If guards protecting the American embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 fired a few shots in the air, scaring off the protesters, might Jimmy Carter's presidency have been saved?
Probably the biggest what-if of the 1980 election cycle remains, "What if Iranians hadn't taken Americans hostage, or what if the hostages were freed before the election? Might Carter have won?"
Indeed, the initial plan of the Iranian students who stormed the US embassy on November 4, 1979 was to occupy it for only a short time. But chaos and anarchy ensued until Iran's leaders perceived they had an interest in detaining the Americans for at least a short while. A close study of the hostage crisis reveals dozens of "what if's" -- from "what if guards protecting the embassy had used deadly force to protect it initially instead of letting the students storm in?" to numerous times when negotiations to free the hostages broke down for relatively frivolous reasons.
The stalemate over the hostages, fanned into crisis by daily hype on American television, cast a pall over the last 14 months of Jimmy Carter's presidency, making him look weak and ineffectual. By holding his fire on the Iranians, Carter ultimately saved the lives of all of the American hostages. But his presidency may have been a casualty of his forbearance.
Initially, the crisis worked in his favor. The Iranian embassy was stormed the day Ted Kennedy announced his challenge to Carter, essentially crowding Kennedy's statement out of the top news. At the time, polls showed Kennedy far more popular than Carter for the nomination. When the hostages were seized, Carter was able to credibly announce a "Rose Garden Strategy" to avoid engaging or debating Kennedy, claiming he was too busy working for the hostages' release to engage in partisan politics. Carter's strategy worked. He overwhelmingly won the Iowa Caucuses and even New Hampshire and Illinois, pretending there was no need to ever debate Kennedy. Carter advisors later admitted this was a strategic error, prolonging the frustration and bitterness of the Kennedy forces so they withheld strong support for Carter once he was nominated.
Without the hostage crisis, Carter would have no excuse but to engage and debate Kennedy. This would have either led to resolution of the conflict -- Kennedy forces would acknowledge they lost the nomination fair and square -- or so many gaffes and misstep by Carter that Kennedy would have won the nomination.
Public opinion began to sour on Carter's handling of the crisis when an ill-conceived hostage rescue mission failed; helicopters crashed in the Iranian desert, flying too low to detect Iranian radar and encountering a sandstorm. Thirty-one years later, greatly improved technology and advanced training made Barack Obama's similarly improbable mission into foreign airspace -- to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan -- successful.
Carter later gave credence to the view of his National Security Advisor, Gary Sick, that "individuals associated with the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages." Sick charged in his 1992 book, October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan, that the Reagan campaign had engaged in political corruption if not treason. Sick's allegations are still being debated to this day, and the truth will probably never be known.