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When a group of Iranian students from an organization called “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line,” on their own volition though possibly with the approval of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stormed the American embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and took 66 US citizens hostage, I doubt anybody involved fully realized what was about to ensue. Thirteen of those hostages would be released within three weeks, and another in July 1980 after he’d fallen quite ill, but 52 hostages remained in the custody of those students-militants-hostage takers for 444 days, only being freed in January 1981. You can’t make a lot of sweeping pronouncements about the importance of any particular event after only a few decades, not in a general world historical sense. But this is an event that shaped the course of the Iranian revolution, impacted a US presidential race, helped cause a major Middle Eastern war, and is one of the key factors that have influenced US-Iranian relations over those 36 years.
It even launched Ted Koppel’s career, for whatever that’s worth.
It is accepted wisdom among some elements of the US foreign policy establishment that the hostage crisis was an attack by “Iran” on “the United States” and even a “declaration of war on diplomacy itself.” The Iranian chant “Death to America” (which Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has argued doesn't actually mean “death to America”) and Tehran’s favorite description of the United States as “the Great Satan” both hail from around this time, and it all sort of telescopes into the notion that the Iranian revolution was All About Us, that it was officially, fundamentally anti-American, and that the United States is the aggrieved party in this relationship. Unsurprisingly, the truth is much more complicated than that.
When it began, the Iranian revolution wasn't necessarily “Islamic,” at least not in the way we understand that term in hindsight. We don't tend to look back at pre-revolution Iran here in the United States because that would complicate our very simplistic view of Iran today. But you have to understand that, by 1979, hatred of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was pretty broad-based. It certainly wasn't confined to the religious establishment.
In the decades following the 1953 coup that ousted the Mosaddegh government, the shah had run the country in an increasingly autocratic, arbitrary fashion. He was hated for his extravagance (crowning himself “emperor” in 1967, for example), his disdain for Islamic tradition (he heavily emphasized Iran’s pre-Islamic Persian history), his corruption (he was worth an estimated $1 billion at the time of his exile, and his family had pilfered far more than that), his political repression (eliminating political parties in 1975), and, above all, his brutal SAVAK secret police. His attempts at “reform” hit landowners hard but failed to benefit the lower classes in Iranian society, and so they just wound up alienating all concerned. Iran’s oil revenues skyrocketed in the early 1970s, but the benefits accrued to the very top of society, which then created an inflationary trend that dramatically increased the cost of living for everybody else. He made enemies of secular moderates, traditionalists, leftists, and Islamists of all stripes.
Let me digress for a couple of paragraphs here. When the students initially seized the embassy, you might have found a lot of sympathy from many corners of Iranian society for their motive, which was to force the United States to send the Shah back to Iran to stand trial. While it wasn’t the main or even a cause of the revolution, anti-American sentiment in Iran was high, with many still remembering the 1953 coup and many more resenting US support for the Shah and his abusive regime. Yes, there were people involved in the revolution who wanted to maintain friendly ties with the US and the West because they felt that would be better for Iran, but most Iranians probably felt some level of resentment toward Washington. Seeing the exiled Shah wind up in the US would have just exacerbated those feelings. It should be noted, while we’re on the subject of resentments and bad feelings, that there was a group of students who proposed simultaneously seizing the Soviet embassy. Iran had historically been at odds with the USSR and before that the Russian Empire, and Islamist revolutionaries despised the USSR's Marxist/atheist ethos.
However, although I don’t do this very often in this case I think we do need to give the United States government the benefit of the doubt. The perception that the Shah had found refuge with his pals the Americans was exaggerated. After he’d been forced to leave Iran in January 1979, the Shah had gone to Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas (where he’d tried to buy an island but was turned down) and Mexico, looking for a permanent home. He traveled to America in October in need of medical care for his lymphoma and surgery to treat his gallstones, and then-President Jimmy Carter made it very clear that, despite the fact that the Shah had once been a close ally, he would not be permanently welcome in the US. Carter wasn’t terribly keen on letting him in even for the medical treatment, but his advisers convinced him otherwise. And, indeed, the Shah left the US as soon as his doctors said it was OK for him to do so. Washington was not, in this case, offering its corrupt, authoritarian pal sanctuary.
