The Iranian Revolution and the Iran Hostage Crisis
Consular and Diplomatic Practices 2
Patrick C. Agonias, Chynna Abaigar 6/11/2012

This document will discuss the causes and immediate consequences of the Iranian Revolution 1978-1979. The effect includes the hostage taking of the American diplomats and the resulting diplomatic crisis that followed. This paper is to be submitted to Amb. Rosario G. Manalo for CONDIP2

Mohammed Reza Shah, the leader of Iran was aware of the danger of depending on diminishing oil assets. Therefore, he pursued a policy of economic diversification. Example of these include: automobile production in the 1950s to the early 1970s, the exploitation of copper reserves and heavily investing in overseas markets. The reforms led to a rapid growth in Iran’s economy. However, the success of the reforms did not last long since it did not solve deep-seated problems. World monetary instability and fluctuations in Western oil consumption seriously threatened Iran’s rapidly growing economy. The economy mostly centred on a vast scale high-cost development programs and large military expenditures. After a decade the economy soon led to inflation and then eventually into stagnation. Prices skyrocketed, and a 1975 government sponsored war on high prices injured confidence in the market. The agricultural sector has been poorly managed and continued to decline productivity. The shah’s reforms also failed to provide the people with any degree of political participation. All forms of social and political protest, were subject of censorship, surveillance or harassments from the SAVAK; the shah’s secret police. Also, illegal detention and torture was common under the shah. The 1953 coup against Mosaddeq had particularly incensed the intellectuals. With their fascination to the populist appeal of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, they abandoned their projects of reducing the power of the religious scholars; the ulama. They argued that with the help of the ulama the shah could be overthrown. With this environment political groups such as the national Front and the Tudeh Party now joined the ulama in a broad opposition to the shah’s regime. Khomeini while in exile had continued to preach the evils of the Pahlavi regime. The protesters increased as the immigrants from the country side, the poor and the unemployed turned to the ulama for guidance. The shah’s dependence on the US, his close ties with Israel-then engaged in extended hostilities with the overwhelmingly Muslim Arab states and his ill considered economic policies served to fuel the dissidence of the masses.


Either through the corruption or incompetence of the shah’s regime in handling both the industrial and agricultural sector have stagnated the economy of Iran. This failure to deliver the promise of reform manifested in demonstrations against the regime in 1978. The protesters became more agitated after what they considered to be slanderous remarks on the exiled Ruholla Khomeini. As a result thousands of young students together with the unemployed youth took to the streets. Weakened by cancer, that shah was stunned with sudden hostility against him, assumed that the protesters are a part of an international conspiracy against him. .Many people were killed by government forces in the ensuing chaos, which only fuelled the violence of the revolution. Despite the efforts of the government, the cycle of violence continued. During his exile, Khomeini coordinated this upsurge of opposition first from Iraq then to France. He demanded the immediate abdication of the shah. Finally on January 1979, with the continuous chaos and unable to maintain order, the shah and his family fled from Iran, officially described as an extended vacation. He would later seek asylum in Egypt, where he would die the following year in Cairo. Before the shah fled, he established the Regency Council to run the country in his absence with Shahpur Bakhtiar as Prime Minister. However, it was ineffective and unable to do its functions. Unable to reach a compromise the crowds with excess of millions demonstrated in Tehran. On February 1 Khomeini returned from exile amid a wild rejoicing of his followers. Ten days later, Bakhtiar was assassinated in his home after fleeing to seek exile in France. On April 1, Khomeini declared Iran an Islamic Republic after an overwhelming support in a national referendum.


The new regime made Rudollah Khomeini as Grand Ayatollah and Supreme Leader of Iran. Elements from the clergy moved to exclude their former left-wing, nationalist and intellectual allies from any positions of power on the new regime. They also enforced a return to conservative social values. Also, laws protecting the rights of women in Iran such as the Family Protection Act were declared void. Mosque-based revolutionary bands known as komitehs patrolled the streets daily enforcing Islamic dress codes and behaviour. The Revolutionary Guards a militia formed by Khomeini in order to forestall another CIA-backed coup, engaged in similar activities of intimidation, repression of political groups not under the rule of the Revolutionary Council and the Islamic Republican Party. They were even more brutal and vicious far exceeding their counterparts; the SAVAK during the shah’s rule. Both the militias and the clerics made every effort to suppress Western ideas and culture. This anti-Western sentiment eventually manifested in November 1979 seizure of the US embassy and the hostage of not more than 66 American, who are diplomats, staffs and marines.


Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1978 to 1979 has deeply affected Iran’s bilateral relationship with the United States. Iran’s deposed ruler; the Shah had been close to a succession of US administrations, but it had produced deep suspicion and hostility among the Revolutionary leaders of Iran. In the fall of 1978, the US embassy in Tehran had been a frequent scene of demonstrations by Iranians; especially the youths who opposed the American presence in the country. This anti-American sentiment eventually led to the takeover of the US embassy and its personnel hostage on November 4, 1979 a month after the Shah fled Iran for medical treatment in the US. The embassy fought and weathered the assault of a 3,000 strong mob of mostly students, during which several embassy personnel were killed or wounded, at that time since Iran is in the middle of a revolutionary change. This changed would soon change the US’s stance on Iran. After the siege on the embassy the mob took some 63 American men and women hostage, while an additional three members of the diplomatic staff were also taken hostage at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. After the news broke out of the hostage and diplomatic crisis, representatives of US President Jimmy Carter and by other Tehran based diplomats from other countries attempted for their release. This was an alarming event since it is a breach of a centuries-old international law granting diplomats immunity from arrest and diplomatic compounds such as embassies are inviolable.


