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Iran–United States hostage crisis
Part of Consolidation of the Iranian Revolution
US Embassy Tehran.JPG
A defaced Great Seal of the United States at the former U.S. embassy, Tehran, Iran, as it appeared in 2004
DateNovember 4, 1979 – January 20, 1981
(444 days or 1 year, 2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
LocationTehran, Iran
Result Rupture of Iran–United States relations


  • Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line
United States
Commanders and leaders
Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

United States Jimmy Carter United States Walter Mondale
United States Ronald Reagan

United States George H. W. Bush
Casualties and losses
1 Iranian civilian killed 8 American servicemen killed in accidental destruction of two aircraft

The Iranian hostage crisis, referred to in Persian as تسخیر لانه جاسوسی امریکا (literally "Conquest of the American Spy Den,"), was a diplomatic crisis between Iran and the United States. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days (November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981), after a group of Iranian students supporting the Iranian Revolution took over the US Embassy in Tehran.[1] President Carter called the hostages "victims of terrorism and anarchy," adding that "the United States will not yield to blackmail."[2]

The crisis was described by the western media as an entanglement of "vengeance and mutual incomprehension."[3] In Iran, the hostage taking was widely seen as a blow against the United States and its influence in Iran, its perceived attempts to undermine the Iranian Revolution, and its longstanding support of the recently overthrown Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran. Following his overthrow, the Shah was allowed into the U.S. for medical treatment. The Iranians wanted the United States to return the Shah back to them for trial of the crimes committed by him during his reign on ordinary citizens with the help of his secret police, the SAVAK. In Iran the asylum granted by the U.S. to the Shah was seen as American complicity in the atrocities meted by the Shah on the Iranian people. In the United States, the hostage-taking was seen as an outrage violating the principle of international law granting diplomats immunity from arrest and diplomatic compounds' inviolability.[4][5]

The episode reached a climax when, after failed attempts to negotiate a release, the United States military attempted a rescue operation off the USS Nimitz. On April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw resulted in a failed mission, the deaths of eight American servicemen, one Iranian civilian, and the destruction of two aircraft.

On July 27, 1980, the former Shah died; then, in September, Iraq invaded Iran. These two events led the Iranian government to enter negotiations with the U.S., with Algeria acting as a mediator. The hostages were formally released into United States custody the day after the signing of the Algiers Accords, just minutes after the new American president Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.

Considered a pivotal episode in the history of Iran–United States relations,[6] political analysts cite the crisis as having weighed heavily on U.S. President Jimmy Carter's presidency and run for reelection in the 1980 presidential election.[7] In Iran, the crisis strengthened the prestige of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the political power of those who supported theocracy and opposed any normalization of relations with the West.[8] The crisis also marked the beginning of U.S. legal action, or economic sanctions against Iran, that further weakened ties between Iran and the United States.[9]


1953 coup

In February 1979, less than a year before the hostage crisis, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, had been overthrown in a revolution. For several decades prior to his deposition, the United States had allied with and supported the Shah. During World War II, Allied powers Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Iran and required Reza Shah, the existing Shah of Iran, to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.[10] The Allies feared that Reza Shah intended to align his petroleum-rich country with Nazi Germany during the war; however, Reza Shah's earlier Declaration of Neutrality and refusal to allow Iranian territory to be used to train, supply, and act as a transport corridor to ship arms to the Soviet Union for its war effort against Germany, was the strongest motive for the allied invasion of Iran. Because of its importance in the allied victory, Iran was subsequently called "The Bridge of Victory" by Winston Churchill.[11]

By the 1950s, the Shah was engaged in a power struggle with Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, an immediate descendant of the previous monarchy, the Qajar dynasty. Mosadegh led an extremely difficult general strike by the desperately poor people of Iran to gain a 50:50 sharing of petroleum revenues from the British through their Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but over-stepped attempting to get $50 million in damages & lost revenues from the war impoverished British. (p. 52 poverty p. 54 Postwar Brit, -p. 63 acceptance of 50:50 split, demand for $50 million in damages & back revenues, The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth M. Pollack. New York: Random House, 2004.). In 1953 the British and U.S. spy agencies helped Iranian royalists depose of the government of Mosaddegh in a military coup d'état codenamed Operation Ajax, and helped the Shah to extend his power. “Richard Cottman, who is generally sympathetic to Iranian nationalists summed up the prevailing view that, ‘Regardless of foreign participation, Mossadegh could not have been overthrown if significant elements of the population had not lost faith in his leadership.’” (p.69 The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth M. Pollack. New York: Random House, 2004.) The Shah appointed himself an absolute monarch rather than as a constitutional monarch, his position before the 1953 crisis, with the aim of assuming complete control of the government and purging the disloyal.[12][13][14] U.S. support and funding of the Shah continued after the coup, with the CIA training the government's secret police, SAVAK. In the subsequent decades of the brutally callous Cold War period, various economic, cultural, and political issues, many of which could be characterized as, "too much of a good thing", united opposition against the Shah and led to his overthrow.[15][16][17]

