Washington D.C., November 4, 2019 – On November 4, 1979, a group calling itself the Students Following the Line of the Imam stormed the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seized control of the compound, and took several dozen American diplomats, Marine guards, and others hostage. Thus began a 444-day ordeal that shocked the world, fundamentally altered the political scene in Iran, and cemented negative perceptions in the West of the country’s Islamic leadership.
Forty years later, the Iran hostage crisis is still critical to understanding the bitter nature of relations between Iran and the United States. It instantly formed a core part of the American narrative about the Islamic Republic as a regime willing to flout international law and universal moral principles, a view that has colored much of U.S. policymaking ever since.
Today, the National Security Archive is posting a small sampling of declassified records that recall that pivotal episode. They include a memo from National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to President Carter suggesting several hardline actions including replacing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's leader and even overt intervention (see Document 07). Carter was not prepared to take up any of these options but they indicate the level of alarm created by events in Tehran.
The documents are part of the soon-to-be-published U.S. Policy toward Iran: From the Revolution to the JCPOA, 1978-2015, a collection of almost 2,000 documents that is the latest in the “Digital National Security Archive” series through the academic publisher ProQuest.
While many American officials have been tempted to dismiss the clerical regime as barbaric and irrational, Iran’s rulers have long viewed the U.S. government through their own narrative, as a serial violator of other countries’ sovereign rights with a particularly malign interest in Iran. Those Iranian views, which were at the heart of the motivations for the embassy seizure, trace back to the 1953 coup d’état against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, which the United States and Great Britain helped to engineer. (See prior postings.) Although the overthrow owed much to the support of a sizable cohort of the population at the time, Washington’s evident desire to manipulate Iran’s internal politics would begin to fester in the collective memory.
The events of 1953 might not have figured so significantly had Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the coup’s main beneficiary, not developed into a despotic ruler whose accretion of power, suppression of political rights and social development, and failure to rein in state and court corruption fostered conditions Iranian society could no longer abide.
Although the Shah’s relationship with his American patrons from Eisenhower to Nixon was complex, much of Iran’s political opposition came to see the United States as not only tolerant of his excesses but actively encouraging him at the expense of the interests of the people of Iran. Mass popular resentment began to grow by the mid-1960s, notably after the violent suppression of demonstrations following public denunciations of the Shah by the emerging cleric Ruhollah Khomeini who the Shah arrested in 1963 and later exiled to Iraq. Among Khomeini’s chief grievances was the charge that the regime was kowtowing to foreign – that is, American – influence.
Conditions continued to deteriorate steadily, accelerated by the economic dislocations and skyrocketing corruption stimulated by the oil boom of the 1970s. Richard Nixon’s decision to rely on Iran as a buffer against Soviet aggression in the Persian Gulf region removed any pressure the Shah felt from previous administrations to nudge the country toward meaningful internal reform. American Embassy officials were instructed to avoid activities that might aggravate the Shah, including seeking contacts with his opposition, which curbed their ability to come to grips with the depths of popular animus against the regime.
By the time Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, and a year later praised Iran as “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world,“ the country was on the verge of revolution. Despite his expressed interest in human rights, Carter became identified in Iran, particularly in the eyes of the clerical opposition, with the Shah who repeatedly resorted to violence to suppress demonstrations through the end of 1978. On January 16, 1979, Mohammad Reza fled the country and two weeks later Khomeini returned from years of exile.
Twenty-five years of growing repression under the monarchy, and the belief that Washington was behind the Shah's excesses, fed into the motivations of the hostage-takers in November 1979. But the return of the charismatic Shiite leader from exile did not mean the future direction of Iranian politics was sealed. Post-revolution Iran witnessed months of deep crisis punctuated by political demonstrations, ethnic and tribal uprisings, bombings, and other unrest. According to the embassy-takers, one of their core concerns was simply to take some dramatic symbolic action to support Khomeini’s position.
A number of events during that period can be counted as proximate causes of the embassy seizure. Among them were expressions of outrage from various quarters in the United States against harsh treatment of Iranian citizens by revolutionary authorities. In Tehran these statements were taken as signs of Washington’s continued intention to interfere in the country’s affairs. Ironically, the Carter administration was hard at work not only at developing a foundation for good relations with the mostly moderate Provisional Government but also at trying to reach out to key religious figures in belated recognition of their political significance. But the great majority of these attempts were rejected, perhaps not surprisingly given that one aim of the revolution had been to eliminate the American presence.
On May 17, 1979, one such expression of opposition to Iranian conduct took the form of a U.S. Senate resolution condemning a string of executions ordered by Iran’s revolutionary courts. The move, mainly symbolic, struck a nerve in Tehran in part because one of the resolution’s sponsors, New York Republican Senator Jacob Javits, was said to be a “Zionist” and to have had ties to the Shah and the previous regime including an apparent financial arrangement between Javits’s wife and the company Iran Air. The vehemence of the reaction, spearheaded by Khomeini himself, flummoxed Washington but the episode came to symbolize the alleged harmful intent of the U.S. which the hostage-takers aimed at fending off.
