Throughout this election process, American-Iranian relations have been a main topic of conversation. Whether through an ad on radio or television, talk shows, conversation with friends, or from the candidates themselves we as citizens have heard no end of analysis, breakdown, and sometimes fear-mongering on the topic. What we don’t often hear, is much about the history of the connection between the two countries. On this day in history, 33 years ago however, ties between the two countries took a permanent turn, perhaps forever setting the stage for the strained relations we see now.
|Hostages pictured here, from the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979|
1979 was a chaotic year in Iran, and really the end of a chaotic decade in the area as a whole. Since 1953, when “The Shah of Persia” Mohammed Reza Pahleri was put into power through a CIA sponsored coup over the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh, Iranians had grown increasingly weary of American support of the dictator. In January of 1979-lead by Ayatollah Kyomenei from his exile in France-what had merely been protests exploded into an all out revolution, from which the Shah fled with his family.
With his countrymen seeking to put him on trial for crimes against his own citizens, the Shah was on the run-and would never stop running. On October 22, 1979 the Shah was allowed into New York City in order to receive treatment for cancer. After putting him in power in ‘53, and supporting his regime throughout the 26 years following that-including naming the Shah the primary guardian of US interests in the Gulf-Iranians had had enough of American involvement in their politics, and thus his acceptance into New York was just another expression of support, and the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thirteen days later, the citizens of Iran would make their own statement.
On November 4, 1979 while several hundred thousand students were marching through the streets, in an effort to commemorate the deaths of students shot on the campus of Tehran University a year earlier, a group of a few hundred students broke off and headed for the American embassy. Upon reaching the embassy, this group scaled the walls and forced the doors open. When they found they met no resistance from the Iranian Republic Guard Corps (IRGC) men stationed there, or the local police, this group pressed on, determined to take the embassy. US Marines shot tear gas into the crowd, but they were able to secure the compound, taking 52 American hostages in the process.
The takeover was by and large non-violent, and one hostage taker even interviewed with reporters over the phone, assuring them that the hostages were in no real danger, that the takeover was merely a display of power, and that the hostages would be released in just a few days. Despite these assurances, American concerns were not alleviated, and as days turned into weeks it became more and more clear that these hostages would not be released in any timely manner at all.
Almost immediately following the takeover, Iranian revolution leaders Mohsen Rezaei and Mohsen Rafiqdast arrived at the embassy, catching employees in the act of destroying classified documents. They were able to stop them from destroying everything, and later used some of these documents against members of the transition government. The quick arrival of these leaders, coupled with the fact that 45 of the 79 hostage takers identified were current or future IRGC members made many suspect that the embassy takeover was more planned than spontaneous. These suspicions were confirmed when it was learned that many of the crowd that took the embassy actually brought sandwiches for lunch-packed the night before at the canteen of the Revolutionary Guards. This is also likely part of the reason there was no resistance at the embassy-as the IRGC was charged with it’s defense.
Amidst chants of “Khomenei struggles, Carter trembles”, “Death to America’, and “America is the number one enemy” from the thousands of supporters that now surrounded the embassy, the leaders attempted to open negotiations with the Carter administration, demanding simply that the Shah be returned from his hospital bed in New York to Iran to stand trial for his crimes.
The Shah never did return to Iran, traveling to Panama following his surgery, and then to Egypt where he died on July 27, 1980, and not on the gallows students had constructed outside the embassy, complete with a poster which read “For the Shah”.
The 52 American hostages were held a total of 444 days, throughout the entire 1980 election cycle, and released minutes after Reagan was sworn into office. Many attribute Carter’s loss to the Iranian hostage crisis, and his inability to bring it to an end. In Carter’s defense he did everything he could short of sending the Shah to his death in Iran, from negotiations to a botched rescue attempt that ended with 8 American lives lost, 2 planes destroyed, and one dead Iranian civilian, nothing worked to end the crisis.
On January 19, 1981 with the signing of the Algiers Accords in Algeria, the hostage crisis was finally over. The chief points in the Accords were that the US would cease interfering in Iranian internal affairs, and would remove trade sanctions on Iran. In return, the American hostages would be freed and any Iranian debts to US institutions would be paid. On January 20, 1981 just a few minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office as the President of the United States, the American hostages were officially freed, and the crisis was finally over.