November 4, 1979: Iran Hostage Crisis, An Act of War Never Answered!

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A Brief History

On November 4, 1979, a mob of angry Iranians stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took 90 people hostage. Americans made up 52 of those hostages, and included US Marines assigned to the embassy and diplomatic workers. Violation of an embassy by another country is normally considered an act of war, but in this case the US never treated it as such, and 52 of our citizens remained hostages for 444 days. No reprisals were ever carried out.

Digging Deeper

The mob storming the embassy claimed to be college students associated with the group Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line. US President Carter labeled the action a terrorist event and said the US would not kneel before blackmailers. A country in turmoil, the “government” of Iran claimed no part in this terror incident and claimed to have no influence to force the release of the hostages!

An earlier storming of the US embassy had taken place in February of 1979, but a return of the embassy and personnel to US hands was accomplished within a few hours.

The Shah of Iran, an American supported dictator in the guise of a monarch, had been overthrown by Islamic radicals under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini earlier in 1979 and had fled the country.  In April of 1980, the US military attempted a raid to rescue the hostages called Operation Eagle Claw, but the raid failed when a sandstorm and mechanical problems caused 3 of the 8 helicopters involved to fail to reach Iran. Unable to complete the mission with only 5 choppers, the plan was aborted, and in the sandstorm a crash of a helicopter and a C-130 cargo plane in the desert of Iran resulted in 8 US military deaths and the loss of the C-130 and helicopter. The US was humiliated and our military prestige severely damaged. This debacle has largely been blamed for the failure of President Carter to win reelection in 1980 (along with failure to get the hostages back and or punish Iran).

The US did impose economic sanctions on Iran, and despite financial hardships the Iranian theocrats in charge of the country did not buckle. The “students” demanded the return of the exiled Shah who had fled to the US and then to Egypt. The Shah never returned to his country and died of a sort of lymphoma in July of 1980, only 60 years old.

The American hostages were released on January 20, 1981 at the same time incoming President Ronald Reagan finished his inauguration speech. This timing has been pointed to as Iranian fear that Reagan would severely punish them if Americans were still hostage when Reagan took office, or that the Iranians were punishing President Carter for refusing to return the Shah to Iran. Another popular theory is that Reagan’s political henchmen bribed the Iranians to continue to hold the hostages until Reagan took office, even though negotiations to free them had already been completed. (Algeria had brokered the negotiations that led to the hostage release.) In exchange for the hostages, the Carter administration released billions of dollars worth of frozen Iranian assets, a fact not revealed until years later.

Iran lost international prestige over the embassy storming and hostage situation, revealing themselves as a rogue nation that did not respect international law and customs. When Iraq invaded Iran later that year, little help or comfort was granted to the radical Islamic state of Iran. US military prestige and resolve suffered due to the crisis, but has since recovered. Radicals in Iran were strengthened within their country for thumbing their noses at “The Great Satan’ (as Iranians often call the USA). Former hostages attempted to sue Iran for their illegal incarceration of over a year, but the suit failed because of US State Department interference.

Question for students (and subscribers): Should the US have taken more drastic military action right off the bat? Should we have taken punitive military action when it became clear the hostages would not be promptly released? Did we do the right thing by negotiating for over a year? Give us your opinions on this crisis, and tell us what you would have done. Also, should we have a policy on hand to automatically respond to another such incident?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bowden, Mark.  Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam.  Grove Press, 2007.

Harris, Les, dir.  The Iran Hostage Crisis: 444 Days to Freedom (What Really Happened in Iran).  View Video.  DVD.

Wright, Robert.  Our Man in Tehran: The True Story Behind the Secret Mission to Save Six Americans during the Iran Hostage Crisis & the Foreign Ambassador Who Worked w/the CIA to Bring Them Home.  Other Press, 2011.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of Iranian students crowding the U.S. Embassy in Tehran (November 4, 1979), is now in the public domain in Iran, because according to the Law for the Protection of Authors, Composers and Artists Rights (1970) its term of copyright has expired for one of the following reasons:

  • The creator(s) died before 22 August 1980, for works that their copyright expired before 22 August 2010 according to the 1970 law.
  • The creator(s) died more than 50 years ago. (Reformation of article 12 – 22 August 2010)

In the following cases works fall into the public domain after 30 years from the date of publication or public presentation (Article 16):

  • Photographic or cinematographic works.
  • In cases where the work belongs to a legal person or rights are transferred to a legal person.

The media description page should identify which reason applies.

For more information please see: Commons:Copyright rules by territory/Iran.

You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube:

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.