Back in 1979, 52 US citizens were held inside the American embassy in Iran for more than 400 days. On November 4, some Iranian students, demonstrating outside the US embassy in Tehran, assaulted the infrastructure and took 90 people hostage, 66 of which American.
Iran was in a riot because of US President Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow Iran’s autocratic deposed Shah to be treated in the US for cancer. Student’s action though, was a message to the US against its continuous interferences in the country. This revolutionary move was interpreted as a way of getting a spotlight for the anti-American cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (History.com 2010).
US embassy in Teheran acctacked by revolutionary students, 1979
The relationship between the two countries had been fragile for almost 50 years, because of oil interests (History.com 2010). British and American companies had gotten a beneficial deal regarding Iran’s petroleum extractions. However, in 1951, the new Prime Minister of the Arab country, Muhammad Mossadegh, decided to nationalize the oil’s industry. Westerns countries were undoubtedly unhappy so British and American Intelligence agencies devised a secret plan – ‘Operation TP-Ajax’ – to overthrown Iranian Prime Minister. As a result, in 1953 a new leader was installed: pro-Western, anti-communist Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. The US and the UK managed to get an impressively beneficial deal, i.e. 80% of Iranian oil reserves, in exchange for aid. Because of this intervention in local Iranian domain, not only did Iran’s economy suffered from the purchase of American weapons worth billions, but mostly, its people were ruled by a dictator. People turned to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a revolutionary Islamist cleric whose message was an autonomous Iran. In 1979, the Shas was forced to flee to Egypt and the Ayatollah installed a militant Islamist government. After Carter’s decision, rage spread. A group of pro-Ayatollah students managed to get into the US embassy in Tehran, seizing many diplomats and embassy employees. In a few months about 10 hostages were released.
Diplomatic actions in this crisis and economic sanctions didn’t seem to work at first: not even the American military rescue operation called Eagle Claw did. Telling the revolutionaries that they were breaking the Geneva Convention was pointless (Chris Sibilla). Iranian government itself did not do any actual move against the students. Revolutionaries demands were simple: The Shas return to his country for a trial, the ceasing of US interference, the return of the stolen properties by the Shas. USA supported the trial idea, suggesting to establish an international commission for human rights abuses in return for the release of the hostages. The UN sanctioned Iran’s actions, and the US sued Iranian government in the International Court of Justice, winning. Diplomats from various countries tried to help American diplomatic officers and the international community openly sanctioned the Revolutionaries and the Iranian government, which had not acted against the embassy seizure – although the Foreign Minister was helping US diplomats. American diplomatic officers were sent to Tehran so as to directly speak with the Ayatollah; they established a sort of ‘sitting foreign embassy’, in strict contact with the Foreign Ministry. They couldn’t get sensitive information because they couldn’t go out in the streets, yet they’re presence opened a channel of communication.
The UN Secretary General Mr. Waldheim, in 1980, flew to Teheran, but found demonstrations against him. Subsequently, the UN developed a panel of inquiry to come to Teheran to listen to Iranians, and hopefully from the hostages. Despite all these manoeuvres, the only strategy that perhaps changed things is the freezing of Iran’s assets by the US, still keeping diplomatic channels open. It sent a message of Carter’s engagement and credibility; he decided not to use force, although he made clear that if anything would have happened to the hostages, he would have used it. The President applied diplomacy – through economic sanctions as well – and tried to use communicative channels as much as possible.
Eventually, the crisis was resolved on January 21, 1981, a few hours after President Reagan’s inaugural address. Coincidence?
Free hostages in 1981
Anyway, in this particular case, diplomacy took a long way to resolve things, but in the end it did. I am positive that the Iran-Iraq War started in 1980 was highly influential, and in this case, the destructive war came in at the ‘right’ time for the American Government. Also, the US, being a powerful country, had the means of implementing any action, either diplomatic or military, and UN sustain was peculiar. Most importantly, they US were able to provide a credible threat that they would have attacked Iran in case the hostages were hurt.
Chris Sibilla, << The Iran Hostage Crisis – ‘’ I had very little faith in my government protecting me’’>>, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, at http://adst.org/2014/10/the-iran-hostage-crisis-i-had-very-little-faith-in-my-government-protecting-me/
‘Iran hostage crisis fast facts’, CNN, October 29, 2016 at http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/15/world/meast/iran-hostage-crisis-fast-facts/
‘Iran hostorage Crisis’, History.com, 2010 at http://www.history.com/topics/iran-hostage-crisis
‘Iran hostage crisis’,Encyclopaedia Britannica, January 1, 2017 (last update), at https://www.britannica.com/event/Iran-hostage-crisis