Iran hostage crisis
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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. It stands as the longest hostage crisis in recorded history.
The crisis was described by the Western media as an “entanglement” of “vengeance and mutual incomprehension.” President Jimmy Carter called the hostages “victims of terrorism and anarchy” and said, “The United States will not yield to blackmail.” 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.
The crisis reached a climax when, after failed efforts to negotiate the hostages’ release, the United States military attempted a rescue operation using ships, 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 deaths of eight American servicemen and one Iranian civilian, as well as the destruction of two aircraft.
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. Political analysts cite it as a major factor in the trajectory of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and his loss in the 1980 presidential election. 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. The crisis also led to the United States’ economic sanctions against Iran, further weakening ties between the two countries.
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 The 444-day crisis
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Hostages
- 6 October Surprise conspiracy theory
- 7 In popular culture
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
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. 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.
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.[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. 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.
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.
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. The State Department had discouraged the request, understanding the political delicacy. 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.
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. 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”. 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. 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.”
On the morning of February 14, 1979 – the same day that the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped and fatally shot by Muslim extremists in Kabul – Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took a Marine named Kenneth Kraus hostage. Ambassador William Sullivan surrendered the embassy to save lives, and with the assistance of Iranian Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi, returned the embassy to U.S. hands within three hours. Kraus was injured in the attack, kidnapped by the militants, tortured, tried, and convicted of murder. He was to be executed, but President Carter and Sullivan secured his release within six days. This incident became known as the Valentine’s Day Open House.
The next attempt to seize the American Embassy was planned for September 1979 by Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a student at the time. He consulted with the heads of the Islamic associations of Tehran’s main universities, including the University of Tehran, Sharif University of Technology, Amirkabir University of Technology (Polytechnic of Tehran), and Iran University of Science and Technology. They named their group Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line.
Asgharzadeh later said there were five students at the first meeting, two of whom wanted to target the Soviet Embassy because the USSR was “a Marxist and anti-God regime”. Two others, Mohsen Mirdamadi and Habibolah Bitaraf, supported Asgharzadeh’s chosen target: the United States. “Our aim was to object against the American government by going to their embassy and occupying it for several hours,” Asgharzadeh said. “Announcing our objections from within the occupied compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way.” Mirdamadi told an interviewer, “We intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more.” Masoumeh Ebtekar, the spokeswoman for the Iranian students during the crisis, said that those who rejected Asgharzadeh’s plan did not participate in the subsequent events.
The students observed the procedures of the Marine Security Guards from nearby rooftops overlooking the embassy. They also drew on their experiences from the recent revolution, during which the U.S. Embassy grounds were briefly occupied. They enlisted the support of police officers in charge of guarding the embassy and of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
According to the group and other sources, Ayatollah Khomeini did not know of the plan beforehand. The students had wanted to inform him, but according to the author Mark Bowden, Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha persuaded them not to. Khoeiniha feared that the government would use the police to expel the students as they had the occupiers in February. The provisional government had been appointed by Khomeini, and so Khomeini was likely to go along with the government’s request to restore order. On the other hand, Khoeiniha knew that if Khomeini first saw that the occupiers were faithful supporters of him (unlike the leftists in the first occupation) and that large numbers of pious Muslims had gathered outside the embassy to show their support for the takeover, it would be “very hard, perhaps even impossible”, for him to oppose the takeover, and this would paralyze the Bazargan administration, which Khoeiniha and the students wanted to eliminate.
Supporters of the takeover stated that their motivation was fear of another American-backed coup against their popular revolution. They claimed that in 1953, the American Embassy had acted as a “den of spies” from which the coup was organized. Documents were later found in the embassy suggesting that some staff members had been working with American intelligence agencies. After the Shah entered the United States, Ayatollah Khomeini called for street demonstrations.
On November 4, 1979, one of the demonstrations organized by Iranian student unions loyal to Khomeini erupted into an all-out conflict right outside the walled compound housing the U.S. Embassy.
Around 6:30 a.m., the ringleaders gathered between three hundred and five hundred selected students and briefed them on the battle plan. A female student was given a pair of metal cutters to break the chains locking the embassy’s gates and hid them beneath her chador.
