United States Embassy in Tehran Seized
United States Embassy in Tehran Seized
"U.S. Commando-Style Raid into Iran to Free Hostages Fails"
Date: April 24, 1980
Source: The Associated Press.
About the Photographer: Founded in 1848, the Associated Press claims to be the oldest and largest news organization in the world, serving as a news source for more than one billion people a day.
Rising anti-Americanism had been one of the defining characteristics of the Iranian Revolution, which had led to the deposition of Iran's Shah Reza Mohammed Pahlavi in January 1979. Pahlavi had been America's closest ally in the Middle East during the 1960s and 1970s, and had come to power on the back of an American-led coup in 1953. Hostility towards the Shah had seemingly gone hand-in-hand with disaffection towards America, which had numerous military and oil interests in common with the Pahlavi regime.
This creeping tide of anti-Americanism had become a surge after the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1979. As the machinery of the Iranian state collapsed over the duration of that year, denunciations of America and Israel were frequently used by Khomeini to help bolster his own popularity in the midst of growing domestic chaos.
When the deposed Shah went to the United States in October 1979 to receive medical treatment for lymphoma, it caused consternation within Iran, and Khomeini called on his people to demonstrate against the U.S. Thousands gathered around the U.S. embassy in Tehran to protest on November 1, 1979. Demonstrations escalated over subsequent days and on November 4, a mob of around 500 students calling themselves the Imam's Disciples' seized the main embassy building, taking 66 staff captive.
Khomeini was unrepentant about the hostage taking, using the act as a demonstration that his government was capable of successfully opposing the United States. Even when President Jimmy Carter retaliated by freezing $8 billion of Iranian assets, Khomeini merely turned around the sanctions, using them as the latest example of the United States acting against the interests of the Iranian people.
Although 13 hostages were released on November 19 and 20, 1979, the hostage crisis continued into the new year. In February 1980, Khomeini's government issued a set of demands in return for freeing hostages. This included the return of the Shah to Iran for trial and a number of diplomatic gestures, including American apologies for previous actions such as the 1953 coup. Carter refused to meet these conditions. Attempts to seek a diplomatic solution with Switzerland acting as a broker also failed.
Carter then ordered a secret rescue mission code-named "Operation Eagle Claw" on April, 25 1980. The mission failed, and resulted in the death of eight American soldiers.
Carried out during nighttime hours, transport aircraft preparing for a U.S. Special Forces landing in Tehran met at an airstrip in the Great Salt Desert in eastern Iran. Two helicopters had already pulled out of the mission with engine trouble, and a third was damaged as it landed on the airstrip, leaving five workable helicopters. The mission had become impossible before its full launch, at which point it was aborted on Carter's instructions.
As the aircraft took off to leave, however another helicopter crashed and burst into flames. Eight serviceman died, and another four suffered severe burns. The U.S. forces hastily retreated.
UNITED STATES EMBASSY IN TEHRAN SEIZED
See primary source image.
Operation Eagle Claw was a disaster for President Carter and merely added to the rising perception of his administration's inability to deal with the prevailing crisis. Additionally, America's European allies expressed shock that the mission had taken place without any consultation.
In Tehran, the mission's failure was greeted by jubilant scenes. Thousands of Iranian people hit the streets in celebration, and the bodies of the American soldiers were displayed in front of jubilant crowds. Intelligence documents were also uncovered in the wreckage and were flaunted by Iranian officials in front of the TV cameras.
Operation Eagle Claw, which was condemned by the Iranian Foreign Minister as "an act of war," all but doomed attempts to bring about a diplomatic solution to the hostage crisis. Domestically, Carter was engaged in a fight for re-election, and his rival Ronald Reagan used the crisis to his advantage, portraying Carter as unable to bring about a solution. The hostages were released after 444 days in captivity, on the day of Reagan's Presidential inauguration, January 20, 1981.
As President, Reagan characterized Khomeini's Iran as a terrorist state bent on damaging the interests of the American people. Iran was a backer of Hezbollah, an Islamist organization originating in Lebanon, and had strong ties to other extremist Shi'ite groups, such as Islamic Jihad. Between them, these organizations carried out a number of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets in Lebanon and across the Middle East during the mid-1980s.
Reagan also supplied military aid to Iraq, which was at war with Iran between 1980–1988. Further down the line, this contributed to an array of problems for subsequent U.S. administrations, including the 1991 Gulf War; the enforcement of sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime; and ultimately, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Nashville, TN: Westview, 2000.
Sullivan, William H. Mission to Iran. London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1981.
PBS. "People & Events: The Iranian Hostage Crisis, November 1979–January 1980." <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carter/peopleevents/e_hostage.html> (accessed July 6, 2005).