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‘Death to America’: What happened in Tehran on November 4, 1979?

What caused the US embassy crisis 40 years ago, what unfolded in the months that followed, and what was the response in India to Iran's revolution?

Written by Om Marathe , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: November 5, 2019 7:09:06 am
Iran, Iran protest, us embassy takepover, anti us protest, tehran , tehran news, Iran news, Express Explained, indian express Iranian protesters attend an anti-US demonstration, marking the 40th anniversary of the US embassy takeover, near the old US embassy in Tehran, Iran, Monday. (Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS)

On this day (November 4) 40 years ago, militants in Iran overran the US embassy in Tehran and took dozens of Americans hostage. They held the Americans in captivity for more than 14 months, and in 1980, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran.

On Monday, Iranians marked the anniversary of that event, rallying outside the former embassy building, raising anti-American slogans, and displaying effigies mocking President Donald Trump.

What caused the US embassy crisis 40 years ago, what unfolded in the months that followed, and what was the response in India to Iran’s revolution?

The 1979 Iranian Revolution

In February 1979, the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was toppled by opposition forces aligned with the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The 1978-79 Islamic Revolution brought Iran’s monarchy to an end, and replaced it with the Islamic Republic.

While the Shah was praised in the West for his modernising reforms, he was blamed in Iran for the use of autocratic methods, and for not doing enough to reduce economic inequality.

While Ayatollah Khomeini was stridently against the US, anger against America had simmered in Iran from long before the Islamic Revolution. The CIA and the United Kingdom’s MI6 had collaborated to orchestrate the coup in which the popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, considered by many to stand firmly for secular values and opposition to Western interference in Iranian affairs, was overthrown in 1953.

Mosaddegh was succeeded by the leader of the coup d’état (known as the 28 Mordad coup), General Fazlollah Zahedi, a political change that had the effect of strengthening the monarchical rule of the Shah.

The storming of the US embassy

The Shah fled Iran in January 1979, before the return of Khomeini from political exile on February 1 of that year. The Shah hopped from country to country, looking for a safe haven.

In October of that year, it was reported that the Shah was undergoing treatment in the US after being allowed entry by the administration of President Jimmy Carter. All hell broke loose in Iran.

On November 4, students who had initially planned a sit-in at the embassy, forced a takeover of the premises, taking 98 Americans hostage. A few hostages managed to escape from the scene, and were able to leave Iran with the help of Canada’s ambassador. This escape was the subject of the multiple Oscar-winning 2012 film, ‘Argo’.

The students demanded the return of the deposed Shah, who at the time was being treated at a New York hospital. They were endorsed by Ayatollah Khomeini, who hoped to exploit the popularity of the takeover to expand his regime’s power.

From November 4, 1979, the hostages remained in Iran for 444 days, until January 20, 1981.

In the first week of their detention, the Iranian militants claimed that the US diplomatic personnel were members of an “espionage unit”. In mid-November, Khomeini ordered the release of women and black hostages, as well as some non-Americans.

In April 1980, the US announced that it had unsuccessfully tried to rescue the detainees in a military operation. Iran displayed the remains of the dead American soldiers at the embassy compound, much to global chagrin.

The remaining 52 hostages were finally released after an agreement was reached between Iran and the US at the beginning of 1981.

The response in India to the Iranian Revolution

The Revolution was generally positively received in India.

On February 13, 1979, The Indian Express reported a message by then Prime Minister Morarji Desai to Ayatollah Khomeini saying, “The people of India and Iran are linked by age old friendship rooted in history and culture, and a prosperous Iran is a guarantee for the peace and stability of the entire region.”

Then Minister for External Affairs Atal Bihari Vajpayee told Lok Sabha, “We are waiting for the day when we can welcome Iran in the Non-Aligned Movement. These developments in Iran were positive.”

D P Singh, a Rajya Sabha member from the Congress, said, “We recognize that the revolution in Iran under the inspiring leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini is motivated by high ideals of freeing this great and ancient country of Iran from the tentacles of American imperialism. We have no doubt that the government of Iran will consistently defend the gains of its revolution and not barter it away. It is therefore normal and natural for us in India to view with sympathy and support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom, for equality and a new economic order at home and abroad.”

The Communist Party of India (CPI) described the events in Iran as a blow to US imperialism and passed a resolution in support, The Indian Express reported in February 1979.

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