At first, the students planned a symbolic occupation, in which they would release statements to the press and leave when government security forces came to restore order. This was reflected in placards saying: “Don’t be afraid. We just want to sit in.” When the embassy guards brandished firearms, the protesters retreated, with one telling the Americans, “We don’t mean any harm.” But as it became clear that the guards would not use deadly force and that a large, angry crowd had gathered outside the compound to cheer the occupiers and jeer the hostages, the plan changed. According to one embassy staff member, buses full of demonstrators began to appear outside the embassy shortly after the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line broke through the gates.
As Khoeiniha had hoped, Khomeini supported the takeover. According to Foreign Minister Yazdi, when he went to Qom to tell Khomeini about it, Khomeini told him to “go and kick them out.” But later that evening, back in Tehran, Yazdi heard on the radio that Khomeini had issued a statement supporting the seizure, calling it “the second revolution” and the embassy an “American spy den in Tehran”.
The occupiers bound and blindfolded the Marines and staff at the embassy and paraded them in front of photographers. In the first couple of days, many of the embassy workers who had sneaked out of the compound or had not been there at the time of the takeover were rounded up by Islamists and returned as hostages. Six American diplomats managed to avoid capture and took refuge in the British Embassy before being transferred to the Canadian Embassy. Others went to the Swedish Embassy in Tehran for three months. In a joint covert operation known as the Canadian caper, the Canadian government and the CIA managed to smuggle them out of Iran on January 28, 1980, using Canadian passports and a cover story that identified them as a film crew.
A State Department diplomatic cable of November 8, 1979, details “A TENTATIVE, INCOMPLETE LIST OF U.S. PERSONNEL BEING HELD IN THE EMBASSY COMPOUND”.
The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line demanded that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi return to Iran for trial and execution. The U.S. maintained that the Shah – who was to die less than a year later, in July 1980 – had come to America for medical attention. The group’s other demands included that the U.S. government apologize for its interference in the internal affairs of Iran, including the overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953, and that Iran's frozen assets in the United States be released.
The initial plan was to hold the embassy for only a short time, but this changed after it became apparent how popular the takeover was and that Khomeini had given it his full support. Some attributed the decision not to release the hostages quickly to President Carter’s failure to immediately deliver an ultimatum to Iran. His initial response was to appeal for the release of the hostages on humanitarian grounds and to share his hopes for a strategic anti-communist alliance with the Ayatollah. As some of the student leaders had hoped, Iran’s moderate prime minister, Bazargan, and his cabinet resigned under pressure just days after the takeover.
The duration of the hostages’ captivity has also been attributed to internal Iranian revolutionary politics. As Ayatollah Khomeini told Iran’s president:
This has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us. We can put the constitution to the people’s vote without difficulty, and carry out presidential and parliamentary elections.
Theocratic Islamists, as well as leftist political groups like the socialist People's Mujahedin of Iran, supported the taking of hostages as a counterattack against “American imperialism”. According to scholar Daniel Pipes, writing in 1980, the Marxist-leaning leftists and the Islamists shared a common antipathy toward market-based reforms under the late Shah, and both subsumed individualism, including the unique identity of women, under conservative, though contrasting, visions of collectivism. Accordingly, both groups favored the Soviet Union over the United States in the early months of the Iranian Revolution. The Soviets, and possibly their allies Cuba, Libya, and East Germany, were suspected of providing indirect assistance to the participants in the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The PLO under Yasser Arafat provided personnel, intelligence liaisons, funding, and training for Khomeini’s forces before and after the Revolution, and was suspected of playing a role in the embassy crisis. Fidel Castro reportedly praised Khomeini as a revolutionary anti-imperialist who could find common cause between revolutionary socialists and anti-American Islamists. Both expressed disdain for modern capitalism and a preference for authoritarian collectivism. Cuba and its socialist ally Venezuela, under Hugo Chávez, would later form ALBA in alliance with the Islamic Republic as a counter to neoliberal American influence.
Revolutionary teams displayed secret documents purportedly taken from the embassy, sometimes painstakingly reconstructed after shredding, to buttress their claim that “the Great Satan” (the U.S.) was trying to destabilize the new regime and that Iranian moderates were in league with the U.S. The documents – including telegrams, correspondence, and reports from the U.S. State Department and CIA – were published in a series of books called Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den (Persian: اسناد لانه جاسوسی امریكا). According to a 1997 Federation of American Scientists bulletin, by 1995, 77 volumes of Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den had been published. Many of these volumes are now available online.
