November 4 marked the 35th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. For the ensuing 444 days, the hostage crisis was at the top of international news. U.S. news programs often started and ended their coverage with a daily count of the days since the start of the hostage crisis with titles like “America Held Hostage.”
Prior to that event, the Iranian provisional government, led by Mehdi Bazargan, had been attempting to re-establish good relations with the United States. President Carter had hoped to build a strategic anti-communist alliance with the new Iranian state. Given the strong anti-communist character of all the factions of the Iranian government and the conciliatory tendency of the Bazargan administration, this was not an entirely unrealistic expectation. But the hostage crisis made a rapprochement between the two countries impossible. U.S. policy towards Iran effectively became one of “regime change,” which continues to this day.
25 Years of tyranny
The roots of the hostage crisis can be found in the Shah’s dictatorship in the quarter century leading up to the revolution. The U.S. government has propped up right-wing dictators and criminal states all over the world. But the Shah was not just armed and supported by the U.S. He had been installed into power by the U.S.
Prior to 1953, Iran had a vibrant parliamentary system. Shah (Farsi for King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was a constitutional monarch with a ceremonial role. But in the early 1950s, a strong communist-led movement arose demanding the nationalization of oil, which was being stolen by the British Anglo-Persian Oil Company oil. It is said that Anglo-Persian paid more in taxes to the British government than it paid Iran for the oil.
Following the election of nationalist Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh as prime minister, the government nationalized the oil. The British and the U.S. promptly imposed sanctions on Iran. But Mosaddegh survived the crisis and shut down the British Embassy. Then, in the largest operation of its kind to date, through operation Ajax, the CIA overthrew Mosaddegh and installed the Shah as an absolute monarch.
From 1953 to the 1979 revolution, the Shah’s government ruthlessly repressed all opposition forces, leftists, nationalists and Islamists. The Shah’s dreaded secret service, the SAVAK, trained and equipped by the CIA and the Israeli Mossad, routinely used torture and execution of political activists. Iran was a loyal client state for the U.S. And, of course, successive U.S. administrations backed the Shah. Emblematic of this support was President Jimmy Carter traveling to Iran in January 1978, toasting the Shah and calling Iran “an island of stability.”
Revolution in 1979
Over a year of mass protests and widespread strikes led to the overthrow of the client state. After the Shah fled Iran, the U.S. embassy stayed open but the staff was drastically reduced from a high of nearly 1,000 down to about 80. The embassy was much more than an office staffed by civil servants simply processing paperwork and issuing visas. In fact, the U.S. embassy in Tehran was effectively the command headquarters of the country, through which Washington issued its dictates to the Shah. The Shah would not make any major decisions without Washington’s approval. U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan writes about how, to the very end, the Shah was still looking to him for answers on how to react to the revolution.
The Embassy takeover
Days after the overthrow of the Shah, the U.S. embassy was occupied by the Fedayeen guerillas, a Marxist group that had waged an armed struggle against the Shah. But the new government intervened and gave the embassy back to U.S. officials within three hours.
On October. 22, 1979, the Shah traveled to the U.S., purportedly seeking medical treatment for lymphoma. He had been offered medical services by Switzerland, but he preferred to live in the U.S., where he must have felt safer under the protection of his longtime master. The Shah’s entry into the U.S. angered the Iranian people, who rightly considered the U.S. responsible for the Shah’s crimes.
On Nov. 4, a group of students that called themselves “Muslim Student Followers of Imam’s line,” took over the U.S. Embassy. The group’s main demand was that the U.S. return the Shah to Iran to stand trial for his crimes. The group’s other demands included an apology from the U.S. government for the overthrow of Prime Minster Mosaddegh and the releasing of Iran’s frozen assets in the U.S. The students’ initial objective was to gain worldwide publicity for its protest, as stated by one of the organizers: “Announcing our objections from within the occupied compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way.”The Carter administration’s response: “The United States will not yield to blackmail.”
The unwillingness of the Carter administration to offer even symbolic concessions, and subsequent developments within Iran and internationally, turned what was planned to be a short protest into an international crisis that was to last for over a year.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s revolution, had no advance knowledge of the U.S. embassy seizure plans. But, once the event took place, he soon embraced and supported it. The takeover of the embassy and Khomeini’s support left the provisional government with little room to maneuver. The government was not only opposed to the embassy takeover but in favor of expanding relations with the West. Just days later, Bazargan’s government was forced to resign.
Shortly after the embassy takeover, the students released women and African American personnel, citing solidarity with “oppressed minorities.” Another hostage, Richard Queen, was released in 1980 due to health problems. The remaining 52 hostages remained in captivity for 444 days.
On April 24, 1980, the Carter administration attempted a rescue. But Operation Eagle Claw was aborted after a helicopter crashed into a tanker aircraft in the middle of a sand storm in a desert in Iran, killing eight service members. A second planned rescue attempt was never carried out.
The hostages were released into U.S. custody on Jan. 20, 1980, at the very same time that newly elected U.S. President Ronald Reagan was being sworn into office. The timing of the release has given rise to speculation that Reagan might have negotiated with Iranian officials. Gary Sick, senior member of President Carter’s National Security Council, claims in his book, October Surprise, that William Casey and possibly George H.W. Bush went to Paris on behalf of Reagan to delay the release. Years later, the Iran-Contra Affair was a documented case of Reagan negotiating in secret with the Islamic Republic of Iran to by-pass Congress to continue funding the criminal Contras in Nicaragua. On the Iranian side, to this day, a key factor dividing the different factions of government has been whether or not to try to re-establish relations with the United States and how much concessions to give. Former president Rafsanjani and various political forces associated with him, including former president Khatami and the current president Rouhani, are for reaching a compromise with the U.S.
The nuclear negotiations
As the Obama administration is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, it is important to understand that these are not negotiations between forces of equal strength. The negotiations are about imperialist powers attempting to force their will on an oppressed country through the use of economic sanctions and the threat of military action.
It is unclear whether an agreement will be reached. What is clear is that the terms offered Iran are a reflection of imperialist foreign policy. With thousands of nuclear weapons of its own, the U.S. and its allies are imposing severe restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program for suspicions that it may one day have a military component.
The hostage crisis was the historic reaction of an oppressed nation to being forced to live under the terror of a U.S. client for a quarter century. The same imperialist interests that motivated the engineering of the 1953 CIA coup are motivating the drive to weaken or overthrow the Iranian state today.