Carter administration

Months before the revolution, on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1977, American president Jimmy Carter further angered anti-Shah Iranians with a televised toast to the Shah, declaring how beloved the Shah was by his people. After the revolution culminated with the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from France in February 1979, the embassy had been occupied and staff held hostage briefly. Rocks and bullets had broken enough of the embassy's front-facing windows for them to be replaced with bulletproof glass. Its staff was reduced to just over 60 from a high of nearly 1,000 earlier in the decade.[18]

The Carter administration attempted to mitigate anti-American feeling by finding a new relationship with the de facto Iranian government and continuing military cooperation in hopes that the situation would stabilize. However, on October 22, 1979, the United States permitted the Shah—who was ill with lymphoma—to enter New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center for medical treatment.[19] The State Department had discouraged the request, understanding the political delicacy,[20] but after pressure from influential figures including former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Council on Foreign Relations chairman David Rockefeller, the Carter administration decided to grant the Shah's request.[21][22][23]

The Shah's admission to the United States intensified Iranian revolutionaries' anti-Americanism and spawned rumors of another U.S.-backed coup and re-installation of the Shah.[24] Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—who had been exiled by the Shah for 15 years—heightened rhetoric against the "Great Satan", the United States, talking of what he called "evidence of American plotting".[25] In addition to putting an end to what they believed was American plotting and sabotage against the revolution, the hostage takers hoped to depose the provisional revolutionary government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, which they believed was plotting to normalize relations with the United States and extinguish Islamic revolutionary ardor in Iran.[26]

A later study claimed that there had been no plots for the overthrow of the revolutionaries by the United States, and that a CIA intelligence gathering mission at the embassy was "notably ineffectual, gathering little information and hampered by the fact that none of the three officers spoke the local language, Farsi". Its work was "routine, prudent espionage conducted at diplomatic missions everywhere".[27]


Anticipating the takeover of the embassy, the Americans attempted to destroy classified documents with a burn furnace. The furnace malfunctioned and the staff was forced to use cheap paper shredders.[28][29] Skilled carpet weaver women were later employed to reconstruct the documents.[30]

The seizure of the American embassy was initially planned in September 1979 by Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a student at that time. He consulted with the heads of the Islamic associations of Tehran's main universities, including the University of Tehran, Sharif University of Technology, Amirkabir University of Technology (Polytechnic of Tehran) and Iran University of Science and Technology. Their group was named Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line.

Asgharzadeh later said there were five students at the first meeting, two of whom wanted to target the Soviet embassy because the USSR was "a Marxist and anti-God regime." Two others, Mirdamadi and Habibolah Bitaraf, supported Asgharzadeh's chosen target—the United States. "Our aim was to object against the American government by going to their embassy and occupying it for several hours," Asgharzadeh said. "Announcing our objections from within the occupied compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way."[31] Mirdamadi told an interviewer, "we intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more".[32] Masoumeh Ebtekar, spokeswoman for the Iranian students during the crisis, said that those who rejected Asgharzadeh's plan did not participate in the subsequent events.[33]

The Islamist students observed the security procedures of the Marine Security Guards from nearby rooftops overlooking the embassy. They also used experiences from the recent revolution, during which the U.S. embassy grounds were briefly occupied. They enlisted the support of police in charge of guarding the embassy and of Islamic Revolutionary Guards.[34]

According to the group and other sources Khomeini did not know of the plan beforehand.[35] The Islamist students had wanted to inform him but according to author Mark Bowden, Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha persuaded them not to. Khoeiniha feared the government would use police to expel the Islamist students as they had the last occupiers in February. The provisional government had been appointed by Khomeini and so Khomeini was likely to go along with their request to restore order. On the other hand, Khoeiniha knew that if Khomeini first saw that the occupiers were his faithful supporters (unlike the leftists in the first occupation) and that large numbers of pious Muslims had gathered outside the embassy to show their support for the takeover, it would be "very hard, perhaps even impossible", for the Imam Khomeini to oppose the takeover, and this would paralyze the Bazargan administration Khoeiniha and the students wanted to eliminate.[36]

Iranians stated that their motivation was fear of another American backed coup against their popular revolution, as was done in 1953. They claimed that in 1953, the American embassy acted as a "den of spies" from which the American coup was organized. Documents were later found in the embassy suggesting that some workers in the embassy were working with American intelligence agencies. After the Shah's entry into the United States, the Ayatollah Khomeini called for street demonstrations. On November 4, 1979, one such demonstration, organized by Iranian student unions loyal to Khomeini, took place outside the walled compound housing the U.S. Embassy. The occupation of the embassy then took a second purpose, which was leverage to demand the return of the Shah to Iran for trial in exchange for the hostages.


