United States President Donald Trump has threatened to hit “very hard” 52 targets in Iran as revenge for the same number of Americans taken hostage by Iran “many years ago”. Trump posted on Twitter: “Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago)…”
The incident Trump is talking about happened a little over 40 years ago — in November 1979 — and lasted for a full 444 days.
It was the most consequential event of its kind in recent decades — along with the 2012 assault on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, in which the American ambassador and a foreign service officer was killed.
It put the relationship between the US and Iran in a fundamentally hostile cast, the echoes of which continue to reverberate today.
So what exactly happened in 1979?
On November 4, 1979, youth followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling themselves ‘Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line’ smashed through the gates of the US embassy in Tehran, and seized the compound and the 63 American citizens present on the premises.
Another three US diplomats were seized at the Foreign Ministry, taking the number of Americans seized to 66.
But why did the Iranians attack the US embassy? There was a historical context going back years. A short recap:
The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been installed and kept in power by Western powers led by the US and the UK, had been a close American ally for decades.
Under him, Iran served as the West’s bulwark against communist Soviet Union, and the autocratic Shah energetically pursued Western style modernisation in the country, including the suppression of religious groups.
As public anger against the Shah peaked, the sprawling US embassy compound became, from the last months of 1978 onward, the scene of large protests by Iranians who perceived the US as his primary benefactor.
On January 16, 1979, the Shah fled Iran for Egypt, and on February 1, Ayatollah Khomeini made a triumphant return to his country after 15 years in exile.
On October 22, the deposed Shah arrived in the US for medical treatment, triggering an eruption of anger on the Iranian street, which ultimately resulted in the storming of the embassy on November 4 of that year.
What happened after the embassy was stormed?
Initial negotiations by representatives of President Jimmy Carter and diplomats of other countries in Iran made no headway. The mood in the country was virulently anti-American, and the fate of the hostages was also caught in a tussle between rival revolutionary factions.
Mehdi Bazargan, who had been appointed Prime Minister by Khomeini, resigned on November 6.
The US refused to accept the hostage takers’ key demand for the return of the Shah — and instead stopped buying Iranian oil, froze Iranian assets in America, lobbied with other countries and in the United Nations, and took Iran to the International Court of Justice (where it ultimately won).
Meanwhile, on November 17, about two weeks after the embassy was stormed, the Iranians released 13 women and African American hostages. That brought the number of hostages down to 53.
On July 11, 1980, another hostage who had fallen very ill, was let go. But the remaining 52 were put under even closer scrutiny. Iran moved them to a more secure location, and clamped down severely on their movements.
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Were any attempts made to rescue the hostages?
Yes, and it was botched spectacularly, after which the situation became even more tense.
On April 24, 1980, US forces made an extremely risky attempt to fly the hostages out of Tehran. But the attempt failed tragically after three of the eight helicopters on the mission malfunctioned, and a fourth was involved in an accident as the US forces sought to withdraw hastily.
Eight American soldiers were killed, and Iran showed their bodies on TV, to the Carter administration’s great humiliation.
Another rescue mission involving another group of diplomats — separate from the 52 hostages — however, succeeded, and has been since become the stuff of legend.
Six American diplomats who had escaped being taken hostage at the embassy on November 4, 1979, had been sheltered by the senior Canadian diplomat John Sheardown and his wife at great personal risk.
On January 28, 1980, this group made a dramatic escape along with two CIA operatives on board a Swissair flight to Zurich. Their story was fictionalised in ‘Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper’ (1981) and the Oscar-winning ‘Argo’ (2012).
How did the crisis finally end?
Iran released the 52 hostages unharmed on January 20, 1981. This was the same day that President Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new President of the United States.
There is a story, part of the US Republican Party’s unofficial mythmaking, that the Iranians, who had contempt for the “weak” Carter, buckled as soon as a Republican President took office. This story has been used to peddle the “strong” US policy line that Iran understands only “tough” language, and that negotiating with Tehran is pointless.
However, the “boring and emotionally unsatisfying truth”, as a January 2016 explainer in ‘Vox’ said, was that “the Carter administration secured the Americans’ release through protracted negotiations — and by releasing millions of dollars to the Iranian government”.
Carter kept at negotiations until literally the last day of his presidency — and on January 19, 1981, Washington and Tehran signed what are known as the ‘Algiers Accords’, a set of two agreements (comprising the ‘General Declaration’ and the ‘Claims Settlement Declaration’) to resolve the crisis.
The agreement was brokered by the Algerian government of Prime Minister Mohammed ben Ahmed Abdelghani, with the chief mediating role played by Foreign Minister Mohammed Benyahia. The main negotiator on the American side was Carter’s Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher (who went on to serve as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State from 1993 to 1997).
Among the concessions offered to Iran were relief from some sanctions and release of some frozen Iranian assets, and the setting up (on January 19, 1981) of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal “to decide claims of United States nationals against Iran and of Iranian nationals against the United States…; certain ‘official claims’ between the two Governments relating to the purchase and sale of goods and services; disputes between the two Governments concerning the interpretation or performance of the Algiers Declarations; and certain claims between United States and Iranian banking institutions”.
The hostages were released the day after the signing of the Algiers Accords, and were flown from Tehran to Algeria, and then onward to West Germany and ultimately, to the US.
What impact did the 444-day crisis have?
That Trump should continue to invoke the crisis to threaten Iran four decades on, shows the deep scars it left.
Days earlier, on December 31, as several dozen protesters stormed the US embassy compound in Baghdad, escalating the ongoing crisis that led to the killing of Gen Qassem Soleimani by the US, John R Bolton, who was the US National Security Adviser until September 2019, posted on Twitter: “The attack on the US embassy in Baghdad is straight from Iran’s playbook in 1979…”
The embassy seige, a seminal event of the Islamic Revolution, cemented the perception of the ayatollahs’ regime as being intractably fundamentalist and anti-West, and has ever since been at the heart of the US narrative of Iran as a rogue outlier that has no respect for internationally accepted principles law, morality, or human rights.
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