Never before in the 4 1/2 years since he entered the Oval Office had President Reagan faced a challenge so threatening to his stature as a strong and commanding Chief Executive.
With 39 Americans held hostage in the violent caldron of predominantly Muslim West Beirut, with a young Navy diver already savagely beaten and murdered, with the crisis dragging on past the two-week mark and the world's mightiest nation apparently dependent on the intercession of other governments, Reagan faced the kind of crisis that ground down his predecessor, Jimmy Carter.
Yet in the end, Reagan emerged with the remaining 39 hostages safely home, with no concessions made and with his Administration enjoying broad popular support as it resolved to bring the killers to justice and end Beirut airport's usefulness as a haven for terrorists.
How did Reagan bring the Beirut hostage crisis to an end in 16 days while the Carter Administration remained caught in the toils of the Iranian hostage crisis for 444 days and emerged mortally wounded?
Understandably, Reagan's aides see the Beirut outcome as a tribute to the firmness and restraint of their President. And Reagan unquestionably learned the lessons of Carter's fate: He resisted becoming trapped in the Oval Office. He laid out an emphatic policy of no concessions to terrorists and stuck to it.
At the same time, analysts both in the Reagan Administration and outside the government agreed this week that fundamental differences in the situations in Beirut and Tehran worked powerfully to help Reagan and make Carter's task almost insurmountable.
"We did have a couple of factors going for us that weren't present in Iran," a State Department official acknowledged.
--The intervention in the Beirut crisis of two influential figures, Syrian President Hafez Assad and Lebanese Shia Muslin leader Nabih Berri, both of whom had strong motives of their own for ending the hijacking quickly as well as substantial leverage on the original hijackers.
In revolutionary Iran under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, by contrast, government officials who wanted to deal with President Carter had little authority over the hostages, and those who controlled the American prisoners had powerful reasons not to expedite a deal.
--The Beirut hijackers' demand--release of the 766 Lebanese, mostly Shia, prisoners in Israel--was one the United States could cope with while still holding to its no-concessions policy.
While the Beirut hijackers sought the release of prisoners Israel had already planned to free, the Tehran radicals demanded a humiliating U.S. ransom and the return of the Shah of Iran, Washington's ailing longtime ally.
"The actors on the terrorists' side were very different" in the two incidents, said Shaul Bakhash, an Iranian scholar at the Smithsonian Institution who has studied the Shia fundamentalists.
"Assad did not want the crisis to drag out. In Iran, Khomeini, rightly or wrongly, wanted to keep the crisis going. It excited public opinion in Iran to a greater extent than the crisis in Beirut," he said.
Tehran Power Struggle
In the Iranian crisis, Mideast specialists pointed out, the extremists who held 52 American diplomatic personnel hostage in Tehran did so as a way to win power in the chaotic internal politics of Iran's revolution--and thus had an interest in holding the hostages as long as they could.
But in Beirut, Berri took control of the hostages specifically to arrange their release, and Syria also wanted to help free them--both to strengthen its protege Berri and to avoid strengthening the more extreme pro-Iranian Hezbollah faction that has challenged Berri.
It was a distinction the Reagan Administration quickly recognized.
"Nabih Berri's interests were political," a senior Administration official explained. "He saw an opportunity here to elevate his own standing within the Shia community. . . . It seemed to us that Syria might well have an interest in influencing the Lebanese players to bring it to an end, because Syria has an interest in calm (and) stability within Lebanon, so that it can more easily assert its prevailing interest in that country."
Help From Iran
Ironically, Iran also helped Reagan by sending messages to Hezbollah--which held four of the hostages--urging cooperation with the Syrians.
Although U.S. and Israeli officials have insisted that no deals were made and no negotiations conducted for the hostages' release, U.S. officials did confer with Syrian officials. And Israel has already begun what is expected to be a phased release of its Lebanese prisoners.
Warren M. Christopher, a Los Angeles attorney who was a key negotiator in the Iranian case while serving as deputy secretary of state, said this week that Reagan should be commended for showing "restraint and flexibility" in the Beirut crisis. But he says Reagan had an opportunity to end the matter early that was never available to Carter.
"President Reagan had a specific demand on the table from the beginning," Christopher said, "and in our situation we had no coherent set of demands until I met with an Iranian representative in Germany in September, 1980," which was 10 months after Khomeini's backers seized the embassy.
Not until then did the Iranian radicals submit a list of specific demands that led eventually to an agreement for the hostages' release.
Carter Administration officials who worked to free the hostages in Iran generally agree that Reagan handled the Beirut situation about as well as could be expected under the circumstances.
"President Reagan was faced with the same lousy options we were faced with, and we resolved ours honorably and in keeping with our interests in the area and he did the same thing," said Hamilton Jordan, who served as Carter's chief of staff and was intimately involved in the hostage negotiations.
Jordan, who negotiated with Iranian leaders Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, said: "We were dealing with people who had good intentions, but no power to solve the problem. It's easier to cut a deal with Assad than with Khomeini."