It was 444 days that shook the United States to its very core. A chastening experience for one of the world’s two superpowers at the time and one which over forty years later has still not been forgotten.
On 4th November 1979, with an angry growing crowd demonstrating outside the U.S embassy in Tehran, tensions were running high. Anti-American sentiment had been building steadily since the Iranian Revolution the year before, but still, few had any idea just how bad things were about to get for the 66 American diplomats, embassy staff and citizens in the building.
The Iran Hostage Crisis became one of the defining events of the late 1970s and early 1980s that saw the most powerful country in the world struggle in vain to resolve a situation that at times appeared as if it would end in mass bloodshed. It also introduced the world to a new Iran, one with a much tighter grip on religious authority that refused to bow to the major world powers.
But make no mistake about it, this story goes back much further than 1979 and involves plenty of U.S meddling in a country that eventually came back to haunt it. This was the event that gripped the world and led to seismic changes both in the Middle East and back on American shores as well.
It’s difficult to know how far back to go with this story, but the 1950s seems like a good place to start. The first half of the century had seen the Anglo-Persian oil company reap staggering rewards from Iran’s enormous oil reserves. Even as recently as 2016, it was estimated that the country sits above roughly 157,530,000,000 barrels of oil, which is almost 10% of all the oil in the world.
As was the system at the time – and some would argue even the case today – shareholders in the Anglo-Persian oil company were profiting handsomely from a country where the majority of the population lived in absolute poverty. So much so it was the most profitable British business in the world at the time.
During World War II, Iran was invaded by an Anglo-Soviet force during Operation Countenance which sought to not only protect allied interests in the region but also to replace Reza Shah, Iran’s ruler who was deemed entirely too pro-Nazi, with his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
But things began to change with the election of Mohammad Mosaddegh as Prime Minister in 1951 and he soon made his intentions of nationalising the Anglo-Persian oil company while untangling the country from the tentacled influence of foreign powers. And that’s exactly what he did the following year in 1952 leading to shrill shrieking from London and open accusation of theft. The fact that they had been blindly robbing the Iranian people for decades appears not to have been taken into consideration.
Britain puffed its chest out but when the U.S refused to participate in a military conflict over the matter, the British government settled on the idea of an Iranian coup that would magically lead to a more British friendly leader taking charge.
The coup orchestrated by the U.S and U.K was known as Operation Ajax and was messy in its extreme. The initial attempt to remove Mosaddegh from power failed and led to large-scale protests, but the two western nations were not to be deterred. The new Shah initially fled the country, ending up in Rome, where a British intelligence report described him by saying “He hates taking decisions and cannot be relied on to stick to them when taken. He has no moral courage and succumbs easily to fear” – and remember this was who Britain and America wanted to take charge.
Renewed efforts back in Iran, with a hefty wad of U.S dollars used to encourage protestors and outright thugs on the streets, eventually led to regime change. Mosaddegh was eventually arrested and tried. The death sentence handed down to him was commuted by the returning Shah but he was kept under house arrest until he died in 1967.
And so we come to the new man in charge, a man who took the title Shahanshah, meaning King of Kings if there was any doubt over the man’s staggering ego. His 38-year rule, if you include what had come before Mosaddegh, was dramatic to say the very least. Huge amounts of money were spent on industry, education, health, and armed forces which saw the standard of living rise dramatically across most parts of the country. In some cases, it enjoyed economic growth rates that exceeded even the U.S and Britain.
But despite his best attempts at selling himself as a man of the people, resentment over his rule was constant. Not only was his level of decadence simply staggering but his White Revolution, which broadly lasted from 1963 to 1978, and aimed to modernise Iran through a series of reforms, such as the redistribution of wealth to Iran’s working class, economic growth, rapid urbanization, land reform and the deconstruction Iran’s feudalist customs, while certainly pushing the country forward, eventually set the foundation for revolution.
The other major figure at this time was Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a man who angrily denounced the Shah as being a “wretched miserable man” and who vehemently opposed his White Revolution reforms.
When Khomeini was arrested in 1963 it was followed by three days of violent protest where between 32 and 15,000 people died – depending on which side you ask. He was eventually released after 8 months but was rearrested in November 1964 and exiled from the country. He wouldn’t return until after the revolution.
Yet even with Khoemni out of the way, discord within Iran was growing. If you need a perfect example of the lavish lifestyle that the Shah led, you need look no further than the party held in 1971 to commemorate the 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire. This was an extravagant 5-day affair held in the desert near Persepolis, with royal families and high-ranking dignitaries from around the world attending the party that may have cost around $100 million (around $682 million today). It famously included 50,000 colourful birds that had been imported just for the occasion, which all immediately died, because, well, you can’t just import birds to a desert and I’m genuinely surprised nobody thought of that.
