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Iranian Hostage Crisis

Iranian Hostage Crisis


On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian militants stormed the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, and captured dozens of embassy and military personnel. For 444 days, fiftytwo Americans remained captive in Iran, while their nation waited, hoped, and hung yellow ribbons. The outcome of the hostage crisis would ultimately change the course of a presidency, and malign relations between two powerful nations.

The origins of anti-American fervor. In the early 1970s, America and Iran enjoyed mutually satisfying relations. At the time, the country was ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a man the American government had supported for more than twenty-five years. Pahlavi had risen to power thanks to British and Soviet forces, which jointly installed Pahlavi on the throne in 1941 to gain valuable influence over the country's oil. Two years later, the United States and Great Britain made a formal declaration to promote Iran's independence, primarily to prevent the communists from gaining a strong foothold in the country.

In the early 1950s, the Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, began gaining power and public support, and vehemently opposed the western influence in Iran. In 1952, Mossadegh's party won the national elections, and he demanded control over Iran's armed forces, which Pahlavi denied. In 1953, the United States Central

Intelligence Agency (CIA) secretly helped to overthrow Mossadegh and restore Pahlavi to power. Pahlavi remained a friend to the United States, but endured harsh criticism by his countrymen for ruling with an iron fist, and living opulently off the spoils of his country's oil production while the majority of his people lived in poverty. During the next two decades, the Shah attempted to bring further Western influence to Iran, a practice that was an anathema to the growing numbers of fundamentalist Islamic groups in the country. Those who dared oppose the Shah's rule faced the risk of torture or death at the hands of his secret police.

In 1978, Iranian opposition leaders organized strikes, demonstrations, and riots in protest of the Shah's policies. In Paris, exiled Islamic leader Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini (Pahlavi had sent Khomeini from the country amid riots in the early 1960s) slowly began to gain popularity among the Iranian people. In December, 1978, Khomeini issued a proclamation calling for Iranians to "unite, arise, and sacrifice your blood," urging them to defy the Shah's order prohibiting public demonstrations. Khomeini's words

inspired his followers to fill the streets, chanting religious slogans and calling for revolution. The Shah was left with two choices: surrender or clamp down on his people militarily to restore order. On January 16, 1979, the Shah stepped down from power and fled to Morocco.

Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979, where he was greeted by millions of his followers. Less than two weeks later, Khomeini assumed power, announcing the creation of a new fundamentalist Islamic state. Khomeini labeled the United States "The Great Satan." Hatred grew when U.S. President Jimmy Carter allowed the deposed Shah to travel to America later that year for cancer treatment. Furious students gathered in the streets, raising their fists and shouting, "Death to America," assuming the United States was again trying to secretly restore the Shah to power.

On the morning of November 4, 1979, Iranian fervor reached a boiling point. A crowd gathered around the U.S. embassy, shouting anti-American slogans. At 10:30 a.m. about three thousand people jumped the ten-foot wall surrounding the embassy and swarmed the grounds, forcing their way into the basement and first floor of the chancery building. The guards launched tear gas, but they were unable to control the mob. The Islamic militants rounded up 66 embassy workers, military officials, and Marine guards. The hostages were blindfolded, bound, and shoved into windowless rooms. Fifty-three people were held captive in the embassy compound. It was unclear what role, if any, Khomeini played in orchestrating the hostage crisis, but it was clear that he did little to stop it. When Khomeini noted how popular the hostage situation had become among his people, he allowed it to continue, despite continuous pressure from the United States government.

Americans watched the events of the crisis played out on television. Yellow ribbons were tied around tree trunks throughout the country in commemoration of the hostages. President Carter responded by freezing billions of dollars in Iranian assets, both in the United States and abroad, and by instituting an embargo on Iranian oil. Still, the Iranians refused to release the hostages, demanding the Shah's extradition to Iran.

A rescue attempt. While President Carter was trying to negotiate the hostages' release, behind-the-scenes a daring rescue plan was taking shape. The proposal was to swoop in and land eight American military helicopters in the embassy compound, extract the hostages, and escape to six planes waiting on an airstrip in the Iranian desert. On April 24, 1980, the plan was launched. The mission, however, was fraught with mistakes and bad luck. Three of the helicopters malfunctioned; the pilot of a fourth, blinded by a dust storm, crashed into a refueling aircraft. Eight U.S. servicemen were killed in the unsuccessful operation.

The hostage-takers responded to the failed rescue attempt by moving their captives to several secret locations in different cities. On July 11, one ill captive was released. Meanwhile, the ongoing hostage crisis was costing President Carter the support of his people and some of his advisors, including Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had opposed the rescue. Carter later lost his reelection bid to former California governor Ronald Reagan in a landslide.

