This would be one of the U.S.’ first brushes with politicized Islamic fundamentalists and would change the country’s relationship with Iran forever. The resultant hostage taking of US Embassy employees would last 444 days and would result in the Carter administration being routed in the 1980 elections.
The US had been a big supporter of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi since he came to power in 1953 in a coup against the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The Shah had the assistance of the CIA who helped train his secret police/intelligence service SAVAK. But over time, there were growing circles of distrust and opposition against the Shah.
One of those opposition leaders the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been exiled to France for 15 years led the final overthrow of the Shah beginning in 1977. He quickly determined the United States as “the Great Satan” and singled out President Carter for particular scorn for his televised toast to the Shah in 1977, while stating that he was “beloved by his people.”
Khomeini returned from France and the Shah was deposed in early 1979. Carter tried to establish relations with the new government all the while, keeping up their ties with the military. Khomeini’s people, believing that the US was going to attempt to attempt a coup and re-install the Shah, were distrustful of any overtures by Carter. As a result, the US Embassy, once a bustling workplace of 1400 US employees, was whittled down to a skeleton crew of about 70 by the time, Khomeini came to power.
Valentine’s Day Open House: The harbinger of things to come first happened on February 14. The Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas with the knowledge and blessing of Khomeini stormed the Embassy. CIA and Diplomatic agents locked themselves in the vault and began burning secret documents. Marine Corps Embassy guards gathered most of the employees in the cafeteria where they initially held off the attackers.
But when the attackers threatened to burn the Embassy down, the US Ambassador, William Sullivan, agreed to surrender the Embassy to save lives. One Marine guard, Sgt Kenneth Kraus was shot but his body armor saved him. He was taken hostage, tortured for information about the Embassy and tried in a kangaroo court and sentenced to death for “murder” although he hadn’t killed anyone in the takeover.
Sullivan, working with Iranian Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi, got the Embassy returned to US control about three hours later. Kraus however, wasn’t returned to the Americans for nearly a week. He was subsequently awarded a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross. This would only embolden the Iranians who wanted the US out of Iran forever even further.
Ominous Signs Point to a Crisis: The deposed Shah was in Mexico in October and was found to be suffering from a particularly aggressive form of cancer. His doctors suggested that he go to the United States for treatment.
The Embassy in Tehran, knowing the increasing tensions between the US and Khomeini regime, cabled Washington advising against allowing the Shah into the US. They specifically stated that if the Shah were allowed in, the Embassy would again be attacked.
Henry Kissinger and other senior diplomats warned Carter that allowing the Shah in was a bad decision, but Carter did anyway. The Iranians, already paranoid and seeing CIA spies behind every bush, took this as the US was plotting on overthrowing the Khomeini regime and was intent on putting the Shah back in power. The die was cast.
Takeover and Hostages Taken: At 6:30 a.m. on November 4th, about 300 students began a demonstration in front of the Embassy. They originally planned on a symbolic sit-in and were holding placards to tell American employees that they were not to be harmed, that it was to be a sit-in only. The Iranian student unions were then going to leave once Iranian police showed up.
When US Embassy security and Marine guards brandished weapons, the students retreated but quickly realized that the Americans were not going to use deadly force to protect the grounds…essentially US soil. Everything then changed. Then buses full of supporters began arriving at the gates of the embassy and they broke it down. And 66 US employees and Marines were taken captive. Khomeini initially wanted the students out of there, but sensing an opportunity, changed his mind and took to the radio, calling the students “the second revolution” and praised them for taking what he characterized as “a den of spies.” The emboldened students then paraded diplomats and Marines blindfolded in front of television cameras.
Khomeini said of the takeover, “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.”
Several diplomats made it to the British Embassy and were then shuttled over to the Canadian Embassy. Others made it to the Swedish Embassy. Later the Canadians and CIA hatched a plan where they were smuggled out of the country after masquerading as a film crew. This was portrayed in the film Argo. The Iranians released thirteen hostages between November 19-20, women and African-Americans. Later one more hostage, Richard Queen would be released in July 1980 after he became seriously ill with what was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. Curiously, the Iranians held only one African American, Charles A. Jones. That brought the number down to 52 hostages and they would spend 444 days in captivity.
Once again, the prevailing thought in Tehran was that the Embassy and the employees would be quickly released. Expecting a lion’s response of an ultimatum from President Carter, they got the lamb. Carter appealed to the Iranians to release the hostages on humanitarian grounds and urged them to share an anti-communist alliance. That backfired as well. Khomeini saw this as a weakness of the Americans and Carter. The President sent a delegation to Tehran to negotiate the release of the hostages. This delegation included former judge Ramsey Clark. Khomeini haughtily refused to meet with the delegation. A few days later, Iranian President Banisadr announced the hostages will be released if the Shah is deported back to Iran.
Carter then froze Iranian assets in the US and petitioned the International Court in the Hague against Iran for violating international law.
The Hostages: Initially the hostages were kept in the embassy. Three other high-level diplomats were at the Foreign Ministry at the time of the takeover and were held there in the dining room for several months.
The Iranians publicly claimed that the treatment of the hostages was good and that they were being treated as “guests” of the revolution. The truth however, was much different.
Some of the hostages reported being beaten, left handcuffed for weeks at a time, and forced to endure long periods of solitary confinement. Hostages were forbidden to talk to one another, nor stand and walk in their area.
The Iranian guards with black ski masks awoke the hostages one morning and forced them to strip and proceeded to do a mock execution, which they told the hostages was a joke. Any attempts to escape resulted in solitary confinement. The guards routinely held mail from the hostages telling one married employee that “perhaps your wife found another man.” Another was threatened with the kidnapping of his disabled son where the Iranians would send “pieces, one at a time” to his wife. After the failed rescue attempt, the hostages were spread out to reduce the chances for a second attempt.
Operation Eagle Claw: Once the embassy had been taken and the hostages paraded about, the Pentagon went ahead with contingency planning in November and an ad-hoc task force was created to come up with a plan to rescue the hostages. Since the Special Operations Command didn’t exist at that time, there was no designated aviation element to fly the Delta Force troops, nor a staff to put the pieces in place to plan such a detailed operation.
The plan was to fly Navy helicopters off the coast to a refueling spot in the desert, where C-130s would refuel the helicopters and form a staging area to send the Delta Force troopers and Rangers into Tehran.
Delta Force would free the hostages in the embassy while simultaneously, Rangers would attack and free the three hostages from the Ministry Building. A detailed look at the operation can be found here:
Disaster struck at Desert One, the code-name for the desert refueling spot. After losing helicopters to mechanical failure, a helicopter crashed into a C-130 in a huge fireball killing eight troops and injuring several others.
Carter accepted responsibility for the failed operation and this disaster opened the door for the creation of the Special Operations Command and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to ensure mistakes like that never happen again.
Carter was routed in his November 1980 reelection bid by Ronald Reagan.
Release and Return of the Hostages: The US and Iranians negotiated for the release of the hostages throughout 1980 and actually came to an agreement in December 1980. However, they delayed the release of them until minutes before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President in January 1981. Many believe that Khomeini had one last dig at Carter by refusing to release them on his watch.
The Algerian government was crucial in helping the US negotiate with Iran and once released, the hostages flew from Iran to Algeria and then on to Germany. There, President Carter met with them but for many, the reception to the now former President was icy. Many of the hostages didn’t feel Carter acted correctly after they relayed the warning not to allow the Shah in the US. When the President went to hug them, they stood stone-faced with their hands at their sides, refusing to return the gesture.
Ten days later, the hostages were given a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
The former US Embassy is now a museum in Tehran.