Thirty-five years ago, on November 4, 1979, the United States got a lesson that we are still learning from today; a lesson in terrorism. That is when Iranian students mobbed and took over the United States Embassy in Tehran. By the time the students finished, they were holding sixty hostages.
Unfortunately, this was not the first time. Earlier in the year, a student mob briefly attacked the US Embassy and held the US Ambassador hostage for a few hours, before members of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s attendants ordered the release of the US Ambassador.
Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi rose to power in Iran at the beginning of World War II, taking the title of Shah of Iran. He had replaced his father, and his family claimed their bloodline was that of the Persian Royal Family. Further, the Shah claimed his family could be traced back to Cyrus the Great, which represented 2500 years of rule over those lands. In 1967, the Shah proclaimed himself King of Kings, Emperor of Iran. During the Shah’s reign, he was brutal to the Iranian people, but he was very friendly to the British, the French and the Americans. Plus, for the most part, he kept the Soviets at bay during the height of the Cold War. The Shah was kept in power by the CIA in the mid-1950s, in a conflict between himself and a duly elected prime minister. (I will not dwell on the details of this event in this blog.)
What led to the Iranian students seizing the Embassy on November 4? Let me summarize.
Despite the fact that the Shah of Iran was a professed Shi’a Muslim, he was at constant odds with the Muslim segment of the Iranian population, including the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Ayatollah kept his hands in the Iranian situation throughout his exile. Finally, unrest grew in the country as the spread between the socioeconomic classes grew wider. The final straw for his countrymen occurred when he publically recognized Israel. In January of 1979, things had become so dicey in Iran that the Shah fled to Egypt. Then the Carter Administration decided to bring back the Ayatollah Khomeini from Paris to Iran in February 1979 to replace the Shah of Iran.
Things got worse for the Shah when he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and requested to come to the United States to get the best treatment. Finally, after several pleas, President Carter relented and allowed him into the country. The Shah’s arrival in New York City prompted a protest in Tehran.
This hostage situation was different from the earlier one. The Ayatollah Khomeini saw a chance to consolidate his power around all of this publicity, given this event, thus he issued a statement in support of the students’ action against the US Embassy, calling it a “den of spies”. The students vowed not to release the hostages until the US returned the Shah for trial, along with billions of dollars they claimed he had stolen from the Iranian people.
President Carter’s first move was one week later on November 11, when he called for an embargo on Iranian oil. To remain in a positive light with the liberal press, on November 17, Khomeini announced that an African-American female and several other non-US-citizen hostages would be released, because women and minorities already suffered “the oppression of American society”. This was nothing more than grandstanding, because out of the remaining fifty-three hostages, there were two women, Elizabeth Ann Swift and Kathryn Koob, and one African-American, Charles Jones.
On December 7, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders was contacted by a certain Cyrus Hashemi, an Iranian arms dealer and agent of the Iranian SAVAK secret police, who had a proposal to free the hostages. Hashemi submitted a memorandum calling for the removal of the ailing expatriate Shah from US territory; an apology by the US to the people of Iran for past US interference; the creation of a United Nations Commission; the unfreezing of the Iranian financial assets seized by Carter; and arms and spare-parts deliveries by the US to Iran. The irony of this proposal is that the United States would support Saddam Hussein in Iraq in their war with Iran. Then, in the late 1980s, the United States secretly supplied weapons to Iran during the Reagan Administration.
So much attention was devoted to the hostage crisis that a television show was born out of this act—Nightline. During the entire hostage crisis, most network 6pm news shows counted the number of days the hostages were held captive.
As a result of little action on the part of the United States to free the hostages, the terrorists became emboldened. From that day forward, Radical Arab Muslims learned that they could bring terroristic acts to United States citizens, and the United States would do little or nothing about these acts. This was a game changer for them and, sadly, for the United States.
So on January 21, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the fortieth President of the United States, as Nightline would say, on “day 444 of captivity”, the Iranian students released the hostages. However, even though the hostages were released, from that day forward, terrorism has come here to stay.
Both sides learned lessons from this event. The terrorists learned how much publicity they could get, and the United States learned that, no matter how big the superpower, we have vulnerable spots.