By embracing the hostage-taking under the slogan “America can’t do a thing”, Khomeini rallied support and deflected criticism of his controversial theocratic constitution, which was scheduled for a referendum vote in less than one month. The referendum was successful, and after the vote, both leftists and theocrats continued to use allegations of pro-Americanism to suppress their opponents: relatively moderate political forces that included the Iranian Freedom Movement, the National Front, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, and later President Abolhassan Banisadr. In particular, carefully selected diplomatic dispatches and reports discovered at the embassy and released by the hostage-takers led to the disempowerment and resignation of moderate figures such as Bazargan. The failed rescue attempt and the political danger of any move seen as accommodating America delayed a negotiated release of the hostages. After the crisis ended, leftists and theocrats turned on each other, with the stronger theocratic group annihilating the left.
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The 444-day crisis
The hostage-takers, declaring their solidarity with other “oppressed minorities” and “the special place of women in Islam”, released one woman and two African Americans on November 19. Before release, these hostages were required by their captors to hold a press conference in which Kathy Gross and William Quarles praised the revolution’s aims, but four further women and six African-Americans were released the following day. The only African-American hostage not released that month was Charles A. Jones, Jr. One more hostage, a white man named Richard Queen, was released in July 1980 after he became seriously ill with what was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. The remaining 52 hostages were held until January 1981, up to 444 days of captivity.
The hostages were initially held at the embassy, but after the failed rescue mission, they were scattered around Iran to make a single rescue impossible. Three high-level officials – Bruce Laingen, Victor Tomseth, and Mike Howland – were at the Foreign Ministry at the time of the takeover. They stayed there for some months, sleeping in the ministry’s formal dining room and washing their socks and underwear in the bathroom. At first, they were treated as diplomats, but after the provisional government fell, their treatment deteriorated. By March, the doors to their living space were kept “chained and padlocked.”
By midsummer 1980, the Iranians had moved the hostages to prisons in Tehran to prevent escapes or rescue attempts and to improve the logistics of guard shifts and food delivery. The final holding area, from November 1980 until their release, was the Teymur Bakhtiar mansion in Tehran, where the hostages were finally given tubs, showers, and hot and cold running water. Several foreign diplomats and ambassadors – including former Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor – visited the hostages over the course of the crisis and relayed information back to the U.S. government, including dispatches from Laingen.
Iranian propaganda stated that the hostages were “guests” and were treated with respect. Asgharzadeh, the student leader, described the original plan as a nonviolent and symbolic action in which the “gentle and respectful treatment” of the hostages would dramatize to the world the offended sovereignty and dignity of Iran. In America, an Iranian chargé d'affaires, Ali Agha, stormed out of a meeting with an American official, exclaiming: “We are not mistreating the hostages. They are being very well taken care of in Tehran. They are our guests.”
The actual treatment was far different. The hostages described beatings, theft, and fear of bodily harm. Two of them, William Belk and Kathryn Koob, recalled being paraded blindfolded before an angry, chanting crowd outside the embassy. Others reported having their hands bound “day and night” for days or even weeks; long periods of solitary confinement; and months of being forbidden to speak to one another or to stand, walk, or leave their space unless they were going to the bathroom. All of the hostages “were threatened repeatedly with execution, and took it seriously”. The hostage-takers played Russian roulette with their victims.
The most terrifying night for the hostages came on February 5, 1980, when guards in black ski masks roused them from their sleep and led them blindfolded to other rooms. They were searched after being ordered to strip naked and keep their hands up. They were then told to kneel down, still wearing blindfolds. “This was the greatest moment,” one hostage said. Another later recalled, “It was an embarrassing moment. However, we were too scared to realize it.” The guards cocked their weapons and readied them to fire, but finally ejected their rounds and told the prisoners to get dressed. The hostages were later told that the exercise had been “just a joke,” something the guards “had wanted to do.”
One, Michael Metrinko, was kept in solitary confinement for months. On two occasions, when he expressed his opinion of Ayatollah Khomeini, he was punished severely. The first time, he was kept in handcuffs for two weeks, and the second time, he was beaten and kept alone in a freezing cell for two weeks.
Another hostage, U.S. Army medic Donald Hohman, went on a hunger strike for several weeks, and two hostages attempted suicide. Steve Lauterbach broke a water glass and slashed his wrists after being locked in a dark basement room with his hands tightly bound. He was found by guards and rushed to the hospital. Jerry Miele, a CIA communication technician, smashed his head into the corner of a door, knocking himself unconscious and cutting a deep gash. “Naturally withdrawn” and looking “ill, old, tired, and vulnerable,” Miele had become the butt of his guards’ jokes, and they had rigged up a mock electric chair to emphasize the fate that awaited him. His fellow hostages applied first aid and raised the alarm, and he was taken to a hospital after a long delay created by the guards.
