The Iran Hostage Crisis was a diplomatic standoff between the United States and Iran between November 4, 1979, and January 20, 1981. During the Iranian Revolution, supporters of the movement saw the United States as a threat to the measures already taken. The United States had had relative peace with Iran during the Cold War, but the Iranian Revolution and its rejection of the Shah created a complicated situation. This is the story of what the Iranian Hostage Crisis was, why it happened, and how it was resolved.
Prelude to the Iran Hostage Crisis
During the Second World War, British and Soviet troops invaded Iran and forced the Shah to abdicate the throne in favor of his oldest son. Thus began the decades of foreign intervention in the Middle Eastern country. After the war, the United States was directly involved with the country’s independence, as it helped force Soviet withdrawal in 1946.
After this push for independence, the United States took further action when, in 1953, the CIA and the British MI6 helped the Shah depose Iran’s prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. This coup d’état, known as Operation Ajax, allowed the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to rule the country as an absolutist monarch. The United States continued its support of the Shah’s regime and supported the monarch as he expunged “disloyal” elements of Iranian society, as well as imposed strict economic, cultural, and political rules. Those who enforced these restrictions, the Iranian Secret Police, was trained by the CIA.
The revolution that would eventually overthrow the Shah’s regime was born of a populist and nationalist movement rooted in orthodox Shi’a Islam. The revolutionaries were staunchly anti-Western and wanted an Iran based on Iranian and Muslim power that wasn’t reliant on Western power. This led to the stepping down of the Shah in late 1978 and the beginning of the Iranian Revolution in February 1979. The start of the revolution was largely influenced by the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, a political and religious leader who had been exiled because of his anti-American sentiments.
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The revolutionaries of Iran were incensed by the relationship between President Jimmy Carter and Shah Pahlavi. When Carter was inaugurated, he further stoked the ire of Iranians by claiming in a toast that the Shah was “beloved” by his people when, in fact, he was barely tolerated. After the Shah was deposed, the United States attempted to maintain peaceful relations with Iran, in large part due to its need for oil from the region.
This delicate peace was maintained until the Carter administration granted asylum to the former Shah for cancer treatment in October 1979. This act of diplomacy forced the revolutionaries into motion and led them to lay siege to the United States Embassy in Tehran.
The Siege of the United States Embassy
On February 14, 1979, revolutionary forces took the embassy for a short period. The Shah had been deposed for a month, and anti-American sentiment was high. Those who occupied the embassy took the American ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, along with around 100 of his staff members, hostage.
After less than a day, the embassy was back in American hands. After the first occupation, the United States, in an attempt to concede to the demands of Khomeini’s de facto government, minimized the presence of Americans in Iran by reducing the embassy’s personnel from 1,400 to 70. This created a tenuous truce between the two countries, which would not last through 1979.
After the first guerilla group’s short-lived occupation in February 1979, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, an Iranian student, began to formulate another plan of attack. Asgharzadeh identified and assembled the leaders of Islamic associations at each of Tehran’s four main universities, forming a group called the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line. The group’s goal was to occupy the embassy in opposition to the American government. Additionally, the intention was to detain the diplomats at the embassy for a few days, essentially to make an effective and serious point against the United States.
The group feared another coup against the popular revolution occurring under the tutelage of Khomeini and sought to protest and occupy the embassy on November 4, 1979. A crowd of 300-500 students, using bolt cutters, broke into the compound. The initial plan was a non-violent, symbolic occupation. The students would speak to the press and wait to be removed by supportive government forces. However, when it appeared that the Marines guarding the embassy would not use deadly force, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line broke through the line of guards and captured 52 employees of the embassy.
The Marines and embassy staff were blindfolded and paraded before the press. The group was officially supported by Ayatollah Khomeini by the end of the day when he called the siege “the second revolution.” Kohmeini’s idea of the embassy as an “American spy den” in Iran only further fueled the occupation and renewed the commitment of the revolutionaries to their nationalist aims.
Negotiations During the Iran Hostage Crisis
One day after the hostages were taken, Iran canceled all defense treaties with the United States, and two days later, Khomeini’s government, supported by revolutionary militants, officially came into power. The government held the hostages as ransom, demanding that the United States deport the Shah to secure the freedom of the embassy staff. The Carter administration began acting immediately, with economic and political sanctions imposed a little more than a week after the siege.