It was clear that the hostages were not going to be released immediately. This is because that a political struggle was afoot in Tehran – between the Islamic right and the secular left and between various personalities such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – and the hostages are partly caught in the gridlock. On November 12, 1978 acting Iranian Foreign Minister Abolhasan Bani-Sadr issued a statement that the hostages would be released on three conditions: the US would cease interfering in Iranian affairs, that the shah would be repatriated back to Iran for trial, and those assets currently in possession of the shah be declared as stolen property. The US responded by stating that US courts would be open to Iran to make any financial claims against the shah and it would support the establishment of an international commission to investigate human rights abuses under the shah’s former regime. However, before this was to be done, the hostages should be returned first. Furthermore, the US has bolstered its position by boycotting Iranian oil, freezing billions of dollars of Iranian assets in the US and by engaging throughout the crisis through a vigorous campaign of international diplomacy against the Iranians. The consensus of the international community was against the Iranians seizure of the hostages, even diplomats of other states sought to intervene in their behalf. Early on November 17, Khomeini ordered the militants to release 13 hostages, all of which are women or African Americans, on the grounds that they are unlikely to be spies and another hostage who was gravely ill was released on July 1980. The hostages remaining in captivity were 52, whom Iranians emphasize that they are spies and would be put into trial for crimes including espionage. This threat was used as leverage that the Iranian used throughout the ordeal.


From the beginning of the crisis, US military forces had begun to formulate plans to rescue the hostages. By early 1980 of April the US administration has still unable to find anyone to negotiate soon sought military action. Despite the turmoil that is happening in Iran, the hostages are still being held captive at the embassy complex. On April 24, a small US task force landed in the desert southeast of Tehran. From that staging point, a group of special operations soldiers was to advance via helicopter to second rally point, stage a quick raid of the embassy and rescue the hostages. Then they are to be transported to an airstrip that was to be secured beforehand by a second team of soldiers. From there they will be extracted out from Iran. Unfortunately the operation was plagued by problems from the start. Two of the eight helicopters sent for the operation malfunctioned. Unable to complete the mission US forces sought to withdraw, during which one of the remaining helicopters collided with a support aircraft. Eight US forces were killed and their bodies, left behind, were paraded before Iranian television. This was a humiliating blow to the Carter administration. With the failed mission, loss of life, they soon expended great energy to have the bodies returned to the US. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who was opposed the mission, resigned in protest. All diplomatic negotiations in the hostage crisis came to a standstill, and the hostages were placed in new concealed locations.


By May 1980, the US had convinced its closest allies to impose and institute an economic embargo of Iran. However, the embargo was not enough the resolve the hostage crisis. This all changed when two subsequent events made a resolution of the crisis seem more likely. First, in mid-August Iran finally installed a new government and the Carter administration immediately sought to extend diplomatic ties. Second was the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1990) this conflict has distracted Iranian officials from hostage negotiations in the short term and the embargo has shown to wear down Iran’s economy and the state’s effort to stave off the Iraqi forces. Likewise numerous world leaders made it clear to Iranian PM Mohammad Ali Raja’i that Iran could not expect support in the Iraq conflict as a long as it held the US hostages. As a consequence, Iranian officials returned for negotiations. Although the Iranian PM insisted there be no direct negotiations, however and Algerian diplomats acted as middlemen throughout the process. The whole negotiation continued throughout the late 1980 and early 1981. During that time Iranian demands centred largely on releasing frozen Iranian asserts and lifting the trade embargo. An agreement was made and on January 20, 1981 the hostages were released, minutes after the inauguration of the new US president, Ronald Reagan.


The whole ordeal lasted for 444 days and became a major blow to US morale and prestige. Also the crisis created a severe strain on US-Iranian relations for decades to come. It was also believed that the crisis contributed to Carter’s defeat by Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Moreover, in the years following the crisis, allegations arose that the Reagan campaign camp had acted to hinder the attempts by Carter to negotiate and earlier settlement. This was to derail a possible electoral coup for the Carter campaign – in an effort to ensure a Reagan victory. Although those allegations were largely dismissed, questions have remained about the willingness of officials in the Reagan administration to trade arms with the Iranians in the mid-1980s, in a scandal that would become known as the Iran-Contra Affair.


Books: Asari, A. M. (2007). Modern Iran: The Pahlavis and After. Essex: Pearson Education Limited. Encyclopedia Britannicca. (2006). Iran: The Essential Guide to a Country on the Brink. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

World Wide Web: British Broadcating Corporation. (2012). In pictures: The Iranian revolution. Retrieved June 8, 2012, from British Broadcating Corporation: British Broadcastiing Corporation. (2012). 1981: Tehran frees US hostages after 444 days. Retrieved June 9, 2012, from British Broadcastiing Corporation:

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