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Iranian militants escort a blindfolded U.S. hostage to the media.

The Iranian hostage crisis was a diplomatic crisis between Iranmarker and the United Statesmarker where 53 Americans were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, after a group of Islamist students and militants took over the American embassy in support of the Iranian Revolution.

The episode reached a climax when, after failed attempts to negotiate a release, the United States military attempted a rescue operation, Operation Eagle Clawmarker, on April 24, 1980, which resulted in a failed mission, the crash of two aircraft and the deaths of eight American servicemen and one Iranian civilian. It ended with the signing of the Algiers Accords in Algeriamarker on January 19, 1981. The hostages were formally released into United States custody the following day, just minutes after the new American president Ronald Reagan was sworn in.

The crisis has been described as an entanglement of "vengeance and mutual incomprehension". In Iran, despite freezing of all Iranian assets held in US (Executive Order 12170), the hostage holding was widely seen as a blow against the U.S., and its influence in Iran, its perceived attempts to undermine the Iranian Revolution, and its long-standing support of the recently overthrown government of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah had been restored to power in a 1953 coup against a democratically-elected nationalist Iranian government organized by the CIA at the American embassyand had recently been allowed into the United States for medical treatment. In the United States, the hostage-taking was seen as an outrage violating a centuries-old principle of international law granting diplomats immunity from arrest and diplomatic compounds sovereignty in their embassies.

The crisis has also been described as the "pivotal episode" in the history of U.S.-Iranian relations. In the U.S., some political analysts believe the crisis was a major reason for U.S. President Jimmy Carter's defeat in the November 1980 presidential election. In Iran, the crisis strengthened the prestige of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the political power of those who supported theocracy and opposed any normalization of relations with the West. The crisis also marked the beginning of U.S. legal action, or economic sanctions against Iran, that further weakened economic ties between Iran and the United States.


1953 coup

In February 1979, less than a year before the hostage crisis, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, had been overthrown in a revolution. For several decades before that, the United States had been an ally and backer of the Shah. During World War II, Allied powers Britainmarker and the Soviet Unionmarker occupied Iran and installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the throne. The invasion was allegedly in fear that Reza Shah was about to align his petroleum-rich country with Nazi Germany during the war: However, Reza Shah's earlier Declaration of Neutrality and refusal to allow Iranian territory to be used to train, supply, and act as a transport corridor to ship arms to Russia for its war effort against Germany, was the strongest motive for the allied invasion of Iran. Because of its importance in the allied victory, Iran was subsequently called "The Bridge of Victory" by Winston Churchill.

By the 1950's, the Shah was engaged in a power struggle with Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, an immediate descendant of the previous monarchy, the Qajar dynasty. In 1953, the British and U.S. spy agencies deposed the democratically-elected government of Mossadegh in a military coup d'état codenamed Operation Ajax, and restored the Shah as an absolute monarch. The anti-democratic coup d’état was a "a critical event in post-war world history" that replaced Iran’s post-monarchic, native, and secular parliamentary democracy with a dictatorship. US support and funding continued after the coup, with the CIA training the government's secret police, SAVAK. In subsequent decades this foreign intervention, along with other economic, cultural and political issues, united opposition against the Shah and led to his overthrow.

Carter administration

Shortly before the revolution on New Year's Day 1979, American president Jimmy Carter further angered anti-Shah Iranians with a televised toast to the Shah, declaring how beloved the Shah was by his people. After the revolution in February, the embassy had been occupied and staff held hostage briefly. Rocks and bullets had broken enough of the embassy front-facing windows for them to be replaced with bullet-proof glass. Its staff was reduced to just over 60 from a high of nearly 1000 earlier in the decade.

The Carter administration attempted to mitigate the anti-American feeling by finding a new relationship with the de facto Iranian government and by continuing military cooperation in hopes that the situation would stabilize. However, on October 22, 1979 the U.S. permitted the Shah - who was ill with cancer - to attend the Mayo Clinicmarker for medical treatment. The American embassy in Tehranmarker had discouraged the request, understanding the political delicacy, but after pressure from influential figures including former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Council on Foreign Relations chairman David Rockefeller, the Carter administration decided to grant the Shah’s request.

The Shah's admission to the US intensified Iranian revolutionaries anti-Americanism and spawned rumors of another U.S.-backed coup and re-installation of the Shah.

Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - who had been exiled by the Shah for 15 years - heightened rhetoric against the “Great Satan”, the United States, talking of what he called “evidence of American plotting.”

"You have no right to complain, because you took our whole country hostage in 1953.”

In addition to putting an end to what they believed was American plotting and sabotage against the revolution, the hostage takers hoped to depose the provisional revolutionary government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan which they believed was plotting to normalize relations with the United States and extinguish Islamic revolutionary ardor in Iran.

A later study found that there had been no plots for the overthrow of the revolutionaries by the United States, and that a CIA intelligence gathering mission at the embassy was “notably ineffectual, gathering little information and hampered by the fact that none of the three officers spoke the local language, Farsi.” Its work was “routine, prudent espionage conducted at diplomatic missions everywhere.”