Other hostages described threats to boil their feet in oil (Alan B. Golacinski), cut their eyes out (Rick Kupke), or kidnap and kill a disabled son in America and “start sending pieces of him to your wife” (David Roeder).
Four hostages tried to escape, and all were punished with stretches of solitary confinement when their attempts were discovered.
Queen, the hostage sent home because of his multiple sclerosis, first developed dizziness and numbness in his left arm six months before his release. His symptoms were misdiagnosed by the Iranians at first as a reaction to drafts of cold air. When warmer confinement did not help, he was told that it was “nothing” and that the symptoms would soon disappear. Over the months, the numbness spread to his right side, and the dizziness worsened until he “was literally flat on his back, unable to move without growing dizzy and throwing up.”
The cruelty of the Iranian prison guards became “a form of slow torture.” The guards often withheld mail – telling one hostage, Charles W. Scott, “I don’t see anything for you, Mr. Scott. Are you sure your wife has not found another man?” – and the hostages’ possessions went missing.
As the hostages were taken to the aircraft that would fly them out of Tehran, they were led through a gauntlet of students forming parallel lines and shouting, “Marg bar Amrika” (“death to America”). When the pilot announced that they were out of Iran, the “freed hostages went wild with happiness. Shouting, cheering, crying, clapping, falling into one another’s arms.”
Impact in the United States
In the United States, the hostage crisis created “a surge of patriotism” and left “the American people more united than they have been on any issue in two decades”. The hostage-taking was seen “not just as a diplomatic affront”, but as a “declaration of war on diplomacy itself.” Television news gave daily updates. In January 1980, the CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite began ending each show by saying how many days the hostages had been captive. President Carter applied economic and diplomatic pressure: Oil imports from Iran were ended on November 12, 1979, and with Executive Order 12170, around US$8 billion of Iranian assets in the United States were frozen by the Office of Foreign Assets Control on November 14.
During the weeks leading up to Christmas in 1979, high school students made cards that were delivered to the hostages. Community groups across the country did the same, resulting in bales of Christmas cards. The National Christmas Tree was left dark except for the top star.
The two Trenton NJ newspapers at the time, The Trenton Times and the Trentonian and perhaps others around the country, printed full-page color American flags in their newspapers for readers to cut-out and place in the front windows of their homes as support for the hostages to be left in their windows until the hostages were brought home safely.
According to Bowden, a pattern emerged in President Carter’s attempts to negotiate the hostages’ release: “Carter would latch on to a deal proffered by a top Iranian official and grant minor but humiliating concessions, only to have it scotched at the last minute by Khomeini.”
Canadian rescue of hostages
On the day the hostages were seized, six American diplomats evaded capture and remained in hiding at the home of the Canadian diplomat John Sheardown, under the protection of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor. In late 1979, the government of Prime Minister Joe Clark secretly issued an Order in Council allowing Canadian passports to be issued to some American citizens so that they could escape. In cooperation with the CIA, which used the cover story of a film project, two CIA agents and the six American diplomats boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich, Switzerland, on January 28, 1980. Their rescue from Iran, known as the Canadian caper, was fictionalized in the 2012 film Argo.
Negotiations for release
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First rescue attempt
After rejecting Iranian demands, Carter ordered an ill-fated secret rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw. Late in the afternoon of April 24, 1980, eight RH‑53D helicopters flew from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to a remote road serving as an airstrip in the Great Salt Desert of Eastern Iran, near Tabas. They encountered severe dust storms that disabled two of the helicopters, which were traveling in complete radio silence. Early the next morning, the remaining six helicopters met up with several waiting Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft at a landing site and refueling area designated “Desert One”.
At this point, a third helicopter was found to be unserviceable, bringing the total below the six deemed vital for the mission. The commander of the operation, Colonel Charles Alvin Beckwith, recommended that the mission be aborted, and his recommendation was approved by President Carter. As the helicopters repositioned themselves for refueling, one ran into a C‑130 tanker aircraft and crashed, killing eight U.S. servicemen and injuring several more.
