Revisit at Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979

Revisit at Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979


The crisis began in what was then termed an Iranian revolution being driven by extremists Islamic students who seized and took charge of the American embassy in Tehran armed as militants in November 4th of 1979 keeping sixty-six as captives. This supposedly little intentions turned out to be the longest trail of negotiations between the two nations. The hostage included three other Americans trapped at the Iranian Foreign ministry.

History into the anti-American quest

It happened that after the second world-war, the Americans and the Russians had developed some positive relations with the Shah, Reza, after his refusal to allow the Germans to use the Iranian boundary as a transit path and also as supply of the immense fuel needs of their opponent, the Germans. After the cooperation of the Shah as neutral in the war and the invasion of the territory with the war partners, the British and the Russians, Winston Churchill was optimistic to have declared Iran the Bridge of Victory.

The democratic government of Iran was later followed by a coup d’état, the joint partners of war helped rebel forces to overthrow the democratically chosen leader and restore the Shah as the Supreme Leader of Iran and also an absolute monarchy. When the then sitting president of America , Jimmy Carter, announced on the television on the Year’s openings of 1979 that the Shah was popular among Iranians, the Iranians were detested; knowing the Shah was an impostor on the reign. In February the same year the Shah and his rule had been overtaken by the revolutionary forces.The revolutionary Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini who had been exiled for 15 years by the Shah intensified the hatred by calling America “the great Satan” and claiming the Shah had held the country hostage since 1953.

The Americans tried to soften the hatred by engaging in military assistance with the existing de facto leadership. The height of the hatred was at peak when in 22nd October of 1979 the Shah was admitted in Mayo clinic in America of cancer despite warnings and cautions by the Carter administration of America. Rumors and speculations took over of an American plot which deepened the hatred.

Plot to the seizure

                The seizure was initially planned by the student leaders of Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s line in September of the same year. There were two sides all with the same idea of seizure but different targets. A group led by Ebrahim Asgharzadez supported by other two student leaders agreed to take over the US embassy and air their objectives and grievances from the embassy would give their voices a global outlook and that they would heard louder than if they are aired from somewhere else.

The group, Student Followers of the Imam’s Line had organized about 500 to storm the embassy and occupy it for some hours announce their objectives against the Americans and then leave. They exercised their plot at 6.30 a.m. of 4th November; they gave a female student a cutter to cut the chain on the gate. As it became clear the security forces could not use deadly arm against the protesters, those who had fled at the brandishing of fire arms returned. Not before long the occupiers had changed, the students were being replaced by a new group of protesters who arrived in buses. As the exiled Ayatollah declared his support for the seizure and as it got popular, the plan to hold the hostages only for a few days changed to a few weeks, later months yet no one could predict it could take more than a year. This was possibly because Carter was sluggard to respond or issue the anticipated ultimatum.

The objectives of the students were that America to deport the Shah for prosecution back home and probable hanging. Next was America to apologize for the overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister in 1953 and for interfering with internal affairs of Iranian people. Carter’s administration was also expected to release Iranian frozen assets which could amount to $8billion.

The negotiations

                The first plot to negotiations was, by Hector Villalon and Christian Bourget, the US issuing a report on requests sent to Panama to have Shah Reza delivered back home; which later emerged as cover up for other concealed negotiations.

                Later President Bani-Sadr increased demands also requiring President Carter to desist using inflammatory remarks when Carter threatened to increase sanctions.

                In April of 1980 the US government had tried without positive results to have the hostages transferred into hands of Iranian government forces but the government which had later distanced itself from the seizure took charge by increasing the demands.

                On April 24, Carter’s administration had arranged for a secret rescue mission of the hostages which was encountered by failure after a sand storm in the Iranian desert damaged the engines of the helicopters resulting in the collision of two choppers, the death of eight marines with four being airlifted to medical treatment. The operation Eagle Claw had failed. This was the surprise pounce-on-prey kind of operation, with similar expectations like the successful Israeli raid on Entebbe Airport.

The Iraq invasion into Iran in September 22nd of 1980 could later have a channel in influencing the pace of finding solution. Also the death of the Shah in the same year made things to look different.

Iran having seen the change in American leadership, by Reagan defeating Carter in elections, decided to lower their demands from $24billion dollars to the $8billion on frozen assets and uplifting of the trade sanctions set by US.

In the inauguration day of January 1920, Iran agreed to release the hostages after the US agreed to the lessened demands above. The hostages were flown to German where retired President Carter flew as an emissary to greet them as they alighted from the plane. 444 days had elapsed.



