(Informed Comment) – The 4th November 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the Iran Hostage Crisis that has dominated and poisoned Iran-US relations ever since. The event refers to the seizure of a number of US diplomats and other employees in the United States Embassy in Tehran by the so-called “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s [Khomeini’s] Line”, a few months after the victory of the Islamic revolution.
A number of female and black hostages were released on Khomeini’s orders, and Richard Queen who was suffering from multiple sclerosis was released on 11 July 1980. The remaining 52 hostages were kept in captivity for 444 days until they were freed on 21 January 1981.
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(Original Caption) Tehran, Iran. 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. The picture was obtained by UPI after the FBI showed no interest. It was brought into the U.S. by an Iranian.
More than any other event in the history of the relationship between the United States and Iran, that event has affected the US perception of Iran and like an albatross has cast its deadly weight on their bilateral relations.
Initially, the hostages were kept in the US Embassy compound and were treated reasonably well, although nothing could have justified that illegal act that went against all diplomatic norms and even against the clear instructions of Islam, which the hostage-takers professed that they were upholding.
However, on 24 April 1980, President Carter ordered a surprise military expedition to rescue the hostages. According to that plan, a C-130 transport plane and eight helicopters landed at a deserted airfield near Tabas in North East of Iran, which the American military had used under the Shah. The helicopters were then supposed to land at a disused caravanserai near Tehran. They were then going to attack the embassy compound at dawn, kill the guards and rescue the hostages and fly them back to the airfield to be flown out of the country by the C-130 transport plane.
That ill-fated mission was aborted as the result of three of the eight helicopters experiencing failure during the landing in the desert due to a sandstorm. Another helicopter, meanwhile, collided with the C-130 transport plane, killing eight U.S. servicemen.
President Carter took personal responsibility for the failure of the mission and called on the BBC, the Voice of America and other Western media to broadcast frequent announcements in their Persian programmes, letting everyone know that the mission had been aborted, in order to notify those who were in charge of making preparations at the caravanserai and in Tehran so that they would not go ahead with their plans.
It was lucky that the ill-conceived mission was aborted, because had it gone ahead it would have resulted in a bloodbath and probably the death of all the hostages. Iran was still in the grip of revolutionary zeal, and many of the students who were guarding the compound were armed and highly motivated. They would have retaliated to any attack, resulting in a major military confrontation between the Iranian forces and a few dozen US troops.
After the failed attempt to rescue the hostages, they were scattered to different parts of the country and were treated worse than before, because the hostage-takers were afraid that similar attempts would be made to free them by force.
Myths Concerning the Iranian Revolution
There have been many myths about the hostage crisis. A frequent charge is that President Carter “lost Iran” due to his weakness and not taking military action. Taking military action thousands of miles away against a country in the throes of a massive revolution would have been absolutely foolhardy and would have handed Iran to America’s main Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.
In fact, a number of US officials, including the National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and President Carter’s Chief Domestic Policy Adviser Stuart Eizenstat and others, recommended military action, but cooler heads prevailed. The Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and especially the US Ambassador in Iran William Sullivan who knew the situation in Iran well, as well as practically all US allies, strongly advised against it.
The other myth is that President Carter turned his back on the Shah and allowed Khomeini to take over. This myth is particularly strong among many Iranian royalists who do not want to admit that the Shah was toppled due to his own mistakes, and would like to blame foreigners for his downfall.
This myth is also completely false, as right to the end President Carter backed the Shah and tried to keep him in power, but there was no way that the Shah could have suppressed the revolution at such a late stage. There were many mistakes made earlier on during his reign, especially the 1953 coup led by the CIA and the British MI6 against the democratically-elected and popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, that led to the revolution.
So, if anyone has to be held responsible for “losing Iran” it should be those who planned and carried out the 1953 coup, setting Iranian democracy back by decades. In fact, President Carter sacrificed his presidency in order to bring about a peaceful resolution to the hostage crisis and to make sure that all the hostages returned to their homes safe and sound, as they did.
The Release of the Hostages
However, as a final act of spite, Khomeini refused to free the hostages before President Carter had stepped down, and eventually they were released on 20 January 1981, minutes after President Reagan was sworn in as the 40th US president.
There have been persistent rumours about a deal being struck between the Iranian government and the members of President Reagan’s election team not to release the hostages until after the election or the end of President Carter’s term. Those around President Reagan have denied those rumours but the Iranian president at that time Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr has insisted that members of the Reagan team contacted Iranian officials making that demand.
The Main Reasons behind the Hostage Taking
Although the wounds of that event have not yet healed, most people are not aware of the real reasons behind that terrible event and the cost that Iran has paid and continues to pay for it.