By 1977, things were bubbling away in Iran. The Shah’s attempts at liberalisation was gathering pace but was equally met with fierce opposition. The mysterious death of Khoemni’s eldest son in Iraq only exacerbated the situation and a series of violent protests broke out in cities around the country.
Over the next two years, the country experienced waves of protests which would rise and fall in intensity and numbers which made it hard to see which side was making real progress. A few events inflamed the situation, including the arson attack on a cinema on 19th August 1978 which killed up to 470 – making it the worst ever terrorist attack at the time – and which was blamed on all sides. 89 people died in what has come to be known as Black Friday on 8th September 1978 when the police and the military opened fire on protestors in Jaleh Square. This was followed by strikes and some of the biggest protests so far and eventually the Shad fled the country on 16th January 1979 with Khomeini returning to Iran two weeks later.
The Valentine’s Day Open House
And that pretty much brings us up to date with where we need to be for our story today. In the months between the Shah’s escape and the attack on the U.S embassy, anti-American anger was being openly stoked by Iran’s new leaders.
While the assault on the embassy that everybody remembers occurred in November, it was in fact not the first time the building had been overrun. On 14th February 1979, members of the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas stormed the compound and took a hostage, U.S Marine Kenneth Kraus, who was later tortured and sentenced to death for supposedly killing Iranian civilians – which never happened as far as we know. He was eventually released, but the events that came to be known as the Valentine’s Day Open House, really should have alerted the United States over the danger of leaving the embassy open.
Early in the morning of 4th November 1979, a large crowd of mainly Iranian students began gathering outside the U.S embassy. What initially appeared to be a peaceful protest quickly escalated and there were reports of multiple buses arriving bringing more people into the area, along with some carrying metal cutters beneath their robes.
The crowd became more and more frenzied until people began scaling the gate which was quickly thrown open and the mob surged forward. Fearing what would happen if they opened fire on unarmed Iranian civilians, the U.S Marines guarding the embassy held their fire and were soon overwhelmed. Inside the building, staff were frantically trying to destroy documents but when their incinerator broke, they resorted to using old fashioned shredders.
The compound was completely overrun in a matter of minutes and 66 hostages were initially taken, mostly embassy staff but also civilians. For most, it would be the start of a traumatic experience that would last almost a year and a half.
In the first few days of the hostage crisis, few envisioned just how long it would go on. The initial plan was to simply occupy the embassy for a short period, make some headlines, and leave shortly after, whether or not that included the release of the captives it’s not exactly clear.
But this event proved wildly popular within a country still amped up on revolutionary zeal. Uncle Sam – or the Great Satan as the U.S was frequently referred to as – had been dealt a bloody nose on the most public of stages and those responsible now revelled in its downfall. They were also given the very public backing of Khomeini, though it’s long been debated just how involved with the events at the U.S embassy the Iranian leaders were.
Early on, several hostages were released, either African-Americans (deemed to be already under the yolk of U.S tyranny) or citizens from other countries. Numerous Americans had either managed to escape the embassy before or had not been present when it was attacked. Many of those were later rounded up and returned, but the story of six of them and how they managed to escape Iran is quite a tale and one we’re just coming to.
For the Americans inside the embassy, it was the start of a slow form of torture that would push many of them to the very brink. Several were blindfolded then paraded in front of crowds and television cameras. Those images of clearly terrified American citizens with white blindfolds over their eyes and surrounded by a baying mob had a traumatic effect when they arrived Stateside. American anger quickly erupted but demands for their release were met with defiance.
The hostages were initially held at the embassy but were eventually moved to a prison in Tehran. Iranian media consistently referred to them as “guests in Iran”, conveniently sidestepping the mock-executions, abuse, solitary confinement and general restrictions on life that hosts generally don’t place upon their guests. During the crisis, two hostages attempted suicide and a third went on a hunger strike for several weeks, but as the weeks turned to months, it was clear the Americans wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.
The Canadian Caper
If you’ve seen the 2012 film Argo, you’ll know all about the Canadian Caper which saw 6 U.S citizens escape Iran thanks to a wonderfully inventive and daring joint operation between the Canadian government and the CIA.
When the embassy was overrun, one group that had been working in a separate building managed to escape with instructions to head to the British embassy. After finding it surrounded by protestors, they sheltered in a nearby house and over the next six days, they moved from hiding place to hiding place before ending up in the home of John Sheardown, a Canadian immigration officer.
When the CIA got word that American citizens were sheltering secretly in Tehran it immediately created a dilemma. The U.S government was wary of antagonizing the hostage crisis further and a series of rescue plans were rejected before the CIA’s resident disguise and exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez, concocted a quite brilliant plan.
