The Politics of Hostage-Taking in Iran

by Mansour Farhang

The day that Iranian students attacked the U. S. embassy in Tehran— November 4, 1979—marks a durably contentious date in US–Iranian relations. Henry Kissinger once described Iran under the late Shah as “that rarest of things in international relations—an unconditional ally.” This rarity, however one wants to view it, led to the rise of anti-Americanism as a potent instrument of mass mobilization in Iran. In March 1979, an armed leftist group entered the US embassy compound and took ambassador William Sullivan and his staff captive. Ayatollah Khomeini did not support the attack. As a result, Ebrahim Yazdi, then deputy premier in the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan, managed to end the incident peacefully. According to Sullivan, after the embassy personnel were freed, Yazdi “made a rather eloquent little statement assuring us that we would be afforded full protection in the future. He stressed that the government was not ill disposed toward the U.S., but we would have different relations than we had had under the Shah.”

During the nine months of Bazargan’s premiership, from February to November 1979, President Jimmy Carter faced the question of whether to admit the Shah to the United States for medical treatment. According to Carter’s chief-of-staff Hamilton Jordan, when the Shah’s request was under consideration, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told the president, “whatever chance existed for establishing relations with the new government would surely be destroyed if the Shah came to the States.” L. Bruce Laingen, the US chargé d’affaires in Tehran, went so far as to warn, in a memo dated August 16, 1979, that the admission of the Shah to the United States could lead to the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran.

The message was not lost on President Carter. After reluctantly acceding to the pressure to allow in the Shah he addressed his aides in the Oval Office: “What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage.”

The pressure on President Carter to approve the move was persistent. He writes in Keeping Faith:

Henry Kissinger called to ask me to let the Shah to come to the United States. David Rockefeller came to visit, apparently to try to induce me to let the Shah come into our country. Rockefeller, Kissinger and my national Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, seemed to be doing this as a joint project…A vocal group of the Shah’s advocates approached Vance and Brzezinski repeatedly and on occasion appealed directly to me. They had an ally in Zbig, but could not convince Cy or me…Some were merely representing the Shah’s interests, while others, like Zbig, thought we must show our strength and loyalty to an old friend even if it meant personal danger to a group of very vulnerable Americans.

In his memoir Power and Principle, Brzezinski writes, “in late July 1979, I was called by both Kissinger and [James R.] Schlesinger, who urged me to promote a reconsideration of our position on the Shah, Kissinger in his subtle fashion linked his willingness to support us on SALT to a more forthcoming attitude on our part regarding the Shah.” In reply to a researcher’s inquiry concerning Brzezinski’s contention, Kissinger denies the charge and maintains that the claim “is a reflection of his [Brzezinski’s] biased perception and not of fact.”

Regardless of the pressures or incentives that finally persuaded Carter to allow the Shah to enter the United States on October 22, 1979, the president was oblivious to the consequences of the decision either for Iran’s domestic politics or for the future of US- Iranian relations. The next day, in a lecture at the Feizieh Theology School in Qum, Ayatollah Khoneini made a brief reference to the event, saying: “I have been told Mohammed Reza has been admitted to the United States because he is stricken with cancer. I hope it is true.” He said or implied nothing to provoke the public to act against US diplomatic presence in Iran.

Embassy Seizure

Immediately following the Shah’s admission to the United States, radical leftists, particularly from the Tudeh (Communist) Party, organized street demonstrations in front of the American embassy. The rapid expansion of these demonstrations deeply worried Khomeini and his clerical lieutenants. This was the first time since the fall of the Shah that far-left groups were seizing the initiative in a major public mobilization. In response, a group of Islamist students, supported by security forces, seized the US embassy compound on November 4, 1979, took the diplomatic personnel hostage, and demanded the extradition of the Shah to Iran. Once the holding of US diplomatic personnel became a major crisis for America and television camera crews from around the world came to Tehran to cover the story, Khomeini shrewdly described the seizure of the embassy as “the second revolution,” the first one being the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy.

The first act of the officially sanctioned occupiers of the embassy—or “students following the Imam’s line” as they called themselves—was to expel the leftist individuals from the embassy compound and “purify” the occupation. The Tudeh (Communist) Party leaders, following the Soviet line, saw the US-Iranian confrontation as a positive development and, thus, did their best to prolong it. They even called for a public trial of American diplomats. By the time the far left leaders came to realize how they had dug their own grave, they were on their way to prison, firing squad, or exile.