In May 1980, the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned a Special Operations review group of six senior military officers, led by Admiral James L. Holloway III, to thoroughly examine all aspects of the rescue attempt. The group identified twenty-three issues that were significant in the failure of the mission, eleven of which it deemed major. The overriding issue was operational security: that is, keeping the mission secret so that the arrival of the rescue team at the embassy would be a complete surprise. This severed the usual relationship between pilots and weather forecasters; the pilots were not informed about the local dust storms. Another security requirement was that the helicopter pilots come from the same unit. The unit picked for the mission was a U.S. Navy mine-laying unit flying CH-53D Sea Stallions; these helicopters were considered the best suited for the mission because of their long range, large capacity, and compatibility with shipboard operations.
Two hours into the flight, the crew of helicopter No. 6 saw a warning light indicating that a main rotor might be cracked. They landed in the desert, confirmed visually that a crack had started to develop, and stopped flying in accordance with normal operating procedure. Helicopter No. 8 landed to pick up the crew of No. 6, and abandoned No. 6 in the desert without destroying it. The report by Holloway’s group pointed out that a cracked helicopter blade could have been used to continue the mission and that its likelihood of catastrophic failure would have been low for many hours, especially at lower flying speeds. The report found that the pilot of No. 6 would have continued the mission if instructed to do so.
When the helicopters encountered two dust storms along the way to the refueling point, the second more severe than the first, the pilot of No. 5 turned back because the mine-laying helicopters were not equipped with terrain-following radar. The report found that the pilot could have continued to the refueling point if he had been told that better weather awaited him there, but because of the command for radio silence, he did not ask about the conditions ahead. The report also concluded that “there were ways to pass the information” between the refueling station and the helicopter force “that would have small likelihood of compromising the mission” – in other words, that the ban on communication had not been necessary at this stage.
Helicopter No. 2 experienced a partial hydraulic system failure but was able to fly on for four hours to the refueling location. There, an inspection showed that a hydraulic fluid leak had damaged a pump and that the helicopter could not be flown safely, nor repaired in time to continue the mission. Six helicopters was thought to be the absolute minimum required for the rescue mission, so with the force reduced to five, the local commander radioed his intention to abort. This request was passed through military channels to President Carter, who agreed.
After the mission and its failure were made known publicly, Khomeini credited divine intervention on behalf of Islam, and his prestige skyrocketed in Iran. Iranian officials who favored release of the hostages, such as President Bani Sadr, were weakened. In America, President Carter’s political popularity and prospects for being re-elected in 1980 were further damaged after a television address on April 25 in which he explained the rescue operation and accepted responsibility for its failure.
Planned second attempt
A second rescue attempt, planned but never carried out, would have used highly modified YMC-130H Hercules aircraft. Three aircraft, outfitted with rocket thrusters to allow an extremely short landing and takeoff in the Shahid Shiroudi football stadium near the embassy, were modified under a rushed, super-secret program known as Operation Credible Sport. One crashed during a demonstration at Eglin Air Force Base on October 29, 1980, when its braking rockets were fired too soon. The misfire caused a hard touchdown that tore off the starboard wing and started a fire, but all on board survived. After Carter lost the presidential election in November, the project was abandoned.
The failed rescue attempt led to the creation of the 160th SOAR, a helicopter aviation Special Forces group.
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With the completion of negotiations, the hostages were released on January 20, 1981, That day, at the moment President Reagan completed his 20‑minute inaugural address after being sworn in, the 52 American hostages were released to U.S. personnel. There are theories and conspiracy theories regarding why Iran postponed the release until that moment. (See also: October Surprise conspiracy theory) They were flown from Iran to Algeria as a symbolic gesture of appreciation for the Algerian government’s help in resolving the crisis. The flight continued to Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany and on to an Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden, where former President Carter, acting as emissary, received them. After medical check-ups and debriefings, the hostages took a second flight to Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, with a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, where they were greeted by a large crowd. From Newburgh, they traveled by bus to the United States Military Academy at West Point and stayed at the Thayer Hotel for three days, receiving a heroes’ welcome all along the route. Ten days after their release, they were given a ticker tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes in New York City.
The Iraqi invasion of Iran occurred less than a year after the embassy employees were taken hostage. The journalist Stephen Kinzer argues that the dramatic change in American–Iranian relations, from allies to enemies, helped embolden the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, and that the United States’ anger with Iran led it to aid the Iraqis after the war turned against them. The United States supplied Iraq with, among other things, “helicopters and satellite intelligence that was used in selecting bombing targets.” This assistance “deepened and widened anti-American feeling in Iran.”
