Thatcher on Iran: Wobbly as Hell

 

It gives me no joy to report this, but documents recently released by the Carter Library, as well as from Thatcher’s personal files, suggest that compared to Thatcher, Carter was a veritable rock of fortitude and resolution during the 1979 hostage crisis. This doesn’t really come as a surprise to me; I’d known this from other sources, but it’s interesting to see it spelled out.

In this letter to Carter, dated November 21, 1979–this was when it seemed the hostages would face show trials for espionage–Thatcher admires Carter’s “restraint,” and “measured response.” She then dismisses his request that Britain make even the most minimal show of displeasure:

I have been considering your suggestion that we should make a public gesture of our disapproval of Iranian behaviour by reducing the size of our diplomatic staff in Tehran. We have been keeping the level of our staffing at the Embassy under constant review with the aim of ensuring that it is no more than sufficient for operational needs. There will be some thinning out over the next few weeks. But we have not hitherto believed it wise to make a political point of any reduction, partly because we doubt whether the Iranians would be much impressed and partly because of the risk of retaliatory action against those remaining.

Nor was she willing to go as far as the Carter Administration wanted in freezing Iranian assets in London. In fact, if you take the collection as a whole, you’ll see that she was chiefly concerned that Carter not do anything that might “jeopardize British interests” in the region. That was when she was thinking about Iran at all, which she generally was not. Iran was barely a blip on her mental horizon compared, say, to Rhodesia.

I wrote about this in There is No Alternative. I hardly need say how much I admire Thatcher, but there is no doubt in my mind that she failed to grasp the significance of the Iranian Revolution, and she simply did not recognize the threat political Islam could pose to the Western world. (Churchill, by contrast, grasped it quite well.)

Some extracts from my interviews with her intimates:

CB: There’s not a single mention in your book, and not a single mention in any memoir from the time, of anyone being concerned by the growing threat of Islamic extremism—

Bernard Ingham: No.

CB: Were there no indications at the time that this was an issue that would preoccupy Britain so greatly in the next decades?

BI: Well, I suppose our objective was to keep them on our side because of the oil . . . and I suppose that perhaps in trying to keep them on our side because of the oil we did exacerbate the problem. Because we did play up to some pretty reprehensible regimes. . . . Where were the indications coming from, apart from OPEC, which was really a business response, a monopolist response, where were the indications coming from of Islamic extremism at the time?

CB: Well, the Iranian revolution, for one thing. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt. The rise of the Taliban, which of course we contributed to—

BI: Yes, but we’d put up—let me plead our history, we’d put up with so many sects in our time! HAH! HAH! I mean, we put up with India! HAH! I mean, what was another sect?! HAH! HAH! . . . But you’re quite right . . . who the hell had ever heard of Islamic extremism in 1979? I didn’t. I’d heard of oil.

“Who the hell had ever heard of Islamic extremism in 1979?”

CB: During the time that you were working with Margaret Thatcher, do you remember anyone asking the question, “Are we nurturing a problem with Islamic fundamentalism, here and abroad?”

John Hoskyns: It wasn’t in the air. It wasn’t in the air at all.

Just not in the air.

CB: When you were working with Mrs. Thatcher, was there any anticipation of the conflict with radical Islam?

Peter Walker: No, not really, no.

CB: It was really not anticipated—

PW: I never heard a murmur.

This was pretty much the universal response I received. Americans old enough to remember that time still remember it vividly–the yellow ribbons, “Day 232, Day 234,” the humiliation. The event barely registered in Britain.

When you see this, you do wonder: What are we overlooking now? What events are taking place on page 16 of our papers–and the metaphorical page 16 of our consciousness–that really should be on the front page, bold type, top of the fold?

There are 27 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheMugwump

    The problem with ignorance is that you don’t know what you don’t know.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I’d say the issue we ought to be paying more attention to is Mexico’s descent into the grip of drug traffickers, and the same trend elsewhere in our hemisphere.

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    @RobertDammers

    Claire – you undoubtedly have done research in this area I can’t imagine, but I would have thought that there were at least two factors going on here. Firstly, BP’s (which was still substantially in public ownership at that time) origins as the “Anglo-Persian Oil Company” – there would be considerable reluctance to make waves. Secondly, while Mrs T came to develop a very healthy distrust of the Foreign Office and all its works, I do not know that she had yet declared independence from her officials in that area at this early stage in her premiership (by the time of the Falklands conflict she had .become convinced of the irredeemable sogginess of the FO), and so may have slightly been in thrall to the FO’s messy and misplaced pan-Arabism.

