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The Hostage Crisis, 30 Years On

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

03 Nov 2009 13:302 Comments
n00003669-r-b-002.jpg[ feature ] Nov. 4 marks the the day, 30 years ago, when Islamic leftist students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 69 people hostage. Seventeen of them were released at various times, but the remaining 52 remained captive for 444 days. The event was a watershed in U.S.-Iran relations with repercussions still felt today. The main consequence of that event has been that the United States, the most powerful nation on earth, and Iran, the most important country in the Middle East, have not had diplomatic relations for three decades.

The U.S. Embassy in Tehran was actually overrun twice, not once, after the 1979 Revolution. It first occurred on Feb. 14, 1979, right after the Shah's government was toppled. But that quickly ended and those who had stormed the Embassy were immediately expelled from the compound. I will come back to that event shortly.

Nov. 4 also marks the anniversary of two other important events in the history of contemporary Iran. On that day in 1964, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi forced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into exile, first to Turkey and then to Najaf, Iraq. The Ayatollah returned to Iran triumphantly on February 1, 1979, after the Shah had gone into exile on January 16, 1979.

It was also on Nov. 4, 1978, that a gathering of students on the campus of the University of Tehran was attacked by the Shah's security forces. Scores of young people were killed, including students as young as 13. That event made it clear that the confrontation between the Shah and the Iranian people had entered its final stage, and that it could end only if the Shah was removed from power.

Before describing the events that led to the hostage crisis, it is useful and necessary to recall briefly the history of U.S.-Iran relations, particularly during 1977-78.


From early 1800s, Americans had been traveling to Iran. The first American missionaries to Iran were Justin Perkins and Asahel Grant, who were dispatched to Iran in 1834 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Iran was called Persia at that time [the name changed in 1934].

Perhaps the first true Iranian reformer, Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Kabir [1807-1852], Chief Minister [Prime Minister] to Naser-eddin Shah. During the first four years of this Qajar king's reign [1848-1852], he initiated direct contacts with the U.S. Official relations between the U.S. and Iran began in 1856, when Naser-eddin Shah dispatched Iran's first diplomatic envoy, Mirza Abolhasan Shirazi, to Washington.

In 1882, the U.S. first wanted Henry H. Jessup to be its first Charge d'Affaires in Iran, but then withdrew the nomination. Instead, Samuel G. W. Benjamin became the first official U.S. diplomatic envoy to Iran in 1883. Persia's first ambassador to the U.S. was Mirza Albohassan Khan Ilchi Kabir.

Iran's Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 had an American martyr. Howard Baskerville [1885-1909], a young man from Nebraska and a graduate of Princeton Theological School, was a 24-year-old teacher in the Presbyterian mission school in Tabriz. He was killed in the war between the revolutionaries (constitutionalists) and counter-revolutionaries, while trying to help the former in the battle against the forces of Mohammad Ali Shah who had attacked Tabriz. He is buried there and is sometimes called the American Lafayette in Iran" [a reference to Marquis de Lafayette, the French General who fought in the American Revolutionary War alongside the Americans].

The Majles [parliament] appointed an American, Morgan Shuster, as Persia's Treasurer General in 1911. He was an ally of the Constitutionalists. A second American was martyred in Iran. He was killed in Tehran by henchmen linked to Russia or Britain. Mohammad Ali Shah's brother, Sho'a al-Saltaneh, was Russia's man in Persia. Thus, the government ordered the confiscation of his assets, which Shuster promptly carried out. Under huge pressure from Russia and Britain, Shuster was eventually forced to resign. His book, The Strangling of Persia, gives an account of those years.

In 1921, the British Empire and its man in Iran, Seyyed Zia-eddin Tabatabaei, staged a coup that brought an unknown soldier, Reza Khan Mirpanj [who became Reza Shah, the foudner of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925], to power. It was the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that first put forth the popular view that Britain had staged the 1921 coup, an account that was confirmed by a report from the British Embassy in1932. The American Arthur Millspaugh was appointed as the Treasurer General by Reza Shah, followed by Arthur Pope.

From 1883-1944, U.S. envoys to Iran were either a Minister Resident or a Minister Plenipotentiary. Oddly enough, relations at the ambassadorial level were established only in 1944, three years after the Allied Forces had invaded and occupied Iran. The first U.S. ambassador to Iran was Leland B. Morris, who served for only one year.

Because Russia and Britain were deeply despised by Iranians, U.S.-Iran relations flourished during World War II. The U.S. was considered a counterweight to Britain and Russia. The U.S. also played a key role in forcing Joseph Stalin to evacuate Iran's Azerbaijan province in 1946. But the 1953 CIA coup changed the perception of Iranians toward the United States. The story of the coup and its aftermath is well documented.

The 1979 Revolution and U.S. Policy

24-0644a.jpgJimmy Carter was elected the president of the United States in 1976. During his campaign he had announced that he would make respect for human rights a fundamental pillar of U.S. foreign policy. This worried the Shah who had been accused for years of being one of the most ruthless violators of human rights of the Iranian people. A CIA report described the political structure of Iran at that time as follows: "The government and parliament in Iran have no power of similar governments in democratic countries. They actually do not play any role except carrying out the Shah's order."

