Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have implied that Iran released U.S. hostages in 1981 on the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated because Reagan ushered in a new foreign policy toward Iran. But several experts on the crisis told us the hostages were released that day as a final insult to President Jimmy Carter, whom the hostage-takers despised.
We heard several reasons for the release cited in reporting on this topic, and it is impossible for us to say with certainty what the hostage-takers were thinking. However, we do have some insight from those who have interacted directly with the hostage-takers. Tom Ahern, the CIA station chief at the time, who was held hostage, told us that one of his principal tormentors “told me that we were not going to get out as long as Carter was president.” That had less to do with fear of Reagan, he said, than hatred for Carter. “I never heard anybody talk about fear of Reagan,” Ahern said.
Another expert we consulted, journalist and author Mark Bowden, said he interviewed about 12 of the hostage-takers for his 2006 book, “Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam.” He told us they were largely ignorant of American political figures and “had no idea who Ronald Reagan was.” Bowden believes the hostage-takers did delay the release “as a final thumb in the eye of Jimmy Carter.”
Others echoed that statement, saying that it wasn’t Reagan himself, or a foreign policy he had articulated, that caused the curious timing of the release — it was the fact that someone other than Carter had been sworn in as president.
Rubio made his claim about the 1981 hostage crisis on Jan. 17 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He was asked by host Chuck Todd about that weekend’s prisoner exchange deal in which Iran released five Americans that had been detained. “When I become president of the United States, our adversaries around the world will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak like Barack Obama. And it will be like Ronald Reagan where as soon as he took office, the hostages were released from Iran,” Rubio said.
Similarly, Cruz said on “Fox News Sunday,” also on Jan. 17 that the “only reason” American sailors were detained briefly in early January by the Iranian military was “because of the weakness of Barack Obama.” He said: “But there is good news — which is the fastest thing that can change with a new president is foreign policy. It’s worth remembering, the same nation Iran in 1981 released our hostages the day Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.”
The idea that the Iranians feared Reagan’s foreign policy philosophy has been around for a while. In 2012, our colleagues at PolitiFact fact-checked then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that “I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called peace through strength. … There’s a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn in. As president, I’ll offer that kind of clarity, strength and resolve.”
On Nov. 4, 1979, militant Islamic students took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They held 52 American hostages for 444 days, finally releasing them on Jan. 20, 1981, the day Reagan was inaugurated. The hostage crisis occurred several months after the Shah had been overthrown in the Iranian Revolution in February, and just a few weeks after Carter allowed the Shah into the United States for medical treatment.
The New York Times reported on Jan. 21, 1981, that Carter had informed Reagan at 8:31 on the morning of the inauguration that the hostages would be released, and that the Americans “took off from Tehran in two Boeing 727 airplanes at 12:25 P.M., Eastern standard time, the very moment that Mr. Reagan was concluding his solemn Inaugural Address at the United States Capitol.”
The Times reported that during the ceremony Carter looked “haggard and worn after spending two largely sleepless nights trying to resolve the hostage crisis as the final chapter of his Presidency.” Reagan told congressional leaders at 2:15 p.m., the Times said, that the planes carrying the hostages had left Iranian airspace.
Rubio’s and Cruz’s statements leave the impression that the hostages were released because Iran saw Reagan as a stronger adversary, or a president who would demonstrate a different foreign policy toward Iran. But the six experts we interviewed cited several reasons for the release, and said the timing had to do with contempt for Carter.
Henry Precht was the State Department’s country director for Iran from 1978 through 1980, and he served in the embassy in Tehran previously and stayed with the State Department after 1980. Precht told us that there was some fear of Reagan, who had “projected a harder, tougher line.” But hatred of Carter “might have been the strongest motivation” for releasing the hostages on Inauguration Day. “They hated Carter, and they didn’t want to give him any kind of credit or satisfaction or victory.”
Gary Sick, who was on Carter’s National Security Council at the time, and also served under Presidents Ford and Reagan, said that the negotiations that led to the hostages’ release began in September 1980. There was a gap when Carter lost the November election, and then the negotiations resumed with Algerians acting as intermediaries. “Negotiations started in earnest after the election, within weeks and then went on very, very steadily right through the 20th of January,” Sick told us in a phone interview. “Basically, at the end, the Iranians were pushing for a series of concessions that we weren’t prepared to give.” They gave up “and accepted the U.S. terms.”
The deal involved the release of billions in Iranian assets that had been frozen by Carter at the outset of the hostage crisis.