    • #3
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    @JimChase

    Claire, doesn’t this feed into the arguments I’ve believe you’ve made on a podcast or two about the dearth of international news coverage? Obviously, events are happening, and correspondents write about them, but editorially they get pushed to the back or get left out of the copy. We have the international press, and we have intelligence agencies that we rely on to observe and prognosticate on those trends which should concern us. Modern political leaders, like so many of us, are often reduced to tardy and reactionary measures simply because they are oversaturated with domestic diddly. Our leaders outsource the task of comprehending trends and events, not to mention the analysis, evaluation and decision-making. That is, until the problem explodes onto the scene, and they have to deal with it. Even then, there is no guarantee of appropriate response. It is the rare leader who is prescient, and some arrive to it late. If Mrs. Thatcher was late, well, it is far better than remaining in ignorance.

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    @CasBalicki

    All this proves is that in international diplomacy every country has a different set of interests. I’m sure that the Carter Library has its own set of interests, too. Perhaps the Library wants to counter the impression of incompetence left behind by the Carter administration. The reality is that Carter projected the paper tiger image that the Arab world took to heart. It was that image that ruled the day when America was finally attacked and still rules the day in Iran today. Flat out Carter was not presidential material, and should never have occupied the office. I’ll bet that Carter isn’t even a good poker player, because had he been he would have sailed a carrier group or three into the Persian Gulf and invited the Iranians to play pick-a-city. It must have been the sweaters he wore arount the White House that made him so comfortable with the fleecing the Iranians laid on the US.

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    @MelFoil

    Everything about radical Islam looks much clearer in hindsight. It turned out to be more than just a blip in history. Now, it looks permanent, It didn’t seem that permanent in 1979. And, Thatcher was a new Prime Minister with a mountain of domestic problems on her plate. I can understand that she wasn’t anxious to take on new fights just then. She was willing to let Carter have that one on his own. If it had happened after the Falklands, she might’ve had a different response, more confidence. Who knows?

    • #6
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    @DuaneOyen

    Everyone has a blind spot. Isn’t Claire as wobbly as Gehenna on Afghanistan? But as I look back in recent (last 50 years) history, I don’t see a single one of the anti_Communist warriors who even recognized jihadists on their respective radars, despite large numbers of provocations. And that continued with WFB’s reversion to Taft-style isolationism vis-a-vis Iraq. In the “modern paleocon” world (Buckley, Will, etc.), wackos who use Islam as their excuse for world war are not an issue worth looking at.

    Conor Friedersdorf: I’d say the issue we ought to be paying more attention to is Mexico’s descent into the grip of drug traffickers, and the same trend elsewhere in our hemisphere. · Jul 26 at 5:36am

    OK, good point, Conor. Exactly what should we do about this ugly, but non-existential threat of continued Mexican ungovernability, Nicaragua, Evo, Chavez, and the post-Bush slide in relations with Lula? Obviously, not what Obama is doing, that is- killing all the Western Hemisphere free trade agreements (Colombia, CAFTA, etc.) under orders from SEIU. But druggies, yeah, though I still don’t see them sending suicide bombers into US malls.

    • #7
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    @Claire
    Duane Oyen: Everyone has a blind spot. Isn’t Claire as wobbly as Gehenna on Afghanistan?

    I think you’re confusing me with someone else — which I kind of deserve, given that I got you mixed up with someone else.

    • #8
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    @Claire
    Robert Dammers: Claire – you undoubtedly have done research in this area I can’t imagine, but I would have thought that there were at least two factors going on here. Firstly, BP’s (which was still substantially in public ownership at that time) origins as the “Anglo-Persian Oil Company” – there would be considerable reluctance to make waves. Secondly, while Mrs T came to develop a very healthy distrust of the Foreign Office and all its works, I do not know that she had yet declared independence from her officials in that area at this early stage in her premiership (by the time of the Falklands conflict she had .become convinced of the irredeemable sogginess of the FO), and so may have slightly been in thrall to the FO’s messy and misplaced pan-Arabism. · Jul 26 at 6:23am

    Yes, you’re right on both counts. Don’t get me wrong; I am hardly accusing Margaret Hilda Thatcher of general wobbliness. She wasn’t a Carter. I’m just noting that even she was not given the gift of perfect prescience.

    • #9
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    @Claire
    Jim Chase: Claire, doesn’t this feed into the arguments I’ve believe you’ve made on a podcast or two about the dearth of international news coverage?

