The Iran Hostage Crisis: 1979 to 1981
What became known as the Iran hostage crisis began on November 4, 1979, when a group of Iranian students in Tehran, the capital of Iran, stormed the American embassy. They trapped fifty-two American workers there, and held them hostage for 444 days. The incident was a dramatic way for the student revolutionaries to declare a break from Iran’s past and attempt to put an end to American interference in the region. One of the implications of the hostage crisis was that sitting president Jimmy Carter lost his bid for a second term in office. The American public had grown tired of the daily drama of the crisis as it played out on national television, and President Carter suffered the scorn of the public. Even today, relationships between Iran and the United States are strained due to this incident.
President Carter was a symbol of hatred for revolutionary Iranians because his administration had shown support for their ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The conflict between the shah and Islamic fundamentalists in Iran dated back to the 1950s. The shah was brought to power through a coup sponsored by the American C.I.A. and British intelligence service. With help from the United States, he modernized the country after World War II and managed to accumulate sizable personal wealth from exporting oil.
The large difference in wealth between a small minority of Iranians, many with close connections to the shah, and a far larger, poorer lower class led to social tension. The shah continued to have the support of the United States as he instituted reforms during the 1960s and 1970s. Many Iranians believed that the reforms were bogus and they began distrusting the United States. The shah’s special military forces cracked down on his adversaries, but the effect was only to increase the fervor of the shah’s opposition.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was one of the shah’s most vocal opponents, because he believed that old-style Islamic values were being lost as Iran modernized. The Ayatollah attracted a growing number of followers through the 1950s, but was exiled from Iran in 1963 after publicly criticizing the shah.
An economic downturn in the country in the mid-1970s increased public outcries against the shah, and crackdowns against his opponents became more widespread. Anti-American sentiment spread along with them. As the shah’s forces and revolutionaries clashed in a series of violent and bloody demonstrations, the Carter administration’s continued support for the shah made “death to America” a rallying cry among the Islamic revolutionaries. The shah eventually left the country in 1979, and the revolutionaries were further incensed against the United States when he was allowed refuge in New York. He was receiving medical treatment for an advanced malignant lymphoma cancer there, but the rebels believed that he was courting American sympathy to help him return to power. Meanwhile, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned triumphantly to Iran in February 1979. He became the nation’s leader and proclaimed Iran an Islamic Republic.
Storming of the American Embassy
On November 4, shortly after the shah arrived in New York, a group of pro-Ayatollah students broke through the gates of the American Embassy in Tehran. Initially the students seized 66 hostages, mostly diplomats and embassy employees. Soon after the capture of the hostages, 13 were released, and by the summer of 1980, 52 hostages remained in the embassy compound. The Ayatollah highly praised the embassy takeover and the holding of hostages, and as anti-American sentiment crystallized, he became more powerful as the ultimate authority in a government based on the religious laws of Islam and run by Islamic clergy. He called for religious revolutions in surrounding countries, too, always opposing the culture of the United States. Khomeini repeated the student’s threat to destroy the embassy if it was attacked. “This is not a struggle between the United States and Iran,” according to the ayatollah, adding, “It is a struggle between Iran and blasphemy.” Khomeini urged the student to remain fir, asking: “Why should we be afraid? We consider martyrdom a great honor.”
The Carter Administration's Response
The administration of President Jimmy Carter chose not to take immediate military action to gain release of the hostages. The fear was that this military action would alienate the Islamic world and foster sympathy for the Soviets in Afghanistan. Carter chose non-military action by freezing Iranian assets in American banks, stopping shipment of goods to Iran, and persuading the United Nations to condemn the embassy takeover. Diplomatic efforts were launched to gain release of the hostages. After five months of diplomatic effort, nothing had worked and the 52 Americans remained as hostages. The famed television newscaster Walter Cronkite ended his nightly news program by reporting the number of days the hostages had been held.
During the period of captivity, the hostages suffered harsh treatment. They were bound, blindfolded, covered with blankets, and shuttled around to a series of makeshift prisons. During seemingly endless interrogations, they were beaten and humiliated by their jailers. An hour of running in place each morning was the only exercise they were permitted. After three months, the hostages were locked in small cells and not allowed to communicate. Any hostages who violated the rules were locked in cold, dark cubicles for as long as three days. Toward the end of their confinement, they were forced to stand before mock firing squads.
The taking of the hostages received worldwide attention immediately, and most nations of the world joined the United States in condemning the actions of the Iranian revolutionaries. However, the Iranians’ success in using hostages to humiliate a superpower inspired terrorists in other places to try similar tactics. Meanwhile, militants pieced together shredded documents they found in the embassy to try to prove that the building had been a “nest of spies.” They produced documents that they claimed proved that the United States and the Soviet Union had joined forces to oppose the Iranian revolution.
A Failed Rescue Attempt – Operation Eagle Claw
The hostage crisis was humiliating for the United States, and it harmed the Carter administration, which had underestimated the growing Islamic revival in Iran. An operation was planned that sent an elite team into the embassy compound to rescue the hostages. The rescue mission in April 1980, known as Operation Eagle Claw, failed when helicopters broke down during a desert sandstorm. The mission was abandoned, but eight men died when a helicopter collided with a transport airplane during the retreat. The failure of the operation further angered military and civilian leaders in the United States.
Hostage Crisis Video
1980 Election and the Release of the Hostages
Economic sanctions by President Carter against Iran caused hardships for the Iranian people, but increased the determination of the hostage takers. President Carter’s unflagging support of the shah and his inability to free the hostages contributed greatly to his landslide defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. The hostages’ long ordeal finally ended after they had spent 444 days in captivity, with their release timed for January 20, 1981—the day Ronald Reagan became president. The timing of the release created the impression that Reagan had engineered the settlement, although the release had been completely arranged by the Carter administration with Algerian diplomats as go-betweens.
1979 Hostage Crisis Still Casts Pall on U.S.-Iran Relations. CNN. November 4, 2009 http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/11/04/iran.hostage.anniversary/ Accessed January 28, 2017.
Daniel, Clifton (Editor in Chief) 20th Century Day by Day. Dorling Kindersley. 2000.
West, Doug. President Jimmy Carter: A Short Biography (30 Minute Book Series 18). C&D Publications. 2017.