Iran Hostage Crisis: Events, Causes, and Aftermath

American hostages being paraded by their militant Iranian captors.
American hostages being paraded by their militant Iranian captors.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The Iran hostage crisis (November 4, 1979 – January 20, 1981) was a tense diplomatic standoff between the governments of the United States and Iran in which Iranian militants held 52 American citizens hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days. Spurred by anti-American feelings arising from Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, the hostage crisis soured U.S.-Iranian relations for decades and contributed to the failure of U.S. President Jimmy Carter to be elected to a second term in 1980.

Fast Facts: Iran Hostage Crisis

  • Short Description: The 444-day Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80 irrevocably damaged U.S.-Iranian relations, molded future U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and possibly determined the outcome of the 1980 U.S. presidential election.
  • Key Players: U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, 52 American hostages
  • Start Date: November 4, 1979
  • End Date: January 20, 1981
  • Other Significant Date: April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw, failed U.S. military hostage rescue mission
  • Location: U.S. Embassy compound, Tehran, Iran

US-Iran Relations in the 1970s

U.S.-Iranian relations had been deteriorating since the 1950s, as the two countries clashed over control of Iran’s massive oil reserves. Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1978-1979 brought tensions to a boiling point. The longtime Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had worked closely with U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a fact that enraged Iran’s popularly supported Islamic revolutionary leaders. In what amounted to a bloodless coup d'etat, Shah Pahlavi was deposed in January 1979, fled into exile, and was replaced by popular radical Islamic cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Promising greater freedom for the Iranian people, Khomeini immediately replaced Pahlavi’s government with a militant Islamic government.

The "Students Following The Imam Khomeini Line" who hold the American hostages captive inside the compound get ready for prayers.
The "Students Following The Imam Khomeini Line", who hold the American hostages captive inside the compound, get ready for prayers. Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

Throughout the Islamic revolution, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran had been the target of anti-American protests by Iranians. On February 14, 1979, less than a month after the deposed Shah Pahlavi had fled to Egypt and Ayatollah Khomeini had come to power, the embassy was occupied by armed Iranian guerrillas. U.S. Ambassador William H. Sullivan and some 100 staff members were held briefly until being freed by Khomeini’s revolutionary forces. Two Iranians were killed and two U.S. Marines were wounded in the incident. Responding to Khomeini’s demands that the U.S. reduce the size of its presence in Iran, U.S. Ambassador William H. Sullivan cut the embassy staff from 1,400 to about 70 and negotiated an agreement of coexistence with Khomeini’s provisional government.

Posters of Ayatollah Khomein are displayed inside the American embassy compound.
Posters of Ayatollah Khomein are displayed inside the American embassy compound. Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

On October 22, 1979, President Carter allowed the overthrown Iranian leader, Shah Pahlavi, to enter the United States for treatment of advanced cancer. The move enraged Khomeini and escalated anti-American sentiment across Iran. In Tehran, demonstrators gathered around the U.S. Embassy, shouting “Death to the Shah!” “Death to Carter!” “Death to America!” In the words of embassy officer and eventual hostage Moorhead Kennedy, “We threw a burning branch into a bucket full of kerosene.”

Siege of the American Embassy in Tehran

On the morning of November 4, 1979, protests against the United States’ favorable treatment of the deposed Shah reached a fever pitch when a large group of radical Iranian students loyal to Khomeini gathered outside the walls of the 23-acre compound housing the U.S. Embassy.

raninan students invade the U.S. embassy in Tehran, November 4, 1979
Iraninan students invade the U.S. embassy in Tehran, November 4, 1979. Unknown Photographer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

At approximately 6:30 a.m., a group of about 300 students calling themselves the “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's (Khomeini’s) Line” broke through the compound’s gate. At first, planning to stage a peaceful demonstration, the students carried signs stating, “Don't be afraid. We just want to sit in.” However, when the handful of lightly-armed U.S. Marines guarding the embassy showed no intention of using deadly force, the crowd of demonstrators outside the embassy quickly grew to as many as 5,000.