Around 6:30 a.m. on November 4, 1979, the ringleaders gathered between 300 and 500 selected students, thereafter known as Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, and briefed them on the battle plan. A female student was given a pair of metal cutters to break the chains locking the embassy's gates, and she hid them beneath her chador.[37]

At first, the students' plan to only make a symbolic occupation, release statements to the press, and leave when government security forces came to restore order was reflected in placards saying "Don't be afraid. We just want to set-in". When the embassy guards brandished firearms, the protesters retreated, one telling the Americans, "We don't mean any harm".[38] But as it became clear the guards would not use deadly force and that a large angry crowd had gathered outside the compound to cheer the occupiers and jeer the hostages, the occupation changed.[39] According to one embassy staff member, buses full of demonstrators began to appear outside the embassy shortly after the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line broke through the gates.[40]

As Khoeiniha had hoped, Khomeini supported the takeover. According to Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi, when he, Yazdi came to Qom to tell the Imam about the incident, Khomeini told the minister to "go and kick them out". But later that evening, back in Tehran, the minister heard on the radio that Imam Khomeini had issued a statement supporting the seizure and calling it "the second revolution", and the embassy an "American spy den in Tehran".[41]

The occupiers bound and blindfolded the embassy Marines and staff and paraded them in front of photographers. In the first couple of days, many of the embassy staff who had sneaked out of the compound or not been there at the time of the takeover were rounded up by Islamists and returned as hostages.[42] Six American diplomats did however avoid capture and took refuge in the British embassy before being transferred to the Canadian Embassy, and others went to the Swedish embassy in Tehran for three months. A joint Canadian government–Central Intelligence Agency covert operation, known as the Canadian caper, managed to smuggle them out of Iran using Canadian passports and a cover story disguising them as a Canadian film crew on January 28, 1980.[43]

Hostage-holding motivations

The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line demanded that the Shah return to Iran for trial and execution. The U.S. maintained that the Shah, who died less than a year later in July 1980, had come to America only for medical attention. The group's other demands included that the U.S. government apologize for its interference in the internal affairs of Iran, for the overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh (in 1953), and that Iran's frozen assets in the United States be released.


Hostage Barry Rosen, age 34

The initial takeover plan was to hold the embassy for only a short time, but this changed after it became apparent how popular the takeover was and that Khomeini had given it his full support.[40] Some attribute the Iranian decision not to release the hostages quickly to U.S. President Jimmy Carter's "blinking" or failure to immediately deliver an ultimatum to Iran.[44] His immediate response was to appeal for the release of the hostages on humanitarian grounds and to share his hopes of a strategic anti-communist alliance with the Islamic Republic.[45] As some of the student leaders had hoped, Iran's moderate prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and his cabinet resigned under pressure just days after the event.

The duration of the hostages' captivity has been blamed on internal Iranian revolutionary politics. As Ayatollah Khomeini told Iran's president:

This action has many benefits. "... This has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us. We can put the constitution to the people's vote without difficulty, and carry out presidential and parliamentary elections."[46]

Theocratic Islamists, as well as leftist political groups and figures like leftist People's Mujahedin of Iran,[47] supported the taking of American hostages as an attack on "American imperialism" and its alleged Iranian "tools of the West". Revolutionary teams displayed secret documents purportedly taken from the embassy, sometimes painstakingly reconstructed after shredding,[48] to buttress their claim that "the Great Satan" (the U.S.) was trying to destabilize the new regime, and that Iranian moderates were in league with the U.S. The documents were published in a series of books called Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den (Persian: اسناد لانه جاسوسی امریكا‎). These books included telegrams, correspondence, and reports from the U.S. State Department and Central Intelligence Agency. According to a Federation of American Scientists Bulletin from 1997, "By 1995, an amazing 77 volumes of 'Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den' (Asnad-i lanih-'i Jasusi) had been collected and published by the 'Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam'."[49] Many of these volumes of unredacted documents are now available online.[50]

A group photograph of the former hostages in the hospital. The 52 hostages are spending a few days in the hospital after their release from Iran prior to their departure for the United States.

By embracing the hostage-taking under the slogan "America can't do a thing", Khomeini rallied support and deflected criticism from his controversial Islamic theocratic constitution,[51] which was due for a referendum vote in less than one month.[52] Following the successful referendum, both leftists and theocrats continued to use the issue of alleged pro-Americanism to suppress their opponents, the relatively moderate political forces, which included the Iranian Freedom Movement, National Front, Grand Ayatollah Shari'atmadari,[53] and later President Abolhassan Banisadr. In particular, carefully selected diplomatic dispatches and reports discovered at the embassy and released by the hostage-takers led to the disempowerment and resignations of moderate figures[54] such as Premier Mehdi Bazargan. The political danger in Iran of any move seen as accommodating America, along with the failed rescue attempt, delayed a negotiated release. After the hostages were released, leftists and theocrats turned on each other, with the stronger theocratic group annihilating the left.

A man holding a sign during a protest of the crisis in Washington, D.C., in 1979. The sign reads "Deport all Iranians" and "Get the hell out of my country" on its forefront, and "Release all Americans now" on its back.

444 days hostage

Hostage conditions

The hostage-takers, declaring their solidarity with other "oppressed minorities" and "the special place of women in islam," released 13 women and African Americans in the middle of November 1979. One more hostage, a white man named Richard Queen, was released in July 1980 after he became seriously ill with what was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. The remaining 52 hostages were held captive until January 1981, a total of 444 days of captivity.

