The Iranian Revolution / Hostage Crisis
Early on Sunday, November 4, 1979, 450 student demonstrators
rabid with enthusiasm for Ayatollah Khomenei and his
revolution cut the chains that barred the iron gates of the
American Embassy in Tehran. The students pushed past the 19
marine guards (who had orders not to shoot) and eventually took
66 members of the U.S. Embassy staff as hostages. [The walls
were breached at 10:30 but a group of diplomats destroying
documents behind the steel doors of the chancery went
undetected until around 3 p.m., at which point they were
The students demanded the return to Iran of the Shah, who was at
that moment undergoing cancer treatment in New York City.
The Shah was to be returned for the excesses of his rule.
Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khomenei had proclaimed the Embassy
"a nest of spies" and a "center of intrigue" looking to stir up a
counterrevolution against him, so the U.S. became the vital target
of the students'' wrath. "Death to America," the invaders shouted
as they burned American flags and paraded blindfolded hostages
before Western television cameras. And with that began the
Iranian people''s slow and cruel 444-day declaration of
vengeance against the nation they liked to call "The Great
Satan." [On November 19th, eight "oppressed" blacks and five
women secretaries were freed, but the remainder lived on in
The seizing of the American Embassy was a crisis of unusual
dimension and complexity, for it placed the U.S. in a diplomatic
confrontation with a foe disinterested in diplomacy. Khomenei
saw himself not as a politician, but as a messenger from God,
and who can broker a deal with the Almighty? All during this
ordeal, with the hostage dilemma dominating the evening news,
the American people were "delivered to a dungeon of despair."
Amid threats to try the hostages as spies before kangaroo courts
and expected death sentences, the students offered up flagrant
acts of insult, posing for photographers while carrying out
garbage in an American flag and daring the U.S. to intervene.
Khomenei declared "Why should we be afraid? We consider
martyrdom a great honor." Iran''s foreign minister, Sadegh
Ghotbzadeh, announced that his country was prepared to keep
the hostages "more or less forever."
After a secret deal between President Carter and Iranian
President Bani-Sadr was vetoed by Khomenei in April, Carter
gave approval to Operation Eagle Claw. 118 Delta Force
commandos led by Colonel Charles Beckwith were to be
deployed in an extremely complex rescue effort. [Only Secretary
of State Cyrus Vance opposed the plan. He later resigned over
it.] Amidst a dust storm at the first landing site, an uninhabited
spot some 250 miles southeast of Tehran labeled "Desert One,"
one of the helicopters collided with a transport plane and 8
soldiers were killed. In the rush to escape the bungled attempt
before they were found out at daybreak, the bodies were
abandoned. The Iranians made a spectacle of the remains and
Carter was blasted back home for the disaster.
Not even the death of the Shah on July 27th affected the standoff.
In yellow ribbons tied on trees across the nation (thank you,
Tony Orlando), Americans invested their last shred of optimism,
the hope that the ordeal would somehow end peacefully and with
its resolution would also return a sense of pride that had been so
long absent from their lives.
There was finally some progress on the diplomatic front but the
efforts were stalled when Iraq invaded Iran on September 22nd.
The crisis effect on the 1980 presidential election was immense.
There was a great need to hear stirring phrases of national
purpose and a desire to shed the politics of bloom. Enter Ronald
Reagan, stage right, brimming with can-do confidence and
Just two days before the election, however, Carter received the
text of an Iranian agreement to release the hostages. Carter could
have proclaimed victory but instead he merely announced a
"constructive step" and Reagan won in a landslide. [Iran
released the hostages in return for its gold and frozen assets
worth nearly $12 billion.]
Reagan''s inauguration in January, 1981 was perhaps the most
emotional since JFK''s, not only because Reagan asked
Americans to dream big again but also because, as he spoke, the
hostages were dragged into the night and placed aboard a bus
with drawn curtains. They were driven to Tehran''s blacked-out
airport where, forced to disembark, they were grabbed roughly
and shoved through a gauntlet of taunting militants. At the end
of the gauntlet sat a 727 and, one by one, they were pushed
aboard. Not exactly a gracious send-off but the long national
nightmare was over.
*Hostage Barry Rosen remembers the ordeal:
"The worst pain of it all was brought on by the length of
captivity. Not the boredom, but the fear that grows inside of you
over a long period of time. The fear of death. A fear that creeps
into the subconscious. That, and just not being able to go
outside, to see a bird fly, or to take a walk. The physical cruelty,
getting beaten up or being pushed around or being blindfolded,
was less of a potent force than the lack or freedom.
Inertia is what kept me going. There was no other alternative but
to live. I spent several months sharing a room with a lieutenant
colonel named Dave Roeder. He was a man who knew how to
survive. He taught me to get up and exercise and to meet each
day with purpose. We learned to make small things beautiful.
For example, for whatever weird reason, the Iranians gave me
the classifieds from the Washington Post boat section. Not great
reading, but something. Dave actually knew something about
boats, so he would describe the different types and we would
both lie down on the floor, and we would take a trip on the
Chesapeake Bay. Just escaping in our imaginations like that
made life worthwhile.
Back in the United States we were greeted as heroes. We were
so isolated that we didn''t realize that we had become the center
of the American news; that we had been their purpose for the
past 444 days. In some ways, I think the people were celebrating
what they believed was American power. They were trying to
make a bad situation into something great. I remember seeing
this sign that said, ''America 52 - Iran 0.'' But I honestly think
that both countries lost. There was lot of hate on both sides that
didn''t need to happen. I don''t believe we were winners. I
believe it was a period of great sadness."
[Sources: "The Century," by Peter Jennings; "The American
Century," by Harold Evans]