Context — August 21, 2015, 1:41 pm

Costing Out Iran

Six cents for lost prestige

Published in the July 1980 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Costing Out Iran” discusses the billions of dollars spent on attempts to rescue 52 American citizens who were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for more than a year. The hostages were released on January 20, 1981. The full article is free to read at through August 24. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for access to our entire 165-year archive.


From an New York Times report, published August 20, 2015, on former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s announcement that he has brain cancer.

[Carter] also spoke of his disappointment in the botched effort, toward the end of his presidency, to rescue 52 Americans held hostage by Iranian revolutionaries in Tehran. The operation ended after three of eight helicopters failed; eight soldiers also died when one of the helicopters collided with a transport plane.
     “I wish I had sent one more helicopter to get the hostages, and we would’ve rescued them,” Mr. Carter said, “and I would’ve been re-elected.”

“The fact is that there is no such thing as ‘loss of prestige abroad,’” my friend said. “It’s a hoax. Indeed, the, United States is at its most popular when it is seen by others as a ‘pitiful giant.’ The sense of this is that the worst a pitiful giant can do is stumble, fall headlong, and crush a few things under its length, whereas a healthy go-get-‘em giant can crash around and really wreck things. The phrase as gobbledegook can only be matched by that other catchall about the ‘national patience wearing thin.’”

“You don’t think that the national patience wears thin?”

“Only in bars at midnight. That should have no effect on national leaders. It is their patience that wears thin.”

“What then,” I asked, “is the cause for indignation in the bars at midnight?”

“One of the problems is that we have a natural built-in sympathy for the hostages—innocent people held in there against their will. It’s immoral. The blood boils in indignation. But the fact is that the hostages enjoy certain advantages denied the rest of us and which we look forward to when we retire. Relaxation. Nothing much to do. A lot of reading. Our leaders don’t tell us this. But we learn from the German press that Leland Holland, who was the security chief at the embassy, is reading through the encyclopedia and for all we know has reached volume 12 (Hydrozoa- Jeremy).  William Royer is continuing his research in Islamic art. William Keough is rewriting the text of comic books in verse. Others are brushing up on their Persian, studying aspects of thirteenth-century thought, learning Zen, et cetera. The food is apparently good. On occasion, they get visited by Greek bishops. The only thing that disturbs the equanimity of their days is an occasional march-by—by people outside the embassy beating themselves with chains, and the awful thought that the U.S. government (as, we know now, represented by Delta Enterprises) wants to save them and that they may very well get killed in the process. My guess is that every evening the hostages pray that the Delta team in any future attempt will crash through the door of the wrong place, ending up breathing heavily and waving their Uzi submachine guns around in the shadows of the downstairs cloakroom of the deserted French embassy.”

Read the full article here.

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[caption id="attachment_270125" align="aligncenter" width="630"] Illustrations by Richard Mia[/caption]

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The few white boys in our town could ball. Breakaway layups, nothing-but-the-bottom-of-the-net free throws, buzzer-beater fadeaways. They slept with basketballs in their beds and told us about their dreams. We tried not to stare at the diamond studs in their ears as they talked about winning imaginary games in overtime or seeing blurry scoreboards. It don’t matter if I can see the score anyway, I finna play my hardest regardless, Brent Zalesky said once, squinting his eyes in the sunlight. Brent Zalesky lived in the Crest. He didn’t flinch at the sound of gunshots, he received detentions weekly, and he ganked tapes and CDs from Wherehouse with the clunky security devices still attached. Brent Zalesky knew how to get them off, armed only with pliers and a Bic lighter. This was 1996, and he never got caught. He took music requests and we’d find surprises in our lockers at school. We loved him for this. We loved his buzzed blond hair, his stainless-steel chain necklace, his jawline, his position. Brent Zalesky played point guard. All the boys on the team respected him. They called him Z.

When the boys got their basketball photos from Lifetouch, we collected them like baseball cards and kept them in hole-punched plastic sleeves in our day planners. Each year, Z’s wallet-size basketball pic slid into the front of our collections. Freshman year, he simply signed his name on the back: Peace, Brent. Junior year, he wrote more words on the one he gave Marorie Balancio: Sup Rorie, I think you’re hella fine. Peace, Brent.

Back then there were two movie theaters in town and he took her to the one that didn’t smell like Black & Milds and piss. Marorie said he drove up with a cigarette tucked behind his right ear, but he didn’t light it until after he dropped her off at home. She saw the small spark hanging outside his car window because he had waited until she unlocked the front door. Marorie couldn’t help but look back and wave before she walked inside. Earlier, during the movie, Brent Zalesky had fed her popcorn. She said it was like he knew exactly how much she needed and when she needed more in her mouth. We could only imagine what it felt like, to have his fingers so close to our open lips.

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

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