November 4, 1979: The Iran Hostage Crisis

Posted on November 4, 2011
By Ray Takeyh

During August 2005, American newspapers and television screens were unexpectedly filled with images of 1979. The scene of the U.S. embassy in Iran being taken over by radical students, effigies of Uncle Sam being burned, and angry mobs desecrating the American flag seemed the order of the day. The latest crisis in U.S.–Iranian relations was sparked by five former American hostages who identified the newly elected Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as one of their captors. The Iranian denials did not diminish the anger of the hostages and their demands for justice and recompense. The revival of the dramas of 1979 reveals that the hostage crisis is hardly a stale historic episode; its images and emotions continue to shape the collective conscious of the American public. For a generation of Americans, the hostage crisis remains an open wound, transforming Iran into an unsavory state unfit for rehabilitation.

Sunday, November 4, 1979, began as any other day in revolutionary Tehran, with protests engulfing the streets of the capital. But then  the ostensible purpose of the hostage taking was the students’ alarm that the Shah’s admission to the United States for medical treatment was an attempt by Washington to orchestrate a coup against Iran’s nascent revolution. Initially, all the parties involved assumed the crisis would be short-lived. The students themselves hoped to deliver what they called a propaganda of deed, and then return to their universities; the Carter administration, accustomed to Iranian transgressions, sensed yet another momentary crisis soon to be resolved; and the officials of Iran’s provisional government seemed more annoyed than exulted by the students’ militancy. Yet the embassy takeover would soon be entangled in Iran’s vicious factional politics, prolonging the incarceration of the hapless diplomats.


The memories of 1953 should not be discounted in understanding the hostage crisis. In November 1979, the Iranian revolution was truly under threat: its contending factions were battling each other, ethnic minorities in Kurdistan and Khuzestan were agitating for autonomy, and the imperial army was still largely intact. From the perspective of Iranians, whose country had been subject of persistent foreign intervention for much of the twentieth century, it was not unreasonable to perceive that the United States and its allies were conspiring against the new regime. Was it irrational to believe that the embassy that plotted the 1953 coup was not concocting a similar scheme in 1979?

A look back at the Iran of 1979 reveals a revolutionary elite that really did see itself as under siege, struggling against enemies, real and imagined. Despite their flamboyant rhetoric and defiant posture, the Islamic Republic’s leaders were extremely anxious about U.S. intervention. An Iranian generation accustomed to believing that American machinations lay behind all of their country’s misfortunes found it impossible to believe that the Carter administration would passively accept the demise of its reliable ally in the strategically critical Persian Gulf. As such, the takeover of the embassy was a strike against the nefarious American plot, a nonexistent one at that. Still, Iran’s insecure revolutionaries came to perceive that by taking over the embassy, they would necessarily prolong their new mission.

As we have seen, for Ayatollah Khomeini the hostage crisis offered a tantalizing opportunity to outflank his domestic political rivals, particularly the moderates. In the Islamic Republic’s first days in February 1979, Khomeini recognized that it was an inopportune time to unleash the Islamic order, as he and his disciples were still insufficiently organized to assume complete power. And so Khomeini agreed to the appointment of the moderate Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister. A devout leader with impeccable nationalistic and religious credentials, the new premier was acceptable to the bewildering factions that waged the revolution. As a leader of the Freedom Movement, Bazargan was part of a generation of Iranian intellectuals who sought to harmonize their religious values with modern transformations. He was an engineer of some accomplishment, a political activist often jailed by the Shah, and a man of absolute integrity. More important, Bazargan was a man of order, reassuring those who were put off by the rash conduct of the revolution and who sought to sustain existing institutional arrangements.

The provisional government signaled its intention to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy, even maintaining ties with the United States. To be sure, it did not envision an alliance as under the Shah, but the two powers could still maintain normal relations and avoid unnecessary antagonism. This was the message that Bazargan and his foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi, conveyed to Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, when they met in Algiers shortly after the revolution. Far from seeking to revamp the international norms along ideological lines, Bazargan sought to assert Iran’s sovereign rights without provoking the animosity of the Western powers.

The stage was set for an all-out battle between the secular and religious forces, as each side sought to shape the revolution in its own image. During the pivotal period of 1979–81, numerous institutions and ruling documents were crafted, and the foundations of the Islamic Republic were defined. In the realm of foreign policy, Khomeini was appalled by Bazargan’s essential moderation; resisting the “Great Satan” was a defining and enduring tenet of Khomeini’s ideology. The revolution had been waged not just for the Islamic redemption of Iranian society but also as a strike against America’s imperial encroachment in the Middle East. The network of the mosques, the revolutionary committees, and the vast organizational structure of the clerical militants now went to work agitating against Bazargan and his provisional government. However, Iran’s revolutionaries needed a crisis to arouse the population, discredit their foes, and consolidate their power. The radical students and their impulsive conduct offered the plotting Khomeini his chance.

