One of the most dramatic developments of the Iranian Revolution, the one that still shapes Iranian-American relations today, is the ordeal that came to be known as the Iranian hostage crisis. It began in November of 1979 when students from the University of Tehran seized the US embassy and took dozens of diplomats hostage. They were held for 444 days in brutal conditions before finally being released.
The Iranian hostage crisis froze relations between Iran and the United States, two countries that had previously been friendly to each other. However, before the crisis, American diplomats and politicians had failed to notice the political foment and rebellion that was forming in Iran against the shah, particularly against his policies that were backed by the United States. In particular, they were still angry about the CIA-backed coup of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Mossadegh was the first democratically elected prime minister in Iran’s history, and his leadership had been Iran’s opportunity to become a modern democracy. The United States took that opportunity away from Iran by having him overthrown and instating the shah as a leader with almost unlimited power. The people of Iran wanted both the shah and the United States entirely gone from their country.
Today, the hostage crisis stands out as an event that fundamentally changed the Middle East and still provokes tension between the United States and Iran. Renewed sanctions against Iran in November 2018 exacerbated those tensions. Read on to learn more about the Iranian hostage crisis and to understand why it is still so relevant to international politics today.
Mohammad Reza Shah was the monarch of Iran and very friendly with Western powers. He was keen to modernize Iran, but his programs and reforms left millions of his people impoverished and destitute. Many of his policies were viewed as affronts to Islam, such as when he authorized the license of a liquor store in the holy city of Qom. His secret police force, SAVAK, was supported by Western countries, including the United States, and was used to terrorize any who dissented against him. The last decade of his reign was characterized by growing discontent, much of which he seemed to be oblivious to.
In the years leading up to 1979, he not only continued with the oppressive use of SAVAK but also had the military fire on protestors who organized and demonstrated against him. The situation in Iran became so unstable and violent that in January of 1979, he was forced to leave the country because it was no longer safe for him. He may have expected to return as soon as the passing phase of revolt had ended, but what had begun was a full-blown revolution. Iran would no longer be a monarchy, as it had been for 2500 years, but would become an Islamic republic. Thus began the Iranian Revolution.
In 1979, the American embassy in Tehran was one of the largest embassies in the entire world. It had a total staff of about 2000 people to oversee both the day-to-day duties of the embassy and to help manage relations between Iran and the United States. America’s support of the shah seemed to be completely unwavering, particularly given the shah’s desire to modernize Iran made the country the largest purchaser of American military supplies. The diplomats ignored the protests that were occurring on a weekly basis and continued as if nothing would change. For all they could see, the shah was indomitable; the shah was Iran.
The American diplomats, both in Tehran and Washington, didn’t realize that Iran was a country in rebellion against its leader. More than that, they didn’t know that the Iranian people would not relent in their resistance against what they believed were oppressive policies but also that there was a radicalization of Islamic beliefs occurring behind the scenes. One thing that they were entirely not ready to deal with was the religious fervor of what would come to be known as radical Islam. Many diplomats involved in the hostage crisis acknowledged in retrospect that at the time, they had no idea what they were truly up against.
Ayatollah Khomeini was viewed as a radical Islamic cleric who had been exiled from his home country of Iran because of how profoundly and bitterly he denounced the shah. He was also swift to criticize America for its support of the shah and his oppressive policies, going so far as to call America the Great Satan. He was exiled from Iran in 1964 and initially went to Turkey. He later went to Najaf, a Shi’a holy city in Iraq, where he compiled a list of speeches into the manifesto known as Vilayat al-Faqih. Vilayat al-Faqih outlined the political structure of what he believed a genuinely Islamic government should have. The text was smuggled into Iran and propagated as part of the resistance against the shah.
While in exile, Khomeini became a symbol of the resistance because he was viewed as the leader who would help the people overthrow the shah. After the shah abdicated in January 1979, Khomeini returned from exile to shouts and cheers from many of the Iranian people. Even those who were not particularly devout Shi’a Muslims hailed his return because he was viewed as the man who would undo the damage caused by the shah, particularly the evils that had been supported by the United States.