The hostages initially were held in buildings at the embassy, but after the failed rescue mission they were scattered to different locations around Iran to make rescue impossible. Three high level officials—Bruce Laingen, Victor Tomseth, and Mike Howland—were at the Foreign ministry at the time of the takeover. They stayed there for some months, sleeping in the ministry's formal dining room and washing their socks and underwear in the bathroom. They were first treated as diplomats but after the provisional government fell relations deteriorated and by March the doors to their living space were kept "chained and padlocked".[55]

By midsummer 1980, the Iranians moved the hostages to prisons in Tehran[56] to prevent either escape or rescue attempts and to improve the logistics of guard shifts and food delivery.[57] The final holding area, from November 1980 until their release, was the Teymour Bakhtiari mansion in Tehran, where the hostages were finally provided tubs, showers and hot and cold running water.[58] Several foreign diplomats and ambassadors—including Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor before the Canadian Caper—came to visit the hostages over the course of the crisis, relaying information back to the U.S. government—including the "Laingen dispatches", made by hostage Bruce Laingen—to help the home country stay in contact.

Iranian propaganda stated that the hostages were "guests" treated with respect. Ibrahim Asgharzadeh described the original hostage taking plan as a "nonviolent" and symbolic action where the "gentle and respectful treatment" of the hostages would dramatize to the whole world the offended sovereignty and dignity of Iran.[59] In America, an Iranian chargé d'affaires, Ali Agha, stormed out of meeting with an American official, exclaiming "We are not mistreating the hostages. They are being very well taken care of in Tehran. They are our guests."[60]

The actual treatment of the hostages was far different from that purported in Iranian propaganda: the hostages described beatings,[61] theft,[62] the fear of bodily harm while being paraded blindfold before a large, angry chanting crowd outside the embassy (Bill Belk and Kathryn Koob),[63] having their hands bound "day and night" for days[64] or even weeks,[65] long periods of solitary confinement[66] and months of being forbidden to speak to one another[67] or stand, walk, and leave their space unless they were going to the bathroom.[68] In particular they felt the threat of trial and execution,[69] as all of the hostages "were threatened repeatedly with execution, and took it seriously".[70] The hostage takers played Russian roulette with their victims.[71]

The most terrifying night for the hostages came on February 5, 1980, when guards in black ski masks roused the 52 hostages from their sleep and led them blindfolded to other rooms. They were searched after being ordered to strip themselves until they were bare, and to keep their hands up. They were then told to kneel down. "This was the greatest moment" as one hostage said. They were still wearing the blindfolds, so naturally, they were terrified even further. One of the hostages later recalled 'It was an embarrassing moment. However, we were too scared to realize it.' The mock execution ended after the guards cocked their weapons and readied them to fire but finally ejected their rounds and told the prisoners to wear their clothes again. The hostages were later told the exercise was "just a joke" and something the guards "had wanted to do". However, this affected a lot of the hostages long after.[72]

Michael Metrinko was kept in solitary confinement for months. On two occasions when he expressed his opinion of Ayatollah Khomeini and he was punished especially severely in relation to the ordinary mistreatment of the hostages—the first time being kept in handcuffs for 24 hours a day for two weeks,[73] and being beaten and kept alone in a freezing cell for two weeks with a diet of bread and water the second time.[74]

One hostage, U.S. Army medic Donald Hohman, went on a hunger strike for several weeks[75] and two hostages are thought to have attempted suicide. Steve Lauterbach became despondent, broke a water glass and slashed his wrists after being locked in a dark basement room of the chancery with his hand tightly bound and aching badly. He was found by guards, rushed to the hospital and patched up.[76] Jerry Miele, an introverted CIA communicator technician, smashed his head into the corner of a door, knocking himself unconscious and cutting a deep gash from which blood poured. "Naturally withdrawn" and looking "ill, old, tired, and vulnerable", Miele had become the butt of his guards' jokes who rigged up a mock electric chair with wires to emphasize the fate that awaited him. After his fellow hostages applied first aid and raised alarm, he was taken to a hospital after a long delay created by the guards.[77]

Different hostages described further Iranian threats to boil their feet in oil (Alan B. Golacinski),[78] cut their eyes out (Rick Kupke),[79] or kidnap and kill a disabled son in America and "start sending pieces of him to your wife". (David Roeder)[80]

Four different hostages attempted to escape[81] all being punished with stretches of solitary confinement when their attempt was discovered.

The hostage released for multiple sclerosis, Richard Queen, first developed symptoms of dizziness and numbness in his arm six months before his release.[82] It was misdiagnosed by Iranians first as a reaction to draft of cold air, and after warmer confinement didn't help as "it's nothing, it's nothing", the symptoms of which would soon disappear.[83] Over the months the symptoms spread to his right side and worsened until Queen "was literally flat on his back unable to move without growing dizzy and throwing up".[84]

The cruelty of the Iranian prison guards became "a form of slow torture".[85] Guards would often withhold mail from home, telling one hostage, Charles W. Scott, "I don't see anything for you, Mr. Scott. Are you sure your wife has not found another man?"[86] and hostages' possessions went missing.[87]

As the hostages were taken to the plane that would fly them out of Tehran, they were led through a gauntlet of students forming parallel lines and shouting "Marg bar Amrika", (death to America).[88] When the pilot announced they were out of Iran the "freed hostages went wild with happiness. Shouting, cheering, crying, clapping, falling into one another's arms".[89]

Impact in the United States

A heckler in Washington, D.C., leans across a police line toward a demonstration of Iranians during the Iran hostage crisis, August 1980.

