The Baghdad Embassy Siege: Do the Iranian Mullahs Think Donald Trump Will React Like Jimmy Carter?

The Islamic Republic of Iran, facing demonstrations at home that threaten its very existence and more in Iraq that threaten that country’s Shi’ite proxy government, is resorting to a tested and true strategy. Fox News reports that “crowds of angry Iraqis protesting America’s recent airstrikes against an Iran-backed militia have laid siege to the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad Tuesday, chanting ‘Down, Down USA!’ and storming through a main gate, prompting troops to fire back tear gas in response.”

President Trump tweeted: “Iran killed an American contractor, wounding many. We strongly responded, and always will. Now Iran is orchestrating an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. They will be held fully responsible. In addition, we expect Iraq to use its forces to protect the Embassy, and so notified!”

Whether the pro-Iranian Shi’ite regime will take any serious steps to protect the embassy is an open question, and the Iranian mullahs may be assuming that Trump will talk tough and then let the whole thing blow over. After all, as The Complete Infidel’s Guide to Iran explains in detail, there is a significant precedent for this that occurred right at the time the Islamic Republic was founded.

On January 16, 1979, a tearful Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and his family left Iran after being betrayed and abandoned by Jimmy Carter. Two weeks later, on February 1, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned to Iran after fourteen years of exile and set out to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini had made abundantly clear that the Islamic Republic would consider the United States a mortal enemy when he enabled the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979. American diplomats would be held hostage for well over a year.

The immediate pretext for the invasion of the Embassy was Jimmy Carter’s reluctant decision to allow the gravely ill Shah to enter the United States on October 23, 1979, for medical treatment. Carter asked his advisers, “What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?” Nonetheless, he had no plan when a group calling itself Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line (that is, Khomeini’s line) entered the embassy compound and took hostage the skeleton staff of sixty-six that was still serving there after the fall of the Shah.

Khomeini was delighted, dubbing the hostage-taking “the Second Revolution.” He told a reporter, “I regard the occupation of the American Embassy as a spontaneous and justified retaliation of our people.” He explained that the hostage crisis would assist the Islamic Republic in consolidating power: “This action has many benefits. The Americans do not want to see the Islamic Republic taking root. We keep the hostages, finish our internal work, then release them. This has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us. We can put the constitution to the people’s vote without difficulty, and carry out presidential and parliamentary elections. When we have finished all these jobs we can let the hostages go.”

Khomeini wasn’t worried about the Americans interfering with his timetable: “Jimmy Carter is too much of a coward to confront us militarily.” At Thanksgiving 1979, the Iranians freed thirteen black and female hostages, but Khomeini said that the Embassy had been a “den of espionage and those professional spies will remain as they are until Mohammed Reza Pahlavi is returned to be tried and until he has returned all that he has plundered. However, as Islam has a special respect toward women, and the blacks who have spent ages under American pressure and tyranny and may have come to Iran under pressure, therefore, mitigate their cases if it is proved that they have not committed acts of espionage.” One more hostage was freed in the summer of 1980, when he became dangerously ill. The other fifty-two remained in captivity for 444 days, until January 20, 1981.

One hostage recounted, “During the first part of our captivity, our hands were tied very tightly, and on the second day of captivity, a number of hostages and myself were tied around the ambassador’s dining room table.” He said that the captors played Russian Roulette with two of the female hostages “to get information from us. They put a bullet in the chamber, spun the chamber, and they clicked the trigger off on a couple of the girls.” The Iranians repeatedly threatened to execute all the hostages, and the hostages believed that they were eminently capable of doing so.

Meanwhile, Carter was proving Khomeini right: he did seem to be “too much of a coward” to do anything effective to rescue the hostages. When he did attempt to do so, with Operation Eagle Claw in April 1980, the mission was a miserable failure. Engine failure put some of the helicopters needed for the mission out of action; a crash killed eight U.S. military personnel. The abject failure and apparent amateurishness of the operation epitomized the Carter administration’s impotence in the face of repeated provocations from the nascent Islamic Republic—and true to form, Khomeini ascribed its failure to the hand of Allah and labeled it a victory for Islam.

The hand of Allah was not so much in evidence, however, in November 1980, when Ronald Reagan overwhelmingly defeated Carter’s bid for re-election. One of Reagan’s campaign themes had been that he would deal with the Iranians much more firmly than Carter had, and the Iranians clearly knew that Ronald Reagan was not too much of a coward to confront them militarily: they freed the hostages on January 20, 1981, the day Reagan took office.

The question now before the mullahs, and the world, is whether Donald Trump will emulate Carter or Reagan.

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.