Shortly after the takeover of the embassy, Khomeini quickly endorsed the students’ action, noting, “Today underground plots are being hatched in these embassies, mostly by the Great Satan.” The Iranian demands for ending the hostage crisis seemed equally fantastic as Tehran called for the return of the Shah and his assets, the end of American interference in Iran’s internal affairs, and an apology for past U.S. misdeeds. Khomeini’s stance ensured that unlike previous assaults on the embassy immediately after the revolution, the current crisis would be prolonged. Khomeini’s embrace of the embassy takeover stiffened the resolution of the students, who now saw themselves as a vanguard of a great revolutionary struggle seeking the emancipation of Iran, if not the entire Third World.

Jimmy Carter’s response to the hostage crisis reflected the dilemma of an administration caught between limits of its power and rising popular dissatisfaction with its conduct. The Carter administration truly had no viable option for quickly ending the crisis, entangled as it was in the vagaries of Iran’s domestic politics. The president’s legitimate insistence that the hostages must be kept alive and safely released further narrowed his options. The prevailing military contingencies focused on punitive strikes against Iran’s military and economic targets. However, such strikes were quickly shelved because they could trigger a terrible Iranian retaliation—the killing of the hostages. The alternative measure of imposing a naval blockade on Iran would similarly lead to the loss of American and Iranian lives without necessarily bringing about a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Moreover, such a strategy could have provoked Iranian retaliation against the oil traffic in the Persian Gulf, leading to catastrophically high gas and oil prices.

In the absence of viable options, the United States fell back on its customary default position, economic sanctions. Washington imposed a ban on further purchases of Iran’s oil and on all trade, with the exception of food and medicine. The Carter administration also froze Iran’s assets in the United States, which amounted to $12 billion. Such economic measures were unlikely to stay the determination of a revolutionary regime that was indifferent to the cost of its militancy. Moreover, Tehran had already announced its refusal to sell oil to the “Great Satan” and was not eager for the expansion of other commercial ties.

The pressure on the Carter administration was accentuated by the fact that the hostage drama was one of the first international crises to become part of the daily political debates and discussions in America. The tribulations of the captive diplomats evoked a powerful emotional response from the American people, a response that was nurtured by the saturated media coverage. The venerable CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite closed every broadcast with the tally of the number of days the hostages had spent in captivity, and television screens continuously broadcast images of bearded mullahs denouncing the United States. Thus did the Iranian revolution come into every home in America. President Carter, for his part, reinforced the American public’s fixation, as the president naturally made the plight of the hostages his most pressing priority, remaining in the Oval Office until late at night to micromanage the crisis. As the hostage crisis lingered, it began to epitomize America’s struggle in the post-Vietnam period. Once more, America appeared abused and victimized, without an ability to respond in an effective manner. The hostages’ continued detention led their fellow citizens to demand action and ultimately to blame Carter for his seeming lack of resolution.

In the meantime, Iran’s militant mullahs were busy garnering the benefits of a nationalistically aroused populace. A beleaguered Bazargan and his cabinet resigned in November 1980 after its inability to gain the release of the hostages, paving the way for the further consolidation of power by Khomeini and his disciples. The clerical cadre now triumphed in parliamentary elections and oversaw the passage of a referendum that affirmed the revised constitution with its privileged position for the Supreme Leader. The battered secular opposition was castigated as agents of America, and their criticism of the mullahs’ dictatorial tendencies were dismissed as fracturing national unity at a time of confrontation with the “Great Satan.” In the meantime, a cultural revolution that was to purify Iran’s institutions was also launched under the stern purview of the revolutionaries. Under the shadow of conflict with America, Iran was being transformed into a new society, governed by a reactionary cohort in the name of Islamic militancy.

It is important to note that while the United States condemned Iran’s conduct as a breach of international law, it was a violation of Shiite Islam’s own traditions as well. Historically, Shiite clergy have been generous in assuring safe passage to non-Muslim emissaries. The great Islamic empires were at pains to accommodate diplomats from all countries and treated them with respect and deference. These traditions were sanctified by a clerical class that was the guardian of law. An entire legal corpus soon evolved on the need to grant protection to representatives of all states. As a learned Shiite scholar, Khomeini must have been familiar with these traditions and must have known that his conduct was contravening the established norms of the Islamic order he was purportedly committed to constructing.