Consequences for Iran
The hostage-taking was unsuccessful for Iran in some respects. It lost international support for its war against Iraq, and the negotiated settlement was considered almost wholly favorable to the United States because it did not meet any of Iran’s original demands, However, in the documentary titled “Iran and the West” , made decades later, Carter and several other key politicians of that time acknowledged the fact that the United States, alongside the United Kingdom, agreed to return several billion dollars of Iranian assets in exchange for the release of hostages. Nevertheless, the crisis strengthened Iranians who had supported the hostage-taking. Anti-Americanism became even more intense. Politicians such as Khoeiniha and Behzad Nabavi were left in a stronger position, while those associated with—or accused of association with—America were removed from the political picture. A Khomeini biographer, Baqer Moin, described the crisis as “a watershed in Khomeini’s life” that transformed him from “a cautious, pragmatic politician” into “a modern revolutionary single-mindedly pursuing a dogma”. In Khomeini’s statements, imperialism and liberalism were “negative words”, while revolution “became a sacred word, sometimes more important than Islam”.
Some[who?] have suggested that the greatest benefit of the takeover of the American Embassy was the acquisition of intelligence contained within the embassy, including the identity of informants to the U.S. government, which the new Islamist government could use to remove potential dissenters and consolidate its gains.
The Iranian government commemorates the event every year with a demonstration at the embassy and the burning of an American flag. However, on November 4, 2009, pro-democracy protesters and reformists demonstrated in the streets of Tehran. When the authorities encouraged them to chant “death to America”, the protesters instead chanted “death to the dictator” (referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and other anti-government slogans.
Consequences for the United States
In 2000, the hostages and their families tried unsuccessfully to sue Iran under the Antiterrorism Act of 1996. They originally won the case when Iran failed to provide a defense, but the State Department then tried to end the lawsuit, fearing that it would make international relations difficult. As a result, a federal judge ruled that no damages could be awarded to the hostages because of the agreement the United States had made when the hostages were freed.
The former U.S. Embassy building is now used by Iran’s government and affiliated groups. Since 2001, it has served as a museum to the revolution. Outside the door, there is a bronze model based on the Statue of Liberty on one side and a statue portraying one of the hostages on the other.
The Guardian reported in 2006 that a group called the Committee for the Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Campaign had used the embassy to recruit “martyrdom seekers”: volunteers to carry out operations against Western and Israeli targets. Mohammad Samadi, a spokesman for the group, signed up several hundred volunteers in a few days.
There were 66 original captives: 63 taken at the embassy and three captured and held at the Foreign Ministry offices. Three of the hostages were operatives of the CIA.
Thirteen hostages were released November 19–20, 1979, and one was released on July 11, 1980.
Diplomats who evaded capture
- Robert Anders, 34—consular officer
- Mark J. Lijek, 29—consular officer
- Cora A. Lijek, 25—consular assistant
- Henry L. Schatz, 31—agriculture attaché
- Joseph D. Stafford, 29—consular officer
- Kathleen F. Stafford, 28—consular assistant
Hostages released November 19, 1979
- Kathy Gross, 22—secretary
- Sgt Ladell Maples, USMC, 23—Marine Corps embassy guard
- Sgt William Quarles, USMC, 23—Marine Corps embassy guard
Hostages released November 20, 1979
- Sgt James Hughes, USAF, 30—Air Force administrative manager
- Lillian Johnson, 32—secretary
- Elizabeth Montagne, 42—secretary
- Lloyd Rollins, 40—administrative officer
- Capt Neal (Terry) Robinson, USAF, —Air Force military intelligence officer
- Terri Tedford, 24—secretary
- MSgt Joseph Vincent, USAF, 42—Air Force administrative manager
- Sgt David Walker, USMC, 25—Marine Corps embassy guard
- Joan Walsh, 33—secretary
- Cpl Wesley Williams, USMC, 24—Marine Corps embassy guard
