Iran Hostage Crisis


From November 4, 1979, and ended on January 20, 1981, the Iran hostage crisis was a severe diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Iranian administrations. Iranian terrorists held 52 American citizens prisoner in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days. The hostage crisis, which was sparked by anti-American sentiment following Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, damaged US-Iranian ties for decades and contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s inability to win re-election to a second term in 1980. The fifty-two American hostages held at the U.S. embassy in Teheran, Iran, are freed minutes after Ronald Reagan sworn as the president of the United States, bringing an end to the 444-day Iran Hostage Crisis. Indeed, this is one of the top political events in the 80s.

What is the relationship between the USA and Iran?

Relations between the United States and Iran had been worsening throughout the 1950s, as the two nations fought over control of Iran’s vast oil reserves. Tensions reached a breaking point after Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1978-1979. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s longstanding ruler, had a strong relationship with U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which infuriated Iran’s widely supported Islamic revolutionary leaders. Shah Pahlavi was ousted in a bloodless coup d’etat in January 1979, fled to exile, and was replaced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a famous radical Islamic cleric. Khomeini quickly returned Pahlavi’s administration with a militant Islamic regime, promising more freedom for the Iranian people.

Siege in Tehran

The U.S. Embassy in Tehran has been anti-American rallies by Iranians since the Islamic revolution began. The embassy was captured by armed Iranian guerrillas on February 14, 1979, less than a month after the overthrown Shah Pahlavi fled to Egypt and Ayatollah Khomeini took control. Ambassador William H. Sullivan of the United States and about 100 other staff members were detained briefly before being released by Khomeini’s revolutionary troops. The event resulted in the deaths of two Iranians and the injuries of two US Marines.

On October 22, 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized Shah Pahlavi, the deposed Iranian leader, to visit the United States for terminal cancer treatment. Khomeini was incensed by the move, which heightened anti-American sentiment in Iran. Demonstrators gathered near the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, chanting “Death to the Shah!” “Death to Carter!” exclaims the crowd. “Death to America!” yells the crowd. “We dropped a flaming branch into a pail full of kerosene,” said embassy officer and future prisoner Moorhead Kennedy.

Who are the Hostages?

The majority of the hostages were American diplomats, ranging from the chargé d’affaires to embassy support workers. 21 US Marines, businesspeople, reporters, government contractors, and at least three CIA personnel were among the hostages who were not diplomatic staff. On November 17, Khomeini authorized the release of 13 captives. Khomeini claimed that he was releasing the hostages because they, too, had been victims of “the tyranny of American civilization,” as he put it. After becoming critically ill, a 14th captive was freed on July 11, 1980. For a total of 444 days, the remaining 52 hostages would be held captive. 

Only two women remained in captivity, whether they wanted to stay or were forced to. Elizabeth Ann Swift, 38, the embassy’s political division chief, and Kathryn L. Koob, 41, of the U.S. International Communications Agency, were the victims.

Although none of the 52 hostages were murdered or badly injured, they were not treated kindly. They were made to pose for television cameras while bound, gagged, and blindfolded. They had no way of knowing whether they would be tortured, executed, or released. While Ann Swift and Kathryn Koob claimed to have been treated “well,” many others were subjected to simulated executions and games of Russian roulette with empty guns, much to the pleasure of their guards. The hostages were treated better as the days turned into months. Their blindfolds were removed, and their bindings were eased, though they were still forbidden from speaking. Meals became more consistent, and only light activity was permitted. Politics among Iran’s revolutionary leadership has been blamed for the hostages’ prolonged detention. “This has unified our people,” Ayatollah Khomeini informed Iran’s president at one point. “Our adversaries are afraid to take action against us.”

Negotiation Process

The United States suspended official diplomatic relations with Iran shortly after the hostage crisis began. In the hopes of negotiating the release of the hostages, President Jimmy Carter dispatched a mission to Iran. The group, however, was denied entrance to Iran and was forced to return to the United States.

After his diplomatic efforts were rejected, President Carter imposed economic sanctions on Iran. On November 12, the U.S. ceased purchasing Iranian oil, and on November 14, Carter signed an executive order stopping all Iranian assets in the U.S.

The United Nations passed two resolutions condemning Iran in December 1979. Furthermore, officials from other nations began to assist in the release of the American captives. On January 28, 1980, six Americans who had fled from the U.S. Embassy before it was taken were returned to the United States by Canadian diplomats in what became known as the “Canadian Caper.”

Following the failure of the rescue attempt, the U.S. and Iran began to negotiate. Algeria facilitated the negotiations, which were held in secret. The talks were successful in breaking the stalemate. In dire need of cash, Iran agreed to release the prisoners in exchange for $8 billion in blocked Iranian assets in western institutions. Former President Jimmy Carter met the hostages when they landed in West Germany the day after they were released. The hostage crisis caused a breach in ties between Iran and the United States, which has yet to be repaired.

Release of the Hostages

On September 22 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi invasion of Iran weakened Iranian authorities’ capacity and resolve to pursue hostage negotiations. The United Nations Security Council told Iran that most U.N. member countries would not back it in its war with Iraq unless the American captives were released in October 1980. New hostage discussions resumed in late 1980 and early 1981, with neutral Algerian diplomats serving as mediators. Iran finally freed the hostages on January 20, 1981, only hours after Ronald Reagan became the new president of the United States.

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