U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry rightfully thanked the Iranian authorities on Wednesday for the swift release of the 10 American seamen captured by the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran’s territorial waters. He justifiably praised the thawed relations and the post-nuclear deal diplomatic dialogue that enabled the quick resolution of an incident that not too long ago could have deteriorated to tension and conflict.
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But Kerry’s words, measured and reasonable as they were, could not erase the sense of humiliation that seemed to be overtaking America with the release of the videos and photos that showed American soldiers sitting on the deck of their boats with their hands over their heads and their eyes darting from side to side in fear and apprehension. The images sparked outrage on the right, discomfort on the left and great embarrassment in the Obama administration: they, rather than Kerry’s statements, will forever define the affair.
Israelis will be the first to identify: pictures of captured soldiers have always distressed public opinion, from the black and white photos of hundreds of bent, blindfolded and humiliated Israelis captured in Sinai and the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which shattered the 1967 image of the invincible IDF, to the recurring video broadcasts from Gilad Shalit’s Hamas prison in Gaza, which made his continued captivity intolerable for most.
On the American side, it was the gruesome footage of Somali warlord Mohammed Aideed’s supporters dragging the body of U.S. Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu in 1992 that ultimately brought about the end of the American mission in Somalia. Conversely, it was the stomach-turning photos of American soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqis at Abu-Ghraib that disgusted American public opinion and marked a turning point in its opposition to the war, just as it inflamed Muslims throughout the word and entrenched the U.S. as their mortal enemy.
But the iconic photos that are most relevant to the latest kerfuffle with Iran are those of the American officials who were dragged out blindfolded and paraded in front of photographers on November 4, 1979 by the students who had just taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in support of Ayatollah Khomeini. The shock with which many Americans first viewed the pictures soon turned to anger and then to frustration over President Jimmy Carter’s ongoing failure to secure the release of the hostages. One year later, the public’s exasperation brought Ronald Reagan to the White House and launched the conservative revolution that some believe continues today, despite Barack Obama.
That big hostage crisis 36 years ago lasted 444 days: it brought Americans face to face for the first time with radical Islam and it framed the Iranian ayatollahs as America’s biggest enemy in the post-Soviet world, a position which they now share with their Sunni rivals, first from Al-Qaida and then from ISIS. The new “hostage crisis”, which barely lasted 24 hours, is miniscule in comparison but it may be enough to reignite some of the old hostility and resentment, which never really disappeared. It quickly resurfaces and reenters the American bloodstream now, just as the Iranian nuclear deal and the potential detente with Tehran remain a bitter pill to swallow for much of American public opinion.
The Republicans, as expected, were quick to rush in and make fools of themselves. Only a few hours had gone by since first reports emerged that the soldiers had been captured, details were still scarce, but Jeb Bush was already demanding “no more bargaining” with Iran, Senator Tom Cotton urging Obama to revoke the nuclear deal and Donald Trump tweeting “Bring back the hostages NOW!” in capital letters and exclamation marks. And they all reprimanded Obama for failing to even mention the captured sea crew in his State of the Union address.
Tactically, Obama was right: he did not want to potentially jeopardize the quick release of the soldiers, perhaps he was concerned that the affair could unravel to the degree that it would sabotage the soon-to-be-implemented nuclear deal and he may even have been loath to interrupt the rhythm and reasoning of his otherwise optimistic and final State of the Union address.
But it is the Republicans who may yet have the last laugh, despite their nonsense, especially if the rage sparked by the troubling photos helps them in any way to retrace Reagan’s footsteps and retake the White House. It wouldn’t be the first time that Iran has brought about a Democratic downfall.