Hostage released July 1980
- Richard Queen, 28—vice consul
Hostages released January 1981
- Thomas L. Ahern, Jr.—narcotics control officer (later identified as CIA station chief)
- Clair Cortland Barnes, 35—communications specialist
- William E. Belk, 44—communications and records officer
- Robert O. Blucker, 54—economics officer
- Donald J. Cooke, 25—vice consul
- William J. Daugherty, 33—third secretary of U.S. mission (CIA officer)
- LCDR Robert Englemann, USN, 34—Navy attaché
- Sgt William Gallegos, USMC, 22—Marine Corps guard
- Bruce W. German, 44—budget officer
- Duane L. Gillette, 24—Navy communications and intelligence specialist
- Alan B. Golacinski, 30—chief of embassy security, regional security officer
- John E. Graves, 53—public affairs officer
- CW3 Joseph M. Hall, USA, 32—Army attaché
- Sgt Kevin J. Hermening, USMC, 21—Marine Corps guard
- SFC Donald R. Hohman, USA, 38—Army medic
- COL Leland J. Holland, USA, 53—military attaché
- Michael Howland, 34—assistant regional security officer
- Charles A. Jones, Jr., 40—communications specialist, teletype operator
- Malcolm K. Kalp, 42—commercial officer
- Moorhead C. Kennedy, Jr., 50—economic and commercial officer
- William F. Keough, Jr., 50—superintendent of the American School in Islamabad (visiting Tehran at time of embassy seizure)
- Cpl Steven W. Kirtley, USMC, —Marine Corps guard
- Kathryn L. Koob, 42—embassy cultural officer (one of two unreleased female hostages)
- Frederick Lee Kupke, 34— communications officer and electronics specialist
- L. Bruce Laingen, 58—chargé d'affaires
- Steven Lauterbach, 29—administrative officer
- Gary E. Lee, 37—administrative officer
- Sgt Paul Edward Lewis, USMC, 23—Marine Corps guard
- John W. Limbert, Jr., 37—political officer
- Sgt James M. Lopez, USMC, 22—Marine Corps guard
- Sgt John D. McKeel, Jr., USMC, 27—Marine Corps guard
- Michael J. Metrinko, 34—political officer
- Jerry J. Miele, 42—communications officer
- SSgt Michael E. Moeller, USMC, 31—head of Marine Corps guard unit
- Bert C. Moore, 45—administration counselor
- Richard Morefield, 51—consul general
- Capt Paul M. Needham, Jr., USAF, 30—Air Force logistics staff officer
- Robert C. Ode, 65—retired foreign service officer on temporary duty in Tehran
- Sgt Gregory A. Persinger, USMC, 23—Marine Corps guard
- Jerry Plotkin, 45—civilian businessman visiting Tehran
- MSG Regis Ragan, USA, 38—Army soldier, defense attaché’s office
- Lt Col David M. Roeder, USAF, 41—deputy Air Force attaché
- Barry M. Rosen, 36—press attaché
- William B. Royer, Jr., 49—assistant director of Iran–American Society
- Col Thomas E. Schaefer, USAF, 50—Air Force attaché
- COL Charles W. Scott, USA, 48—Army attaché
- CDR Donald A. Sharer, USN, 40—Naval attaché
- Sgt Rodney V. (Rocky) Sickmann, USMC, 22—Marine Corps guard
- SSG Joseph Subic, Jr., USA, 23—military police, Army, defense attaché’s office
- Elizabeth Ann Swift, 40—deputy head of political section (one of two unreleased female hostages)
- Victor L. Tomseth, 39—counselor for political affairs
- Phillip R. Ward, 40—CIA communications officer
A small number of hostages were not connected to diplomatic staff. All were released by late 1981.
- Mohi Sobhani—Iranian American engineer and member of the Bahá'í Faith. Released February 4, 1981.
- Zia Nassry—Afghan American. Released November 1982.
- Cynthia Dwyer—American reporter, charged with espionage and expelled February 10, 1981.
- Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord—Electronic Data Systems employees, rescued by Ross Perot-funded operation in 1979.
- Four British missionaries, including Dr. Canon John Coleman; his wife, Audrey Coleman; and Jean Waddell; released in late 1981
All State Department and CIA employees taken hostage received the State Department Award for Valor. Political Officer Michael J. Metrinko received two: one for his time as a hostage and another for his daring rescue of Americans who had been jailed in Tabriz months before the embassy takeover.
The U.S. military later awarded the twenty servicemen among the hostages the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. The only hostage serviceman not issued the medal was Staff Sgt Joseph Subic, Jr., who “did not behave under stress the way noncommissioned officers are expected to act” – that is, he cooperated with the hostage-takers, according to other hostages.
