Creating new perspectives since 2009

Remembering the Iran hostage crisis

November 4, 2023 at 9:00 am

Three unidentified US hostages speak to the press while their Iranian captors (L and R) watch closely, at the besieged US embassy in Tehran, November 1979. [IRNA-FILES/AFP via Getty Images]

What: The US Embassy was besieged and taken over by Iranian revolutionary students, leading to a hostage crisis lasting 444 days

When: 4 November 1979 – 20 January 1981

Where: Tehran, Iran

From the Iranian perspective, the CIA-backed coup of 1953 that overthrew the democratically-elected populist government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh is often cited as the beginning of anti-American sentiments and hostile policies towards the US. For many Americans, though, the Iran hostage crisis that started on 4 November 1979 is remembered as the starting point of deteriorating relations with the then-newly established Islamic Republic of Iran.

Since then, the countries have had no diplomatic relations with each other, and their relationship has been strained, to say the least. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the “Iran nuclear deal”, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018, and the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 2020 have exacerbated negative links.

More recently, there have been heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf amid fears of a wider regional conflict spilling out of the current Israeli war against the Palestinians in Gaza, with Iranian-backed factions threatening to target US bases if Washington intervenes directly in the occupation state’s genocidal bombing campaign.

What happened?

Following the Islamic Revolution of Iran in February 1979, which led to the ousting of the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the establishment of a Shia theocracy, the Islamic Republic emerged in April of that year through a national referendum, ending over 2,500 years of monarchy.

This radical change in the country’s governance was met with widespread distrust of US involvement due to a long history of foreign interference and violations of Iranian sovereignty. Suspicion and resentment were particularly directed at the US embassy in Tehran, which had come to be seen as a “CIA den”. Tensions escalated when the US admitted the ailing Shah for cancer treatment in New York in October 1979, prompting demands within Iran for his extradition to face prosecution.

These tensions reached boiling point when, on 4 November, around 300 Iranian students stormed the US Embassy and took a number of Americans hostage. While not officially sanctioned by the Iranian leadership, the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, expressed his support for the students’ actions in what would become the Iran Hostage Crisis, a pivotal moment in US-Iranian relations with far-reaching implications for regional and international security for decades to come.

The day after the embassy takeover, the nascent Iranian government cancelled military treaties with both the US and the Soviet Union. After Khomeini’s refusal to meet with US negotiators dispatched by President Jimmy Carter, the latter ordered US banks to freeze Iranian assets.

This photo taken on the first day of occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran shows American hostages being paraded by their militant Iranian captors, on 04 November, 1979 [Bettmann/Getty Images]

This photo taken on the first day of occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran shows American hostages being paraded by their militant Iranian captors, on 04 November, 1979 [Bettmann/Getty Images]

READ: US-Iran prisoner swaps: Key exchanges in history

Thirteen women and African American hostages who the Iranian government described as “oppressed minorities” were released leaving 52 American citizens in captivity. Six American diplomats avoided capture and managed to flee the country with the help of the CIA and the Canadian government, events which were dramatised in the Hollywood movie Argo.

Despite growing international pressure and US sanctions imposed on Iran — as well as a botched rescue mission by the US Delta Force in April 1980, which left eight servicemen dead in the Tabas Desert — the crisis continued throughout the Carter presidency, with the onset of the devastating eight-year Iran-Iraq War later that year.

By the time the Shah passed away on 27 July 1980 in exile in Egypt, the Carter administration had still failed to reach an agreement to end one of the worst diplomatic crises in US history. Between 1980 and 1981, the Algerian government took a lead role in a series of negotiations, which led to the signing of the Algiers Accords on 19 January 1981 and an end to the crisis, in exchange for Iranian assets being unfrozen.

In a final act of humiliation, the hostages were only freed minutes after Carter’s successor, President Ronald Reagan was sworn-in on the following day.

According to the US Office of the Historian: “The Iran hostage crisis undermined Carter’s conduct of foreign policy. The crisis dominated the headlines and news broadcasts and made the Administration look weak and ineffectual. Although patient diplomacy conducted by Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher eventually resolved the crisis, Carter’s foreign policy team often seemed weak and vacillating.”

What happened next?

Exactly three years after the conclusion of the crisis, Iran was designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by Washington. In response to Iran’s growing regional influence, the US pursued a strategy of containment. However, this approach has failed, notably due to the repercussions of the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the more recent military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

As a result, successive US administrations have increasingly turned to economic warfare as a preferred means of exerting pressure on Tehran, employing sanctions as a staple of US foreign policy towards the country.

Moreover, cyber-attacks have been a tactic favoured by Iran’s regional adversary Israel. Speculation persists that war with the Islamic Republic is on the agenda among neo-cons and their Zionist allies, as the war against the Palestinians in Gaza risks becoming a regional conflict.

The site of the former US Embassy in Tehran still stands to this day and is now the Den of Espionage Museum housing relics of the past including pieced together documents “which the hostages frantically tried to destroy during the takeover.” The compound, which also partially functions as a training facility for the IRGC, features iconic anti-American, anti-Zionist graffiti and artwork on its walls.

READ: TIMELINE — US-Iran relations from 1953 coup to 2023 detainee swap deal

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.