The seizure of the American embassy was initially planned in September 1979 by Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a student at that time. He consulted with the heads of the Islamic associations of Tehran’s main universities, including the University of Tehran, Sharif University of Technologymarker, Amirkabir University of Technologymarker (Polytechnic of Tehran) and Iran University of Science and Technology. Their group was named Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line.

Asgharzadeh later said there were five students at the first meeting, two of whom (including current Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) wanted to target the Soviet embassy because the USSR was “a Marxist and anti-God regime.” But two others, Mirdamadi and Habibolah Bitaraf, supported Asgharzadeh’s chosen target — the United States. "Our aim was to object against the American government by going to their embassy and occupying it for several hours," Asgharzadeh said. "Announcing our objections from within the occupied compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way." Mirdamadi told an interviewer, "we intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more." Masoumeh Ebtekar, spokeswoman for the Iranian students during the crisis, said that those who rejected Asgharzadeh's plan did not participate in the subsequent events.

The Islamist students observed the security procedures of the U.S. Marine guards from nearby rooftops overlooking the embassy. They also used experiences from the recent revolution, during which the U.S. embassy grounds were briefly occupied. They enlisted the support of police in charge of guarding the embassy and of Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

According to the group and other sources Khomeini did not know of the plan beforehand. The Islamist students had wanted to inform him but according to author Mark Bowden, Ayatollah Musavi Khoeyniha persuaded them not to. Khoeyniha feared the government would use police to expel the Islamist students as they had the last occupiers in February. The provisional government had been appointed by Khomeini and so Khomeini was likely to go along with their request to restore order. On the other hand, Khoeyniha knew that if Khomeini first saw that the occupiers were his faithful supporters (unlike the leftists in the first occupation) and that large numbers of pious Muslims had gathered outside the embassy to show their support for the takeover, it would be "very hard, perhaps even impossible", for the Imam Khomeini to oppose the takeover, and this would paralyze the Bazargan administration Khoeyniha and the students wanted to eliminate.


Around 6:30 a.m. on November 4, the ringleaders gathered between 300 and 500 selected students, thereafter known as Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line, and briefed them on the battle plan. A female student was given a pair of metal cutters to break the chains locking the embassy's gates, and she hid them beneath her chador.

At first the students' plan to only make a symbolic occupation, release statements to the press and leave when government security forces came to restore order, was reflected in placards saying `Don't be afraid. We just want to set-in`. When the embassy guards brandished firearms, the protesters retreated, one telling the Americans, `We don't mean any harm.` But as it became clear the guards would not use deadly force and that a large angry crowd had gathered outside the compound to cheer the occupiers and jeer the hostages, the occupation changed. According to one embassy staff member, buses full of demonstrators began to appear outside the embassy shortly after the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line broke through the gates.

As Ayatollah Musavi Khoeyniha had hoped, Khomeini supported the takeover. According to Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi, when he, Yazdi came to Qommarker to tell The Imam about the incident, Khomeini told the minister to "go and kick them out." But later that evening, back in Tehran, the minister heard on the radio that Imam Khomeini had issued a statement supporting the seizure and calling it "the second revolution," and the embassy an "American spy den in Tehran."

The occupiers bound and blindfolded the embassy soldiers and staff and paraded them in front of photographers. In the first couple of days many of the embassy staff who had snuck out of the compound or not been there at the time of the takeover were rounded up by Islamists and returned as hostages. Six American diplomats did however avoid capture and found refuge at the nearby Canadianmarker and Swissmarker embassies in Tehran for three months. (See "Canadian Caper", below.) They fled Iran using Canadian passports on January 28, 1980.

Hostage-holding motivations

A group photograph of the former hostages in the hospital.
The 52 hostages are spending a few days in the hospital after their release from Iran prior to their departure for the United States.

The Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line demanded that the Shah return to Iran for trial and execution. The U.S. maintained that the Shah, who died less than a year later in July 1980, had come to America only for medical attention. The group's other demands included that the U.S. government apologize for its interference in the internal affairs of Iran and for the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq, and that Iran's frozen assets in the U.S. be released.

The initial takeover plan was to hold the embassy for only a short time, but this changed after it became apparent how popular the takeover was and that Khomeini had given it his full support. Some attribute the Iranian decision not to release the hostages quickly to U.S. President Jimmy Carter's "blinking" or failure to immediately deliver an ultimatum to Iran. His immediate response was to appeal for the release of the hostages on humanitarian grounds and to share his hopes of a strategic anti-communist alliance with the Islamic Republic. As some of the student leaders had hoped, Iran's moderate prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and his cabinet resigned under pressure just days after the event.

The duration of the hostages' captivity has been blamed on internal Iranian revolutionary politics. As Ayatollah Khomeini told Iran's president:
This action has many benefits.
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.