The Humanitarian Service Medal was awarded to the servicemen of Joint Task Force 1–79, the planning authority for Operation Rice Bowl/Eagle Claw, who participated in the rescue attempt.
The Air Force Special Operations component of the mission was given the Air Force Outstanding Unit award for performing their part of the mission flawlessly, including evacuating the Desert One refueling site under extreme conditions.
Notable hostage-takers, guards, and interrogators
- Abbas Abdi—reformist, journalist, self-taught sociologist, and social activist.
- Hamid Aboutalebi—Iranian ambassador to the United Nations (2014–present).
- Ebrahim Asgharzadeh—then a student; later an Iranian political activist and politician, member of Parliament (1989–1993), and chairman of City Council of Tehran (1999–2003).
- Mohsen Mirdamadi—member of Parliament (2000–2004), head of Islamic Iran Participation Front.
- Masoumeh Ebtekar—interpreter and spokeswoman for the student group that occupied the embassy; later a scientist, journalist, first female Vice President of Iran, and head of Environment Protection Organization of Iran.
- Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha—spiritual leader of the hostage-takers.
- Hussein Sheikholeslam—then a student; later a member of Parliament and Iranian ambassador to Syria.
October Surprise conspiracy theory
Allegations that the Reagan administration negotiated a delay in the release of the hostages until after the 1980 presidential election have been numerous but unproven. Gary Sick, principal White House aide for Iran and the Persian Gulf on the Carter administration’s National Security Council, claimed in his book October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan that CIA Director William Casey and possibly Vice President George H. W. Bush went to Paris to negotiate such a delay. Many others have made the same allegations.
In popular culture
- Laurie Anderson’s surprise 1982 UK #2 hit ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’ is a reference to the failure of Operation Eagle Claw at the peak of the crisis.
- The movie Argo was based on the taking of hostages by Iranian revolutionaries.
- Baghdad kidnapping of Iranian diplomat (February 2007)
- Case Concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran
- Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam (2006)
- Iran–Contra affair
- Iranian diplomats kidnapping (1982)
- List of hostage crises
- Student Day in Iran
- United Nations Security Council Resolution 457 and 461 (1979) on the hostage crisis
- 2011 attack on the British Embassy in Iran
- 2016 attack on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran
- Mark Edmond Clark (2016), "An Analysis of the Role of the Iranian Diaspora in the Financial Support System of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq", in David Gold, Terrornomics, Routledge, p. 66–67, ISBN 1317045904,
Following the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, the MEK participated physically at the site by assisting in defending it from attack. The MEK also offered strong political support for the hostage-taking action.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Iran hostage crisis.|
- Recently-published picture of event tarikhirani.ir
- Complete set of seized documents from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran (Use Download links to get PDFs)
- From Hostages to Arms Scandal from the Dean Peter Krogh Foreign Affairs Digital Archives
- Video Archive of Hostage Crisis
- The Memory Hole hosts a gallery of photographs taken from inside the U.S. Embassy during the crisis.
- List of hostages and casualties
- The Iran Hostages: Efforts to Obtain Compensation Congressional Research Service
- Remembering the Iran hostage crisis, BBC’s interview with Ebrahim Asgeh, a hostage-taker, and Bruce Laingen, a captive
- Hostage list source
- America equipment used for spying
- “Learning to Keep a Secret”
- The Hostage Rescue Attempt as remembered by a Marine who was off Iran for that mission, with history leading up to the crisis, the events of that time of Crisis including the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan, and the Rescue Mission
- Avenue of Flags Memorial in Hermitage, PA
- Final number of This Week In Tehran, the Embassy newsletter for its employees, dated October 30, 1979
- Former hostages allege Iran’s new president was captor, CNN (archived)
- The short film Hostage Report (1981) is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- on YouTube
- Iranian 1987 stamp printed in anniversary of Iran hostage crisis revolution.shirazu.ac.ir visited on 4 November 2015
- Iran Hostage Crisis page on the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) & Joint Staff FOIA Center site.[dead link]
Records of the Prime Minister's Office, Correspondence & Papers; 1979-1997 at discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk: IRAN. Internal situation in Iran; Attack on British Embassy; Hostage-taking at US Embassy; Freezing of Iranian Assets; US Mission to release hostages; Relations with US & UK following hostage taking at US Embassy.