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What Was the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979?

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Iranian protestors took the US Embassy in Tehran and held diplomats hostage for 444 days

An American hostage in Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis

MPI / Getty Images

Question: What Was the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979?

Answer:

The Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 - 1981 was a diplomatic and political stand-off between the United States and Iran, which had just undergone the Iranian Revolution. Inspired by the return to Iran of their leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the fall of Shah Pahlavi, young Iranian radicals sought to vent their anger against the 'decadent' and 'pro-Shah' west, particularly the United States.

The hostage crisis began on November 4, 1979, when a group of Islamist youths stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and seized 66 American diplomatic staff as hostages. The hostage-takers released thirteen women and African Americans after about a week, claiming that they were sympathetic to the plight of oppressed people such as women and minorities in America. Another seriously ill hostage was released in July of 1980. Six other Americans escaped the compound attack, and later were smuggled out of Iran via the Canadian Embassy. After the Ayatollah Khomeini expressed approval of the embassy take-over, the hostage-takers kept the remaining 52 hostages in captivity for a total of 444 days.

Iranian propaganda claimed that the American hostages were "guests" of the Islamic Republic, and that they were being treated with every courtesy. During their ordeal, however, the Americans faced repeated threats from their captors, as well as terrifying mock executions in February of 1980. Two of the hostages would eventually attempt suicide, although the guards noticed and took both men to the hospital in time to save their lives.

In April of 1980, US President Jimmy Carter gave the green light for a military rescue mission, dubbed Operation Eagle Claw. The operation on April 24 was a fiasco, with one of the six US helicopters involved going to ground due to a mechanical failure, and another crashing into a C-130 tanker plane during refueling, killing eight American service members. Eagle Claw dealt a severe blow to President Carter's reputation, while increasing Ayatollah Khomeini's prestige within Iran.

Finally, late in 1980, the government of Algeria mediated negotiations between the US and Iran. The Carter administration agreed to unfreeze almost $8 billion in Iranian gold and other assets, which had been seized when the Shah fell, in return for the release of the American hostages. In an added slap at Carter, the Iranians arranged for the release on January 20, 1981 - the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the new American president.

The Iran Hostage Crisis helped legitimate the Islamic Revolution in the eyes of ordinary Iranians, who saw it as an expression of new-found power over foreign influence. The crisis also doomed President Carter's re-election campaign. Most importantly, it marked a rupture in relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States that continues to this day.

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