The Iran hostage crisis was a diplomatic crisis between Iran and the United States. Fifty-two US citizens were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, after a group of Islamic students and militants took over the Embassy of the United States in support of the Iranian Revolution. Sixty-six Americans were taken captive when Iranian militants seized the U. S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, including three who were at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
Six more Americans escaped and of the 66 who were taken hostage, 13 were released on November 19 and 20, 1979; one was released on July 11, 1980.
Start 1953 coup In February 1979, less than a year before the hostage crisis, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, had been overthrown in a revolution. For several decades before that, the United States had been an ally and backer of the Shah. During World War II, Allied powers Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Iran and required Reza Shah the existing Shan of Iran to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The invasion was allegedly in fear that Reza Shah was about to align his petroleum-rich country with Nazi Germany during the war: However, Reza Shah’s earlier Declaration of Neutrality and refusal to allow Iranian territory to be used to train, supply, and act as a transport corridor to ship arms to Russia for its war effort against Germany, was the strongest motive 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, the Shah was engaged in a power struggle with Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, an immediate descendant of the previous monarchy, the Qajar dynasty. In 1953, the British and U. S. spy agencies deposed the democratically-elected government of Mossadegh in a military coup d’etat codenamed Operation Ajax, and restored the Shah as an absolute monarch. The anti-democratic coup d’etat was a “a critical event in post-war world history” that replaced Iran’s postmonarchic, native, and secular parliamentary democracy with a dictatorship.
US support and funding continued after the coup, with the CIA training the government’s secret police, SAVAK. In subsequent decades this foreign intervention, along with other economic, cultural and political issues, united opposition against the Shah and led to his overthrow. Carter administration Shortly before the revolution on New Year’s Day 1979, American president Jimmy Carter further angered anti-Shah Iranians with a televised toast to the Shah, declaring how beloved the Shah was by his people.
After the revolution in February, the embassy had been occupied and staff held hostage briefly. Rocks and bullets had broken enough of the embassy front-facing windows for them to be replaced with bullet-proof glass. Its staff was reduced to just over 60 from a high of nearly 1000 earlier in the decade. The Carter administration attempted to mitigate the anti-American feeling by finding a new relationship with the de facto Iranian government and by continuing military cooperation in hopes that the situation would stabilize. However, on October 22, 1979 the U. S. ermitted the Shah – who was ill with cancer – to attend the Mayo Clinic for medical treatment.
The American embassy in Tehran had discouraged the request, understanding the political delicacy, but after pressure from influential figures including former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Council on Foreign Relations chairman David Rockefeller, the Carter administration decided to grant the Shah’s request. The Shah’s admission to the US intensified Iranian revolutionaries’ anti-Americanism and spawned rumors of another U. S. -backed coup and re-installation of the Shah. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – who had been exiled by the Shah for 15 years heightened rhetoric against the “Great Satan”, the United States, talking of what he called “evidence of American plotting. ” “You have no right to complain, because you took our whole country hostage in 1953. ” Planning The seizure of the American embassy was initially planned in September 1979 by Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a student at that 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. Their group was named Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line. “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 nd effective way. ” Mirdamadi told an interviewer, “we intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more. ”  Masoumeh Ebtekar, spokeswoman for the Iranian students during the crisis, said that those who rejected Asgharzadeh’s plan did not participate in the subsequent events. According to the group and other sources Khomeini did not know of the plan beforehand. The Islamist students had wanted to inform him but according to author Mark Bowden, Ayatollah Musavi Khoeyniha persuaded them not to.
Khoeyniha feared the government would use police to expel the Islamist students as they had the last occupiers in February. The provisional government had been appointed by Khomeini and so Khomeini was likely to go along with their request to restore order. On the other hand, Khoeyniha knew that if Khomeini first saw that the occupiers were his faithful supporters (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 the Imam Khomeini to oppose the takeover.
Takeover Around 6:30 a. m. on November 4, the ringleaders gathered between 300 and 500 selected students, thereafter known as Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, 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 she hid them beneath her chador. At first the students’ plan to only make a symbolic occupation, release statements to the press and leave when government security forces came to restore order, was reflected in placards saying `Don’t be afraid.
We just want to set-in`. When the embassy guards brandished firearms, the protesters retreated, one telling the Americans, `We don’t mean any harm. But as it became clear 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 © 2010 Yadvinder S. Rana hostages, the occupation 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 Ayatollah Musavi Khoeyniha had hoped, Khomeini supported the takeover. According to Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi, when he, Yazdi came to Qom to tell the Imam about the incident, Khomeini told the minister to “go and kick them out. ” But later that evening, back in Tehran, the minister heard on the radio that Imam Khomeini had issued a statement supporting the seizure and calling it “the second revolution,” and the embassy an “American spy den in Tehran. ” Hostage-holding motivations
A group photograph of the former hostages in the hospital. The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line demanded that the Shah return to Iran for trial and execution. The U. S. maintained that the Shah, who died less than a year later in July 1980, had come to America only for medical attention. The group’s other demands included that the U. S. government apologize for its interference in the internal affairs of Iran, for the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq (in 1953), and that Iran’s frozen assets in the U. S. be released.