A much more widely recognized pretext for the November 4 takeover was the Carter administration’s decision to allow the Shah into the United States for medical treatment. Iran experts inside the State Department had warned for months that to do so would create huge problems for U.S. policy and even endanger diplomats in Iran but Carter’s senior advisers one-by-one lined up in favor of admitting the Shah. In retrospect, the reasons evidently included mounting pressure from influential Shah supporters (primarily leading Republicans such as Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and David Rockefeller), the related political costs of being seen to abandon a once-loyal anti-communist ally, and the personal views of Carter. The president clearly understood what was at stake, asking his aides at one key point what they would tell him to do after the embassy was overrun.
The shah eventually arrived in New York on October 22, 1979, but this did not immediately lead to the embassy seizure. The reason may be that by their own account the perpetrators had only begun planning the operation a couple of weeks beforehand. The final event that seems to have prompted the assault came on November 3 when National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a noted hawk when it came to dealing with the Shah’s opposition, met face-to-face with the head of the Provisional Government Mehdi Bazargan on the anniversary of Algeria’s revolution which was being celebrated in Algiers. The meeting was televised and made world headlines, but it also evidently led the Iranian student group to draw the wildly exaggerated conclusion that the United States might be on the verge of another regime-change operation aimed at Iran, along the lines of the 1953 coup. Hoping to stave off any such possibility, they launched their own operation the next day.
The hostage episode was rife with ironies, starting with the Bazargan-Brzezinski meeting. It was actually the chargé d’affaires in Tehran, Bruce Laingen, who would become the most senior American to be taken hostage, who recommended to the Iranian prime minister that he use the occasion in Algiers to meet with senior American officials.
Another paradox was that the United States had neither the capabilities nor the intention to foment another coup in Iran. Despite assumptions by the students and most Iranian officials, the world of 1979 was vastly different from 1953. Jimmy Carter was not Dwight Eisenhower and did not share his inordinate fear of communism (at least not until the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). The United States was furthermore in no position to mount serious hostile action against Iran during the revolution, in part because they knew so little about the situation or the players (even less than they had known about the Shah and his regime) and had virtually no contacts among potential counter-revolutionaries. To be sure, this was not for lack of trying on the part of a wide range of would-be plotters; according to a substantial documentary record Washington was approached by a stream of individuals and groups inside and outside the country promising to overthrow the mullahs but the Americans rejected all entreaties prior the embassy seizure.
There is also no indication in the record that throughout 1979 the great majority of U.S. officials gave serious consideration to anything beyond shoring up ties with anyone inside the Iranian political system who would talk to them. Brzezinski himself is on the record as pressing Carter to consider different kinds of military action but the president and other senior officials including the Joint Chiefs of Staff discarded all such ideas – although, as this posting confirms, ironically the takeover led to a revival of talk over possible military and political reprisals (again rejected).
U.S. intelligence agencies were also nowhere near as formidable as they were reputed to be. The Carter administration, much to the dismay of critics, had substantially cut back on the CIA’s HUMINT capabilities in a deliberate move to counter the public perception of the agency as a rogue elephant. As noted, U.S. capabilities in Iran – even to gather intelligence much less conduct covert operations on the scale of regime change – were already circumscribed. Shortly after the hostage taking, a career CIA officer on Brzezinski’s staff lamented to his boss: “It is supremely ironic that we should stand accused of so much espionage out of our Embassy in Tehran when we have done so little.” (See Document 5)
Beyond the human tragedy experienced by the several dozen Embassy personnel held against their will, the hostage episode had several momentous political consequences, many of which were sharply detrimental to Iran. It instantly cast the regime in the harshest light, increasing its isolation from much of the rest of the world. This in turn made it far too easy for various political actors in the West to dismiss the regime as untrustworthy, not to say barbaric and irrational, thus complicating future efforts to win domestic support, particularly in the United States, for policies that arguably were in the interests of an important regional player. More immediately, the crisis helped precipitate the immensely costly Iran-Iraq War by feeding into Saddam Hussein’s calculation that Iran was a vulnerable target. Later in the war, Western distrust and ill will, arising in part from the takeover, contributed first to reluctance to show support for Iran, despite being the aggrieved party, and later to a readiness to justify engaging in direct fighting with Iranian forces.
The hostage crisis also contributed to the growing public sense of American global impotence in the United States that undoubtedly hurt Carter’s reelection chances and helped bring Ronald Reagan to office, with all of the attendant implications for the country and the international environment. Reagan himself drew lessons from the crisis, vowing never to be placed in the same vulnerable position as Carter – although he too ultimately suffered politically and damaged the country’s standing as a result of the Iran-Contra affair. (The concept of taking hostages adopted by Hezbollah and others in Lebanon was undoubtedly encouraged by the perception of the impact of the Tehran episode.) The crisis even contributed to developments in areas such as military preparedness as one of the main recommendations of the Holloway Report (Document 10) after the failed rescue mission was to build up American special operations capabilities.
Over the coming months, the National Security Archive will post additional e-books drawn from the upcoming ProQuest publication, U.S. Policy toward Iran: From the Revolution to the JCPOA, 1978-2015.