Throughout 1978-79, there was a massive nationwide uprising against Mohammad Reza Shah’s autocratic rule. Three groups led the opposition to the Shah. The first group consisted of moderate secular reformists who simply wanted the Shah to abide by the Iranian Constitution and reign and not rule. From a couple of years before the revolution, they formed various groups functioning within the existing political constraints. They published a number of open letters calling for change, for free elections, for allowing the Iranian Parliament (the National Constituent Assembly or the Majles) to function as a check on the government, especially on the Shah’s unlimited powers.
The second group was led by various leftists and communist groups, such as the traditional pro-Moscow Tudeh Party, and some hardcore armed groups such as the Feda’iyan Khalq (the Devotees of the Masses) and the Islamic-Marxist Mojahedin-e Khalq (the Holy Warriors of the Masses, or MEK), and a number of smaller and less extreme groups.
Two of the radical groups, the Feda’iyan Khalq and MEK, had engaged in armed clashes against the Shah’s security forces and US military advisors who were in charge of training Iranian forces on the most advanced military equipment that the Shah had purchased. Towards the end of the Shah’s rule, Iran counted for half of all US arms sales. These groups acted as the foot-soldiers of the revolution and were mainly responsible for bringing Khomeini to power.
During the later stages of the uprising, these groups were joined by disaffected and radical clerics, although traditional members of the clergy, such as the highest-ranking Shi’a cleric of the time, Ayatollah Ali Shari’atmadari, did not take part in the uprising.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who had been exiled from Iran by the Shah in 1964 for openly opposing his policies, especially the Shah’s decision to grant judicial immunity to thousands of US military personnel who were serving in Iran, led the religious opposition from his place of exile in the Holy City of Najaf in Iraq and for the last few months before the revolution, from Paris, after he was expelled from Iraq on the Shah’s request.
After the revolution, these three groups started fighting for their share of the booty. Initially, a moderate reformist, the leader of the Iran Freedom Movement Mehdi Bazargan was chosen to form a transitional government. He selected a cabinet mainly drawn from the moderate opposition, including many US-educated ministers. However, his powers were curtailed by Khomeini and the hard-line clerics, and in his own words he became like a knife without a blade.
Bazargan’s foreign minister, Ebrahim Yazdi, who had lived in the United States for many years and also had a US Green Card, was accused of being a secret CIA agent and resigned with Bazargan. Bazargan’s deputy prime minister, Abbas Amir-Entezam, was accused of spying for the United States and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He died last year while still under house arrest. The real reason for his dismissal was his open opposition to a theocratic government, led by the clerics.
Another US-educated activist Sadeq Qotbzadeh who was a close aide and interpreter of Ayatollah Khomeini when he was in Paris and who also acted as a foreign minister during the hostage crisis was charged with planning to assassinate Ayatollah Khomeini and was executed. Earlier in his life, he had been a supporter of Mosaddeq’s National Front and had also taken part in many anti-Shah demonstrations.
Meanwhile, the challenge from the leftist forces was more severe and more violent. MEK had started waging a savage campaign both against Khomeini and the clerics, and against the moderate opposition whom they accused of being pro-American or even secret US agents whose aim was to subvert the revolution. When Mas’ud Rajavi, the leader of the MEK was prevented by Khomeini in running for president due to his alleged atheism, the MEK started a reign of terror against the leading members of the clerical establishment.
As the result of an attack against the premises of the Islamic Republic Party when a number of leading government officials were meeting, they killed over 70 top officials, including the most powerful man next to Khomeini, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, and a large number of ministers and Majles deputies. On 30 August 1980, they detonated a bomb at the presidential palace killing President Ali Raja’i and Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar.
Meanwhile, Khomeini waged a major campaign against the MEK, killing hundreds of their members and eventually forcing the MEK leadership to flee Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war they joined Saddam Hussein’s army and attacked Iran during the last phase of the war, as the result of which Ayatollah Khomeini ordered a few thousand of their imprisoned members to be executed if they did not repent.
US Hostages as Pawns in the Internal Battle
Although by the time of the hostage crisis the worst atrocities between these groups had not yet taken place, nevertheless, the rivalry and hostility between those three groups was already quite clear. The hostage crisis had a number of aims, one of which was to challenge the US’s presence in Iran, but the main reason for the hostage crisis was to neutralise the democratic and the communist opposition to the regime and to consolidate the position of the clerics as the main sources of power in Iran. The hostages were cynically used as pawns in that deadly game.
Prior to the November attack on the US Embassy in Tehran, some members of the radical Marxist group the Feda’iyan Khalq had attacked the Embassy on 14 February 1979 and had taken a US marine, Kenneth Kraus, hostage. Prime Minister Bazargan immediately sent his Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi to talk to the hostage takers. His mission succeeded and the militants left the embassy within three hours, and they also released Kraus six days later.