In the United States, the hostage-taking is said to have created "a surge of patriotism" and left "the American people more united than they have been on any issue in two decades".[90] The action was seen "not just as a diplomatic affront", but as a "declaration of war on diplomacy itself".[91] Television news gave daily updates.[92] The respected CBS Evening News anchor, Walter Cronkite, began ending each show in January 1980 by saying how many days the hostages had been captive.[93] President Carter applied economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran: oil imports from Iran were ended on November 12, 1979, and through the issuance of Executive Order 12170, around US$8 billion of Iranian assets in the U.S. were frozen by the Office of Foreign Assets Control on November 14.

During the weeks leading up to Christmas in 1979, high school students created Christmas cards that were delivered to the hostages in Iran.[3] This was then replicated by community groups across the country, resulting in bales of Christmas cards delivered to the hostages. The White House Christmas Tree that year was left dark except for the top star.

A severe backlash against Iranians in the United States developed. One Iranian later complained, "I had to hide my Iranian identity not to get beaten up, even at university."[94]

According to author/journalist Mark Bowden, a pattern developed in President Carter's attempts to negotiate a release of the hostages:

Carter would latch on to a deal proffered by a top Iranian official and grant minor but humiliating concessions, only to have it scotched at the last minute by Khomeini.[95]

Canadian rescue of hostages

On the day the hostages were seized, six American diplomats evaded capture and remained in hiding at the home of Canadian diplomat John Sheardown, under the protection of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor. In late 1979 the Canadian Government secretly issued an Order In Council[96] allowing Canadian passports to be issued to some American citizens so that they could escape. In cooperation with the CIA who used the cover story of a film project, two CIA agents and the six American diplomats boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich, Switzerland, on January 28, 1980. Their escape and rescue from Iran has become known as the "Canadian Caper".[97][98][99] The rescue was fictionalized in the 2012 film "Argo," but the movie included a number of non-historical elements.[100] A more accurate reconstruction of the rescue was featured on Banged Up A broad: The Real Argo.

Negotiations for release

Rescue attempts

First rescue attempt

After rejecting Iranian demands, Carter approved an ill-fated secret rescue mission, Operation Eagle Claw. Late in the afternoon of April 24, 1980, eight RH‑53D helicopters flew from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to a remote road serving as an airstrip in the Great Salt Desert of Eastern Iran, near Tabas. Early the next morning six of the eight RH‑53D helicopters met up with several waiting C‑130 transport and refueling airplanes at the landing site and refueling area, designated "Desert One" by the mission.

Of the two helicopters that did not make it to Desert One, one suffered avionics failures en route and returned to the USS Nimitz, and the other had an indication that one of its main rotor blades was fractured, and was abandoned in the desert en route to Desert One. Its crew was seen and retrieved by another helicopter that continued to Desert One. The helicopters maintained strict radio silence under orders for the entire flight, an issue that impacted their ability to maintain a cohesive flying unit while en route, as they all arrived separately and behind schedule. The strict radio silence also prevented them from requesting permission to fly above the sandstorm as the C-130s had done, and they flew the entire route at hazardously low levels, even while inside the sandstorm and with limited field of vision and erratic instrumentation.

The mission plan called for a minimum of six helicopters but of the six that made it to Desert One, one had a failed primary hydraulics system and had flown on the secondary hydraulics system for the previous four hours.

The failing helicopter's crew wanted to continue, but due to the increased risk of not having a backup hydraulic system during flight, the helicopter squadron's commander decided to ground the helicopter. The commander of the operation, Col. Beckwith, then recommended the mission be aborted and his recommendation was approved by President Carter. As the helicopters repositioned themselves for refueling, one helicopter ran into a C‑130 tanker aircraft and crashed, killing eight U.S. servicemen and injuring several more.

After the mission and its failure were made known publicly, Khomeini's prestige skyrocketed in Iran as he credited divine intervention on behalf of Islam for the result.[101] Iranian officials who favored release of the hostages, such as President Bani Sadr, were weakened. In America, President Carter's political popularity and prospects for being reelected in 1980 were further damaged after a television address on April 25, in which he explained the rescue operation and accepted responsibility for its failure.

Planned second rescue attempt

A second rescue attempt that was planned but never attempted used highly modified YMC-130H Hercules aircraft. Outfitted with rocket thrusters fore and aft to allow an extremely short landing and takeoff in the Shahid Shiroudi football stadium located close to the embassy, three aircraft were modified under a rushed super-secret program known as Operation Credible Sport. One aircraft crashed during a demonstration at Duke Field at Eglin Air Force Base Auxiliary Field 3 on October 29, 1980, when its landing braking rockets were fired too soon. The misfire caused a hard touchdown that tore off the starboard wing and started a fire; all on board survived. The impending change in the White House following the November election led to an abandonment of this project. The two surviving airframes were returned to regular duty with the rocket packages removed. One is on display at the Museum of Aviation located next to Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

The aforementioned failed rescue attempt led to the creation of the 160th S.O.A.R., a helicopter aviation special forces group in the United States Army and the United States Special Operations Command.


At the end of the Iran hostage crisis, Vice President George H. W. Bush and other VIPs wait to welcome hostages home

The hostages disembark Freedom One, an Air Force VC‑137 Stratoliner aircraft, upon their arrival at the base.

