What If There Had Been No Iranian Hostage Crisis?

If you're of a certain age, say over 40, the Iranian hostage crisis is one of those memories from our recent history that will never fade. Thirty years ago today, on November 4, 1979, students and hardline supporters of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had recently returned to Iran after living in exile in Paris, took control of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

For the next 444 days the Iranians held 66 Americans hostage. In reality, our entire nation was held hostage, seemingly unable to comprehend the events transpiring in Iran while the Carter Administration appeared more interested in engaging with the new regime than responding with strength and clarity of purpose.

Almost six months after the siege began, the administration finally mustered the courage to attempt a military operation to rescue the hostages. Unfortunately a combination of factors, including too many cooks in the kitchen, mission creep and weather resulted in the loss of 8 people's lives and an aborted mission. The failed operation became a metaphor for the waning Carter era.

Some contend that the hostage crisis tanked Carter's administration and inevitably led to his loss to Ronald Reagan. So what if the embassy hadn't been overrun? What if Khomeini had returned to Iran from exile in Paris and had kept the demonstrations of support and street chaos outside from spilling over and going inside the embassy? Would America look any different now? I suspect the answer is no. Carter didn't need the hostage crisis to prove that he was better at being an ex-president than a sitting president. The depressed economy, his inability to inspire, the concern over Russia's invasion of Afghanistan and a general mood of discontent all weighed heavily on voters' minds when they pulled the lever for Reagan in November of 1980.

In Iran, if the embassy hadn't been taken and the hostages seized, do we imagine that somehow the Islamic Revolution would have morphed into something peaceful? The hostage taking thirty years ago was an example of a target of opportunity... once the hardliners realized what was occuring they took control and capitalized on the situation. But the hostage crisis didn't represent the beginning of a hardline Iran intent on sponsoring terrorism, calling for death to America and Israel and pursuing nuclear ambitions. The event energized and motivated to be sure, but it didn't set the course for the Revolution. -- That had already been accomplished prior to Khomeini's return.

While for those of us of a certain age the hostage crisis in Iran will always remain an important memory, it wasn't a history altering moment in time. Carter was destined to be a one-term president, the voters of America didn't need the events in Tehran to give them a serious case of buyer's remorse. And Iran's path to a hardline Islamic Revolution was set well before the students and Khomeini supporters climbed over the embassy walls.

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector and has recently returned to Diligence LLC, a company he cofounded in 2000, as President. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on counterterrorism, intelligence and homeland security. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," as well as major motion pictures.