    Yes, it does, though I hadn’t thought of it that way. But I suppose mostly the lesson to be learned, if it can be learned, is that it behooves us to remember that human beings are prone to tunnel vision. We tend to focus on what appear to be the most urgent crises of the moment without asking whether the peripheral events might warrant closer scrutiny. Whether anything can realistically be done about this flaw in human judgment, I don’t know.

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    @Claire

    My vote for “most neglected emerging threat” is North Korea. It’s not neglected, precisely; people are well aware that it’s a problem, but if we weren’t dealing with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the general threat of Islamism, we’d be going berserk about North Korea–and rightly so.

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    @JonathanMatthewGilbert

    I also think North Korea is where we should be paying more attention, though Pakistan also seems disturbingly unstable and there’s very little press coverage of that (here, at least). As for what this says about Mrs. Thatcher, while she definitely didn’t see the full scope of the threat radical Islam posed (and in the late 1970’s…who did? Carter helped instigate the crisis by failing to understand the mentality of the people he was dealing with, after all…), I think this definitely highlights that despite her public persona and reputation, behind the scenes she often relied on negotiations and diplomacy. The same happened with the IRA hunger strikers, she didn’t publicly acknoweldge the actual back and forth happening but in the end she was prepared to give them nearly everything they wanted to resolve the situation; it was the intractability of the IRA that led to their deaths, not her unwillingness to reach a compromise. And I don’t see any of that as detracting from her leadership but rather enhancing it. Sometimes compromise is essential…but it doesn’t do to announce one’s intention to compromise publicly from the onset.

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    @DuaneOyen
    Claire Berlinski

    Duane Oyen: Everyone has a blind spot. Isn’t Claire as wobbly as Gehenna on Afghanistan?

    I think you’re confusing me with someone else — which I kind of deserve, given that I got you mixed up with someone else. · Jul 26 at 9:01am

    I probably misconstrued your support for Ann Coulter here: http://ricochet.com/conversations/The-Case-of-the-Missing-Ann ……. as support for her position in that particular column. Mea culpa and all that.

    Be more clear next time so I can’t possibly embarrass myself. (learning the lesson from the Sherrod affair)

    • #13
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    @TomJedrz
    Conor Friedersdorf: I’d say the issue we ought to be paying more attention to is Mexico’s descent into the grip of drug traffickers, and the same trend elsewhere in our hemisphere. · Jul 26 at 5:36am

    Agreed, although this goes away as a threat if we decriminalize recreational drug use.

    • #14
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    @DuaneOyen
    tomjedrz

    Conor Friedersdorf: I’d say the issue we ought to be paying more attention to is Mexico’s descent into the grip of drug traffickers, and the same trend elsewhere in our hemisphere. · Jul 26 at 5:36am

    Agreed, although this goes away as a threat if we decriminalize recreational drug use. · Jul 26 at 10:31am

    If you seriously believe that, Tom, I have a beautiful ocean-front condo in Mexico City that I’ll sell you really cheap. And that statement doesn’t go the legal proposal, it goes to the cause and effect relationship between US possession laws and the mules on the border.

    • #15
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    @TomJedrz
    Duane Oyen

    tomjedrz

    Conor Friedersdorf: I’d say the issue we ought to be paying more attention to is Mexico’s descent into the grip of drug traffickers, and the same trend elsewhere in our hemisphere. · Jul 26 at 5:36am

    Agreed, although this goes away as a threat if we decriminalize recreational drug use. · Jul 26 at 10:31am
    If you seriously believe that, Tom, I have a beautiful ocean-front condo in Mexico City that I’ll sell you really cheap. And that statement doesn’t go the legal proposal, it goes to the cause and effect relationship between US possession laws and the mules on the border. · Jul 26 at 10:52am

    I am not saying that I support decriminalization, although I am leaning that way.

    But it seems clear to me that if we decriminalize in the USA, we put the cartels out of business, or at the very least cut their profits dramatically. They won’t have the funding or the need to co-opt the Mexican or other Latin governments.

    Further, I don’t see a drug cartel successfully competing with Philip Morris, Merck or Pfizer.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I think this is wobbly as well.

    I would make a few points:

    Britain has always — and as a Frenchman we probably know it better than anyone — pursued a ruthlessly rational policy of furthering its interests by dividing and conquering. The British diplomat you interviewed is right to point out that in India, the British inflamed all manners of radical sects, including radical Muslims and many, many others of all stripes.

    In 1979, it made complete sense for Britain to preserve its oil interests and interests in a crucial reason over moral qualms over the taking of hostages and the Revolution’s ideology.

