Many peoples have have a folk memory of great suffering branded into them. The Irish often recall the famines of the 1840s, in which a million died, in great part due to cruel and neglectful policies of the ruling British officials and absentee landlords. For African Americans, the middle passage and slavery—scarring the lives of millions—form an indelible cultural memory. Palestinian Arabs remember the Nakba, or catastrophe, in which three quarters of a million people were ethnically cleansed from their homeland. Of course the Holocaust, where six million Jews were murdered, has left a permanent imprint on contemporary Judaism.
For our part, we Americans have the Iranian hostage crisis, in which 52 American diplomats were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy for over a year by Iranian revolutionaries. Their plight has been memorialized in an award winning film, Argo. The the scars left by the episode remain raw today—as even today the U.S. Senate rose up as one to pass a bill to prohibit Iran from adding insult to injury by sending to the United Nations as an ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, a man who actually served as a French and English to Farsi translator for the young militants who engineered the embassy takeover nearly thirty-five years ago.
I am being, of course, ironic. The seizure of the American embassy in Tehran was illegal and wrong, as many Iranian officials argued at the time. The hostages were often subjected to psychological abuse. Yet Iran was in the middle of tumultuous and bloody revolution as various factions maneuvered for dominance in a fluid political situation. The embassy hostages became pawns in internal Iranian struggles. These were deadly: thousands had been killed before the Shah overthrown, and thousands more died, often by summary execution, in the months which followed Khomeini’s assumption of power. In the Tehran bloodshed department, the holding of hostages in the embassy was distinctly minor league.
Because the Carter administration wanted a) the safe return of the diplomats and b) to avoid alienating the Muslim world when it appeared, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few months after the embassy seizure, that a new and particularly dangerous phase of the Cold War had commenced, it appeared to have no good response. The result, for all the world to see, was an America that seemed helpless. Washington of course could have seized some Iranian territory or bombed targets in Iran. For reasons a and b, neither seemed preferable to doing what we actually did, essentially wait until Iran grew tired of holding the hostages. But the year of waiting was perceived, especially in Washington, as a year of humiliation and impotence, and Washington has never been able to get over it. Though the hostages themselves have returned unharmed and went on to lead productive lives, Washington continues to react as if an injustice of epochal scale was done to it. Fifty-two diplomats, held for 444 days, our American Nakba.
It was not particularly surprising that the senator who decided to wave the bloody, or at least unironed, shirts of the imprisoned diplomats over the issue of Hamid Aboutalebi’s appointment was Ted Cruz., the Texan Tea Party Republican who distinguished himself during the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings by insinuating that the former Nebraska senator was in the pay of North Korea. In this instance, Cruz introduced legislation designed to bar Aboutalebi from obtaining a visa because he was a “terrorist.” He was joined by Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who has been working behind the scenes to scuttle President Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, mostly by introducing poison pill legislation in the Senate. Neither Cruz not Schumer discussed whether Aboutalebi carried out any terrorist activities in Australia, Italy, or Brussels (the European Union), the last three posts where Aboutalebi served as Iran’s ambassador.
Of course the target here is not Iran’s ambassador to the UN. Cruz and Schumer aim to destroy the Obama/ P5+1 negotiation with Iran, which aim for a reduction and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear energy program in return for lifting of Iran sanctions. I presume Schumer does this because he wants Israel to be the only state in the Middle East permitted to enrich uranium—the senator often vows that his main purpose is to serve as Israel’s “guardian.” Cruz is implementing the current Republican campaign to depict Obama as a weak “Jimmy Carter like” figure in foreign affairs. Introducing a bill which evokes the frustrated emotions of the long ago hostage crisis while tossing rocks into the gears of American diplomacy thus serves as a kind of twofer. Both senators know well that there are hard-liners in Iran who oppose a successful nuclear negotiation with the United States as much as they do. Cruz and Schumer are thus playing to a dual audience, Americans immersed in Iran hatred and their Iranian counterparts. By ostentatiously insulting Iran (by refusing to accept its ambassador) they are trying to demonstrate that diplomacy with the “Great Satan” is impossible, which is exactly what hardline opponents of Iranian’s reformist President Rouhani are arguing. Given the general level of political courage and wisdom in the U.S. Senate, it is perhaps not surprising that the Cruz-Schumer “bipartisan” bill passed unanimously.