The Iran hostage crisis lasted from November 4, 1979 until January 20, 1981, a 444-day period. During the crisis, the "Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line," (student proxies of the new Iranian regime) held hostage 63 diplomats and three other United States citizens inside the American Diplomatic mission in Tehran.
The hostage-takers released several captives, leaving 53 hostages at the end. The United States launched a rescue operation, Operation Eagle Claw, which failed, causing the deaths of eight servicemen. Some historians consider the crisis to have been a primary reason for U.S. President Jimmy Carter's loss in his re-election bid for the presidency in 1980. The crisis also punctuated the first Islamic revolution of modern times.
The crisis was ended by the Algiers Accords, although Iran alleges the U.S. hasn't fulfilled its commitments. This struggle brought home to America the widening conflict between Middle Eastern Islam and Western culture.
For several decades the United States of America had been an ally and backer of Iran's Shah, or monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. During World War II, Allied powers Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Iran to keep it from joining the Axis, forcing the reigning monarch, Reza Shah, to abdicate in favor of his son.  During the Cold War Iran allied itself with the U.S. against the Soviet Union, her neighbor and sometime enemy. America provided the Shah with military and economic aid, while Iran provided a steady oil supply and valuable strategic presence in the Middle East. Sharing a border with both the Persian Gulf and the Soviet Union, Iran was a valuable strategic asset.
In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, a nationalist and political enemy of the Shah, nationalized Iran's foreign-owned and managed oil producer, the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. Its furious British owners withdrew employees, ceasing oil production and royalties to the Iranian government. The American CIA and British intelligence launched Operation Ajax, helping the Shah and the Iranian military to remove Mossadegh in what was widely seen as a coup d'état, despite the fact that the Shah was legally entitled to dismiss Mossadegh. In subsequent decades, this foreign intervention—along with issues like unequal development, political repression, corruption, pro-Israeli policies, and the un-Islamic opulent Western lifestyle of the Iranian elite—united radical Islamists and leftists, spurring the overthrow of the Shah's regime in the Iranian revolution. The Shah was exiled in January 1979.
Following the Shah's overthrow, the U.S. attempted to mitigate the damage by finding a new relationship with the de facto Iranian government, but on October 22, 1979, the Shah, ailing from cancer, was admitted to the U.S. for medical treatment. This caused widespread anger in Iran. Furious at what he called "evidence of American plotting," revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini intensified rhetoric against "Great Satan," i.e. the United States.
The original idea to seize the American embassy was contrived by Ebrahim Asgharzadeh in September of 1979. The heads of the Islamic associations of the main universities of Tehran, including University of Tehran, Sharif University of Technology, Amirkabir University of Technology (polytechnic of Tehran), and the Iran University of Science and Technology, gathered.
According to Asgharzadeh, there were five students at that first planning meeting. Two of them wanted to target the Soviet embassy, because, he said, the USSR was "a Marxist and anti-God regime." But the two others—Mohsen Mirdamadi and Habibolah Bitaraf—supported Asgharzadeh's choice. "Our aim was to object to the American government by going to their embassy and occupying it for several hours," he said. "Announcing our objections from within the occupied compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way." Those who rejected this plan didn't participate in the subsequent events.
The students have denied that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was involved. They wanted to inform him of their plan through Ayatollah Musavi Khoeyniha, but Musavi Khoeyniha couldn't inform him before the hostages were taken, so he only became aware of the action when hostages were taken. Later, Ruhollah Khomeini supported the seizure and called it, "The second revolution: The take-over of the American spy den in Tehran."
Following the admission of the Shah to the United States on November 1, 1979, Iran's new Supreme Leader, the Islamic radical Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged his people to demonstrate against United States and Israeli interests. Khomeini denounced the American government as the "Great Satan" and "Enemies of Islam." Islamic, leftist, and even liberal activists in Iran competed with each other to denounce the U.S.
For several days before the takeover, Asgharzadeh dispatched confederates to rooftops overlooking the embassy to monitor the security procedures of the U.S. Marine guards. Around 6:30 a.m. on the day, the ringleaders gathered 300 selected students, thereafter known as Muslim student followers of the Imam's line, and briefed them on the battle plan. To break the chains locking the embassy's gates, a female student was given a pair of metal cutters that she could hide beneath her chador.
They could reach the embassy easily, because thousands of people were gathered around the U.S. embassy in Tehran protesting. The embassy grounds had been briefly occupied before, during the revolution, and crowds of protesters outside the fence were common. Iranian police had become less and less helpful to the embassy staff.
The guard of Marines was thoroughly outnumbered, and staff rushed to destroy communications equipment and sensitive documents. Out of 90 occupants, 66 were taken captive, including three who were later taken from the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
The hostage takers, declaring their solidarity with other "oppressed minorities" and "the special place of women in Islam," released 13 women and African American hostages in the middle of November. One more hostage, Richard Queen, was released in July 1980, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The remaining 52 hostages were held captive until January 1981, and often paraded blindfolded before local crowds and television cameras. The crisis led to daily (yet seemingly unchanging) news updates, including the ABC late-night program America Held Hostage, anchored by Ted Koppel, which would later become the stalwart news magazine Nightline.