The prevailing sentiment of the revolution, as it unfolded, was that Iranians wanted to take their country back from Western powers, particularly the United States, that had long exploited it. Many groups expressed different desires for what the new government should look like, but what was clear was that the country would no longer agree to any form of Western imperialism. Some wanted to set up a democratic form of government, such as had existed briefly under Mohammad Mossadegh (whom the American CIA overthrew in a 1953 coup), while others wanted a religious way of government.
As the leader and symbolic figurehead of the revolution, Khomeini’s vision for an Islamic government, headed by an Islamic cleric, was the one that came to define the new government. The country would have a majlis, or parliament, and be led politically by a democratically elected president. Seeing over the government institutions would be the Grand Ayatollah, who was regarded as a representative of the succession from the prophet Mohammad. As God’s representative in the government, he would have the authority to veto virtually anything that the government did. Not surprisingly, the first Grand Ayatollah was Ayatollah Khomeini. He was elected with 99% of the vote.
12. America Tried to Normalize Relations With Iran
As the revolution unfolded, the embassy in Tehran was evacuated so that only a skeleton crew of little more than a dozen diplomats remained to perform the essential tasks. They soon realized that the political landscape in Iran had irrevocably changed and that the shah was not coming back. They prudently decided that there was a great need to establish relations with the new government and acknowledge its legitimacy and not act as if all of this revolutionary nonsense was something that would soon blow over. Avant-garde diplomats, who wanted to be at the forefront of history in the making, began to trickle back into the Tehran embassy.
The embassy now was heavily defended, as the threat of violence was always close at hand. Iron fences with pointed tips now surrounded the compound. Still, by the summer of 1979, there were about 70 workers at the embassy, and they soon began welcoming Iranian guests for both political and social meetings. For a while, it seemed to both the diplomats in Tehran and leaders in Washington that there was the possibility of establishing normal relations with the revolutionary government. However, a fateful decision was soon made that would close any window of opportunity.
Ever since his abdication in January of 1979, the shah had traveled to many countries in the unsuccessful effort to find a safe place to live. During that time, he became ill with cancer and, in October 1979, requested asylum in America on the grounds that he urgently needed medical treatment. President Jimmy Carter was faced with a difficult decision, as letting the shah in on humanitarian grounds created the risk that Americans in at the embassy in Tehran would be taken hostage. He charged his foreign policy team to decide whether admitting the shah into the country or preserving the embassy in Tehran would be a better option. The decision was to try to do both.
President Carter reluctantly allowed the shah, America’s long-time ally in Iran, to enter the country. He also decided to keep the embassy open, albeit with extra security measures in place. The prevailing wisdom was that allowing the shah into the United States would cause anti-American sentiments in Iran to explode. However, for the first couple of weeks, there was an uneasy peace on the streets of Tehran. It seemed to many that perhaps the move would pass without incident. However, those who held this view were wrong.
A group of students at the University of Tehran – a site of activism during the months leading up to the shah’s abdication – began plotting with a radical minister, Ayatollah Khoieniha. They were afraid that, as in America’s 1953 coup of the democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh, there was a plot for the United States to try to reinstate the shah and continue imposing its own agenda on Iran. They began devising a plan to seize the embassy and drive America completely out of Iran, once and for all.
The plans were made in absolute secrecy. The students gained a map of the interior of the embassy and cased the building to determine the comings and goings of the embassy staff. They wanted to tell Ayatollah Khomeini of their plans to gain the support of the new government, but Ayatollah Khoieniha advised against telling anyone. They decided to carry out their plans without anyone in the government knowing, figuring that if Khomeini agreed with what they were doing, he would cast his support after the fact. If nothing else, they would send a clear message to the United States, that its presence was not welcome in Iran, especially not when it had chosen to grant asylum to the hated shah.
November 4, 1979, began like any other day in Tehran. The diplomats who worked at the embassy went to work, as usual, not knowing that a group of students was amassing with plans to take over the embassy and turn all the Americans into hostages. The students had gathered initially to demonstrate the anniversary of a bloody riot that had occurred at the University of Tehran and began their march through the streets of Tehran. The diplomats knew that they would pass by the embassy and believed that they would keep moving. What they didn’t expect was that hordes of disaffected students would overwhelm the guards, climb the fences, and storm the embassy.
