Hostage-taking, as I know from my experience in the government of Iran when American diplomats were taken hostage in 1979, is an irreversible act. It reflects a state of relations between two powers in conflict from which there is no going back.
Hostage-taking is based on a solid logic with clear objectives in mind. At the same time, paradoxically, it reveals common interests held by the parties in conflict.
In Iran, the act contradicted the original aim of the revolution. Before the hostages were taken, our revolutionary efforts were directed at replacing all foreign influences with Iranian elements. The taking of hostages contradicted this effort because it locked our fate into that of the West. Although militant and “anti-imperialist” in tone and form, taking Americans actually confirmed Iranian preoccupation with U.S. power as the core of world relations.
Why, then, were the hostages seized? Because Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wanted to establish a religious dictatorship in Iran and in the process neutralize the intellectuals, the majority of religious figures, the urban middle class and the workers. With the taking of American hostages, Khomeini found he could conveniently enlist the “Great Satan” as hisco-conspirator against the forces of democracy and moderation at home.
The hostage-taking also served American foreign-policy interests because, ironically, it helped re-establish the influence of the West in Iranian affairs and dashed the independent character of our revolution. It also served particular interests in the United States. The protracted “humiliation” of America by the mullahs helped the Republicans capture the White House from Jimmy Carter. In this, I am convinced, Republican Party elements and the ayatollahs consciously conspired.
Saddam Hussein has taken hostages for different reasons. With his power already well-established at home, he wants to impose Iraqi hegemony over the region, for reasons of pan-Arab ideology and the practical necessity of solving his financial difficulties. Hussein probably did not at first figure hostage-taking into his aggressive scenario for Kuwait. However, the surprising resolve of America’s reaction forced him to take hostages as bargaining chips for his survival.
Yet, here again, an objective convergence of interests is revealed between Saddam Hussein and the United States.
Hussein’s gamble is that the hostages will enable a diplomatic settlement that will leave him with his Kuwaiti spoils and an appeal in the Arab world for standing up against the West. The longer the hostage situation produces a standoff, the stronger his anti-West appeal becomes, especially as the Islamic world gets closer to the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca next May and June.
In short, the hostage crisis in Iraq may end up providing Hussein with a legitimate appeal to mask his hegemonic ambitions.
For the United States, the hostages have generated an emotional investment in defending the Saudi monarchy and retrieving the power of Kuwaiti emirs that Hussein’s invasion alone could not have elicited. This helps ensure popular backing for the reassertion of American power in the world and reinforces the U.S. military-industrial complex that was on the wane in the aftermath of the Cold War.