Theocratic Islamists, as well as leftist political groups and figures like leftist People's Mujahedin of Iran, supported the taking of American hostages as an attack on "American imperialism" and its alleged Iranian "tools of the West." Revolutionary teams displayed secret documents taken from the embassy, sometimes painstakingly reconstructed after shredding, to buttress their claim that "the Great Satan" (the U.S.) was trying to destabilize the new regime, and that Iranian moderates were in league with the U.S. (The documents were published in a series of books called "Documents from the US Espionage Den" ( ). These books included telegrams, correspondence, and reports from the U.S. State Departmentmarker and Central Intelligence Agency.)

By embracing the hostage-taking under the slogan "America can't do a thing," Khomeini rallied support and deflected criticism from his controversial Islamic theocratic constitution, which was due for a referendum vote in less than one month. Following the successful referendum, both leftists and theocrats continued to use the issue of alleged pro-Americanism to suppress their opponents, the relatively moderate political forces, which included the Iranian Freedom Movement, National Front, Grand Ayatollah Shari'atmadari, and later President Abolhassan Banisadr. In particular, carefully selected diplomatic dispatches and reports discovered at the embassy and released by the hostage takers led to the disempowerment and resignations of moderate figures such as Premier Mehdi Bazargan. The political danger in Iran of any move seen as accommodating America, along with the failed rescue attempt, delayed a negotiated release. After the hostages were released, leftists and theocrats turned on each other, with the stronger theocratic group decimating the left.

444 days hostage

Hostage conditions

The hostage-takers, declaring their solidarity with other "oppressed minorities" and "the special place of women in Islam," released 13 women and blacks in the middle of November 1979, leaving only one black and two women hostages. One more hostage, Richard Queen, was released in July 1980 after he became seriously ill with what was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. The remaining 52 hostages were held captive until January 1981.

They were held first primarily in buildings at the embassy, but after the failed rescue mission they were scattered to different locations around Iran to make rescue even more difficult. Three high level officials — Bruce Laingen, Victor Tomseth and Mike Howland — were at the Foreign ministry at the time of the takeover. They stayed there for some months, sleeping in the ministry's formal dining room and washing their socks and underwear in the bathroom. They were first treated as diplomats but after the provisional government fell relations deteriorated and by March the doors to their living space were kept "chained and padlocked."

By midsummer 1980 the hostages had been moved to prisons in Tehran which had the advantage of simplifying the logistics of guard shifts, food delivery, and other services for the hostage takers, and of course were designed to prevent either escape or rescue attempts. The final holding area was the Teymour Bakhtiari mansion in Tehran, a place of comparative "sheer luxury," with tubs, showers and hot and cold running water, where the hostages were held from Nov. 1980 until their release. Several foreign diplomats and ambassadors - including Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor prior to the Canadian Caper - came to visit the hostages over the course of the crisis, relaying information back to the US government - including the "Laingen dispatches," made by hostage Bruce Laingen - to help the home country stay in contact.

Accounts of how the hostages were treated differ. Iranian hostage takers and government officials often expressed the belief that the hostages were "guests" treated with respect. Ibrahim Asgharzadeh described the original hostage taking plan as a nonviolent and symbolic action where the gentle and respectful treatment of the hostages would dramatize to the whole world the offended sovereignty and dignity of Iran. In America, an Iranian charge d'affairs, Ali Agha, indignantly stormed out of meeting with an American official, exclaiming `We are not mistreating the hostages. They are being very well taken care of in Tehran. They are our guests.`" In Iran one guard told several hostages `We want you to feel that you are our guests,` and complained that use of the word "guard" was `too cruel.` Visiting Iranian officials asked hostages `What can I do for you? We want to make you more comfortable.` and told another surprised hostage that they, the hostages, should be grateful that Iran was protecting them from attempts by the US government to kill them.

In interviews and their accounts of captivity, however, many hostages complained of beatings, theft, the fear of being paraded blindfold before a large, angry chanting crowd outside the embassy (Bill Belk) Kathryn Koob in), having their hands bound "day and night" for days or even weeks, long periods of solitary confinement and months of being forbidden to speak to one another or stand, walk, and leave their space unless they were going to the bathroom. In particular they felt the threat of trial and execution, as all of the hostages "were threatened repeatedly with execution, and took it seriously."

The most terrifying night for the hostages came on February 5, 1980, when guards in black ski masks rousted the 53 hostages from their sleep and led them blindfolded to other rooms. They were searched after being ordered to strip to their underwear and keep their hands up. The mock execution ended after the guards cocked their weapons and readied them to fire but finally ejected their rounds and told the prisoners to pull up their pants. The hostages were later told the exercise was "just a joke" and something the guards "had wanted to do."

Michael Metrinko, the most disrespectful and poorly treated hostage, was kept in solitary confinement for months. On two occasion when he insulted the Ayatollah Khomeini he was punished especially severely - the first time being kept in handcuffs for 24 hours a day for two weeks, and being beaten and kept alone in a freezing cell for two weeks with a diet of bread and water the second time.