With the final completion of the Iran hostage crisis negotiations, the hostages were released on 20 January 1981.

On January 20, 1981, at the moment Reagan completed his 20‑minute inaugural address after being sworn in as President, the 52 American hostages were released by Iran into U.S. custody, having spent 444 days in captivity.[102][103] The hostages were flown to Algeria as a symbolic gesture for the help of that government in resolving the crisis. The flight continued to Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany and on to Wiesbaden USAF Hospital, where former President Carter, acting as emissary, received them. After medical check-ups and debriefings, they took a second flight to Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, with a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, where they were greeted by a large crowd. From Newburgh they traveled by bus to the United States Military Academy, and stayed at the Thayer Hotel at West Point for three days receiving a heroes' welcome all along the route. Ten days after their release, the former hostages were given a ticker tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes in New York City.


Iran–Iraq War

The Iraq invasion of Iran occurred less than a year after the embassy employees were taken hostage. American journalist Stephen Kinzer) believes the dramatic change of U.S.–Iranian relations from ally to enemy played a part in emboldening Saddam Hussein to invade, and U.S. anger with Iran led the United States to aid Iraq after the war turned against Iraq. The United States supplied Iraq with, among other things, "helicopters and satellite intelligence that was used in selecting bombing targets". U.S. assistance to Iraq "deepened and widened anti-American feeling in Iran".[104]


File:Teheran US embassy propaganda statue of liberty.jpg

After the Iranian hostage crisis (1979–1981), the walls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran were covered in mostly anti-American murals.

The hostage taking was unsuccessful for the Islamic Republic in some respects. Iran lost international support for its war against Iraq, and the settlement was considered almost wholly favorable to the United States since it did not meet any of Iran's original demands.[105] But the crisis strengthened Iranians who supported the hostage taking. Anti-Americanism became even more intense, and anti-American rhetoric continued unabated.[106] Politicians such as Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha and Behzad Nabavi[107] were left in a stronger position, while those associated or accused of association with America were removed from the political picture. Khomeini biographer Baqer Moin describes the incident as "a watershed in Khomeini's life" transforming him from a "cautious, pragmatic politician" into "a modern revolutionary, single-mindedly pursing a dogma". In his statements, "imperialism, liberalism, democracy" were "negative words", while "revolution...became a sacred word, sometimes more important than Islam."[108]

Some have suggested that the greatest benefit of the takeover of the American embassy was the acquisition of intelligence information contained within the embassy, including the identity of informants to the U.S. government, which the new Islamic republic could use to remove potential dissenters and consolidate its gains and stabilize its place.[citation needed]

The Iranian government commemorates the event every year by demonstration at the embassy and burning a U.S. flag but on November 4, 2009, when pro-democracy protesters and reformists demonstrated in the streets of Tehran, despite Iranian government authorities encouraging people to chant "Death to America", protesters instead chanted "Death to the Dictator" (referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) and other anti-government slogans.[109]

United States

In the United States, gifts were showered upon the hostages upon their return, including lifetime passes to any minor league or Major League Baseball game.[110]

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 a defense, but the U.S. State Department tried to put an end to the suit, fearing that it would make international relations difficult. As a result, a federal judge ruled that nothing could be done to repay the damages the hostages faced because of the agreement the United States made when the hostages were freed.[citation needed]

The U.S. embassy building is used by Iran's government and its affiliated groups. Since 2001, the building serves as a museum to the revolution. Outside the door stands a bronze model based on New York's Statue of Liberty on one side and a statue portraying one of the hostages on the other.[111]

The Guardian reported in 2006 that a group called The Committee for the Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Campaign used the U.S. embassy to recruit "martyrdom seekers", volunteers to carry out operations against Western and Jewish targets. Mohammad Samadi, a spokesman for the group, signed up several hundred volunteers in a few days.[112]


November 4, 1979 – January 20, 1981: 66 original captives, 63 taken at the embassy, three captured and held at Foreign Ministry Office.

Three of the hostages were operatives of the CIA.[27]

Thirteen hostages were released November 19–20, 1979, and one was released on July 11, 1980. Fifty-two remaining hostages endured 444 days of captivity until their release January 20, 1981.

Six diplomats who evaded capture

  • Robert Anders, 54—Consular Officer
  • Mark J. Lijek, 29—Consular Officer
  • Cora A. Lijek, 25—Consular Assistant
  • Henry L. Schatz, 31—Agriculture Attaché
  • Joseph D. Stafford, 29—Consular Officer
  • Kathleen F. Stafford, 28—Consular Assistant

Thirteen hostages released

From November 19–20, 1979, thirteen women and men who had been captured and held hostage were released on Khomeini's orders.

  • Kathy Gross, 22 —Secretary
  • Sgt. James Hughes, 30 —U.S. Air Force Administrative Manager
  • Lillian Johnson, 32 —Secretary
  • Sgt. Ladell Maples, 23 —U.S. Marine Corps Embassy Guard
  • Elizabeth Montagne, 42 —Secretary
  • Sgt. William Quarles, 23 —U.S. Marine Corps Embassy Guard
  • Lloyd Rollins, 40 —Administrative Officer
  • Capt. Neal (Terry) Robinson —U.S. Air Force Military Intelligence Officer
  • Sgt. David Walker, 25 —U.S. Marine Corps Embassy guard
  • Joan Walsh, 33 —Secretary
  • Cpl. Wesley Williams, 24 —U.S. Marine Corps Embassy Guard

Richard I. Queen released

On July 11, 1980, 28-year-old Vice Consul Richard I. Queen, who had been captured and held hostage, was released after becoming seriously ill. He was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (Died 08/14/2002.)