Ironically, some of the American diplomats were in a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Ministry discussing the need for increased security at the embassy. They were soon alerted that the embassy was under attack and immediately rushed back. What they found was that hundreds of people were now occupying the embassy. Meanwhile, personnel at the embassy immediately began shredding as many classified documents as they could to keep top-secret information from falling into the wrong hands. Even as the attack was unfolding, everyone underestimated what the students were planning to do: take all the diplomats hostage.
Embassy staff put on flak jackets and helmets and began firing tear gas. However, the students were breaking through glass windows with their bare hands and using wet handkerchiefs to protect their mouths and noses from the tear gas. The attack happened so quickly and without warning that nobody within the embassy was able to take charge. The people inside promptly surrendered, and all the diplomats were taken hostage. The realization that this ordeal would not end soon slowly began to dawn on them.
Washington soon received word of what was happening, and leaders convened in the Situation Room below the White House. They opened phone lines with personnel inside the embassy in Tehran to try to get a grasp of the situation. However, one by one, the phone lines went dead as people inside the embassy lost their connection. By noon in Tehran, which was the middle of the night in Washington, DC, word got that the embassy had been seized. A total of 66 American diplomats were blindfolded by the leaders of the student group and led to a secure room within the embassy compound. They would not be seen for 444 days, and the Iranian hostage crisis would dominate the rest of the Carter presidency.
7. Ayatollah Khomeini Assumed Control of the Hostages
The students who had organized the seizure of the embassy had taken a gamble by not informing Khomeini of their plans but rather hoping that he would side with them. Initially, the provisional government initially set up by the revolution was aghast at their actions; seizing a foreign embassy and taking hostages was a humiliation for the fledgling Islamic state. However, on November 5, the day after the hostages were taken, the provisional government collapsed, and Khomeini assumed complete control over the Islamic Republic of Iran. As the undisputed leader of Iran, Khomeini soon announced his undisputed support of the students’ action at the embassy and even dubbed it the “second Iranian Revolution.”
He took over the situation with the hostages, possibly because they were his bargaining chip to ensuring that the rest of the world recognized that he was now in control of Iran and that it would no longer be a puppet state of the West. The students were no longer the ones who held the future of the hostage situation in their hands, which was probably a relief for them because they had no idea how to be hostage-takers and were terrified of the possible repercussions of what they had done. They no longer had to carry the burden of the revolution on their shoulders.
The spirit of the revolution had a religious fervor that no one in Washington was prepared for handling. Many of the students involved in the seizure of the embassy spent weeks piecing together documents that had gone through the shredders to decipher the information that the diplomats had tried to destroy. They became convinced that the people working at the embassy were spies who were plotting to overthrow the revolutionary government and reinstate the shah as the leader of Iran. In a press conference, one of the students announced that those who had been taken were not innocent hostages but rather spies who were being apprehended for their crimes.
Other than freezing all of Iran’s assets, President Carter and his colleagues in Washington had no idea how to deal with a religious revolution, especially not on this scale. He determined that the use of military force would place a risk on the lives of the hostages so settled for trying to negotiate with Ayatollah Khomeini. Meanwhile, the hostages were enduring beatings, starvation, sleep deprivation, and other forms of inhumane treatment as part of their imprisonment. They soon resigned themselves to the fact that they would soon die at the ends of their captors.
Two weeks into the hostage crisis, after Khomeini took control of the situation, he ordered that all the women and African-American hostages, except for one African-American and two women, should be released. He claimed that women have a special place in Islam and that African-Americans endure enough hardships in the United States due to racial discrimination. The remaining 53 hostages were mainly kept in solitary confinement, with no information about what was happening to their compatriots or the efforts that the Carter administration was undertaking to try to secure their release.
Weeks turned into months for the remaining hostages. By Christmas of 1979, over six weeks into the crisis, support for the hostages was uniting Americans in a national fervor. They wore ribbons and erected flags in favor of the hostages. President Carter did what he could to support the families of the hostages, who formed an action group to try to work with the government to gain the release of the hostages. Meanwhile, in Tehran, those who had been taken hostage were forced to live either in solitary confinement or in close quarters with each other, 24 hours a day. There was no end in sight. Despite negotiations, Ayatollah Khomeini was not prepared to give up his bargaining chip.