One hostage (Army medic Donald Hohman) went on a hunger strike for several weeks and two attempted suicide. Steve Lauterbach became despondent, broke a water glass and slashed his wrists after being locked in a dark basement room of the chancery with his hand tightly bound and aching badly. He was found by guards, rushed to the hospital and patched up. Jerry Miele, an introverted CIA communicator technician (not an officer who recruited Iranians), smashed his head into the corner of a door, knocking himself unconscious and cutting a deep gash from which blood poured. "Naturally withdrawn", and looking "ill, old, tired, and vulnerable" Miele had become the butt of his guards' jokes who rigged up a mock electric chair with wires to emphasize the fate that awaited him. After his fellow hostages applied first aid and raised alarm - and only after what they thought was a long delay - he was taken to a hospital.

Different hostages complained of threats to boil their feet in oil (Alan B. Golacinski), cut their eyes out (Rick Kupke), or kidnap and kill a disabled son in America and `start sending pieces of him to your wife.` (David Roeder)

Four different hostages attempted to escape all being punished with stretches of solitary confinement when their attempt was discovered.

The hostage released for multiple sclerosis (Richard Queen) first developed symptoms (wooziness and a numbness in his arm) six months before his release. It was misdiagnosed by Iranians first as a reaction to draft of cold air, and after warmer confinement didn't help as "it's nothing, it's nothing," the symptoms of which would soon disappear. Over the months the symptoms spread to his right side and worsened until Queen "was literally flat on his back unable to move without growing dizzy and throwing up."

Homesickness, boredom and the pain of "forcing grown men to live together in a small space day and night, month after month" became "a form of slow torture. ... opinions become deadly and anything can provoke argument." Guards would often withhold mail from home, telling one hostage (Charles W. Scott) "I don't see anything for you, Mr. Scott. Are you sure your wife has not found another man?" and hostages' possessions went missing.

As the hostages were taken to the plane that would fly them out of Tehran, they were led through a gauntlet of students forming parallel lines and shouting `Margbar Amrika`, (death to America) When the pilot announced they were out of Iran the "freed hostages went wild with happiness. Shouting, cheering, crying, clapping, falling into one another's arms."

Impact in America

In the United States, the hostage-taking is said to have created "a surge of patriotism" and left "the American people more united than they have been on any issue in two decades." The action was seen "not just as a diplomatic affront," but as a "declaration of war on diplomacy itself." Television news gave daily updates. President Carter applied economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran: oil imports from Iran were ended on November 12, 1979, and through the issuance of Executive Order 12170, around US$8 billion of Iranian assets in the U.S. were frozen by the Office of Foreign Assets Control on November 14.

During the weeks leading up to Christmas in 1979, high school students created Christmas cards that were delivered to the hostages in Iran. This was then replicated by community groups across the country, resulting in bales of Christmas cards delivered to the hostages. The White House Christmas Tree that year was left dark except for the top star.

A severe backlash against Iranians in the US developed. One Iranian later complained, "I had to hide my Iranian identity not to get beaten up, even at university." Many Iranians in the U.S. were also expelled.

According to author/journalist Mark Bowden, a pattern developed in Pres. Carter's attempts to negotiate a release of the hostages:
Carter would latch on to a deal proffered by a top Iranian official and grant minor but humiliating concessions, only to have it scotched at the last minute by Khomeini.

Canadian Caper

On the day the hostages were seized, six American diplomats evaded capture and remained in hiding at the Swissmarker and Canadianmarker embassies. In 1979, the Canadian Parliamentmarker held a secret session for the first time since World War II in order to pass special legislation allowing Canadian passports to be issued to some American citizens so that they could escape. Six American diplomats boarded a flight to Zürichmarker, Switzerlandmarker, on January 28, 1980. Their escape and rescue from Iran by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor has come to be known as the Canadian Caper.

Negotiations for release

The first attempt to negotiate a release of the hostages involved Hector Villalon and Christian Bourget, representing Iranian Foreign Minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. They "delivered a formal request to Panamamarker for extradition of the Shah" which was "a pretext to cover secret negotiations to free the American hostages." This happened as the Soviets invaded Iran's neighbor Afghanistan, an event America hoped would "illustrate the threat" of its superpower neighbor and need for better relations with the Soviet's enemy, America. Ghotbzadeh himself was eager to end the hostage taking, as "moderates" were being eliminated from the Iranian government one by one after being exposed by the Student hostage takers as `traitors` and "spies" for having met as some time with an American official.

Carter aide Hamilton Jordan flew to Parismarker "wearing a disguise - a wig, false mustache and glasses" to meet with Ghotbzadeh. After "weeks of negotiation with ... emissaries, ... a complex multi-stepped plan" was "hammered out" that included the establishment of a international commission to study America's role in Iran. Rumours of a release leaked to the American public and on February 19, 1980, the American Vice President Walter Mondale told an interviewer that "the crisis was nearing an end." The plan fell apart however after Ayatollah Khomeini gave a speech praising the embassy occupation as "a crushing blow to the world-devouring USA" and announced the fate of the hostages would be decided by the parliament (Majlis), which had yet to be seated or even elected. When the six-man international UN commission came to Iran they were not allowed to see the hostages, and President Abolhassan Banisadr retreated from his criticism of the hostage takers, praising them as `young patriots.`

The next unsuccessful attempt occurred in April and called first for the American president Carter to publicly promise not to "impose additional sanctions" on Iran. In exchange custody of the hostages would be transferred to the government of Iran, which after a short period would release the hostages — the Iranian president and foreign minister both opposing the continued holding of the hostages. To the American's surprise and disappointment, after Carter made his promise, President Bani-Sadr added additional demands: official American approval of resolution of the hostage question by Iran's parliament (which would leave the hostages in Tehran for another month or two), and a promise by Carter to refrain from making `hostile statements.` Carter also agreed to these demands, but again Khomeini vetoed the plan. At this point Bani-Sadr announced he was `washing his hands` of the hostage mess."