The siege ends. In the fall of 1980, the exiled Shah died of cancer complications. In September, Iran agreed to begin negotiations for the hostages' release. In exchange for their release, the United States agreed to turn over $8 billion of Iran's frozen assets, and to refrain from interfering politically or militarily in Iran's internal affairs. The United States and Iran signed the agreement on January 19, 1981, but in a final embarrassment to Carter, the militants did not release the hostages until January 20, the day President Reagan was inaugurated. Just minutes after Reagan took office, a plane carrying the fifty-two remaining hostages left Tehran for a U.S. Army base in Germany. From his home in Georgia, former president Carter announced that the plane carrying the hostages had cleared Iranian airspace, and that every one of the hostages "was alive, was well, and free."



Rivers, Gayle, and James Hudson. The Teheran Contract. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.,1981.

Sick, Gary. All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran. New York: Random House, Inc., 1985.

Wells, Tim. Four Hundred and Forty-Four Days: The Hostages Remember. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1985.


Schaumburg, Ron. "Americans Held Hostage." New York Times Upfront. (January 15, 2001):23.

Olson, Tod. "America Held Hostage: The Iranian Hostage Crisis Would Torment Americaand Topple a President."Scholastic Update. (May 11, 1998):2022.


Carter Adminstration (19771981), United States National Security Policy
Iran, Intelligence and Security

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Iran Hostage Crisis


IRAN HOSTAGE CRISIS. On 4 November 1979, Islamic militants overran the American embassy in Teheran, Iran, initiating a crisis that lasted through the end of President Jimmy Carter's term. The militants held fifty-two of the embassy's personnel hostage for 444 days. Relations between the United States and Iran began to disintegrate in early 1979, during the Iranian revolution. Following the overthrow of the U.S. ally Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi, the new government, led by the Muslim fundamentalist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, focused much of its fervor against the United States, culminating with the embassy takeover following Carter's decision to allow the shah to enter the United States for cancer treatment. The United States attempted to pursue political, diplomatic, and economic measures to broker the release of the hostages. Carter also organized a military contingency plan in the event that nonmilitary solutions failed.

The White House attempted several failed diplomatic initiatives and mounted a campaign of international pressure on Iran, which brought condemnations from governments around the world. The sole successful diplomatic measure was an initiative from Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) representatives that gained the release of thirteen female and African American hostages. Carter also signed an order to freeze all of Iran's assets in American banks.

Despite continued pressure on Iran, the hostages remained in captivity five months after the crisis began, and pressure mounted on the Carter administration to find a more effective solution. After much deliberation, Carter authorized an ill-fated military mission to rescue the hostages. The 24 April 1979 rescue mission suffered from military miscalculations and untimely mechanical failures, forcing the mission to be aborted. The final mishap came during a refueling stop, when two of the helicopters collided, killing eight servicemen. When President Carter informed the nation of the mission and its failure, he suffered politically.

The failure of the rescue mission did not end negotiations, but the administration appeared to be paralyzed by the crisis. The Iranians released the hostages on 20 January 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president. U.S. relations with Iran did not return to their earlier cordial nature during the twentieth century. Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton faced a hostile Islamic state on the borders of the Persian Gulf.


Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Jordan, Hamilton. Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency. New York: Putnam, 1982.

Sick, Gary. All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran. New York: Random House, 1985.

Stephanie WilsonMcConnell

See alsoIran, Relations with ; andvol. 9:Interrogation of an Iran Hostage .

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Iran hostage crisis

Iran hostage crisis, in U.S. history, events following the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by Iranian students on Nov. 4, 1979. The overthrow of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi of Iran by an Islamic revolutionary government earlier in the year had led to a steady deterioration in Iran-U.S. relations. In response to the exiled shah's admission (Sept., 1979) to the United States for medical treatment, a crowd of about 500 seized the embassy. Of the approximately 90 people inside the embassy, 52 remained in captivity until the end of the crisis.

President Carter applied economic pressure by halting oil imports from Iran and freezing Iranian assets in the United States. At the same time, he began several diplomatic initiatives to free the hostages, all of which proved fruitless. On Apr. 24, 1980, the United States attempted a rescue mission that failed. After three of eight helicopters were damaged in a sandstorm, the operation was aborted; eight persons were killed during the evacuation. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had opposed the action, resigned after the mission's failure.

In 1980, the death of the shah in Egypt and the invasion of Iran by Iraq (see Iran-Iraq War) made the Iranians more receptive to resolving the hostage crisis. In the United States, failure to resolve the crisis contributed to Ronald Reagan's defeat of Carter in the presidential election. After the election, with the assistance of Algerian intermediaries, successful negotiations began. On Jan. 20, 1981, the day of President Reagan's inauguration, the United States released almost $8 billion in Iranian assets and the hostages were freed after 444 days in Iranian detention; the agreement gave Iran immunity from lawsuits arising from the incident.

In 2000 former hostages and their survivors sued Iran under the 1996 Antiterrorism Act, which permits U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments in cases of state-sponsored terrorism. The following year they won the lawsuit by default when Iran did not offer a defense. The U.S. State Dept. sought dismissal of the suit, arguing it would hinder its ability to negotiate international agreements, and a federal judge dismissed the plaintiffs' suit for damages in 2002, ruling that the agreement that resulted in their release barred awarding any damages.

See G. Sick, All Fall Down (1985).

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