    What’s, more I would add that the reason why in 1979 Islamic fundamentalism wasn’t on anyone’s radar was because… it wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It doesn’t mean that Margaret Thatcher was wobbly on anything, it just means that it was 1979. Yes the Muslim Brotherhood was (slowly) rising but so were countless other ideologies. Yes the Iran Revolution happened but it was in one country, you had plenty of tinpot dictators with weird ideologies everywhere.

    • #17
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    @

    This is much like saying that Britain is soft on Communism because they didn’t assassinate Lenin in 1905. Yes theoretically someone could have foreseen the rise of the Soviets and done something about it but it’s an impossible standard to hold, based wholly on the teachings of hindsight.

    • #18
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    @
    And finally, if I may be a tad cliché, something must be said about the self-centeredness that Americans sometimes display. Why did Americans care so much more than Brits about the Iran hostage crisis? Because the hostages were Americans! A French hostage was recently executed by Al Qaeda, I don’t see the US morning shows going on about it like they do here. I didn’t see giant effigies of Ingrid Bétancourt or Gilad Shalit on Times Square — which is as it should be! Because these people are not Americans! So Americans are going to care less, if at all! This is how the world works. What can be sometimes so infuriating to outsiders is not necessarily that (some) Americans expect everyone else to view the world only through their eyes, it’s that they assume that they must already do and then seem sincerely shocked and befuddled when they discover that, somehow, it’s not the case..
    • #19
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    @Claire
    Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry:

    In 1979, it made complete sense for Britain to preserve its oil interests and interests in a crucial reason over moral qualms over the taking of hostages and the Revolution’s ideology.

    Two senses of “It made perfect sense” here. The first is the “to understand all is to forgive all” sense–was it a reasonable perspective at the time? Sure. The second is the “bad decision, given how it turned out” sense.

    • #20
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    @Claire
    Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: This is much like saying that Britain is soft on Communism because they didn’t assassinate Lenin in 1905. Yes theoretically someone could have foreseen the rise of the Soviets and done something about it but it’s an impossible standard to hold, based wholly on the teachings of hindsight. · Jul 27 at 2:01am

    Some saw Communism for what it was way before others, though; and some saw political Islam for what it was way before others. Certainly it was possible to read the tea leaves and to understand the real meaning of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. There was more than enough evidence, if you cared to look at it. I am not condemning Thatcher tout court for having failed to do so; I’m one of the woman’s greatest admirers. I just note that she didn’t see this coming. There’s a lesson in this for us, namely that it’s important to be aware of our tendency to overlook the news on page 16.

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    @Claire
    Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry: And finally, if I may be a tad cliché, something must be said about the self-centeredness that Americans sometimes display. Why did Americans care so much more than Brits about the Iran hostage crisis? Because the hostages were Americans!

    Fair enough, I don’t disagree, but note the hazard this view poses. It was seen as an American problem then, but it’s sure not just an American problem now. In fact, I’d say, it’s more of a British problem–and a French one–than an American one at this point, given the range of the missiles Iran possesses.

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    @JimmyCarter

    “… recreational drug use [?]”

    I don’t understand the use of the adjective. Is there a professional drug use program that would be outlawed as opposed to just “recreational?”

    Also, I think a growing problem would be the islamification of Canada. That’s a mighty big border up there.

    • #23
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    @

    Claire: fair points across the board.

    I guess it is useful simply to remark that Margaret Thatcher “missed” something (although even that may be too strong for my taste), although it’s also very easy to overstate the case.

    • #24
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    @DuaneOyen

    Reagan missed the same thing as well- he pulled the troops out of Lebanon exactly how and why Clinton fled Mogadishu. In fact, prior to 2001, virtually every stalwart anti-Communist conservative intellectual missed it completely. And some, such as George Will and WFB, share/shared the same basic view, but from a libertarian perspective, as Kerry about terrorism as a law enforcement problem.

    I prefer Norman Podhoretz’s WWIV characterization. The one problem is that the roots of the issue trace back a thousand years, and it has risen again and again, sometimes bubbling under the radar. But the solution is not to pretend that it is not an issue.

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    @DuaneOyen

    Tom, so you seriously believe that gangsters won’t find another product to use as a revenue stream, that the only reason that they operate as they do on the Southern border is because we outlaw pot?

    Sorry. I don’t buy it. Sometimes you just have to go nail the bad guys because they are bad and will always find ways to be bad.

    • #26
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    @Claire

    Do I need to start another drug-decriminalization thread? I will if I have to.

    • #27
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