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Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Iran Hostage Crisis Begins, November 4, 1979

Today in 1979, the Iran hostage crisis began when the US embassy in Tehran was overrun by hundreds of students who called themselves Imam’s Disciples. 66 Americans were held hostage for 444 days, a long 15 months that shook the United States and contributed to the defeat of Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan in 1980.

From 1953 until 1979, Iran was ruled by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He came to power with the help of the CIA, who supported the Shah’s coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. In the early 1960’s, the Shah promised Iranians that reforms would take place within his government. The reforms were never enacted. Despite this, the government in Tehran continued to receive military and economic aid from the United States throughout the terms of eight US presidents. Those who opposed the Shah, including many religious Muslim conservatives, blamed the United States for the ruler’s continued success and his Western lifestyle.

Revolution came to Iran at the end of the 1970’s and the Shah’s government began to crumble. The ruler fled his nation in January 1979 and was granted admission to the United States that October so he could seek treatment for lymphoma. This greatly angered the new government in Iran and brought demonstrations against the United States and Israel.

The men who took over the US embassy declared that they were taking hostages in retaliation for years of US support for the Shah and demanded that he be forced to return to Iran for trial. While at first it appeared that this group had acted alone, the inaction of the Iranian government soon told the world that the hostage-taking had approval from the highest levels. Although the hostages reported that they were treated fairly well, some were beaten for attempting to escape (six actually did escape during the takeover of the embassy and hid in the Canadian embassy until they could be helped out of the country) and others spent long periods in solitary confinement. 13 of the hostages, either female or African-American were released on November 20, 1979, leaving 53 hostages. One more would be released due to illness in July, 1980.

In Washington, President Jimmy Carter acted swiftly to apply pressure on Iran. Oil imports from there were banned on November 12 and $8 billion (US) worth of Iranian assets in the United States were frozen. In February, 1980, Iran issued a list of demands, in return for which they would free the hostages. Mainly, they wanted an apology from the US for previous actions in Iran and the return of the Shah to the country. The US government would not meet either of the demands.

With his back up against a wall, President Carter ordered a military rescue operation which took place in April, 1980, but a sandstorm and a collision between a C-130 and a helicopter ended the attempt. Other missions were planned, including an idea to drop hundreds of mannequins as a diversion to make the Iranians believe an invasion was underway. But with the election of 1980 looming large, no further missions were authorized.

Two things happened in the summer of 1980 which helped bring the crisis to an end: the Shah died and Iraq invaded Iran. Jimmy Carter lost the election in November, 1980 to Ronald Reagan. Before he left office in January, 1981, the President agreed to unfreeze Iranian assets in the US and grant Iran immunity from any future lawsuits arising from the crisis. The hostages were freed on January 20, 1981, minutes after the new President was sworn into office.

It is believed by some of the former hostages that the current president of Iran was one of the hostage-takers back in 1979. Others have expressed doubt.


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