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As news of Iran’s release of American prisoners spread, Republicans were quick to deny President Barack Obama much credit for the deal.
Presidential candidate Marco Rubio said the United States should not have made any concessions to Iran. Part of the deal included Obama granting clemency to seven Iranians charged in U.S. courts with violating economic sanctions against Iran.
"Our enemies now know that if you can capture an American, you can get something meaningful in exchange for it," Rubio said on Meet the Press on Jan. 17, 2016.
Host Chuck Todd pressed Rubio on that position: "So under President Rubio, you would not have negotiated any sort of prisoner exchange for those four American hostages?"
Rubio replied: "When I become president of the United States, our adversaries around the world will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak like Barack Obama, and it will be like Ronald Reagan, where as soon as he took office the hostages were released from Iran."
We flagged Rubio’s comment as a misleading framing of history. Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 may have coincided with the release of the hostages, but historians say it did not cause it. Instead, the Iranians had tired of holding the hostages, and that the administration of Jimmy Carter did the legwork to get the hostages released.
We asked the Rubio campaign for response but did not hear back.
The hostage crisis of 1979
It’s a GOP talking point we’ve debunked before. In 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said, "I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called peace through strength ... There's a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn in." We rated his claim Pants on Fire.
In 1979, Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the Shah of Iran, who had been installed and supported by successive U.S. administrations. Militants took over the American embassy and held 52 American hostages from Nov. 4, 1979, until Jan. 20, 1981 -- the day Carter passed the reins to Reagan, who had defeated him amid widespread public disapproval of Carter’s handling of the crisis.
But negotiations for the hostages’ release started well before Election Day. In September 1980, the Iranians contacted the Carter administration with a proposal, according to Gary Sick, a Columbia University professor and the author of October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan.
The agreement that led to the release involved $11 billion to $12 billion in Iranian assets that Carter had frozen 10 days after the seizure of the U.S. embassy. Sick told us that the Iranians feared having to start negotiations over with a new administration and believed that they had extracted most of the benefits from holding the hostages.
Carter informed Reagan at 8:31 a.m. that the release of the hostages was imminent, according to a contemporary report in the New York Times. "The hostages, whose 14 months of captivity had been a central focus of the presidential contest last year, took off from Tehran in two Boeing 727 airplanes at 12:25 p.m., Eastern standard time, the very moment that Mr. Reagan was concluding his solemn Inaugural Address at the United States Capitol," its report says. Reagan announced the news at 2:15 p.m. at a luncheon with congressional leaders in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. So Reagan, not Carter, got to bask in the glow of the hostages’ safe return.
Despite the showy announcement, scholars of the period say that Reagan did not play any significant role in freeing the hostages.
"Well before Reagan became president, the deal for releasing the hostages had already been worked out by the Carter administration's State Department and the Iranians, ably assisted by Algerian diplomats," said David Farber, author of Taken Hostage: The Iranian Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam.
No Reagan administration officials participated in the negotiations, Farber said, and the Iranians waited to officially release the Americans as a final insult to Carter, whom they despised.
"They believed Carter had betrayed the Iranian revolution by allowing the self-exiled Shah to receive medical attention in the United States and then had threatened their new government by attempting, unsuccessfully, to use military force in April 1980 to free the hostages," Farber said.
Dave Houghton, a political scientist and author of U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis, told PolitiFact that Iran had a relatively unsophisticated grasp of U.S. politics, and that it was possible that the Iranians "didn’t even know what Reagan had said on the campaign trail."
"I don't think they were scared into the release," Houghton said. "In all likelihood, they released the hostages because they needed the sanctions we'd placed on them lifted so they could finance their war with Iraq."
Rubio’s comments are a misreading of history, said Michael Gunter, professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University, who has authored several papers on the 1981 hostage release.
"It is clear that Sen. Marco Rubio is falling back on an exaggerated urban legend that the only way to deal with Iran is through implied threats of military retaliation, as President Reagan supposedly did," he said. "Actually, successful U.S. diplomacy then and now played the most significant role."
Rubio said that Iranian hostages were released in 1981 as Reagan took office because Iran perceived that America was "no longer under the command of someone weak." In reality, Reagan’s foreign policy approach wasn’t a factor in the hostages’ release, as scholars told us. The Carter administration negotiated the deal months before Reagan’s inauguration, without involvement by Reagan or his transition team. Rubio’s claim is an imaginative re-reading of history. We rate the statement Pants On Fire.
Meet the Press, interview with Marco Rubio, Jan. 17, 2016
New York Times, "An Assertive America," Jan. 28, 1981 (accessed via Nexis)
New York Times, "Should Reagan Honor Deal with Iran?" Jan 31, 1981 (accessed via Nexis)
New York Times, "Kindly Reflections on the Carter Era," Nov. 19, 1990
Email interview with Michael Gunter, political scientist at Tennessee Tech University, Jan. 17, 2016
Email interview with David Farber, Temple University historian and author of Taken Hostage: The Iranian Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam, Jan. 17, 2016
Email interview with Gary Sick, adjunct professor of international and public affairs at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and author of All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter With Iran and October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan, Jan. 17, 2016
Email interview with Stephen Kinzer, Boston University professor and author of the book, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, Jan. 17, 2016
Email interview with Dave Houghton, political scientist at the University of Central Florida and author of U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis, Mar. 6, 2012
Email interview with Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mar. 6, 2012
Email interview with John Limbert, historian and political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of Iran: At War with History, Mar. 6, 2012
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