Though there was no evidence that Khomeini had planned or even supported the embassy takeover, he issued a statement calling it “the second revolution” and referring to the embassy as an “American spy den in Tehran.” Emboldened by Khomeini’s support, the armed protestors overpowered the Marine guards and proceeded to take 66 Americans hostage.

The Hostages

Most of the hostages were U.S. diplomats, ranging from the chargé d’affaires to junior members of the embassy support staff. Hostages who were not diplomatic staff included 21 U.S. Marines, businessmen, a reporter, government contractors, and at least three CIA employees.

Two American hostages in Iran hostage crisis, November 4, 1979
Two American hostages in Iran hostage crisis, November 4, 1979. Unknown Photographer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

On November 17, Khomeini ordered 13 hostages released. Comprised mainly of women and African Americans, Khomeini stated that he was releasing these hostages because, as he said, they had also been the victims of “the oppression of American society.” On July 11, 1980, a 14th hostage was released after becoming seriously ill. The remaining 52 hostages would be held captive for a total of 444 days.

Whether they chose to stay or were forced to do so, only two women continued to be held hostage. They were 38‐year‐old Elizabeth Ann Swift, head of the embassy's political section, and Kathryn L. Koob, 41, of the U.S. International Communications Agency.

Though none of the 52 hostages were killed or seriously injured, they were far from well treated. Bound, gagged, and blindfolded, they were forced to pose for TV cameras. They never knew if they would be tortured, executed, or freed. While Ann Swift and Kathryn Koob reported being “correctly” treated, many others were repeatedly subjected to mock executions and games of Russian roulette with unloaded pistols, all to the delight of their guards. As the days dragged into months, the hostages were better treated. Though still prohibited from talking, their blindfolds were removed and their bonds loosened. Meals became more regular and limited exercise was allowed.

The extended length of the hostages' captivity has been blamed on politics within the Iranian revolutionary leadership. At one point, Ayatollah Khomeini told Iran's president, “This has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us.”

Failed Negotiations

Moments after the hostage crisis began, the United States broke off formal diplomatic relations with Iran. President Jimmy Carter sent a delegation to Iran in hopes of negotiating the hostages’ freedom. However, the delegation was refused entry to Iran and returned to the United States.

A headline in an Islamic Republican newspaper on November 5, 1979, read "Revolutionary occupation of U.S. embassy.”
A headline in an Islamic Republican newspaper on November 5, 1979, read "Revolutionary occupation of U.S. embassy”. Unknown Photographer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

With his initial diplomatic overtures spurned, President Carter applied economic pressure on Iran. On November 12, the U.S. stopped buying oil from Iran, and on November 14, Carter issued an executive order freezing all Iranian assets in the United States. Iran’s foreign minister responded by stating that the hostages would be released only if the U.S. returned Shah Pahlavi to Iran to stand trial, stopped “interfering” in Iranian affairs, and released the frozen Iranian assets. Again, no agreements were reached.

During December 1979, the United Nations adopted two resolutions condemning Iran. In addition, diplomats from other countries began working to help free the American hostages. On January 28, 1980, in what became known as the “Canadian caper,” Canadian diplomats brought back to the United States six Americans who had escaped from the U.S. Embassy before it was seized.

Operation Eagle Claw

Since the beginning of the crisis, U.S. National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had argued for launching a covert military mission to free the hostages. Over the objections of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, President Carter sided with Brzezinski and authorized the ill-fated rescue mission codenamed “Operation Eagle Claw.”

On the afternoon of April 24, 1980, eight U.S. helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz landed in the desert southeast of Tehran, where a small group of special forces soldiers had been assembled. From there, the soldiers were to be flown to a second staging point from which they were to enter the embassy compound and take the hostages to a secured airstrip where they would be flown out of Iran.

However, before the final rescue phase of the mission even began, three of the eight helicopters were disabled by mechanical failures related to severe dust storms. With the number of working helicopters now less than the minimum of six needed to safely transport the hostages and soldiers, the mission was aborted. As the remaining helicopters were withdrawing, one collided with a refueling tanker aircraft and crashed, killing eight U.S. soldiers and injuring several others. Left behind, the bodies of the dead servicemen were dragged through Tehran in front of Iranian TV cameras. Humiliated, the Carter administration went to great lengths to get the bodies flown back to the United States.