Khomeini and his lieutenants used anti-Americanism to mobilize the mass public in a far more effective way than the leftists could ever do. In the comparative anti-American vocabularies in post-revolutionary Iran—Marxist Leninist vs. Islamist—the leftists focused on class and economic issues, while the Islamists primarily attacked America as the main promoter of modern or Western norms in the socio-cultural realms.

Intended and Unintended Consequences

From the beginning of the attack on the US embassy, many knowledgeable Iranians who were themselves critics of US policy toward Iran warned the authorities about the destructive consequences of the confrontation for the country’s security and economic well-being. The Carter administration’s economic and diplomatic sanctions were quite damaging to Iran’s economy. In March 1981, the estimated financial loss to Iran exceeded $10 billion. The freezing of Iranian assets in US banks brought so many lawsuits against Iran that, at least until the release of the hostages in January 1981, the Iranian government had to pay an average of $500,000 a month to American lawyers defending it in its disputes with US companies.

Ali-Asghar Hai-Said-Javadi, a popular writer and human rights activist, in an article entitled “The Artillery That Shoots Lies,” likened the keeping of the hostages to a rope around the neck of Iran. He courageously argued that the longer the crisis continued, the tighter the rope would become. Such warnings had limited impact on Khomeini and his lieutenants because they could use the political and psychological consequences of the episode to impose their hegemonic control on the Iranian state and society. In fact, they were quick to use the external pressure on the country to promote the xenophobic tendencies of their supporters.

An ironic consequence of the hostage crisis was the convergence of interests between the Islamists in Iran and the Reagan-Bush campaign team in the United States, for they both took advantage of the episode to advance their own respective agendas. Thus, it was not at all strange that the hostages were released on the same day that Ronald Reagan assumed office. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fixation on humiliating President Carter facilitated the effort by the Reagan-Bush campaign team to portray the Carter administration as weak and incompetent. In fall 1980 Iranian representatives in the negotiations with Carter’s envoy Warren Christopher undoubtedly used delaying tactics to make sure that no agreement was completed before the November 6 presidential election in the United States. Khomeini’s determination to defeat President Carter made no sense in terms of Iran’s national interests, but it certainly enhanced the Ayatollah’s image and credibility among his admirers, not only in Iran but also in the Arab streets.

Mansour Farhang, a retired professor of international relations at Bennington College, was revolutionary Iran’s first ambassador to the United Nations but left Iran as a dissident in 1981.

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  1. Thank you Mr.Farhang. But no mention was made of the role of the leftist Islamists like Mr. Khoeiniha , Mojahedin Enghelab Islami… “independent” lefts Farrokh Negahdar….. and the Russians slipping into Afghanistan 74 days later ,when the weak Carter administration was hopelessly debacled with the Embassy fiasco…..???!
    In mentioning the consequences of the pointless and disastrous hostage taking Iranian losses i.e. 8 years of Iran-Iraq War , blockades and boycotts …… should also be dealt with.
    Mr.Farhang,with all due respect, have not made an analysis of the incident.

  2. Hints made at the unintended consequences of the hostage taking in 1979 miss the point that due to the loss of its headquarter in Tehran the CIA encountered great ‘intelligence problems’ for years to come and that possibly saved the Revolution. As the communications between the US ambassador in Tehran and Brzezinski reveal, Americans were naively thinking of having another 1953 ‘military coup’. And there is no reason to believe they would not have tried that since Iran’s post 1979 anti-American policies and the American hostilities would not have been much different in a long run given Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionary values that entirely attacked the American values and its Zionist partner – even to date after over three decades the Iranian leadership, as principles, still pledge their unflinching denunciation of the American values.

    The Islamists’ takeover of the Embassy in order to take the initiative also had a great popular support; many Iranians had lost their loved ones not just during the Revolution but inside the Shah’s prisons; the Shah had fled but his guru that had brought him to power and trained his ruthless secret police were within reach and it was the time of reckoning. It was the unbounded anger and frustration at the US interference, its puppet and official henchmen that had first brought millions out onto the streets; and without attacking the ‘symbol’ of American power the popular Revolutionary mood could not feel fulfilled; it was the same violence that for years Fanon and Sartre had recognised and advocated, the slave’s violence against his master, the imperative confrontation that would empower the slave in his negation of the master and his values in their entirety – hence it was vital for Iranians to regain their lost integrity, lost over three decades, regardless of the costs, and Khomeini had finally understood that symbolic act; and the Islamist students took credit for it.

    After all it was an anti-Imperialism Revolution, not a goodbye party!

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