In 1980, fearful that the Iranian Revolution would soon spread to the Shi’a majority population of Iraq, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. The United States supported him because anyone who was opposed to the Khomeini regime could become part of a proxy war between America and Iran. Iran had few international friends, and much of its foreign assets had been frozen. Khomeini had no money to fight a war that would last for nearly a decade and take almost one million Iranian lives. He knew that he now needed to use his bargaining chips, the American hostages, to try to get support for the war against Iraq.
The negotiations began to turn in favor of the efforts to release the hostages. An agreement was reached that Iran’s assets would be unfrozen in exchange for the safe return of all the hostages. Over three dozen times throughout the crisis, the president of Iran had attempted to negotiate with Khomeini to have the hostages sent back to the United States, but all of his efforts had failed. Now, however, with the necessity of obtaining the funds needed for fighting the war with Iraq, it looked as if the ayatollah might finally relent and allow the hostages to return home, to America.
The ordeal seemed interminable for the hostages who were being held. At one point, President Carter orchestrated a rescue attempt that had to be aborted due to challenges when the flight team landed in the Iranian desert. Six months in, they were transferred to a remote prison close to the Russian border, possibly to make sure that no one from the American government could find them. Even after Iraq’s invasion of Iran, the hostages would have to wait an extra four months before being released. In total, they would be held for 444 days, over 14 months.
When Jimmy Carter was defeated in the 1980 presidential election in favor of Ronald Reagan, Khomeini began to make earnest attempts to have the hostages released and returned to the United States. International intermediaries, mainly from Algeria, went back and forth between the United States and Iran to help secure their release. A month after Reagan was elected, they were finally moved out of the prison at the Russian border and prepared to be returned to the United States. Even then, though, the interminable wait would continue. For the second year in a row, they would not be back home in time for Christmas. Once again, the prospects of finally returning to America began to look like a dream that would not come true.
2. The Hostages Were Released Right After Reagan Became President
In December 1980, the hostages were forced to tell television cameras that they had been treated well during their incarceration in Iran. The hostages were told they would finally be returning home; in turn, they were fed and treated well before being examined by international doctors. Finally, in mid-January, they were driven to the Tehran airport, where they were met with jeers from a crowd of protestors who insisted that the spies should continue to be held. They boarded a plane that would first head to Germany before transiting to the United States, but the airplane did not take off right away.
On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the fortieth president of the United States. At his inauguration stood a bleary-eyed Jimmy Carter, who had spent the last 50 hours of his presidency, without any sleep, trying to get the hostages brought back to the United States. Within five minutes of Reagan taking his oath of office and becoming president, the plane with the hostages departed from the Tehran airport. The delay was Khomeini’s final slap in the face to the president that had allowed the shah to enter the United States. The hostages were on their way to Germany and would soon be home after 14 months in captivity.
When the plane landed in the United States, families of the hostages were lined up on the tarmac for an emotional reunion. The former hostages were unaware of how much support and solidarity had been forged in America surrounding their captivity since they were cut off from all communication for over a year. In an emotional address to the country, former President Carter announced that all of them were alive and well, though shaken from their experiences.
1. Nearly 40 Years Later, The Crisis Continues to Cause Tension
One of the immediate responses of the United States to the hostage situation in Iran was to impose sanctions, meaning that trade between Iran and the United States, as well as other countries that were allies of the United States, would be severely restricted. Over the ensuing decades, especially after the Iran-Iraq War ended, Iran built up its economy, including a vast telecommunications network and a tourism industry surrounding its historic sites. Iran and the United States had no relations with each other for over 30 years. Iranian interests in the US were taken care of through a special interest section of the Embassy of Pakistan, and the Swiss embassy in Tehran had a particular interest section for the United States. Meanwhile, the tensions that had festered and exploded during the hostage crisis continued to grow.
On November 4, 2018, the thirty-ninth anniversary of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, Donald Trump announced a renewal of sanctions against Iran. President Obama had begun the process of unfreezing the tensions between Iran and the United States for the first time since the hostage crisis by eliminating sanctions in return for denuclearization of Iran. Many people believed that a new era of increased communication and resolution of the tensions created by the hostage crisis would finally begin. However, that dream has yet to be realized.
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