The death of the Shah on July 27 and the invasion of Iran by Iraq in September 1980 may have made Iran more receptive to the idea of resolving the hostage crisis. Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the November 1980 presidential election but Carter continued to attempt to negotiate the release of the hostages through Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Algerian intermediaries and members of the Iranian government in the final days of his presidency.

Talks that finally succeeded in bringing a release began secretly in September 1980 and were initiated by Sadegh Tabatabai, a brother-in-law of Khomeini's son Ahmad and "a mid-level official" in the former-provisional revolutionary government. By this time resolution of the crisis was made easier by the fact that two of the hostage takers demands were moot — the Shah was dead and "most" of his wealth had been "removed from American banks" - while the threat of war with Iraq made availability of American-made military spare parts for Iran's materiel important. Iranian demands for the release were now four: expression of remorse or an apology for the US historical role in Iran, unlocking of "Iranian assets in America and withdraw any legal claims against Iran arising from the embassy seizure, and promise not to interfere in the future." The demands were listed at the end of a speech by Khomeini considered "a major shift on Iran's side of the impasse" by journalists. Tabatabai, and Ahmad Khomeini secured the support of Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Majlis.

The talks hammered out an agreement to bring to there higher-ups, with the US agreeing to three demands but not to an apology. Talks were stalled first by Iraq's invasion of Iran which Iranian officialdom blamed on the United States. Rafsanjani delivered a vote in parliament in favor of releasing the hostages. Then negotiations began over how much money US businesses owed Iran — Iran believing the sum to be $20 to $60 billion and the United States estimating it at "closer to $20 to 60 million." — and how much Iran owed US businesses. Negotiations continued through the American elections (which President Carter lost) with pressure being added by President elect Ronald Reagan's talk of not paying `ransom for people who have been kidnapped by barbarians.` and a New Years Day threat from Radio Tehran that if the US did not accept Iran's demands the hostages would be tried as spies and executed.

Algerian diplomat Abdulkarim Ghuraib's negotiations between the U.S. and Iran resulted in the "Algiers Accords" of January 19, 1981. The Algiers Accords called for Iran's immediate freeing of the hostages, the unfreezing of $7.9 billion of Iranian assets and immunity from lawsuits Iran might have faced in America, and a pledge by the United States that "it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs."

The release of the hostages came a day after President Carter's term ended. While Carter had an "obsession" with finishing the matter before stepping down," the hostage takers are thought to have wanted the release delayed as punishment for his perceived support for the Shah.

Rescue attempts

After rejecting Iranian demands, Carter approved an ill-fated secret rescue mission, Operation Eagle Clawmarker. Late in the afternoon of April 24, eight RH-53D helicopters flew from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to a remote road serving as an airstrip in the Great Salt Desertmarker of Eastern Iran, near Tabasmarker. Early the next morning six of the eight RH-53D helicopters met up with several waiting C-130 transport and refueling airplanes at the landing site and refueling area, designated "Desert One" by the mission.

Of the two helicopters that did not make it to Desert One, one suffered avionics failures en route and returned to the USS Nimitz, and the other had an indication that one of its main rotor blades was fractured, and was abandoned in the desert en route to Desert One. Its crew was seen and retrieved by another helicopter that continued to Desert One. The helicopters maintained strict radio silence under orders for the entire flight, an issue which impacted their ability to maintain a cohesive flying unit while en route, as they all arrived separately and behind schedule. The strict radio silence also prevented them from requesting permission to fly above the sandstorm as the C-130s had done, and they flew the entire route at hazardous low levels, even while inside the sandstorm and with limited field of vision and erratic instrumentation.

The mission plan called for a minimum of six helicopters but of the six that made it to Desert One, one had a failed primary hydraulics system and had flown on the secondary hydraulics system for the previous four hours.

The failing helicopter's crew wanted to continue, but due to the increased risk of not having a backup hydraulic system during flight, the helicopter squadron's commander decided to ground the helicopter. The Delta commander, Col. Beckwith, then recommended the mission be aborted and his recommendation was approved by President Carter. As the helicopters repositioned themselves for refueling, one helicopter ran into a C-130 tanker aircraft and crashed, killing eight U.S. servicemen and injuring several more.

