Hostage Crisis, 1979–1981

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In August 1976, just before the decisive stage in the presidential election campaign between incumbent Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter, Iran's ambassador to the United Kingdom wrote in his diary that the Shah of Iran was uneasy about the prospect of a Carter administration. According to Gary Sick, author of All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi would have preferred to see Ford reelected because he was concerned about Carter's push for human rights and for the reduction of U.S. arms sales. Four years later, in an ironic twist of history, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic revolution that drove the Shah from power, refused to expedite the release of fifty-two Americans held hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and thereby spoiled President Carter's already precarious reelection chances.

the iran hostage crisis

What came to be known as the Iran hostage crisis had a precursor nearly nine months earlier. In mid-February 1979, during the chaos following the Shah's hasty departure from Iran and Khomeini's return from exile in France, a heavily armed band of left-wing urban guerrillas stormed the U.S. embassy and took dozens of Americans hostage before pro-Khomeini revolutionary guards freed the Americans. After this incident, more security measures were taken and the staff of the embassy was drastically reduced. But neither the hardening of the compound nor the assurances of Iranian officials prevented the crisis that began on November 4, 1979, when a band of self-proclaimed students attacked and took over the U.S. embassy. It ended 444 days later on January 20, 1981, when fifty-two freed Americans left Iranian airspace shortly after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as U.S. president.

The hostage situation polarized American domestic politics while serving Khomeini by diverting his countrymen's attention away from a domestic power struggle

between the architects of the Islamic revolution and moderate secular circles and toward patriotic unity against the United States. Condemning the United States for its long support of the Shah's brutal regime, the Ayatollah led the battle cry against the "Great Satan," America. While it is not clear whether Khomeini knew of and blessed the embassy takeover in advance, he quickly declared his support for the hostage holders and their demands, namely the return of the Shah and his assets to Iran. It was probably no coincidence that the students-turned-terrorists attacked the U.S. embassy shortly after the Shah had been admitted to the United States to receive medical treatment. Negotiations between the U.S. and Iranian government officials failed because Khomeini recognized that the ongoing confrontation with Washington served his efforts to solidify his power.

hostage crisis and american society

While at first the beneficiary of a strong "rally-'roundthe-flag" reaction of the American public, President Carter's approval ratings declined steadily as the hostage crisis dragged on. By demonstrating his preoccupation with the fate of the hostages and adopting a stay-at-home "Rose Garden strategy," Carter put the Iran situation high on the agenda of the U.S. government, the media, and the public. With no end of the crisis in sight, support for Carter's "do nothing" stance declined. When yet another negotiation effort failed, the president decided in favor of a military mission to rescue the hostages.

Whether because of insufficient planning and coordination or unfavorable weather conditions, on April 24, 1980, "Operation Eagle Claw" ended in failure. More than 100 members of the counterterrorist Delta Force had been flown by troop carriers to "Desert 1," a remote area in the Iranian desert, where they waited for eight helicopters to arrive. When it became clear that only five of the six helicopters needed for the last leg of the rescue were operational, the mission was aborted. As the Americans prepared to leave "Desert 1," one of the helicopters collided with one of the airplanes. Eight service men were killed. Instead of restoring the image of a potent American military that had been tainted by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, the failed rescue magnified the perception of an incompetent American military with flawed technology.

After the Shah of Iran died in a Cairo hospital in late July, renewed negotiations seemed to move towards a resolution, but perhaps because of Iraq's attack on Iran, no agreement was reached before the presidential election in November. Ronald Reagan decisively defeated President Carter. Convinced the Islamic revolution had triumphed, Khomeini and his stand-ins were ready to negotiate a settlement. Initially demanding the return of $24 billion in frozen Iranian assets as well as assets belonging to the Shah, they settled for a total of $7.97 billion.

While eight U.S. servicemen died during the rescue attempt, none of the hostages lost their lives during the 444 days of their ordeal and America's collective nightmare. The Iran hostage crisis left legacies of national humiliation and doubt about American military might. These legacies reinforced the nation's Vietnam syndrome of defeat and the Reagan administration's determination to rebuild the American military and to restore the international power of the United States.


Assersohn, Roy. The Biggest Deal. London: Methuen, 1982.

Christopher, Warren, ed. American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

Nacos, Brigitte L. Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the Oklahoma City Bombing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Sick, Gary. All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran. New York: Random House, 1985.

Turner, Stansfield. Terrorism and Democracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Brigitte L. Nacos

See also:Iran-Contra Affair; Muslims, Stereotypes and Fears of; POW-MIA; Reagan, Ronald; Terrorism, Fears of .