The focus of the United States was to essentially back Kohmeini’s government into a corner. On November 17, 1979, the US government imposed its first economic measure: freezing all Iranian assets in American banks. This escalated gradually in an attempt to threaten the revolutionary regime. Before the end of November 1979, the United States had sued Iran in the International Court of Justice, and by the first half of 1980, the Carter administration had imposed a multinational economic embargo on Iran. All of this effort did nothing to weaken the Iranian resolve, and before 1981, Khomeini only released 14 hostages: eight African Americans, five women, and one man due to illness.
The Shah of Iran left the United States before the end of 1979, so the United States pivoted to negotiations for the release of the hostages. These all failed, and Iran’s determination to keep its chokehold on the imprisoned American citizens only strengthened. President Carter, exasperated by the failed negotiations, authorized a military rescue mission. This attempted rescue involved the US Navy landmine-laying helicopters, as they were the largest in the fleet.
However, the mission failed and caused the death of eight service members because of the need for stealth. The helicopters were unable to communicate with weather services or each other, and in losing this ability, they were unable to foresee the local sandstorms that were blowing through Iran. Due to the inclement weather, two aircraft collided and killed eight soldiers, and many more helicopters had to be abandoned.
After the failed rescue mission bolstered Khomeini’s government and quelled any moderate Iranians’ calls for diplomacy, the revolutionary government held an even firmer grip on the hostages. By September 1980, Khomeini’s government demanded that the United States release the Shah’s American bank assets to the Iranian government, a sum that was estimated to equal about $32 billion. The government was installed permanently and held a secure position until September 22, 1980, when Iraq invaded, and the countries entered into a war that would distract efforts to exact power on other enemies.
Treatment of the Hostages & End of the Iran Hostage Crisis
The hostages had been moved throughout the country in an attempt to make rescue missions harder, but by late 1980, most had been moved to a mansion-turned-prison in Tehran. Iranian propaganda attempted to portray the American captives as “guests” of the government and insisted to American officials and the Iranian people that they were being treated as such.
In reality, the hostages were kept in deplorable conditions with little running water or adequate facilities. The hostages were threatened regularly, some even saying that the guards played Russian roulette with them or set up mock electric chairs to remind them of their fate. One hostage, David Roeder, described how guards told him they would kidnap and mutilate his son. In addition to threats of violence, the hostages were blindfolded, thrown into solitary confinement, and prohibited from standing, sitting, leaving their cell, or speaking to other hostages.
Eventually, the release of the hostages was negotiated by way of a neutral party, a diplomat from Algeria. The two countries agreed on terms of release that in exchange for the hostages, the United States would unfreeze some of Iran’s economic assets, remove the embargo, drop any litigations, and not intervene in Iranian affairs. The Algiers Accords were signed minutes after President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated on January 20, 1981.
The Aftermath of the Iranian Hostage Crisis
After their release, the 52 hostages were unable to seek restitution from Iran due to the Algiers Accords. However, the United States paid the hostages $50 per day for every day they were captive, amounting to just over $22,000 or about $75,000 today, adjusted for inflation. They also helped pass a bill to receive $4.4 million each in 2015, but payouts didn’t begin until 2020 and have been scarce since. Regardless of any compensation or recognition, the hostages suffered tremendously, both psychologically and physically.
The crisis was a crushing blow to the reelection campaign of the Carter administration, as the president looked weak to the American public by not securing the hostages’ freedom sooner. Compounding with an energy crisis, economic downturn, and the Cold War still raging, Americans overwhelmingly voted for Ronald Reagan.
The impact on Iran was two-fold. Some saw the ordeal as a failure, as Iran failed to secure most of the demands they had made of the United States. However, it bolstered politicians in Khomeini’s government and silenced much of the opposition. Today, the US embassy building is a museum to the revolution, and Iran commemorated the event with the burning of an American flag on the anniversary until pro-democracy protests and more liberal factions began to gain traction.
The Iran hostage crisis was a defining moment in American relations with the Middle East, which have never recovered. The diplomacy that once was will never be the same again, which began with the crisis of 1979.