Remaining hostages released

The following fifty-two remaining hostages were held captive until January 20, 1981.

  • Thomas L. Ahern, Jr.,—Narcotics Control Officer (later identified as CIA station chief)[113][114]
  • Clair Cortland Barnes, 35 —Communications Specialist
  • William E. Belk, 44 —Communications and Records Officer
  • Robert O. Blucker, 54 —Economics Officer Specializing in Oil (Died 4/3/2003)
  • Donald J. Cooke, 25 —Vice Consul
  • William J. Daugherty, 33 —3rd Secretary of U.S. Mission (CIA officer[115])
  • Lt. Cmdr. Robert Englemann, 34 —U.S. Navy Attaché
  • Sgt. William Gallegos, 22 —U.S. Marine Corps Guard
  • Bruce W. German, 44 —Budget Officer
  • Duane L. Gillette, 24 —U.S. Navy Communications and Intelligence Specialist
  • Alan B. Golacinski, 30 —Chief of Embassy Security, Regional Security Officer
  • John E. Graves, 53 —Public Affairs Officer (Died 4/27/2001)
  • CWO Joseph M. Hall, 32 —U.S. Army Military Attaché
  • Sgt. Kevin J. Hermening, 21 —U.S. Marine Corps Guard
  • Sgt. 1st Class Donald R. Hohman, 38 —U.S. Army Medic
  • Col. Leland J. Holland, 53 —Military Attaché (Died 10/2/1990)
  • Michael Howland, 34 —Assistant Regional Security Officer, held at Iranian Foreign Ministry Office
  • Charles A. Jones, Jr., 40 —Communications Specialist, Teletype Operator. (The only African American hostage not released in November 1979)
  • Malcolm K. Kalp, 42 —Commercial Officer (Died 4/7/2002)
  • Moorhead C. Kennedy, Jr., 50 —Economic and Commercial Officer [116]
  • William F. Keough, Jr., 50 —Superintendent of American School in Islamabad, Pakistan, visiting Tehran at time of embassy seizure (Died 11/27/1985)
  • Cpl. Steven W. Kirtley —U.S. Marine Corps Guard
  • Kathryn L. Koob, 42 —Embassy Cultural Officer; one of two female hostages
  • Frederick Lee Kupke, 34— Communications Officer and Electronics Specialist
  • L. Bruce Laingen, 58 —Chargé d'Affaires, held at Iranian Foreign Ministry Office. (Ambassador William H. Sullivan was ordered home for insubordination to President Carter in Spring of 1979, leaving Laingen in charge as senior US diplomat.)
  • Steven Lauterbach, 29 —Administrative Officer
  • Gary E. Lee, 37 —Administrative Officer (Died 10/10/2010)
  • Sgt. Paul Edward Lewis, 23 —U.S. Marine Corps Guard
  • John W. Limbert, Jr., 37 —Political Officer
  • Sgt. James M. Lopez, 22 —U.S. Marine Corps Guard
  • Sgt. John D. McKeel, Jr., 27 —U.S. Marine Corps Guard (Died 11/1/1991)
  • Michael J. Metrinko, 34 —Political Officer
  • Jerry J. Miele, 42 —Communications Officer
  • Staff Sgt. Michael E. Moeller, 31 —Head of U.S. Marine Corps Guard Unit at Embassy
  • Bert C. Moore, 45 —Counselor for Administration (Died 6/8/2000)
  • Richard Morefield, 51 —U.S. Consul General in Tehran (Died 10/11/2010)
  • Capt. Paul M. Needham, Jr., 30 —U.S. Air Force Logistics Staff Officer
  • Robert C. Ode, 65 —Retired Foreign Service Officer on Temporary Duty in Tehran (Died 9/8/1995)
  • Sgt. Gregory A. Persinger, 23 —U.S. Marine Corps Guard
  • Jerry Plotkin, 45 —civilian businessman visiting Tehran (Died 6/6/1996)
  • MSgt. Regis Ragan, 38 —U.S. Army soldier, Defense Attaché's Office
  • Lt. Col. David M. Roeder, 41 —Deputy U.S. Air Force Attaché
  • Barry M. Rosen, 36 —Press Attaché
  • William B. Royer, Jr., 49 —Assistant Director of Iran–American Society
  • Col. Thomas E. Schaefer, 50 —U.S. Air Force Attaché
  • Col. Charles W. Scott, 48 —U.S. Army Attaché
  • Cmdr. Donald A. Sharer, 40 —U.S. Navy Attaché
  • Sgt. Rodney V. (Rocky) Sickmann, 22 —U.S. Marine Corps Guard
  • Staff Sgt. Joseph Subic, Jr., 23 —Military Police, U.S. Army, Defense Attaché's Staff
  • Elizabeth Ann Swift, 40 —Deputy Head of the Political Section; one of two female hostages (Died 5/7/2004)
  • Victor L. Tomseth, 39 —Counselor for Political Affairs, held at Iranian Foreign Ministry Office
  • Phillip R. Ward, 40 —Communications officer CIA, Assigned to Brandy Station, Va. (Died 10/11/2012)