After the mission and its failure were made known, Khomeini's prestige skyrocketed in Iran as he credited divine intervention on behalf of Islam for the result. Iranian officials who favored release of the hostages, such as President Bani Sadr, were weakened. In America, President Carter's political popularity and prospects for being reelected in 1980 were further damaged after a April 25 television address in which he explained the rescue operation.

A second rescue attempt that was planned but never attempted used highly modified YMC-130H Hercules aircraft. Outfitted with rocket thrusters fore and aft to allow an extremely short landing and takeoff in the Shahid Shiroudi soccer stadium located close to the embassy, three aircraft were modified under a rushed super-secret program known as Operation Credible Sport. One aircraft crashed during a demonstration at Duke Field at Eglin Air Force Basemarker Auxiliary Field 3 on October 29, 1980, when its landing braking rockets were fired too soon. The misfire caused a hard touchdown that tore off the starboard wing and started a fire; all on board survived. The impending change in the White Housemarker following the November election led to an abandonment of this project. The two surviving airframes were returned to regular duty with the rocket packages removed. One is on display at the Museum of Aviation located next to Robins Air Force Basemarker in Georgiamarker.

The aforementioned failed rescue attempt led to the creation of the 160th S.O.A.R., a helicopter aviation special forces group in the United States Army.


At the end of the Iran hostage crisis, Vice President George H.
Bush and other VIPs wait to welcome hostages home

The hostages disembark Freedom One, an Air Force VC-137 Stratoliner aircraft, upon their arrival at the base.

On January 20, 1981, 20 minutes after Reagan was sworn in as President, the American hostages were released by Iran into U.S. custody, having spent 444 days in captivity. The hostages were flown to Algeria as a symbolic gesture for the help of that government in resolving the crisis. The flight continued to Rhein-Main Air Basemarker in West Germanymarker, where former President Carter, acting as emissary, received them. After medical check-ups and debriefings, they took a second flight to Stewart Air National Guard Basemarker in Newburgh, New Yorkmarker, with a refueling stop in Shannonmarker, Irelandmarker, where they were greeted by a large crowd. From Newburgh they traveled by bus to the United States Military Academymarker, receiving a heroes' welcome all along the route. Ten days after their release, the former hostages were given a ticker tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes in New York Citymarker.


Iran–Iraq War

The Iraq invasion of Iran occurred less than a year after the embassy employees were taken hostage. At least one observer (Stephen Kinzer) believes the dramatic change of US-Iranian relations from ally to enemy played a part in emboldening Saddam Hussein to invade, and US anger with Iran led the US to aid Iraq after the war turned against Iraq. The US supplied Iraq with, among other things, "helicopters and satellite intelligence that was used in selecting bombing targets".In turn, this aid and the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655marker in the Persian Gulf by the USS Vincennes "deepened and widened anti-American feeling in Iran."


The hostage taking was unsuccessful for the Islamic Republic in some respects. Iran lost international support for its war against Iraq, and the settlement was considered almost wholly favorable to the United States since it did not meet any of Iran's original demands. But the crisis strengthened Iranians who supported the hostage taking. Anti-Americanism became even more intense, and anti-American rhetoric continued unabated. Politicians such as Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha and Behzad Nabavi were left in a stronger position, while those associated or accused of association with America were removed from the political picture. Khomeini biographer Baqer Moin describes the incident as "a watershed in Khomeini's life" transforming him from a "cautious, pragmatic politician" into "a modern revolutionary, single-mindedly pursing a dogma". In his statements, "imperialism, liberalism, democracy" were "negative words", while "revolution ... became a sacred word, sometimes more important than Islam."Iranian government commemorates the event every year by demonstration at the embassy and burning US flag but on November 4th 2009, when pro-democracy protesters and reformists demonstrated in the streets of Tehran, despite Iranian government authorities encouraging people to chant "Death to America," protesters instead chanted "Death to the Dictator" (referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) and other anti-government slogans.


In America, gifts were showered upon the hostages upon their return, including lifetime passes to any minor league or Major League Baseball game.

In 2000, the hostages and their families tried to sue Iran, unsuccessfully, under the Antiterrorism Act. They originally won the case when Iran failed to provide a defense, but the U.S.marker State Departmentmarker tried to put an end to the suit, fearing that it would make international relations difficult. As a result, a federal judge ruled that nothing could be done to repay the damages the hostages faced because of the agreement the U.S. made when the hostages were freed.

The US embassy building is used by Iran's government and its affiliated groups. The Guardian reported in 2006 that a group called The Committee for the Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Campaign used the US embassy to recruit "martyrdom seekers", volunteers to carry out operations against Western and Jewish targets. Mohammad Samadi, a spokesman for the group, signed up several hundred volunteers in a few days.

Conspiracy theories

Alleged Rockefeller plot

One conspiratorial explanation for the hostage taking is that David Rockefeller plotted to allow the Shah to enter America knowing this would provoke the Islamic revolutionaries into "some kind of outrageous" response, which in turn would provoke a retaliation by the American government of freezing Iranian assets kept in Rockefeller's Chase Manhattan Bank. This would help replace loans made by Chase Manhattan to the Shah that the Islamic government had no intention of repaying. The theory is mentioned by roozonline and in the book Taken Hostage, by David Farber.