In response to the failed raid, Iran refused to consider any further diplomatic overtures to end the crisis and moved the hostages to several new secret locations.

Release of the Hostages

Neither a multinational economic embargo of Iran nor the death of Shah Pahlavi in July 1980 broke Iran’s resolve. However, in mid-August, Iran installed a permanent post-revolutionary government that at least entertained the idea of reestablishing relations with the Carter administration. In addition, the September 22 invasion of Iran by Iraqi forces, along with the ensuing Iran-Iraq War, reduced the Iranian officials’ ability and resolve to continue hostage negotiations. Finally, in October 1980, the United Nations Security Council informed Iran that it would get no support in its war with Iraq from most U.N. member nations until the American hostages were set free.

Freed Americans hostages disembark Freedom One, an Air Force VC-137 Stratoliner aircraft, upon their arrival at the base, January 27, 1981
Freed American hostages disembark Freedom One, an Air Force VC-137 Stratoliner aircraft, upon their arrival at the base, January 27, 1981. Don Koralewski/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

With neutral Algerian diplomats acting as intermediaries, new hostage negotiations continued throughout late 1980 and early 1981. Iran, at last, released the hostages on January 20, 1981, just moments after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the new U.S. president.

Aftermath

Across the United States, the hostage crisis sparked an outpouring of patriotism and unity the extent of which had not been seen since after the December 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, and would not be seen again until after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Iran, on the other hand, generally suffered from the crisis. Besides losing all international support in the Iran-Iraq war, Iran failed to get any of the concessions it had demanded of the United States. Today, some $1.973 billion of Iran's assets remain frozen in the United States, and the U.S. has not imported any oil from Iran since 1992. Indeed, U.S.-Iranian relations have degraded steadily since the hostage crisis.

In 2015, the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund to assist the surviving Iran hostages and their spouses and children. Under the legislation, each hostage is to receive $4.44 million, or $10,000 for each day they were held captive. By 2020, however, only a small percentage of the money had been paid out.

1980 Presidential Election

The hostage crisis had a chilling effect on President Carter’s attempt to win reelection in 1980. Many voters perceived his repeated failures to bring the hostages home as a sign of weakness. In addition, dealing with the crisis prevented him from campaigning effectively. 

Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan used the feelings of patriotism sweeping the nation and Carter’s negative press coverage to his advantage. Unconfirmed conspiracy theories even emerged that Reagan had secretly convinced the Iranians to delay releasing the hostages until after the election.

On Tuesday, November 4, 1980, exactly 367 days after the hostage crisis began, Ronald Reagan was elected president in a landslide victory over the incumbent Jimmy Carter. On January 20, 1981, moments after Reagan had been sworn in as president, Iran released all 52 American hostages to U.S. military personnel.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Sahimi, Muhammad. “The Hostage Crisis, 30 Years On.” PBS Frontline, November 3, 2009, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/11/30-years-after-the-hostage-crisis.html.
  • Gage, Nicholas. “Armed Iranians Rush U.S. Embassy.” The New York Times, February 15, 1979, https://www.nytimes.com/1979/02/15/archives/armed-iranians-rush-us-embassy-khomeinis-forces-free-staff-of-100-a.html.
  • “Days of Captivity: The Hostages’ Story.” The New York Times, February 4, 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/02/04/us/days-of-captivity-the-hostages-story.html.
  • Holloway III, Admiral J.L., USN (Ret.). “Iran Hostage Rescue Mission Report.” Library of Congress, August 1980, http://webarchive.loc.gov/all/20130502082348/http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/hollowayrpt.htm.
  • Chun, Susan. “Six things you didn't know about the Iran hostage crisis.” CNN the Seventies, July 16, 2015, https://www.cnn.com/2014/10/27/world/ac-six-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-iran-hostage-crisis/index.html.
  • Lewis, Neil A. “New Reports Say 1980 Reagan Campaign Tried to Delay Hostage Release.” The New York Times, April 15, 1991, https://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/15/world/new-reports-say-1980-reagan-campaign-tried-to-delay-hostage-release.html.