Saturday, November 12, 2022

Taken Hostage, on PBS

Why is our current administration so determined to buy more oil from Iran rather than expand drilling here? It has the same environmental impact, regardless of where it came from. In the case of Iran, it is coming from a state that denies women their basic rights and vigorously persecutes any deviation from its rigid fundamentalist orthodoxy. It should be a complete pariah state for its gross violations of international law, yet there are those in Washington who are perversely determined to normalize relations. PBS reminds us of the regime’s criminal origins in Robert Stone’s two-part Taken Hostage, an American Experience special presentation, which airs this Monday and Tuesday.

This is not a round-number anniversary year of the 1979 Hostage Crisis, yet
Taken Hostage premieres about a month and a half after HBO’s Hostages. In some ways, they compliment each other, because both overlook important elements that are nicely covered in the competing production. For instance, Taken Hostage skips over the first storming of the American Embassy in Tehran, known as the “Valentine’s Day Open House,” which was de-escalated relatively quickly. Unfortunately, the Carter administration drew the exact wrong conclusion from the incident, assuming cooler heads would always prevail.

Hostages never mentions Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the moderate revolutionary, who served as the new government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, until he was arrested (and ultimately executed) in 1980. Whereas, Stone makes his tragic arc and Ghotbzadeh’s relationship with journalist Carole Jerome (who escaped the country three hours before the Ayatollah’s secret police came looking for her) a major focus of Taken Hostage.

Perhaps for clarity’s sake, Stone (who also helmed the great doc,
Pandora’s Promise) employs far less voices than Hostages. The hostages themselves and their families are solely represented by Barry and Barbara Rosen. There are no interviews with hostage-takers. Of course, the Shah’s human rights abuses are established in detail. Yet, Taken Hostage better explains the underlying reasons for America’s alliance with the authoritarian ruler. It was not just the Cold War. Also, it was the vacuum left when the UK pulled out of its traditional role maintaining order in the Persia Gulf, right while the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War. We were a little busy at the time, so we turned to Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is important context often overlooked in critiques of U.S. foreign policy.

It is hard to think of a government appointee who failed more spectacularly than Gary Sick, Carter’s NSC specialist on the Middle East, but he was obviously very much in the middle of the government’s response. Wisely, Stone never gives him an opportunity to peddle his discredited “October Surprise” conspiracy theories. That alone would make
Taken Hostage a cut above Hostages.

In addition, Stone’s commentators make it clear Carter tied his own hands by declaring he would not take any military action that would endanger the hostages. Of course, that also gave the government-backed hostage-takers little incentive to release them. Arguably,
Taken Hostage is even better than Hostages explaining how the ill-fated “Operation Eagle Claw” rescue mission went wrong and it is vastly superior to Barbara Kopple’s documentary, Desert One.

Despite its critique of American foreign policy, the talking heads in
Taken Hostage all agree average Iranians were the biggest losers when Khomeini’s Islamist regime took power. Since then, they have regularly taken to the streets to protest their oppressive government, most recently to protest the suspicious death of Masha Amini, while she was held in the custody of the notorious morality police.

What happened in 1979 was a crime and a tragedy, for just about everyone, except the extremists who capitalized on it. It is important to remember and formulate our foreign policy accordingly, because the regime has not changed—even though most Iranians dearly wish it would. To that end,
Taken Hostage provides a lot of needed history and context. Recommended over Hostages, Taken Hostage airs Monday and Tuesday (11/14 & 11/15) on PBS.