The Cable

Iran Still Weighing on Carter as He Grapples With Brain Cancer

The former president says he would have been reelected if a botched 1980 hostage rescue mission had succeeded and took a gentle swipe at the Obama administration.

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 20:  Former President Jimmy Carter talks about a mask created for his cancer treatments during a press conference at the Carter Center on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. Carter confirmed that he has melanoma that has spread to his liver and brain and will start treatment today.  (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 20: Former President Jimmy Carter talks about a mask created for his cancer treatments during a press conference at the Carter Center on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. Carter confirmed that he has melanoma that has spread to his liver and brain and will start treatment today. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Far from Washington’s political turmoil over a nuclear deal with Iran, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has spent this summer in his beloved hometown of Plains, Georgia, grappling with a cancer diagnosis that has spread from his liver to his brain. But Iran is still very much on his mind, and the botched rescue of American hostages from Tehran remains one of the biggest regrets of his one-term presidency.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Carter did not discuss the July agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, nor was he asked for his thoughts on it by the 17 journalists who covered his first press conference since his diagnosis was announced this month. He mostly discussed his life’s work — what he described as a “fairly adventurous life” — as a governor, president, and philanthropist.

The Iran hostage crisis was a defining moment of Carter’s presidency, and one of the factors that doomed his 1980 Democratic reelection bid. It was under Carter’s watch that Iran’s revolutionaries stormed the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, incensed by U.S. support of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was seen by his people as increasingly corrupt and oppressive. The hostages were still imprisoned when Carter lost reelection in 1980 and freed only hours after GOP President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981.

Asked Thursday if he would have done anything differently in his career, Carter harkened back to Iran.

“I wish I’d sent one more helicopter to get the hostages and we would have rescued them, and I would have been reelected,” said Carter, who appeared energetic and in good spirits during the 35-minute press conference. He was referring to “Operation Eagle Claw,” the daring — but ultimately disastrous — April 1980 attempt to send six helicopters full of Delta Force operators into Iran to free the hostages. Mechanical problems grounded one of the helicopters, and Carter aborted the mission. One of the remaining five helicopters crashed into a fuel plane as the U.S. stealth fleet headed out of Iran, killing eight U.S. troops. Americans saw Eagle Claw as a humiliating failure and blamed Carter; Iranians celebrated the failed mission, which they have depicted in books and movies like 1997’s Sandstorm.

The fallout from the embassy takeover and botched rescue attempt led to a 33-year freeze in diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, each of whom harbors deep suspicions about the other’s actions and motivations. That didn’t begin to change until 2013, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected in part by promising to ease the crippling international sanctions imposed to punish the Islamic Republic’s burgeoning nuclear program. Still, suspicions remain: Congressional Republicans and the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States are mounting an all-out push to overturn the nuclear deal that was brokered in July between Iran, Washington, and five other world powers. President Barack Obama is working hard to preserve the pact, which he sees as potentially his biggest foreign-policy success.  

In his answer about regrets, Carter said it may have been a good thing he was not reelected, as that could have delayed or even scrapped the creation of his public policy and philanthropy program, the Carter Center. “And if I had to choose between four more years and the Carter Center, I think I would choose the Carter Center,” he said.

From his perch there, Carter has had the opportunity to redeem his foreign-policy creds and tackle some of the world’s more pressing, if often overlooked problems, such as the deadly Guinea worm disease. “I’d like for the last Guinea worm to die before I do,” he quipped.

He said prospects for a lasting peace agreement between Israel and Palestinian authorities are “more dismal than any time I remember in the last 50 years,” and the United States “has practically no influence” with either party. The process “is practically dormant,” said Carter, laying the bulk of blame on Israel for refusing to recognize Palestinian statehood.

That also could have been taken as a gentle — if pointed — swipe at the Obama administration. The Israel-Palestine peace process was a major foreign-policy priority for Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who last year gave up on a fruitless and often frustrating push for an agreement.  

That may have led to what Carter hinted was a cooler relationship with some of the top U.S. Democrats, compared to his post-presidential friendships with Republicans. He said former Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush and their wives have called more than once since Carter announced his cancer diagnosis, and “I appreciated that very much.”

Obama also called to wish him well, as did former President Bill Clinton and current Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, Carter said. So, too, did “the secretary of state,” although Carter did not mention Kerry by name. It was, he said with a disarming smile, “the first time they’ve called me in long time.”

Photo credit: Jessica McGowan/Getty/Stringer

Lara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband. @larajakesFP

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