To placate Carter, the Shah began releasing some political prisoners. Political groups began to emerge, and open letters to the public and the Shah by his opponents began to appear as well. Next, the Shah replaced his much criticized Prime Minister of 13 years, Amir Abbas Hoveida, with U.S.-educated Dr. Jamshid Amouzegar. But the economic problems arising from vast corruption and mismanagement, coupled with political repression, had created deep-rooted problems for the Shah and his regime.

Two other events in 1977 exacerbated the situation for the Shah. In June 1977, Dr. Ali Shariati [1933-1977], the popular and influential sociologist and Islamic scholar, passed away. Even though he had died of illnesses, his followers believed he was martyred by SAVAK, the Shah's secret service. In October 1977, Mostafa Khomeini [1930-1977], the Ayatollah's son, suddenly died of a heart attack. His death was also blamed on the SAVAK, and provoked the first large-scale demonstrations.

In 1978, President Carter spent New Year eve with the Shah in Tehran. In the state dinner in his honor, Carter proclaimed,

Under the Shah's brilliant leadership, Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions of the world. There is no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like more.

The speech angered the Shah's opponents, but also reassured the Shah that he had the full support of the Carter administration. Therefore, he embarked on an unwise adventure that resulted in the demise of his regime almost a year later -- and the hostage crisis.

On Saturday, Jan. 6, 1978, only six days after Carter's trip to Tehran, a now infamous article, written by Ahmad Rashidi Motlagh (a pseudonym), was published in the newspaper Ettela'at [information] savagely attacking Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah had been informed that the Ayatollah was going to declare his reign illegitimate, and issue a fatwa forbidding paying taxes to his government.

To preempt Khomeini, the Shah ordered the publication of the article. At first the editors at Ettela'at resisted the order, but they were told that if the letter was not published by Jan. 6, it would mean an end to the paper.

Since the Shah had eliminated the secular opposition, the letter had been aimed at Ayatollah Khomeini, the only viable opposition leader left. Given the already deep discontent for the rule of the Shah, the letter sparked demonstrations in Qom on Jan. 8, 1978. Hundreds of seminary students and clerics staged angry demonstrations. The army dispersed the demonstrators and killed several of them. The number of fatalities ranged anywhere from 9 to 70.

Following Shia tradition, on February 18, the 40th day after the death of the demonstrators in Qom, more demonstrations took place in several cities. The most violent was in Tabriz (in northwest Iran), where between 10 to 500 demonstrators were killed, depending on who one believes. The cycle of demonstrations was repeated again on March 29, 1978, the 40th day of the Tabriz deaths, and again on May 10.

Up to then, many clerics had remained silent or not responded favorably to Ayatollah Khomeini's call for rebellion. Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the leading reactionary cleric and ardent supporter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who now claims to be the "theoretician of the Revolution," had said at that time that, "Haj Agha Ruhollah [Ayatollah Khomeini] is adventurous. What he does postpones the return of Imam-e Zaman [Madhi, the hidden 12th Shiite Imam]." So he actually opposed him and the Revolution.

In May 1978, the Shah's special forces raided the home of Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, an important marja' taghlid [source of emulation] and a moderate. One of his students was killed. That left Ayatollah Shariatmadari no choice but to abandon his silence and to join the opposition. This move was followed by other ayatollahs.

On August 20, 1978, arsonists set Cinema Rex in Abadan (in southern Iran) on fire. All the doors had been locked. The fire killed hundreds of people. Amnesty International put the toll at 438, but the fatalities may have reached 800. Although it turned out many years later that the fire had been set by zealot Muslims, distrust of the Shah was so high that people believed that the SAVAK had set the fire in an attempt to frame the opposition. The fire is the third deadliest terrorist attack in modern history.

On August 27, 1978, the Shah fired Dr. Amouzegar and appointed Senator Jafar Sharif-Emami as his replacement. The Shah hoped because Sharif Emami was from a clerical family, the appointment would mollify the clerics. Sharif Emami made some cosmetic changes: he closed casinos, abandoned the Imperial calendar, and legalized all political parties. But his efforts were overshadowed by the massacre in Jaleh Square on September 8, 1978.

By September, large daily demonstrations had become a regular occurrence, destabilizing the country. The Shah was forced to declare martial law and ban all demonstrations. On Friday, September 8, 1978, however, thousands of protesters gathered in Tehran in Jaleh Square [now called Martyrs' Square]. Security forces killed dozens, on what became known as Black Friday. I'll never forget that day. I called my family in Tehran who lived close; my mother told me that she could hear the shooting.

