Iran hostage crisis

The Iran hostage crisis was a diplomatic standoff between Iran and the United States. Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981 after a group of Iranian students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, who supported the Iranian Revolution, took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. [3] It stands as the longest hostage crisis in recorded history. [4]

The crisis was described by the Western media as an "entanglement" of "vengeance and mutual incomprehension". [5] President Jimmy Carter called the hostages "victims of terrorism and anarchy" and said: "The United States will not yield to blackmail." [6] In Iran, it was widely seen as a blow against the United States and its influence in Iran, including its perceived attempts to undermine the Iranian Revolution and its longstanding support of the recently overthrown Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had led an autocratic regime.

After his overthrow in 1979, the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was purportedly admitted to the United States for cancer treatment. Iran demanded that he be returned to stand trial for crimes he was accused of committing during his reign. Specifically, Pahlavi was accused of committing crimes against Iranian citizens with the help of his secret police, the SAVAK. Iranians saw the decision to grant him asylum as American complicity in those atrocities. The Americans saw the hostage-taking as an egregious violation of the principles of international law, which granted diplomats immunity from arrest and made diplomatic compounds inviolable. [7] [8] [9] [10]

The crisis reached a climax after diplomatic negotiations failed to win release for the hostages. United States President Jimmy Carter ordered the United States military to attempt a rescue operation using warships—including the USS Nimitz and USS Coral Sea—that were patrolling the waters near Iran. On April 24, 1980, the attempt, known as Operation Eagle Claw, failed, resulting in the accidental deaths of eight American servicemen and one Iranian civilian, as well as the destruction of two helicopters. Six American diplomats who had evaded capture were eventually rescued by a joint CIA-Canadian effort on January 27, 1980.

Shah Pahlavi left the United States in December 1979 and was ultimately granted asylum in Egypt, where he died from complications of cancer on July 27, 1980. In September 1980, the Iraqi military invaded Iran, beginning the Iran–Iraq War. These events led the Iranian government to enter negotiations with the U.S., with Algeria acting as a mediator. The hostages were formally released into United States custody the day after the signing of the Algiers Accords, just minutes after the new American president, Ronald Reagan, was sworn into office.

The crisis is considered a pivotal episode in the history of Iran–United States relations. [11] Political analysts cite it as a major factor in the downfall of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and his landslide loss in the 1980 presidential election. [12] In Iran, the crisis strengthened the prestige of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the political power of theocrats who opposed any normalization of relations with the West. [13] The crisis also led to the United States’ economic sanctions against Iran, further weakening ties between the two countries. [14]


1953 coup d'état

In February 1979, less than a year before the crisis, the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown during the Iranian Islamic Revolution. For several decades before that, the United States had allied with and supported the Shah. During World War II, Allied powers Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Iran to force the abdication of first Pahlavi monarch Reza Shah Pahlavi, in favor of his eldest son, Crown Prince Mohammad. [15] The Allies feared that Reza Shah intended to align his petroleum-rich country with Nazi Germany, but Reza Shah’s earlier declaration of neutrality, and his refusal to allow Iranian territory to be used to train or supply Soviet troops against Germany, were the strongest motives for the Allied invasion of Iran. Because of its importance in the Allied victory, Iran was subsequently called "The Bridge of Victory" by Winston Churchill. [16]

By the 1950s, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was engaged in a power struggle with Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, an immediate descendant of the preceding Qajar dynasty. Mosaddegh led a general strike on behalf of impoverished Iranians, demanding a share of the nation’s petroleum revenue from Britain’s Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. However, he overstepped in trying to get $50 million in damages and lost revenue from the British. [17][ better source needed] In 1953, the British and American spy agencies helped Iranian royalists depose Mosaddegh in a military coup d'état codenamed Operation Ajax, allowing the Shah to extend his power. The Shah appointed himself an absolute monarch rather than a constitutional monarch, his position before the 1953 crisis, with the aim of assuming complete control of the government and purging the disloyal. [18] [19] [20] The U.S. continued to support and fund the Shah after the coup, with the Central Intelligence Agency training the government’s SAVAK secret police. In the subsequent decades of the Cold War, various economic, cultural, and political issues united opposition against the Shah and led to his overthrow. [21] [22] [23]

Carter administration

Months before the revolution, on New Year’s Eve 1977, President Carter further angered anti-Shah Iranians with a televised toast to Pahlavi, declaring how beloved the Shah was by his people. After the revolution culminated in February 1979 with the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from France, the American Embassy was occupied and its staff held hostage briefly. Rocks and bullets had broken so many of the embassy’s front-facing windows that they had been replaced with bulletproof glass. The embassy’s staff was reduced to just over sixty from a high of nearly one thousand earlier in the decade. [24]

The Carter administration tried to mitigate anti-American feeling by promoting a new relationship with the de facto Iranian government and continuing military cooperation in hopes that the situation would stabilize. However, on October 22, 1979, the United States permitted the Shah, who had lymphoma, to enter New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center for medical treatment. [25] The State Department had discouraged the request, understanding the political delicacy. [24] But in response to pressure from influential figures including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Council on Foreign Relations Chairman David Rockefeller, the Carter administration decided to grant it. [26] [27] [28]

The Shah’s admission to the United States intensified Iranian revolutionaries’ anti-Americanism and spawned rumors of another U.S.-backed coup that would re-install him. [29] Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been exiled by the Shah for fifteen years, heightened the rhetoric against the “ Great Satan”, as he called the United States, talking of “evidence of American plotting”. [30] In addition to ending what they believed was American sabotage of the revolution, the hostage takers hoped to depose the provisional revolutionary government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, which they believed was plotting to normalize relations with the United States and extinguish Islamic revolutionary order in Iran. [31] The occupation of the embassy on November 4, 1979, was also intended as leverage to demand the return of the Shah to stand trial in Iran in exchange for the hostages.

A later study claimed that there had been no American plots to overthrow the revolutionaries, and that a CIA intelligence-gathering mission at the embassy had been “notably ineffectual, gathering little information and hampered by the fact that none of the three officers spoke the local language, Persian”. Its work, the study said, was “routine, prudent espionage conducted at diplomatic missions everywhere.” [32]

Other Languages
Bahasa Indonesia: Krisis sandera Iran
Bahasa Melayu: Krisis tebusan Iran
Simple English: Iran hostage crisis