Although the hostage takers' initial plan was only to hold the embassy for a few hours, their plan changed. The Ayatollah Khomeini made no comment on the occupation for several days, waiting first to gauge American reaction to the hostage taking, which he feared might spur military action. No action was forthcoming. American President Jimmy Carter's immediate response was to appeal for release of the hostages on humanitarian grounds. Some credit this relatively soft line to his hopes for a strategic anti-communist alliance with the Islamic Republic for the Iranian. Khomeini, for his part, read Carter's response as weakness and decided not to release the hostages quickly. Iran's moderate prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and his cabinet resigned under pressure just after the event (Nov. 6). Bazargan was attacked for his meeting with American official Zbigniew Brzezinski and inability to muster support for the release of the hostages. Ayatollah Khomeini claimed he was not aware of the Muslim student's plan, but applauded the action afterwards. Apparently, the Ayatollah had only been informed on November 3.
In the United States, public opinion was also inflamed and all but unanimous in its outrage against the hostage-taking and its Islamic perpetrators. The action was seen "as not just a diplomatic affront," but a "declaration of war on diplomacy itself," by its violation of centuries old international law. President Jimmy Carter applied economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran: Oil imports from Iran were ended on November 12, 1979, and around U.S. $8 billion of Iranian assets in America were frozen on November 14, 1979. In the politically charged atmosphere a number of Iranians in the U.S. were expelled.
The Muslim student followers of the Imam's line justified taking the hostages as retaliation for the admission of the Shah into the U.S., and demanded the Shah be returned to Iran for trial and execution. The U.S. maintained the Shah—who was suffering from cancer and died less than a year later in July 1980—had come to America only for medical attention. Other demands of the hostage-takers included an apology by the U.S. government for its interference in the internal affairs of Iran and for the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, and that Iran's frozen assets be released. Revolutionary teams displayed secret documents taken from the embassy, sometimes painstakingly reconstructed after shredding, to buttress their claim that "the Great Satan" was trying to destabilize the new regime, and that Iranian moderates were in league with the United States.
The duration of the hostages' captivity has been blamed on internal Iranian revolutionary politics. Not only theocratic Islamics, but leftist political groups like the radical People's Mujahedin of Iran  supported the taking of American hostages as an attack on American imperialism and its alleged Iranian "tools of the West." By embracing the hostage-taking under the slogan "America can't do a damn thing," Khomeini rallied support and deflected criticism from his controversial Islamic theocratic constitution, a referendum vote on which was less than one month away. Following the successful referendum, both radical leftists and theocrats continued to use the issue of alleged pro-Americanism to suppress their opponents, the (relatively) moderate political forces, including the Iranian Freedom Movement, National Front, Grand Ayatollah Shari'atmadari, and later President Bani Sadr. In particular, "carefully selected" diplomatic dispatches and reports discovered at the embassy and released by the hostage takers led to the arrests and resignations of moderate figures such as Premier Mehdi Bazargan. The political danger of any move seen as accommodating to America, along with the failed rescue attempt, delayed a negotiated release. After the hostages were released, radical leftists and theocrats turned on each other, with the stronger theocratic group decimating the left.
On the day of the seizure, American diplomats evaded capture and remained in hiding at the Swedish and Canadian Embassies. In 1979, the Canadian parliament held a secret session for the first time since World War II, in order to pass special legislation allowing Canadian passports to be issued to some American citizens so that they could escape. Six American diplomats boarded a flight to Zurich, Switzerland on January 28, 1980. Their escape and rescue from Iran by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor has come to be known as the "Canadian caper."
During the hostage crisis, several foreign government diplomats and ambassadors came to visit the American hostages. Ken Taylor of Canada was one of the ambassadors who visited the hostages. The foreign diplomats and ambassadors helped the American government stay in contact with the American hostages and vice versa. Through these meetings with foreign governments, the "Laingen dispatches" occurred. The "Laingen dispatches" were dispatches made by the hostage Bruce Laingen to the American government.
Rejecting the Iranian demands, Carter approved an ill-fated secret rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw. On the night of April 24, 1980, as the first part of the operation, a number of C-130 transport airplanes rendezvoused with eight RH-53 helicopters at an airstrip called Desert One in the Great Salt Desert of Eastern Iran, near Tabas. Two helicopters broke down in a sandstorm and a third one was damaged on landing. The mission was aborted by executive order from the president, but as the aircraft took off again one helicopter clipped a C-130 and crashed, killing eight U.S. servicemen and injuring five others. In Iran, Khomeini's prestige skyrocketed as he credited divine intervention on behalf of Islam for the mission's failure.
