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Diplomatic Collaboration during the US-Iran Hostage Crisis

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Iranian students climb up the gate at the US embassy in Tehran.
Public Domain in Iran [CC BY-SA 4.0 (] This image has been cropped.

In his International Studies Quarterly article “The Diplomatic Presentation of the State in International Crises: Diplomatic Collaboration during the US-Iran Hostage Crisis,” SIS professor David Banks examines the behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to resolve the US-Iran hostage crisis of 1979. He reveals how performance can be used by diplomats when their respective countries seek to resolve a crisis.

We caught up with Professor Banks to ask him a few questions about this event, which marked a turbulent time for both Iran and the US, and his analysis of the diplomacy that took place unbeknownst to both nations’ citizens.

Read his full original article with access provided by American University Library.

Q: Your article posits an application of “diplomatic presentation” to the US-Iran hostage crisis of 1979. What is diplomatic presentation?

“Diplomatic presentation” occurs when states (more specifically, their representatives) are able to reach agreements that not only resolve the issue of conflict between their states but do so in a way that maintains the public dignity of their states. This maintenance of dignity is important, as failure to adequately do it might upset domestic audiences and thus threaten to derail a deal.

Q: In your case study, you describe a “scenario” that was the product of diplomats from the US and Iran working together in the early days of the crisis. Briefly, what were the components of this scenario, and what was the goal?

While it has gone down in folk memory as an intentional insult on the part of the revolutionary Iranian regime, the Iran hostage crisis took both the Iranian regime and the Carter administration in the US by surprise. In November 1979, radical students stormed the US embassy to protest the US’s admission of the deposed Iranian shah for cancer treatment. While the radicals inside the Iranian regime saw domestic political advantages in initially supporting the students (at the time, there was struggle between radicals and moderates over the writing of the new Iranian constitution) it quickly became obvious that by refusing to expel the students, the Iranian regime was exposing itself to serious international condemnation, sanctioning, and threats. However, by the time they reached out to the US (through back-channels) to resolve the crisis, the domestic publics in both the US and Iran had become fixated on the US embassy and the hostages within it.

This meant it would be very hard for either side to concede to the demands, threats, or bluster of the other side without suffering considerable domestic backlash. The “scenario”—which began being drafted in February 1980—was an attempt to find a way for the US and Iran to reduce the escalatory dynamics of the hostage crisis, and ultimately craft a solution that would be interpreted as a “win” by each state’s domestic publics. In secret, US and Iranian diplomats drew up a “script” for both sides in which they would occasionally score “wins” against the other side. As it progressed, the scenario (had it worked) would ultimately allow both sides to claim that they were winning, thus allowing them to magnanimously make the de-escalatory moves needed to resolve the crisis. Critically, what mattered here was not that both sides could not agree over the substance of the deal (i.e., releasing the hostages), but rather how this would be presented to and understood by observing domestic audiences.

Q: Something that strikes me about your article is the degree of stagecraft that is inherent in diplomatic presentation. You describe a level of coordination between the two parties, in this case, Iran and the US, that the general public would have, at the time, found unbelievable. One obvious question is: if this level of coordination between hostile states in the midst of a crisis is possible, why can’t the crisis simply be resolved by the same diplomats without the performative aspects?

Behind-the-scenes coordination between diplomats is not uncommon in international politics. Deals are frequently negotiated in secret for some time before being made public because if domestic audiences or interests get wind of it, they may start undermining the negotiation process. What makes a crisis like the Iran hostage crisis a little different is that each state’s domestic publics expected a “win” to come at the expense of the other state. To be able to de-escalate this crisis, both sides would need to be able to show their home populations that it was really the other side, not their own, that was making the meaningful concessions and that the home state’s honor and dignity were being preserved. In a situation like this, the temptation for one state to keep trying to score points at the other state’s expense was strong. However, doing so only led to mutual escalation. Thus, both sides needed to coordinate and figure out how and when each side could claim “wins” and how well these might be hidden or ignored by the other side’s domestic public. Performance was not secondary to the deal; it was the heart of it.

Q: In the article, you mention that the UN Commission, which was a big part of the scenario, would present a report with an English word that would be acceptable to US audiences and then translate it into a Farsi synonym that was weaker or vaguer. This sleight of hand was intended to allow “audiences” of the presentation to believe that their side had won.

The world has changed a lot since 1979. Today, it is difficult to imagine that such a translation tactic would survive social media scrutiny and the sheer numbers of people online capable of translating between Farsi and English for themselves. Have the dual forces of globalization and social media made diplomatic presentation more difficult to achieve?

I am not sure I agree that a sleight of hand is necessarily more difficult to achieve these days. Professional diplomacy has a hidden language to which many—including political journalists—are not especially sensitive. These diplomatic practices hide in plain sight but allow state representatives to communicate with one another in a way that other ministries of foreign affairs might understand while not necessarily drawing the attention of most domestic publics.

What is different today, I think, is what happens when domestic public attention is drawn to international events. Due to the increased visualization of international politics, ordinary people can easily see their state being “made flesh.” This means that the potential influence that domestic publics—should they notice some political event—might have on diplomatic deals being struck has considerably increased. The diverse forms of media that exist today also mean that it requires much more coordination within and between states to maintain a consistent “presentation” of a situation (e.g., ensure that the twitter account’s statements are aligned with the diplomats’ behavior in public, etc.) Thus, while modern media don’t necessarily change the logic of the “diplomatic presentation” of crises, I expect that states will have to rely on it more often than they did in the past and that it will be harder to pull off.

Q: Public perception of a crisis between nations typically focuses on the idea that the countries are adversaries engaged in a battle of wills from which only one can emerge the victor. Your article shows readers a picture of how diplomats behind the scenes are working toward a solution that allows both sides to declare some measure of victory. In general, what can an understanding of diplomatic presentation tell us about the adversarial nature of a crisis between nations?

I think what it points to is the different ways in which “adversity” is experienced by state representatives versus domestic publics. Crises typically break out over issues in which both sides have considerable interests. However, whereas state leaders might (in principle) be more interested in substantive outcomes (i.e., who gets what at the end of the deal), domestic publics’ relationships with their states are usually much more sacred. Domestic publics often are most concerned with preserving their state’s “honor” or “dignity,” in the most emotionally-charged definitions of these terms. Provided that state representatives can craft agreements that do not appear to “humiliate” one side or the other, then crises are more readily avoided or de-escalated. Sometimes this is easy. However, at other times, issues that appear to be “worthless” from the viewpoint of diplomats, can—due to the domestic publics’ relationships with them—become potentially explosive.