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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