He would create a fictitious film production for a movie named Argo based on the 1967 Roger Zelazny science fiction novel Lord of Light that was looking to use the Iranian desert as a shooting location. The plan was for Mendez and another man who we only know as “Julio” to fly into Tehran under Canadian passports, pick up the group sheltering in secret who would each also be given a Canadian passport and forged Iranian entry stamps, and casually stroll through airport immigration without a care in the world.
I know that sounds absurdly simplistic but that’s essentially what happened. On 27th January 1980, after 79 days of hiding in secret, Mendez, Julio and the six embassy staff passed without incident through the airport in Tehran and boarded Swissair flight 363 destined for Zurich. If you have seen the film Argo, you’ll know it has a fairly nerve-shredding finale, but in reality, it was nothing like that. One of the most audacious escapes you can imagine went off pretty much without a hitch.
Operation Eagle Claw
However, one operation that certainly didn’t go according to plan was the disastrous American rescue attempt known as Operation Eagle Claw.
This took place on 24th April 1980, just over six months after the crisis had begun. With peaceful negotiations seemingly going nowhere, the U.S government greenlit an operation that looked pretty dicey, to begin with, and quickly collapsed into complete failure that did little to heal American morale.
Ambitious is a little generous when talking about Operation Eagle Claw. The plan involved all three sections of the U.S military and called for helicopters and C-130 aircraft to rendezvous at an area dubbed “Desert One” east of the city of Yazd in Iran. There, the helicopters would refuel and take on the 132 combat troops who had flown in on one of the C-130s but departing for “Desert Two” just south of Tehran.
At “Desert Two” the group would be met by a group of in-county CIA operatives driving trucks who would then drive them through Tehran, assault the embassy, rescue the hostages, before making their way to a captured airfield near to the city where everybody would be flown out to Egypt. Now, I’ll hold my hands up and say that my military strategy knowledge no doubt pales in comparison to those who devised the plan, but Operation Eagle Claw sounded absurdly complex from the outset.
And so it proved. Of the eight helicopters that arrived at “Desert One” only five were deemed serviceable, one had encountered hydraulic problems, another was caught in a sand storm, and the third showed signs of a cracked rotor blade. The plan called for a minimum of six helicopters to move up to “Desert Two” and the order to abort soon came.
But that wasn’t all that went wrong with the mission. The Rangers on the ground had to stop a bus carrying civilians who then had to be detained, while a fuel truck thought to be part of a smuggling route was destroyed when it failed to stop. And things got even worse as one of the helicopters crashed into one of the C-130s killing eight inside.
The remainder of the expeditionary force managed to limp away but Operation Eagle Claw had been a complete disaster.
End of the Crisis
The failed rescue attempt was yet another blow to U.S pride and provided a mortal wound to President Jimmy Carter’s re-election in six months. As I think we all know, politics can be a savage game and Carter’s failure to achieve the release of the U.S hostages and the frankly woeful rescue attempt would be the final nails in his Presidential coffin.
However, while the hostages would be technically released shortly after the inauguration of Ronald Reagen, it’s important to emphasize the work that the Carter administration made towards their release.
In the latter half of 1980, a series of negotiations were held between the Americans and Iranians with the Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammed Benyahia acting as the go-between. These were all done in complete secrecy and we don’t really have much of an idea of how they progressed, but things became very complicated and very murky.
Let’s start with what definitely happened. On 20th January 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagen had finished his inauguration speech, the Iranian government announced that because of the successful signing of the Algiers Accords in which the U.S promised not to meddle in local affairs and unfreeze Iranian assets, all hostages would be released immediately.
Undoubtedly great news for those U.S citizens still in Tehran but it didn’t take long for questions to arise over the timing of the announcement. What has come to be known as the October Surprise Conspiracy Theory states that the Reagen administration colluded with the Iranian government to delay the release of the prisoners until after the election, fearing that if Carter managed to take the credit, he might just win. According to some – and we have to be careful here because this remains very much a theory – part of the deal was the transfer of weapons from the Americans to the Iranians, possibly via the Israelis. And this wasn’t simply the ramblings of the disenchanted and the story appeared in the New York Times and has been backed up by numerous sources in both the U.S and Iran.
If you think that sounds far-fetched, the same administration was found to be something incredibly similar during the Iran-Contra Affair which began in 1985. Both the Senate and the Congress held inquiries into the matter but both found evidence to either be absent or insufficient, so I’ll let you make your own mind up about that.
Whatever murky political manoeuvres occurred to achieve their release after 444 days held hostage in Iran, the 52 American citizens were heading home and one of the most dramatic and high profile hostage crises we’ve ever seen had finally come to a peaceful conclusion.