However, anti-US and anti-imperialist agitation continued and the leftist groups accused the government of colluding with the United States. Radical religious groups tried to neutralize the leftist accusations by carrying out a similar mission against a foreign embassy. According to Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the five original planners of the US embassy attack, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad (then an engineering student and later two-term president of Iran) urged the group to attack the Soviet Embassy instead of the American Embassy. His view was that the Soviets were supporting the most dangerous enemies of the Islamic Revolution, i.e. the violent communist groups. He argued that the monarchist and nationalist groups who were allegedly supported by the United States were much less dangerous than the leftist forces. When the rest of the group rejected Ahmadinezhad’s proposal, he withdrew from the entire enterprise.
In order to counter the left’s “anti-imperialist” slogans, some radical Muslim students decided to launch an attack of their own on the US Embassy in order to show that they were as revolutionary as the Marxists. So, a group of them got together and consulted a young cleric, Mohammad Mousavi-Kho’iniha, about what they intended to do. He warned them against it, because he said that the government was bound to attack and dislodge them as it had done in the case of the earlier attack by the Feda’iyan Khalq.
However, he also told them that if the takeover of the Embassy proved successful by attracting mass support, Khomeini would not oppose it. So, the hostage crisis was in reality the symbol of a struggle between the leftist and religious forces to gain control of the revolution.
Mousavi-Kho’iniha got in touch with Ahmad Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini’s son and the director of his office, to ask if Khomeini would approve of an attack by Muslims students on the U.S. Embassy. Apparently, Khomeini did not respond for a few days, and Mousavi-Kho’iniha took his silence as the sign of his acquiescence, but of course Khomeini did not respond so that he would not be directly implicated in the affair and to have the option of denying having given his permission for it.
Consequently, on 4th November 1979, a group of radical Muslim students attacked the Embassy in the early hours of the morning, following the Shah’s admission to the United States for medical treatment. Some of the young radicals were genuinely afraid that the Shah’s admission to the United States would lead to a repetition of the 1953 coup and his restoration to power.
One of the ringleaders of the attack, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, said later that initially they had intended to occupy the embassy for a few hours to object to some US policies. 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.”
However, the takeover of the embassy proved more popular than they could have imagined, with large groups of leftist and radical Islamic students, including MEK members, gathering and demonstrating in front of the Embassy, demanding the return of the Shah.
After two days of silence, seeing the level of public support for the takeover of the embassy, Khomeini finally put his full support behind the students, and called their action “the second revolution”. He added that the first revolution had been against the Shah, while the second revolution was against imperialism. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Bazargan and the entire cabinet resigned when they failed to kick the students out of the Embassy.
Consequently, with the occupation of the US Embassy, Khomeini had achieved the ousting of the nationalist government, and leftist groups were also sidelined and silenced. With that illegal act, Khomeini consolidated his power at the expense of national interests. The future president, Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr, has stated: “During this time, I called all the ambassadors from the European and North American countries and told them that the occupation of the embassy was in fact a strike against the Iranian government; it was we who were being held hostage. I asked them to help us end it.”
The occupation of the American embassy was a brilliant tactical move as far as the religious militants were concerned. It served Khomeini’s domestic purposes well, as he managed to crush the leftist forces one after another. It consolidated the power of the mullahs and silenced their opponents. The liberal elements were intimidated by highly selective and even fraudulent leaks from the embassy files about their alleged links with the “Great Satan”; while the leftist forces were jubilant about that audacious “anti-imperialist” move, which humiliated America and put an end to the possibility of the return of the monarchists or other right‑wing elements to power.
A Costly Enterprise
Although the hostage crisis served Khomeini’s short-term interests, it proved a very costly mistake as far as Iran’s foreign policy was concerned. The image of American diplomats held hostage, blindfolded and humiliated, has been ingrained in the minds of all Americans.
Iran paid and continues to pay a very heavy price for that illegal and outrageous act. In addition to blocking billions of dollars of Iranian assets abroad, the United States adopted a very hostile stance towards the Islamic Republic. Probably without the hostage crisis, Saddam Hussein would not have dared attack Iran, would not have received the backing of the West, and Iran would not have been left so isolated that she only managed to defend herself at enormous cost.
That mistake resulted in Iran’s international isolation, devastated the country as the result of the war, and inflicted hundreds of billions worth of damage on the country.
However, 40 years after those tragic events, the time has come for both countries to lay to rest the ghost of the past and start a new chapter in their relations. Iran has moved a long way away from those revolutionary days. Under President Hassan Rouhani Iran extended the hand of friendship to the West and after long negotiations with the United States and other permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany they reached a landmark nuclear deal. According to 15 quarterly reports by the IAEA, Iran had meticulously carried out all her obligations under the deal, but President Trump violated the deal and the Security Council Resolution 2231 by withdrawing from it.
The continuation of this hostility does not benefit either country and is leading to a very tense and dangerous situation in the Persian Gulf. The only sane course of action is to allow bygones to be bygones and to start a new chapter of friendship and cooperation.