We should also note here that the US embassy had already been stormed once, by Marxist revolutionaries in February, well before anybody knew where the Shah was going to wind up. Moreover, the students who seized it in November started planning their operation in September, still before the Shah set foot in the US. Forcing the US to return their hated ex-ruler may have wound up as the justification for the hostage-taking, but it's problematic to cite it as one of the motivations for the act.
Anyway, back to my main point, which was that the Iranian revolution wasn’t necessarily destined to result in the kind of government Iran has today. Khomeini’s return to Iran in February had vaulted him into a position of leadership (charismatic exiles can be very popular), and in March a referendum to abolish the monarchy and create an “Islamic Republic” passed with 98% support. But who knew what an “Islamic Republic” was supposed to look like when they case their votes? Khomeini certainly had one idea. He'd already written a book about it in 1970, called Vilayat-i Faqih or “Governance of the Jurist,” which took a centuries-old Shiʿa legal theory and refashioned it as an argument that the state should be run by a leading expert in Islamic jurisprudence (a faqih)—somebody like, say, Ayatollah Khomeini himself—who could make sure that the state stays on the straight and narrow.
The thing is, Khomeini’s more secular co-revolutionaries don’t seem to have known what he was envisioning at first. But as a new constitution began to take shape over the course of 1979, they (especially leftists but also secularists more broadly) started to resist the more theocratic elements of the Ayatollah’s plan. The embassy seizure provided the perfect moment for Khomeini to get out in front of the Iranian people and discredit those elements of the revolution that were starting to turn on him. Whether Khomeini knew about the plans to storm the embassy beforehand or not is a matter of some debate, but either way he capitalized on the opportunity it presented.
Khomeini praised the taking of the embassy. and in doing so probably extended the whole episode—the student leaders later said they’d initially meant to hold the embassy for a couple of weeks, not 15 months. On top of his verbal support, he also lent elements of his Revolutionary Guard to the students to help secure the facility, told the Iranian people that the US had been cooking up counter-revolutionary plots out of the embassy, and cheered the students on with a new slogan: “America can't do a damn thing!” The Iranian public ate this stuff up (here’s where the Shah’s arrival in the US really impacted things), and any hope the secularists had of holding a public debate over the merits of Khomeini’s proposed constitution was lost in the noise. Moderate liberals who’d opposed taking the embassy and antagonizing the US were discredited and sidelined, if they were lucky. Most Marxist revolutionaries, who opposed the Vilayat-i Faqih but supported any attack on the US embassy, were savvy enough to drop any public opposition to Khomeini and just cheer on the students, but that wing of the revolution never had a great deal of popular support anyway, and later Khomeini was able to purge them pretty easily.
The Iranian revolution initially left Tehran’s position vis-à-vis the US in limbo. Washington did have good relations with the Shah, there’s no question about that. But there were signs in the immediate aftermath of his ouster that the Carter wasn’t that sorry to see him go—or at least that it wasn’t sorry enough to let it sour US-Iranian relations. But the chaos of the revolution made it difficult at first to know who (apart from Khomeini, of course) was even in power in Tehran, let alone for any Iranian leaders to start conducting diplomacy. It was the hostage crisis that took the US-Iranian relationship out of limbo and destroyed it (along with Carter's presidency).
One person who watched this all happen with great interest was Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who may well have seen the collapse of the US-Iranian relationship as his final green light to start a war with Tehran. I think it's important for Americans to understand that the event that caused the US to turn on Iran, a lengthy hostage standoff in which the only lives lost were the eight US service members and one Iranian civilian who were killed accidentally during a botched rescue mission in April 1980, may have led to the event that really caused Iranians to turn on the US—a massive war that likely killed over a million people, many of them at the hands of weapons and/or intel supplied by the US to the Iraqis. The US foreign policy establishment seems to think it's fair for Americans to harbor residual anger toward Iran over the hostage crisis. But if that's the case, then how can we not expect Iranians to harbor similar feelings toward the US over what happened next?