Other alleged plots

In Iran the failed rescue attempt was described by revolutionaries not as an attempt to free the hostages but as a `secret invasion` by hundreds of American troops "to murder Khomeini and destroy the revolution." American hostages were told that the U.S. had sent commandos to Iran to kill them, and that the hostages had been moved to prison cells for their own protection.

Alleged CIA plot

Journalist Mark Bowden writes that since the hostage taking "helped prompt the disastrous Iran-Iraq War and 25 years of international troubles for Iran" it is now much less popular in Iran. Conspiracy theorists such as Reza Ghapour, described as "a young fundamentalist scholar" and Abolhassan Banisadr, argue the hostage taking "was a secret CIA plot" and that the student hostage takers were "either stooges or, at worst, American agents." In Iran their theories are "taken seriously" by "even well-educated people."

October Surprise conspiracy theory

The October Surprise theory refers to a purported deal between high-level Reagan campaign operatives and representatives of the Iranian Islamic government to delay the release of the hostages until after the November 1980 U.S. elections. The ongoing hostage crisis had substantially harmed incumbent President Carter's popularity, and a "surprise" release of the hostages shortly before the election could have substantially improved his reelection prospects, at Reagan's expense. Although investigations by the United States Senate and House of Representatives in the 1990s declared the allegations to be unfounded, the conspiracy's existence or lack thereof remains a subject of debate. The main cause for suspicion was the timing of the hostages' release six minutes after Reagan was sworn into office on January 20, 1981, as well as the Reagan administration's later decision to provide arms to the anti-U.S. Iranian government, allegedly in return for delaying the release of the hostages, rather than for freeing them.

However, special ops personnel involved in the preparations for the second rescue attempt believed that incoming President Ronald Reagan was involved in the planning and timing of the second rescue attempt, and that these intentions were either implied or made known to the de facto Iranian government, leading to the hostages' release just minutes after Reagan's inauguration.

Long Term effect

Some doubt the hostage crisis will have a long term effect on US-Iranian relations. Journalist Robert Kaplan argues that those who believe relations between the two countries "will never be restored because of the hostage crisis .... ignore history," and compares the hostage taking to a 19th century Iranian attack on the Russian embassy.
In 1829, ...
Iranians ... stormed and destroyed the Russian embassy and decapitated the Russian ambassador, Alexander Griboyedov.
But Russian-Iranian relations were eventually restored.
Who, now, even remembers the incident?


November 4, 1979 - January 20, 1981: 66 original captives, 63 taken at the Embassy, three captured and held at Foreign Ministry Office.

At least three of the hostages were operatives of the CIA.

Thirteen hostages were released from November 19-20, 1979, and one was released on July 11, 1980. Fifty-two remaining hostages endured 444 days of captivity until their release January 20, 1981.

Six diplomats who evaded capture

  • Robert Anders, 34 - Consular Officer
  • Mark J. Lijek, 29 - Consular Officer
  • Cora A. Lijek, 25 - Consular Assistant
  • Henry L. Schatz, 31 - Agriculture Attaché
  • Joseph D. Stafford, 29 - Consular Officer
  • Kathleen F. Stafford, 28 - Consular Assistant

13 hostages released

From November 19-20, 1979, thirteen women and men who had been captured and held hostage were released:
  • Kathy Gross, 22 - Secretary
  • Sgt. James Hughes, 30 - USAF Administrative Manager
  • Lillian Johnson, 32 - Secretary
  • Sgt. Ladell Maples, 23 - USMC Embassy Guard
  • Elizabeth Montagne, 42 - Secretary
  • Sgt. William Quarles, 23 - USMC Embassy Guard
  • Lloyd Rollins, 40 - Administrative Officer
  • Capt. Neal (Terry) Robinson, 30 - Administrative Officer
  • Terri Tedford, 24 - Secretary
  • Sgt. Joseph Vincent, 42 - USAF Administrative Manager
  • Sgt. David Walker, 25 - USMC Embassy guard
  • Joan Walsh, 33 - Secretary
  • Cpl. Wesley Williams, 24 - USMC Embassy Guard

Richard I. Queen released

On July 11. 1980, 28-year-old Vice Consul Richard I. Queen, who had been captured and held hostage, was released after becoming seriously ill. He was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (Died August 14, 2002.)

52 remaining hostages released

The following fifty-two remaining hostages were held captive until January 20, 1981.

  • Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., - Narcotics Control Officer (later identified as CIA station chief)
  • Clair Cortland Barnes, 35 - Communications Specialist
  • William E. Belk, 44 - Communications and Records Officer
  • Robert O. Blucker, 54 - Economics Officer Specializing in Oil (Died 4/3/2003)
  • Donald J. Cooke, 26 - Vice Consul
  • William J. Daugherty, 33 - 3rd Secretary of U.S. Mission
  • Lt. Cmdr. Robert Englemann, 34 - U.S. Navy Attaché
  • Sgt. William Gallegos, 22 - USMC Guard
  • Bruce W. German, 44 - Budget Officer
  • Duane L. Gillette, 24 - USN Communications and Intelligence Specialist
  • Alan B. Golacinski, 30 - Chief of Embassy Security
  • John E. Graves, 53 - Public Affairs Officer (Died 4/27/2001)
  • Joseph M. Hall, 32 - CWO Military Attaché
  • Sgt. Kevin J. Hermening, 21 - USMC Guard
  • Sgt. 1st Class Donald R. Hohman, 38 - U.S. Army Medic
  • Col. Lee J. Holland, 53 - Military Attaché (Died 10/2/1990)
  • Michael Howland, 34 - Assistant Chief of Security, held at Iranian Foreign Ministry Office
  • Charles A. Jones, Jr., 40 - Communications Specialist, Teletype Operator. (The only African American hostage not released in November 1979)
  • Malcolm Kalp, 42 - Commercial Officer (Died 4/7/2002)
  • Moorhead C. Kennedy Jr., 50 - Economic and Commercial Officer
  • William F. Keough, Jr., 50 - Superintendent of American School in Islamabadmarker, Pakistanmarker, visiting Tehran at time of embassy seizure (Died 11/27/1985)
  • Cpl. Steven W. Kirtley - USMC Guard
  • Capt. Eric M. Feldman, 24 - Military officer
  • Kathryn L. Koob, 42 - Embassy Cultural Officer; one of two female hostages
  • Frederick Lee Kupke, 34 - Communications Officer and Electronics Specialist
  • L. Bruce Laingen, 58 - Chargé d'Affaires, held at Iranian Foreign Ministry Office
  • Steven Lauterbach, 29 - Administrative Officer
  • Gary E. Lee, 37 - Administrative Officer
  • Sgt. Paul Edward Lewis, 23 - USMC Guard
  • John W. Limbert, Jr., 37 - Political Officer
  • Sgt. James M. Lopez, 22 - USMC Guard

  • Sgt. John D. McKeel, Jr., 27 - USMC Guard (Died 11/1/1991)
  • Michael J. Metrinko, 34 - Political Officer
  • Jerry J. Miele, 42 - Communications Officer
  • Staff Sgt. Michael E. Moeller, 31 - Head of USMC Guard Unit at Embassy
  • Bert C. Moore, 45 - Counselor for Administration (Died 6/8/2000)
  • Richard H. Morefield, 51 - U.S. Consul General in Tehran
  • Capt. Paul M. Needham, Jr., 30 - USAF Logistics Staff Officer
  • Robert C. Ode, 65 - Retired Foreign Service Officer on Temporary Duty in Tehran (Died 9/8/1995)
  • Sgt. Gregory A. Persinger, 23 - USMC Guard
  • Jerry Plotkin, 45 - civilian businessman visiting Tehran (Died 6/6/1996)
  • MSgt. Regis Ragan, 38 - US Army NCO assigned to Defense Attaché's Office
  • Lt. Col. David M. Roeder, 41 - Deputy USAF Attaché
  • Barry M. Rosen, 36 - Press Attaché
  • William B. Royer, Jr., 49 - Assistant Director of Iran-American Society
  • Col. Thomas E. Schaefer, 50 - USAF Attaché
  • Col. Charles W. Scott, 48 - US Army Officer, Military Attaché
  • Cmdr. Donald A. Sharer, 40 - USN Air Attaché
  • Sgt. Rodney V. (Rocky) Sickmann, 22 - USMC Guard
  • Staff Sgt. Joseph Subic, Jr., 23 - Military Police, US Army, Defense Attaché's Staff
  • Elizabeth Ann Swift, 40 - Chief of Embassy's Political Section; 1 of 2 female hostages (Died 5/7/2004)
  • Victor L. Tomseth, 39 - Senior Political Officer, held at Iranian Foreign Ministry Office
  • Phillip R. Ward, 40 - TDY Communications officer CIA, Assigned to Brandy Station, Va.

Servicemen awarded

For their service during the hostage crisis, the US military later awarded the 20 servicemen who were among the hostages the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. The only hostage serviceman not to be issued the medal was Staff Sgt. Joseph Subic, Jr. The reason given was that Subic "did not behave under stress the way noncommissioned officers are expected to act[33327]," i.e. he cooperated with the hostage takers according to other hostages.

For their part in the mission, the Humanitarian Service Medal was awarded to the servicemen of Joint Task Force (JTF) 1-79 (the planning authority for Operation Rice Bowl/Eagle Claw) who participated in the rescue attempt.

Also, the USAF special ops component of the mission was awarded the AF Outstanding Unit award for that year for performing their part of the mission flawlessly, to include accomplishing the evacuation of the entire Desert One site after the accident and under extreme conditions.

Civilian hostages

A small number of hostages were not connected to the diplomatic staff. All had been released by late 1981.

Notable hostage takers, guards, interrogators

See also


CNN- Former hostages allege Iran's new president was captor


Further reading

External links

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