regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions prove valid, a conflict is definitely in store should Ahmadinejad proceed as planned. The question remains: Does Iran have the potential to become the next Iraq? Absolutely. But will it become the next Iraq? That remains to be seen.