Hostages awarded

All State Department and CIA employees taken hostage were awarded the State Department Award for Valor. Political Officer Michael J. Metrinko received two: one for his time as a hostage and another for his daring rescue of Americans who had been jailed in Tabriz months before the embassy takeover.[117]

For their service during the hostage crisis, the U.S. military later awarded the 20 servicemen who were among the hostages the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. The only hostage serviceman not to be issued the medal was Staff Sgt. Joseph Subic, Jr. The reason given was that Staff Sgt. Subic "did not behave under stress the way noncommissioned officers are expected to act",[118] i.e., he cooperated with the hostage-takers, according to other hostages.[119]

For their part in the mission, the Humanitarian Service Medal was awarded to the servicemen of Joint Task Force (JTF) 1–79 (the planning authority for Operation Rice Bowl/Eagle Claw) who participated in the rescue attempt.

Also, the Air Force special operations component of the mission was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Unit award for that year for performing their part of the mission flawlessly, to include accomplishing the evacuation of the entire Desert One site after the accident and under extreme conditions.

Civilian hostages

A small number of hostages were not connected to the diplomatic staff. All had been released by late 1981.

  • Mohi Sobhani, an Iranian-American engineer and a member of the Bahá'í Faith. Released 2/4/1981. (Died 7/12/2005)[120]
  • Zia Nassery/Nassri, an Afghan-American. Released 2/4/1981.
  • Cynthia Dwyer, an American reporter, was eventually charged with espionage and expelled 2/10/1981.[121]
  • Electronic Data Systems employees Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord rescued by Ross Perot-funded operation (see Arthur D. Simons and Ross Perot Business Section) in 1979.
  • Four British missionaries including doctor Canon John Coleman (Died August 2003), his wife Audrey Coleman (Died 2001) and Jean Waddell.[122]

Notable hostage takers, guards, interrogators

  • Abbas Abdi, now one of Iran's most influential reformists, journalist, self-taught sociologist, and social activist.
  • Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, then a student, now an Iranian political activist and politician, Member of the Parliament (1989–1993) and Chairman of the City Council of Tehran (1999–2003).
  • Mohsen Mirdamadi, an organizer of the hostage, Member of the Parliament (2000–2004), head of the largest pro-reform party in Iran, Islamic Iran Participation Front.
  • Masoumeh Ebtekar, interpreter and spokesperson of the student group that occupied the U.S Embassy in 1979, an Iranian scientist, journalist and politician, later became the first female Vice President of Iran, head of Environment Protection Organization of Iran during the administration of President Mohammad Khatami, and is currently serves for a second time under President Hassan Rouhani.
  • Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, spiritual leader of the hostage takers.
  • Hussein Sheikholeslam, a student, later a member of the Parliament and Iranian ambassador to Syria.

October surprise conspiracy theory

see also, October surprise conspiracy theory

Allegations that the Reagan Administration negotiated the delaying of the release of the hostages until after the 1980 Presidential election have been numerous. Gary Sick, principal White House aide for Iran and the Persian Gulf on the Carter administration’s National Security Council, in his book "October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan.",[123] alleged that William Casey and possibly George H. W. Bush, went to Paris to negotiate delaying the release of the hostages until after the election.

See also

  • Baghdad kidnapping of Iranian diplomat (February 2007)
  • Case Concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular Staff in Tehran
  • Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam (2006)
  • Iran–Contra affair
  • Iranian diplomats kidnapping (1982)
  • List of hostage crises
  • Student Day in Iran
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 457 and 461 (1979) on the hostage situation


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  • Bakhash, Shaul, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution, Basic Books, 1984
  • Moin, Baqer, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah, Thomas Dunne Books, c2000
  • Ebtekar, Massoumeh; Reed, Fred (2000). Takeover in Tehran: the inside story of the 1979 U.S. Embassy capture. Burnaby, BC: Talonbooks. ISBN 0-88922-443-9. 
  • 444 Days to Freedom: What Really Happened in Iran (1997). DVD UPC 033909253390
  • Gary Sick. 1991. October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan. New York: Random House.

Further reading

  • Ammann, Daniel (2009). The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich. New York: St. Martin‘s Press. ISBN 0-312-57074-0. 
  • Stewart, James (1983). The Partners: Inside America's Most Powerful Law Firms. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-42023-2. 
  • Engelmayer, Sheldon D. (1981). Hostage: a Chronicle of the 444 Days in Iran. New York: Caroline House Publishing. ISBN 0-89803-084-6. 

External links

Declassified Documents

United States

Great Britain

Records of the Prime Minister's Office, Correspondence & Papers; 1979-1997 IRAN: Internal situation in Iran; Attack on British Embassy; Hostage-taking at US Embassy;Freezing of Iranian Assets; US Mission to release hoatages; Relations with US & UK following hostage taking at US Embassy.

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