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Iran Hostage Crisis

 

The Iran hostage crisis was a 444-day period during which the new government of Iran after the Iranian Revolution held hostage 66 diplomats and citizens of the United States. It is believed by many to have caused President Jimmy Carter of the United States to lose his re-election attempt, and punctuated the first fundamentalist Islamic revolution of modern times. It began on November 4, 1979 and lasted until January 20, 1981.

For several decades the United States had been the primary backer of the regime of the Shah; after destroying a democracy in Iran by means of Operation Ajax. Eight U.S. presidents provided the shah with military and economic aid in exchange for a continuous oil supply. Those opposed to the Shah, because he did not grant them freedoms and reforms he promised in the early 1960s, greatly resented this behaviour by the Americans. On November 1, 1979 Iran's new leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged his people to demonstrate against United States and Israeli interests. On November 4 the U.S. embassy was seized by a mob of around 500 Iranian students (although reported numbers vary from 300 to 2000) calling themselves the Imam's Disciples. Part of a crowd of thousands gathered around the embassy in protest. Out of 90 occupants in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, 66 were originally taken captive. Three were taken from the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The hostages were often shown blindfolded to local crowds and television cameras.

During the riot, six Americans escaped in the confusion and hid out in one of their apartments before finding refuge at the Canadian and Swedish embassies, under the hospitality of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. Mark Lijek, Cora Amburn Lijek, Joseph Stafford, Kathleen Stafford, Robert Anders and Henry Lee Schatz were then given fake Canadian passports so they were able to leave the Canadian Embassy, without being identified as Americans, after it had closed on January 20,1980. The CIA actually supplied the passports and ran the entire rescue mission. Thirteen of the hostages, the women and African-Americans in the group, were released on November 19 and 20,1979, but the remaining 52 continued to be held (one further hostage was released because of illness on July 11, 1980).

The students justified taking the hostages by claiming that it was a retaliation for the admission of Iran's deposed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into the United States for cancer treatments back in October. The revolutionaries demanded the Shah be returned to be put on trial. In actuality, the hostage-taking was considered by some less based around one specific event and to be instead an act of demonstrating that the new Iranian government was capable of opposing the United States. It was also considered an act of retaliation against the United States' years of support of the Shah's totalitarian rule. Ruhollah Khomeini was virulently anti-American in his rhetoric, denouncing the American government as the "Great Satan" and "Enemies of Islam". The embassy had in fact been briefly seized once before during the revolution.

The U.S. President at the time, Jimmy Carter, immediately applied economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran: oil imports from Iran were ended on November 12, 1979, a number of Iranians in the U.S. were expelled (some of whom were unrelated to the crisis or the new Iranian government), and around USD 8 billion of Iranian assets in the U.S. were frozen on November 14, 1979. Carter pledged himself to preserving the lives of the hostages, but beyond the initial measures he could do little.

 

In February of 1980, the Iranian government issued a set of demands in return for freeing the hostages. They demanded the return of the former Shah to Iran, and certain diplomatic gestures including an apology for prior American actions in Iran (including the U.S.-aided coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953) and a promise to not to interfere in the future.

Rejecting the Iranian demands, Carter approved an ill-conceived secret rescue mission: Operation Eagle Claw. On the night of April 24-25, 1980, as the first part of the operation, a number of C-130 transport airplanes rendezvoused with nine RH-53 helicopters at an airstrip in the Great Salt Desert of Eastern Iran, near Tabas. Two helicopters broke down in a sandstorm and a third one was damaged on landing. The mission was aborted, but as the aircraft took off again one helicopter clipped a C-130 and crashed, killing eight U.S. servicemen and injuring more than four. The dead bodies of some of these soldiers were paraded through the streets of Teheran during massive street protests, all in front of television cameras broadcasting worldwide. Mission material was left behind for the Iranians to discover and later display to the world's media. Carter's Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, resigned because of his opposition to the action.

A second rescue attempt was planned using highly modified YMC-130H Hercules aircraft. Outfitted with rocket motors fore and aft to allow an extremely short landing and take-off in a soccer stadium, three aircraft were modified under a rushed super-secret program known as Credible Sport. One aircraft crashed during a demonstration at Duke Field, Florida (Eglin Air Force Base Auxiliary Field 3) on October 29, 1980 when the landing braking rockets were fired too soon causing a hard touchdown that tore off the starboard wing and started a fire. Fortunately, all on board survived. The impending change in the White House led to an abandonment of this project. The two surviving airframes were returned to regular duty with the rocket packages removed. One is now on display at the Robins Air Force Base museum, Georgia.

 

Former Johnson Administration Attorney General Ramsey Clark flew to Tehran and participated in a "Crimes of America" trial while the crisis ensued. In 1980, the death of the Shah (on July 27) and the invasion of Iran by Iraq in September made Iran more receptive to resolving the hostage crisis. In the United States, Carter lost the November 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan. Most analysts believe Carter's inability to solve the hostage crisis played a large role in his defeat (see October Surprise for controversial allegations that the hostage release was delayed until after the election).

Shortly after the election, with the assistance of Algerian intermediaries, such as Abdulkarim Ghuraib, successful negotiations began between the U.S. and Iran. On January 20, 1981, the day of President Reagan's inauguration, the hostages were freed in exchange for the unfreezing of 8 billion dollars worth of Iranian assets and immunity from lawsuits Iran might have faced (the hostages were released minutes after the presidency passed from Carter to Reagan). This added to the nation's celebration of Reagan taking the presidency. They spent 444 days in captivity. The hostages were flown to Frankfurt am Main Air Force Base in West Germany, where they were received by former President Jimmy Carter (as an emissary for the Reagan administration), and from there they took a second flight to Washington, D.C., where they received a hero's welcome.

In 2000, the hostages and their families tried to sue Iran, unsuccessfully, under the Antiterrorism Act. They originally won the case when Iran failed to provide defense, but the U.S. State Department tried to put an end to the suit, fearing that it would make international relations difficult. In result, a federal judge ruled that nothing could be done to repay the damages the hostages faced due to the agreement they made when the hostages were freed.


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