Hostage Crises

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HOSTAGE CRISES. While taking hostages has been widespread throughout history, a spate of international hostage crises involving Westerners in the 1970s and 1980s caused the practice to become chiefly identified with Middle East terrorist organizations. Taking hostages gave such organizations leverage over their state enemies in the form of direct extortion or publicity. For the United States, hostage crises have often posed severe national security and political threats. Since the early 1970s the public has become aware of a psychological phenomenon known as the Stockholm syndrome, in which some hostages come to display an emotional attachment toward their captors.

The 1970s saw several international hostage crises, including the terrorist group Black September's seizure of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. All of the hostages and five of the eight terrorists died. In late February 1977 the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin initiated a somewhat unconventional hostage crisis when he banned all Americans in Uganda, numbering approximately two hundred, from leaving the country. The crisis was resolved peacefully within a few days. American involvement in the turmoil of the Middle East led to a wave of more conventional and more violent terror attacks in the late 1970s, including the Iran hostage crisis of 1979–1981, that continued through the mid-1980s.

On 4 November 1979 militant students loyal to the Muslim leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, fearing a U.S. plot to restore to power the recently deposed shah, Reza Pahlavi, stormed the U.S. embassy in Teheran and took sixty-five Americans hostage. When Khomeini endorsed the action and provided Iranian government support, the stage was set for a prolonged international crisis. President James Earl Carter's administration attempted to free its diplomats by several methods, including an abortive rescue mission, all to no avail. The crisis lasted over a year and Carter paid a heavy political price for the failures in the 1980 election campaign, which he ultimately lost to Ronald Reagan. As a final humiliation for Carter, the hostages were finally released on 20 January 1981, only hours after Reagan was sworn in as president.

Reagan, however, had his own hostage problems with Shiite Iran as the Middle East situation deteriorated. Shortly after Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982, extremist Shiite groups with ties to Iran, including one known as Hezbollah (Party of God), began to seize Western hostages and demand the release of Islamic activists from Israeli jails. By early 1985 Hezbollah had seized seven U.S. citizens. In response, the Reagan administration devised a complicated, secret, and constitutionally questionable process of ransoming the hostages with secret arms sales involving Israel and Nicaraguan rebels (contras). The plan was a net failure, and leaked news of the transactions sparked a serious political scandal and a highly publicized congressional investigation that ultimately tainted the second Reagan administration. The last of the U.S. hostages, the Associated Press journalist Terry Anderson, who was held hostage for over five years, was released in December 1991.

Another unconventional hostage situation arose during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990 and 1991. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein held approximately two thousand Westerners hostage as "human shields" against bombing raids by the U.S.–led coalition.


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

Walsh, Lawrence E. Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up. New York: Norton, 1997.

David G.Coleman

See alsoIran Hostage Crisis ; Iran-Contra Affair ; Persian Gulf War ; Terrorism ; andvol. 9:Interrogation of an Iran Hostage .

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International crises intertwined with domestic politics in Iran and Lebanon.

In Tehran on 4 November 1979, a mob led by radical college students overran the U.S. embassy and took its personnel hostage. They announced that they would not free the diplomats until the United States agreed to extradite the country's former ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (19411979). The shah, overthrown nine months earlier, had been admitted to the United States for cancer treatment two weeks before seizure of the embassy. Within days of the incident, Iran's revolutionary leaders endorsed the demands of the students and supported their claim that the U.S. embassy was a "den of espionage." U.S. efforts to exert pressure on Iran through diplomatic means (UN resolutions), economic sanctions (freezing Iran's assets in U.S. banks), and military actions (an abortive helicopter rescue attempt) proved unsuccessful in getting the hostages freed. Even the death of the shah, in July 1980, had no apparent effect. Only after Iraq invaded Iran in the fall of 1980 did Tehran indicate a serious interest in resolving the hostage issue. Iran and the United States subsequently accepted Algerian mediation, an accord that freed the hostages and established a tribunal to settle outstanding claims was signed in January 1981.

The kidnapping of Europeans and Americans in Lebanon that began in 1984 created a new, albeit less dramatic, hostage crisis. The militias that carried out the kidnappings wanted the governments of the hostages to pressure Israel to release Lebanese nationals that were detained in a special prison for those suspected of organizing resistance to Israel's occupation of south Lebanon. Because Iran supported these same militias, the United States was convinced that Iran could exert influence to get the hostages released. Some U.S. officials undertook secret negotiations with Iran that included covert arrangements to sell Iran weapons in exchange for the release of hostages in Lebanon. The weapons sales led to the freeing of only two hostages over the course of a year during which more Westerners in Lebanon were abducted. In October 1986, revelations of the arms-for-hostages deals caused grave embarrassment to the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and resulted in the resignation of several senior aides. The scandal was compounded by revelations that profits from the secret arms sales to Iran had been diverted to secret accounts used to buy weapons for U.S.-backed forces (contras) trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. The fallout from the scandal put hostage negotiations on hold for several months. The last U.S. and other Western hostages in Lebanon were not released until 1991.

See also irancontra affair; pahlavi, mohammad reza; reagan, ronald.


Picco, Giandomenico. Man without a Gun: One Diplomat's Secret Struggle to Free the Hostages, Fight Terrorism, and End a War. New York: Times Books/Random House, 1999.

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

eric hooglund

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