The initial takeover 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 attribute the Iranian decision not to release the hostages quickly to U. S. President Jimmy Carter’s “blinking” or failure to immediately deliver an ultimatum to Iran. His immediate response was to appeal for the release of the hostages on humanitarian grounds and to share his hopes of a strategic anti-communist alliance with the Islamic Republic.
By embracing the hostage-taking under the slogan “America can’t do a thing,” Khomeini rallied support and deflected criticism from his controversial Islamic theocratic constitution, which was due for a referendum vote in less than one month. Following the successful referendum, both leftists and theocrats continued to use the issue of alleged pro-Americanism to suppress their opponents, the relatively moderate political forces, which included the Iranian Freedom Movement, National Front, Grand Ayatollah Shari’atmadari, 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 resignations of moderate figures such as Premier Mehdi Bazargan. The political danger in Iran of any move seen as accommodating America, along with the failed rescue attempt, delayed a negotiated release. © 2010 Yadvinder S. Rana A man holding a sign during a protest of the crisis in Washington, D. C. in 1979.
The sign reads “Deport all Iranians” and “Get the hell out of my country” on its forefront, and “Release all Americans now” on its back. Hostage conditions The hostage-takers released 13 women and blacks in the middle of November 1979, claiming they were sympathetic to “oppressed minorities”. 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. Iranian propaganda stated that the hostages were “guests” treated with respect.
Ibrahim Asgharzadeh described the original hostage taking plan as a “nonviolent” and symbolic action where the “gentle and respectful treatment” of the hostages would dramatize to the whole world the offended sovereignty and dignity of Iran In contrast to Iranian propaganda, the actual treatment of the hostages was far different: The hostages described beatings, theft, the fear of bodily harm while being paraded blindfold before a large, angry chanting crowd outside the embassy (Bill Belk and Kathryn Koob), 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 stand, walk, and leave their space unless they were going to the bathroom. In particular they felt the threat of trial and execution, as all of the hostages “were threatened repeatedly with execution, and took it seriously. “
Impact in America In the United States, the hostage-taking is said to have created “a surge of patriotism” and left “the American people more united than they have been on any issue in two decades. The action was seen “not just as a diplomatic affront,” but as a “declaration of war on diplomacy itself. “ Television news gave daily updates. President Carter applied economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran: oil imports from Iran were ended on November 12, 1979, and through the issuance of Executive Order 12170, around US$8 billion of Iranian assets in the U. S. were frozen by the Office of Foreign Assets Control on November 14. According to author/journalist Mark Bowden, a pattern developed in President Carter’s attempts to negotiate a release of the hostages: 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.
Besides facing the hostages crisis, President Carter was also running against Ronald Reagan in the November 1980 presidential election. © 2010 Yadvinder S. Rana Canadian rescue of hostages On the day the hostages were seized, six American diplomats evaded capture and remained in hiding at the Swiss 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. The 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”. 91] Negotiations for release The first attempt to negotiate a release of the hostages involved Hector Villalon and Christian Bourget, representing Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. Ghotbzadeh himself was eager to end the hostage taking, as “moderates” were being eliminated from the Iranian government one by one after being exposed by the student hostage takers as “traitors” and “spies” for having met at some time with an American official. Carter aide Hamilton Jordan flew to Paris “wearing a disguise — a wig, false mustache and glasses” to meet with Ghotbzadeh. After “weeks of negotiation with … emissaries, … a complex multi-stepped plan” was “hammered out” that included the establishment of an international commission to study America’s role in Iran.
Rumours of a release leaked to the American public and on February 19, 1980, the American Vice President Walter Mondale told an interviewer that “the crisis was nearing an end. ” The plan fell apart however after Ayatollah Khomeini gave a speech praising the embassy occupation as “a crushing blow to the world-devouring USA” and announced the fate of the hostages would be decided by the parliament (Majlis), which had yet to be seated or even elected. When the six-man international UN commission came to Iran they were not allowed to see the hostages. The next unsuccessful attempt occurred in April and called first for the American president Carter to publicly promise not to “impose additional sanctions” on Iran.
In exchange custody of the hostages would be transferred to the government of Iran, which after a short period would release the hostages — the Iranian president and foreign minister both opposing the continued holding of the hostages. To the American’s surprise and disappointment, after Carter made his promise, President Bani-Sadr added additional demands: official American approval of resolution of the hostage question by Iran’s parliament (which would leave the hostages in Tehran for another month or two), and a promise by Carter to refrain from making `hostile statements. ` Carter also agreed to these demands, but again Khomeini vetoed the plan. At this point Bani-Sadr announced he was `washing his hands` of the hostage mess. “
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