- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

It was Nov. 4, 1980. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. For Col. Charles W. Scott, the day marked a full year in captivity at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Col. Scott recalls the reaction of his captors to Mr. Reagan's victory: "I remember specifically when one of the guards came in and said, 'Reagan is now the new president. What do you think will happen when he comes into office?' I didn't say a word, I just went 'boom.' And they said, 'Really?' And I said 'Yeah, the first day he's in office after the Inaugural ceremony, he'll go back to the White House and say, 'OK, tell the Iranians if they don't let those hostages go by midnight tomorrow night, its war.' "
A few weeks later, literally as Mr. Reagan was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1981, the 52 hostages were released. That was a little more than 20 years ago.
President Jimmy Carter deserves to be commended for his agonizing efforts on behalf of the hostages. His hard work helped gain their release.
Twenty years later, however, it is more clear than ever that Mr. Reagan was a crucial factor as well. Or, better put, the threat of Mr. Reagan was a factor.
Ironically, those who still resist that view are some of the same who helped make Mr. Reagan's threat so formidable to the Iranian captors. Mr. Reagan's opponents branded him a trigger-happy cowboy itching to shoot something.
Foreign policy under an unsophisticated President Reagan, they assured, was a terrifying prospect. President Carter and his team dubbed Mr. Reagan a warmonger. Though Mr. Reagan insisted he wanted a military build up simply to prod the Soviets to the negotiating table, critics recklessly argued he was seeking a vast arsenal for the purpose of being able to actually fight and win a nuclear war.
While this achieved its intent of frightening many voters, it also had the effect of scaring the daylights out of enemies abroad. One such group of enemies held hostages in Tehran. When Mr. Reagan won election that November day, the first question that crossed many of their minds was: Does this mean we'll be bombed back to the Stone Age?
That perception of Mr. Reagan mattered, as did his words.
One of the great myths about Mr. Reagan is that he shot from the lip, thoughtlessly firing bellicose statements about the Soviets or whoever. To the contrary, his words were always carefully chosen with a deliberate intent.
A perfect example was his rhetoric toward Iran during the period.
Richard V. Allen, Mr. Reagan's foreign policy adviser during the campaign and his first national security adviser, notes that Mr. Reagan "sought to be very careful not to inflame," or undercut the Carter administration, refraining "from doing or saying anything that would jeopardize whatever the administration was doing to secure the release of the hostages." But, said Mr. Allen, "We never discouraged any journalist from thinking that, better yet, writing or saying, in effect, 'The Iranians had better watch out, make their deal with Carter now, because once Reagan is in office, things will be radically different.' "
In March 1980, Mr. Reagan said the United States should issue a deadline for the hostages' release and take an unspecified "unpleasant action" against Iran if the deadline weren't met.
Once he won the election, he escalated his rhetoric. "In the weeks leading up to the Inauguration," he recalled later, "I had gone out of my way to say some nasty things in public about the Ayatollah Khomeini, hoping it would encourage him to expedite the negotiations before we arrived in Washington."
In December 1980, he warned: "There should be no delay in freeing the hostages."
The outgoing Carter administration enhanced the Reagan threat. It believed the Reagan administration would in fact be tougher and sent that message with a high-level team engaged in negotiations with Iran. The team was ordered to communicate that "it will be a whole new ball game after Jan. 20."
In effect, the Carter people rattled Mr. Reagan's saber.
In early December, the governor of the Iranian Central Bank floated the notion that Mr. Reagan, because he had a unique "Nixon-can-go-to-China" credibility, might actually be conciliatory to the Iranians once in power.
Mr. Reagan quickly dismissed the notion as "pretty foolish."
In late December, Iran demanded $24 billion for the hostages. Mr. Reagan was steamed: "I don't think you pay ransom for people that have been kidnapped by barbarians."
The hostages were released three weeks later.
"There was never any doubt in my mind that the release, coming at the precise timing of the Inauguration itself, was both a slap at Carter and fear of what would come next," judged Richard Allen.
Mr. Allen is hardly alone. Among scholars, Steven W. Hook of Kent State University and John Spanier of the University of Florida write: "The Iranians expected harsher measures from Reagan, including military action."
In these circumstances, they maintain, the "diplomacy" to release the hostages "finally proved successful."
Though too humble to publicly take credit, Mr. Reagan sensed his tough talk made a difference.
This is not to take away from Mr. Carter's earnest work and success in the hostages' release. But history, now more than 20 years after, must acknowledge Mr. Reagan's impact as well.

Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science at Grove City College. He is the author of "God, Reagan, and the Soviet Empire," forthcoming in 2002. Jacob Smith is a research assistant at Grove City College.

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