On This Day

Iran Hostage Crisis, iran us embassy
Associated Press
Iranian students stand guard in front of the entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

On This Day: Iran Hostage Crisis Begins

November 04, 2010 06:00 AM
by Anne Szustek
On Nov. 4, 1979, a group consisting largely of Iranian students invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 Americans captive, 52 of whom would be held hostage for 444 days.

The Iran Hostage Crisis

On Nov. 4, 1979, a pack of Iranian students began to chant outside of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital, demanding to know where the American government was housing its “spies.” They yelled, “Who was CIA,” or “See-ah,” as they pronounced it.

The diplomats on staff had seen and heard similar disturbances outside of the chancery before, and first discounted it as part of the government-backed protesting that had become routine since Ayatollah Khomeini had come to power as the supreme ruler of Iran earlier that year.

The group had convened some hours earlier at 6:30 a.m., when the 300-odd students who would come to be known collectively as the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line began to gather to discuss the modus operandi for the day. One of the chief organizers of the group, 24-year-old engineering student Ibrahim Ashgarzadeh, had enlisted people to do surveillance on the embassy’s U.S. Marine-led security detachment’s activities.

The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line scaled the walls and broke through the gates of the compound, taking 63 Americans hostage, plus three more American officials at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

The hostage-takers originally only planned to control the compound for a few days or weeks. Indeed, three weeks later, the captors released 13 hostages, some women and some black. One hostage, Vice Consul Richard Queen, was released in July 1980 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

During their 444 days in captivity, the remaining 52 hostages were put on display in front of television cameras, often blindfolded. Although not originally an act planned by Khomeini’s government, he lent the group that carried out the siege of the American Embassy his support, given that it was supportive of his policies.

Groups sympathetic to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line confiscated American intelligence documents thought to prove that the U.S. government “was engaged in a massive spy operation intent on stopping the revolution, killing Khomeini,” writes Mark Bowden in his book “Guests of the Ayatollah.” It later turned out that such accusations were false, given that the CIA members deployed to Tehran had scant, if any, command of Farsi.

Just after the takeover, among the initial policy motives of the administration of President Jimmy Carter against Iran were curbing all imports of oil from the country, putting a freeze on the Iranian government’s financial holdings in the United States, and expelling some Iranian citizens living in America.

The Failed Rescue Operation and Release of the Hostages

In bid to shore up support and prove himself a strong leader, Carter commanded the military to carry out “Operation Eagle Claw” on April 24, 1980, a plan to rescue the hostages that ultimately proved unsuccessful and saw eight members of the U.S. military killed when their helicopter had a mid-air collision with an airplane. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance stepped down in light of the failed operation.

The Iranian hostage crisis’ ensuing media spectacle put a dent in Carter’s popularity and is thought to have played a part in his defeat in the 1980 presidential election against Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. For one, the one-year anniversary of the hostage crisis fell on Election Day 1980.

The Algiers Accords, held in the Algerian capital on Jan. 19, 1981, saw the release of the American hostages and the unfreezing of Iranian financial assets in the United States. A day later, hours before the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, the 52 hostages were shown free, and landed safely in West Germany.

Historical Context: The Shah, Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution

Iranian mistrust of the United States dates back to 1953, when the CIA assisted in the overthrow of popular nationalist Mohammad Mosaddeq and the reinstatement of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah.

The Shah’s reign throughout the 1960s was marked by radical social and political reform. The White Revolution, as it was known, involved the redistribution of private land to peasant farmers, a nationwide literacy campaign, and new women’s suffrage laws. In 1967, Mohammad Reza crowned himself the emperor of Iran, essentially declaring himself heir to Iran’s ancient kings, an action which offended many.

His international visibility increased during this time as well, as the Western countries increasingly recognized the importance of the oil-rich Middle East. At this time, Iran had the strongest military in the Middle East, and the shah was seen as the region’s most powerful leader.

The Shah’s rule throughout the 1970s was marked by repression, corruption and economic division, however. Opposition to the regime increased, most powerfully from the supporters of exiled conservative Muslim leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been exiled to France in 1964 due to his vociferous rhetoric against the shah.

While in exile, the Ayatollah fomented opposition against the Shah, calling for general strikes, and turning public opinion in his favor.

As a result, the Shah left Iran on Jan. 16, 1979, amid an increasingly restive Iranian population. He appointed Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar to take control of the provisional government.

When Khomeini arrived in Iran in 1979, a power struggle ensued between the religious leader and Bakhtiar. Khomeini appointed his own prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, and public revolts spread throughout the country.

Weakened by the uprisings, Bazargan’s government was dealt its final blow when the military declared itself neutral, allowing the revolutionaries to take control.

The government published the new Iranian constitution on Nov. 15, 1979, concentrating power in the hands of the unelected Supreme Religious Leader. Khomeini’s power grab drew much protest, which the Ayatollah answered by subduing his opposition.

After gaining power, Khomeini called student unions loyal to his cause into anti-American demonstrations, especially in light of the Carter administration’s admitting the Shah into the country for medical treatment in 1979.

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