Sick said that claims about the timing of the release are a matter of political interpretation. “The reality is that [the Iranians] did in fact complete the deal in the last 48 hours while Carter was still president. And you can interpret that as you like,” he said. “You can either say they were afraid of Reagan” or that they recognized “they weren’t going to get a better deal with the new administration and would lose everything that they put into the negotiations up to that point.”
Starting negotiations over would have meant at least another six months of captivity for the hostages, Sick says, regardless of what Reagan wanted to do.
“There’s no absolute proof,” he says of what the Iranians were thinking. But, he says, it was “very clear” to him that the Iranians wanted to get rid of the hostages because it was expensive to hold them.
Bowden, who said he made three trips to Iran and interviewed about 12 of the hostage-takers in reporting his book, told us that Reagan’s foreign policy or a fear of Reagan “was not a factor” in the hostages’ release. He told us the hostage-takers “had no idea who Ronald Reagan was.”
“What is true is that they hated Carter … not for any particular reason other than he was the representative of the Great Satan,” Bowden said in a phone interview. “They clearly viewed his electoral defeat as a great victory.”
Ahern, the CIA station chief in Tehran at the time, told us in a phone interview that it was basically correct to say that the hostages were released because Reagan took office — but that wasn’t because of Reagan’s policy ideas; it was because of the hostage-takers’ dislike of Carter. He recalled being told by one of his tormentors that the hostages wouldn’t be released as long as Carter was president.
He didn’t recall hearing the hostage-takers express any thoughts or ideas about Reagan. It didn’t matter who came into office, Ahern said, just as long as it was somebody else. “They would hold us until Carter was out of office.”
That was also the belief of William Daugherty, then the operations officer with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and also a hostage. Daugherty wrote in an account posted on the CIA’s website that he suspected the hostages would be released around the time of Reagan’s inauguration as an insult to Carter.
CIA, “The Release: January, 20, 1981”: “Nineteen January lasted forever,” recalls Daugherty. “I could not sleep, read, or close my mind. I spent most of that day pacing the room and waiting for another knock. Dinner came and went, while time dragged on and I grew more and more despondent. I had miscalculated, I thought. If I was not released now, then it would probably be a long time before I enjoyed any kind of freedom again.”
Experts we interviewed cited several other reasons beyond a desire to insult Carter.
Bowden said he thought the hostage-takers made a decision to resolve the crisis because Iran was at war with Iraq, which had invaded the country in September 1980. Holding onto the hostages was taking effort and money away from the war, and making it impossible for Iran to deal with the United States or its allies. “So they were eager to end the standoff,” he said.
The hostage-takers were also tired of guarding the hostages, Bowden said, and the crisis had served its purpose by 1981. The primary reason for taking over the embassy, he said, was for the religious right to smear and get rid of domestic political opponents, an objective that had been achieved by the summer of 1980. “Anyone who ever met with U.S. officials was branded a spy” and imprisoned, he said.
Precht also mentioned the war with Iraq among several factors for the hostages’ release. “The Iranians weren’t doing well in their war with Iraq. They had to clear the decks to address that problem,” he told us.
And, he said, “I think they realized that the crisis couldn’t go on forever. That they’d extracted what they needed from it.”
Mark Gasiorowski, chair of the political science department at Tulane University, has studied and written about U.S.-Iran relations, traveled extensively in the country and region, and was a visiting professor at Tehran University in the 1990s. He told us there was some truth to the idea that “fear of Reagan” was a factor in the hostages’ release, but said it was “fear that he would have reopened negotiations” and the process would have started over again, “much more than fear of bombing” or military force.
“On the other hand, if Carter had been reelected, they probably would have released them at the same time” or earlier, Gasiorowski said.
He, too, said that “one other major reason” the Iranians waited until Reagan’s inauguration was that “they sort of wanted to rub Carter’s face in it … so that he can’t get credit for it.”
Gasiorowski noted that there would have been a lot of people involved in making the decision on the Iranian side — from Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious and political leader of Iran, to the students who were holding the Americans hostage. “They would have had rather different views of things and different priorities.”
Bruce Riedel, now the director of the Brookings Institutions’ Intelligence Project, was the senior Iran analyst at the CIA in 1981. He told us in an email: “The Iranians released the hostages on Reagan’s inauguration for a combination of reasons including their uncertainty about how he would act once in office, their desire to humiliate Carter and their need to focus on the Iraqi threat.”
The release of the hostages coincided with Reagan being sworn in as president — Rubio and Cruz are right about that. But whether that timing had anything to do with Reagan’s foreign policy is in dispute. In fact, experts we interviewed, including those who have spoken directly to the hostage-takers, say the motivation for releasing the hostages then was a hatred of Carter.