A second rescue attempt was planned using highly modified YMC-130H Hercules aircraft. Outfitted with rocket thrusters fore and aft to allow an extremely short landing and take-off in a soccer stadium, three aircraft were modified under a rushed super-secret program known as Credible Sport. One aircraft crashed during a demonstration at Duke Field, Florida (Eglin Air Force Base Auxiliary Field 3) on October 29, 1980, when the landing braking rockets were fired too soon causing a hard touchdown that tore off the starboard wing and started a fire. All on board survived. The impending change in the White House led to an abandonment of this project. The two surviving airframes were returned to regular duty with the rocket packages removed. One is now on display at the Museum of Aviation located next to Robins Air Force Base,Georgia.
The death of the Shah on July 27, and the invasion of Iran by Iraq in September, 1980 made Iran more receptive to resolve the hostage crisis, while Carter lost the November 1980 presidential election in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. Shortly after the election, but before the inauguration of President Reagan, the Carter administration, with the assistance of intermediaries such as Algerian diplomat Abdulkarim Ghuraib, opened fruitful, but demeaning, negotiations between the U.S. (Still under President Carter) and Iran. This resulted in the "Algiers Accords" of January 19, 1981, committing Iran to free the hostages immediately. Essential to the Algiers Accords and reportedly a non-negotiable requirement of Iran that the weak Carter Administration reluctantly conceded was Point I: Non-Intervention in Iranian Affairs. It reads "The United States pledges that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs." Other provisions of the Algiers Accords were the unfreezing of 8 billion dollars worth of Iranian assets and immunity from lawsuits Iran might have faced. On January 20, 1981, twenty minutes after President Reagan's inaugural address, the hostages were formally released into U.S. custody, having spent 444 days in captivity. The hostages were flown to Algeria as a symbolic gesture for the help of that government in resolving the crisis, where former President Carter, acting as an emissary for the Reagan administration, received them. The flight continued to Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany. After medical check-ups and debriefings they took a second flight to Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, New York, and a bus ride to the United States Military Academy, receiving a hero's welcome all along the route.
In Iran, the release of the hostages did nothing to abate fierce anti-American rhetoric from the regime. Anti-Americanism became an even stronger feature of the revolution. Radicals such as Musavi-Khoeniha and Behzad Nabavi were left in a stronger position, and those associated (or accused of association) with America were removed from the political picture.
In America, gifts were showered upon the hostages upon their return, including lifetime passes to any minor or MLB game.
In 2000, the hostages and their families tried to sue Iran, unsuccessfully, under the Antiterrorism Act. They originally won the case when Iran failed to provide defense, but the U.S. State Department tried to put an end to the suit, fearing that it would make international relations difficult. As a result, a federal judge ruled that nothing could be done to repay the damages the hostages faced due to the agreement they made when the hostages were freed.
Various allegations have been made over the years concerning a deal between the Reagan kitchen cabinet and Iran, in order to delay the release of the hostages until after the U.S. election of 1980. Although Senate and House investigations in the 1990s declared the allegations to be unfounded, the conspiracy's existence, or lack thereof, remains a subject of debate. The exact nature of the allegations lies in a potential violation of the International Commerce Acts of 1798 which prohibit any private citizen or party from negotiating with a foreign power in matters of national policy or military action. It is alleged by political opponents that the Reagan campaign, or one of his election campaign staffers, communicated with the Iranian government and asked them to extend the hostage crisis long enough to ensure that he won the 1980 elections. The main cause for inquiry was the seeming coincidence of his inauguration and the hostages' release on the same day, January 20, 1981.
The Washington Post reported that many Europeans and leaders around the world thought that Reagan was "a cowboy" and "scary." Carter's campaign implied that Reagan was "a trigger happy cowboy." The Iranian hostage-takers in particular reported being unsure of what Reagan would do. Iranian uncertainty about Reagan's plans may have been the main motivation behind the timing of the release of the hostages. Iranian anger at Carter's support of the Shah likely also played a part. Such complex events usually have multiple causes and multiple players, so history may find any single motivation alone insufficient to explain the timing of the end of the crisis. However, since the Reagan administration was found to have been selling weapons to Iran in exchange for hostage releases, and again for repeated hostage taking and releasing, any suggestion that the administration was not in cahoots with Tehran is baseless. If Tehran was "afraid" of anything, they were afraid of losing their secret defense suppliers.
November 4, 1979-January 20, 1981; 66 Original Captives—63 from and held at Embassy, three from and held at Foreign Ministry Office.
Thirteen were released from November 19-November 20, 1979, and one was released on July 11, 1980. Fifty-two remaining hostages endured 444 days of captivity until their release on Ronald Reagan's Inauguration Day, January 20, 1981.
From November 19-November 20, 1979, thirteen women and African-American personnel that had been captured and held hostage were released:
On July 11, 1980, 28 year old Vice Consul Richard I. Queen, who had been captured and held hostage, was released because of a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. (Died 8/14/2002)
The following fifty-two remaining hostages were held captive until January 20, 1981.
A little-noted sidebar to the crisis was a small number of hostages who were not connected to the diplomatic staff. All had been released by late 1981.
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