Ronald Reagan is without a doubt a conservative icon who, as President, had many victories but one victory currently relevant does most emphatically not belong to Reagan, even though it’s often attributed to him. Once again the United States finds itself negotiating with Iran. Americans are considering whether the negotiations have accomplished their stated goal: To keep Iran from building a bomb. The question is, is the deal a good one? Could we have gotten a better deal? Could Reagan have gotten a better deal? “Reagan didn’t need a deal” is the slogan running through Conservative circles. The implication being that Reagan achieved release of the hostages in 1980 through sheer force of personality. Surely any rational person knows what a farce that is. But let’s go through the events anyway.
Most people are familiar with the first part. The secular leader of Iran, the Shah, supported by the US and very friendly to western powers, was overthrown in a religious coup. The Embassy was stormed and 52 American were taken hostage for over a year. They were released the day Reagan was sworn in.
In one respect Conservatives are correct. Reagan did not need a deal. Because Carter had already signed one. It’s called the Algiers Accord. It’s a simple document. We promise to stay out of their business. We release 7.9 Billion dollars of Iranian assets and sanctions. They also get some immunity in civil courts. In return, they deposited one billion dollars in an escrow account as part of arbitration agreement to compensate Americans for assets lost in the revolution. Iranians would receive assets held by the US belonging to the Shaw and Iran would honor their international debts and obligations. Oh, and the hostages would come home. Because the Iranians refused to negotiate with the US without an Algerian intermediary (it wasn’t called the Algerian Accords for nothing), and the numerous linguistic barriers the negotiations took a great deal of time. It also took a lengthy amount of time to physically transfer some of the assets (such as 50 tonnes of gold). Additionally, Iran was in a war with Iraq which also complicated safe transportation.
In the end it was Carter who secured the release of hostages through a reasonable and complex deal. It was also Carter who was generous and statesman enough to allow Reagan to make the announcement and implicitly claim credit. The next time Reagan would negotiate with Iran he would sell our enemy weapons and transfer the funds to murderous death squads against the explicit orders of congress. This was not a success. If there was any justice in the world, the Iran-Contra scandal should have brought down the Reagan administration. Beside Carter, Only Obama has successfully negotiated with the Iran. He’s created a medium term impediment to Iranians acquiring a nuclear weapon. In theory the Iranians say they don’t want a nuclear weapon, they only want nuclear power. Which is fine. It’s very healthy on the part of the Iranians to wish to diversify their economy. However, there’s no reason we should trust them. So these negotiations are necessary. I won’t go into the finer points of the treaty in this blog.
The point is that the near mythological status that Reagan holds has corrupted the history of our dealings with Iran and have created entirely unreasonable expectations. Without respect, even for an enemy, and compromise, negotiations mean nothing. It’s time to understand a deep history of the world instead of knee-jerk short-term politicized reactions.