Negotiating approaches

Hard and soft bargaining

The hard bargaining usually emerges first in a majority of cases where the disputing sides each tries to express the value they hold on their side which the other requires. Carter’s administration was the second in this approach by freezing a value $8 billion worth of assets, withdraw further oil imports from Iran and to expel Iranian nationals from America. The aggressor being the first to hold sixty-six Americans as hostages and demand that their demands is met before the release of the hostages. Here already there exists a scale and a balance of value and worth. Each side wants to gain or remain the same and each secures all doors of negotiations to avoid being tricked or emerging out of negotiations empty handed. It is such concerns that could have led US government not to respond to demands for the other may respond by increasing demands instead of releasing the hostages. The US government may itself promise what it does not intend to fulfill; thus the stagnancy. In this instance we had the hard bargaining because these sides were adversaries and had tensions piling up over two decades’ period. Each side tries to apply pressure to make the other agree to its demands. In this approach each sides goal is to defeat the opponent.


Human rights become the next concern in the negotiations; the US government expresses its concern about the living conditions of hostages below which they could be termed as inhumane and perpetrators of such could be prosecuted in ICC at The Hague. In the Iranian hostage crisis there were reports of the hostages being ill-treated; some beaten, unhygienic conditions, sharing limited space, embarrassment and worry to be displayed blindfolded in front of angry and yelling crowds. On the negotiating table emerge such concerns as bodily harm and emotional suffering the captives were going through. In some other cases the side holding the hostages could mistreat the hostages to reduce the time on their response. In the Iranian case the hosts gave a different picture and information concerning the hostages living conditions; that they were treated kindly while there were reports of some attempting suicide. In this case the hosts gave the report of good humanitarian conditions so as to be allowed a longer holding of the hostages until their demands are met without international pressure and urgency to have the hostages released.


Interest based

Both groups have special interests which they would need to hedge against the stalemate. In this approach the sides separate themselves from the objects only interests are considered. As of the case in the Iranian crisis, the Americans recognized oil imports from Iran, their assets and nationals in America as major points to feel the constraint. The Iranians recognized how much basic human needs are in determining the course of the negotiations and to everything to bring out a good report on the treatment of hostages including false report. The negotiations were hastened when Iraq threatened to invade Iran while Russia had already started an offensive in the neighboring Afghanistan. Then the two sides thereby realized their new common interests. The wars could do a quick save for the hostages. At first the Iranian government had separated itself from the seizure while later adding to the existing demands.

Sticking to principles

The concerned sides separate their interests from the subjects bringing their divergent emotions, views, values and misunderstandings into a compilation where they consider the outcome which should leave both sides relieved. Understanding the position and emotions on your side and that on the other side become key to progress. The case could have been different if Carter’s administration would have responded with an apology to soften the rugged feelings on the other side. But at that moment the demands for apology were termed as unconceivable by the US administration. Acknowledging the voices on the other is necessary and important. Inventing options and brainstorming for alternatives could lead to relieving outcomes and sort of a win-win situation.


                Americans learnt that it is not safe to rely on external sources and allies for information but rather develop its own intelligence to gather information. In that same year before the hostage the American embassy had reduced its personnel in the embassy from about a1000 to less than 100. None could expect that kind of rage from Iranians otherwise they could have shut it completely. The state was calm since a similar case had occurred in the same country the same embassy the other year and it did not last long while emotions in the country had piled up. There was resentment over Americans taking over Iran in businesses and jobs.

Seemingly weak or small countries have a tendency to feel the urge for revenge or get even especially in cases where they feel they have been humiliated or injured, according to Farber, David. In this case the Iranians felt the Americans and international forces had their influence in toppling the government in 1953 by Operation Ajax and replacing it with that of the Shah. Some historical events may seem small to America but significant to these nations.

Americans understood that their values, principles and beliefs cannot be practiced uniformly all over the world and neither can they be enforced. We must accept divergent views, cultures and aspirations of different nations. America restored the Shah because they supported his secular modernization.

The effects of the media can also be reinstated in that by the media in America elaborating Iran as evil and irrational the attempts of Carter to negotiate were weakened as public wanted force and hard bargaining. The government can invite for a more positive media response to crisis and it is happening. There is the “mirror image” where the masses consider the other side the opposite to herself and the two leaders Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini had limited negotiating options. Pamela Johnston 1980, Kentucky University.



Mirror images in Americans’ perception of nations and leaders, Journal of Peace Research, no.4,vol xvii,1980.

Farber, David. Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005. 212pp.

este, Karen, Negotiating with Terrorists: The U.S.-Iran Hostage Crisis (2005). IACM 18th Annual Conference. Available at SSRN:


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