As diplomacy and economic pressure failed to resolve the crisis, an increasingly desperate Carter administration opted for a military rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw. The planned operation was logistically complex. Using eight helicopters, a crew of 118 men would fly into Iran, refuel in the central desert, and proceed to a location close to Tehran. At that time, using pre-positioned trucks, they would embark toward the embassy and assault the compound. This would be a challenging task under the best of circumstances, but the unpredictable desert weather and lack of coordination forced commanders to abort the operation not long after it began. The mechanical problems arising from the desert storm and the crash of a helicopter with a refueling plane led to the deaths of eight American servicemen. The United States stood utterly humiliated, a superpower that could neither compel Iran to free its diplomats nor mount a credible rescue effort. Suddenly, Khomeini’s persistent slogan, “America cannot do a damn thing,” appeared eerily true.

By the fall of 1980, Khomeini appeared ready to end the ordeal of the American captives. By that point, he and his disciples had assumed control over all the key institutions of power and his vision of a rigid theocratic order had overcome the opposition of his erstwhile coalition partners. As a close aide, Behzad Nabavi, confessed, “The hostages were like a fruit from which all the juice had been squeezed out.” Even more dramatic, Iraq’s invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980, altered the national priorities, since the theocratic regime had to mobilize its resources behind a war effort that would prove daunting. However, Khomeini still had one last score to settle, refusing to release the hostages until Carter had been defeated in his reelection bid and formally relinquished power to his successor, Ronald Reagan. Khomeini perceived that a resolution of the crisis prior to the election might redound to Carter’s advantage, and thus he slowed the process to erode the president’s domestic support base. In a sense, Khomeini succeeded in overthrowing an American president, as Carter was decisively defeated. But this would prove an empty victory, as the Islamic Republic now had to contend with a more hawkish Reagan administration.

The conflicting Iranian and American perceptions of the hostage crisis reflect its differing impact on the two nations. For the Iranians, the embassy was the “den of spies,” the embodiment of a superpower that had sustained a cruel monarchy. For the Americans, the hostages were fellow citizens, ordinary individuals held against their will by an inhuman regime. Iranians saw the crisis as a triumphant blow against a superpower, while the Americans perceived it in terms of suffering of families whose loved ones were unjustifiably held captive. For one audience it was a political gesture of Third-World-ist defiance. For the other, it was a personal story of tragedy befallen their innocent countrymen.

In a curious manner, Khomeini’s fertile imagination failed him. The hostage crisis may have been useful in removing his internal rivals, but it also secured him the enmity of the American public, which would prove costly for his beleaguered nation. Iran paid a high price for its conduct, as the resulting international opprobrium forced it to deal with Saddam Hussein’s aggression in isolation. The Islamic Republic was a victim of Saddam’s invasion and his indiscriminate use of chemical weapons, but given Iran’s own violations of international law, not many states were willing to side with the mullahs and legitimize their claims. Moreover, Tehran paid another price as the most powerful economic and military power in the world subtly but effectively sided with Iraq as it waged its eight-year war against Iran.

Beyond the Iran-Iraq war, the legacy of the hostage crisis continues to extract a price from Iran. An indelible image of the Islamic Republic was imprinted on the collective psyche of the American people. Iranians were seen as fanatical, reactionary fundamentalists enchanted by their peculiar culture of martyrdom and impervious to reason. To a cross-section of the public, a theocratic anachronism steeped in its ossified ideology had managed to humiliate America with impunity. The chants of “Death to America,” mullahs in their strange clerical garb, and a population seemingly united in its hatred of America would be the enduring picture of Iran.

To be sure, the United States was no stranger to ideological adversaries, having contained and engaged the Soviet Union for over four decades. But the hostage crisis was fundamentally different. The anger and anguish that the Americans feel toward Iran is never far below the surface. The crisis led the Americans to build their own “wall of mistrust” that further estranged the two societies. Such popular disdain for the Islamic Republic has hampered prospects of rapprochement and has restricted the diplomatic moves of any U.S. administration seeking to engage Iran. The irony is that in the intervening quarter-century, the two powers would often have interests in common, but the emotional barrier to dealing with the other would preclude meaningful cooperation.

The twin crises of 1953 and 1979 would ensure that U.S.–Iranian relations would always transcend the strategic realm and would play themselves out at a visceral, emotional level. However, it would be the scandal of the Iran-Contra Affair that would frighten both elected officials and the diplomatic corps from embarking on an imaginative policy toward the Islamic Republic. The resolution of the U.S.–Iran imbroglio requires considerable skill and a willingness to assume risks. After Iran-Contra, there were not too many ambitious officials willing to endorse a creative policy with its potential perils.


Excerpted from Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic by Ray Takeyh.

Copyright © 2006 by Ray Takeyh.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

RAY TAKEYH is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he concentrates his work on Iran, Islamist movements, and Middle Eastern politics. He has held positions at the National Defense University, Yale, and Berkeley. His work has appeared in Foreign AffairsForeign PolicyThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, and the International Herald Tribune.

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