The opposition claimed that hundreds of people were killed, but careful investigation by Emad Baghi, the well-known human rights advocate, put the number at 84. The demonstrations continued despite martial law, and on November 6, 1978, Sharif Emami resigned and was replaced by a military government led by General Gholam Reza Azhari [1912-2001]. In a nationally-broadcast message to the nation announcing the appointment of General Azhari, the Shah declared that, "I have heard your revolutionary voice."

The Shah also asked Iraq to deport Ayatollah Khomeini with the hope of cutting off his communications with his disciples in Iran. On October 3, he left Iraq for Kuwait, but was denied a visa. He then moved to Paris [because as an Iranian he did not need a visa to enter France] and settled in the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château. France, an advanced country, provided the Ayatollah with much better media access than Iraq.

In 1978, the Shiite mourning month of Moharram was in December. On December 2, more than 2 million people demonstrated against the Shah in Tehran, demanding his overthrow and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. Then, on December 10 and 11, millions of Iranians, numbering between 6 to 9 million, demonstrated throughout Iran. The Shah observed the demonstrations in Tehran from his helicopter. It is said that it was then that he realized that his reign had come to an end.

The Azhari government proved ineffective. The Shah searched for another prime minister. He offered the job to several notable figures in the opposition. But because he was still unwilling to allow the prime minister run the country, and because most people considered him finished, no one wanted the job. For example, the Shah turned to Dr. Gholam-Hossein Sedighi, a respected figure in the opposition National Front, the party of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, but he turned down the job.

Finally, on January 6, 1979, Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar of the opposition National Front, who was deputy Minister of Labor in the government of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, accepted to be the next prime minister. The National Front expelled him immediately. On January 16, 1979, the Shah and his wife Farah left Iran. Spontaneous joyful demonstrations took place. The headlines of the newspapers were, Shah Raft [the Shah left].

bztwxnaoqvblxcpfm6hs.jpgBakhtiar undertook deep reforms. He abolished the SAVAK, released all the political prisoners, legalized demonstrations, promised free elections within three months, and invited supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini to join in a government of national unity. On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, the undisputed leader of the Revolution, returned to Tehran and was greeted by millions of Iranians.

Ayatollah Khomeini rejected the Bakhtiar government and, on the recommendation of his student and disciple, Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari [1920-1979], appointed Mehdi Bazargan [1907-1995], a progressive Muslim scholar and leader of the opposition Freedom Movement, as the interim prime minister on February 4, 1979. The army began to defect and join the revolution. At 10:00 p.m. on February 9, fighting broke out between the Immortal Guards, the Shah's personal guards, and the Homafaran [junior officers] of the Air Force, joined by the forces of the Islamic leftist Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO) and the Organization of People's Fedayeen Guerrillas (OPFG).

At 2:00 p.m. on February 11, General Abbas Gharehbaghi, Chief of Staff of the armed forces, declared that the armed forces are "neutral in the current political disputes... in order to prevent further disorder and bloodshed." The Revolution had toppled the Pahlavi dynasty. The headline of the daily Kayhan was, "The Fall of 2500 Years of Monarchy."

To help put the hostage crisis in context, it is important to take into account the position of the Carter administration regarding developments that led to the 1979 Revolution. Iranian monarchists blame the Carter administration for the downfall of the Shah because of the pressure he felt by the new U.S. administration to improve the human rights situation in Iran. But Carter actually supported the shah until the last moment. In fact, as described, it was probably because the Shah confidently felt that the Carter administration was behind him that he decided to take on Ayatollah Khomeini.

It can be reasonably argued that the Carter administration had not been prepared for the sudden surge of revolutionary fever, nor understood the depth of dissatisfaction of the Iranian people with the Shah's regime. A CIA analysis in August 1978 had reached the conclusion that, "Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation."

President Carter's National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his Energy Secretary [and former Defense Secretary], James R. Schlesinger, were both strongly pro-Shah, and had told him repeatedly that the U.S would fully support him. On November 4, 1978, the day many students were killed by security forces on the campus of Tehran University, Brzezinski called the Shah and told him that the U. S. would "back him to the hilt."

In early January 1979, President Carter dispatched Air Force General Robert E. Huyser [1924-1997], deputy commander-in-chief of the U.S. European Command, to Iran. His mission was supposedly to stabilize Iran at the height of the Revolution. Iran's military commanders were restless and wanted the Shah to take strong action, which would have led to large-scale bloodshed. In his book, Mission to Iran, the last U.S. Ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, quotes General Azhari as saying, "You must know this and you must tell it to your government. This country is lost because the Shah cannot make up his mind."

Many of the military commanders were also opposed to Bakhtiar, as well as the Shah leaving Iran. So General Huyser's mission was to keep Iran's military in line, as discerned from the late general's memoir, Mission to Tehran. He vividly describes the tension in the high command of the armed forces as the Shah was getting ready to leave Iran.

It has been reported that on the day that Bakhtiar's government was toppled, Brzezinski called General Huyser to see whether it was possible to stage a last-minute coup to prevent the victory of the Revolution, but General Huyser had responded that it was too late. In his memoir, General Huyser states that his mission to Tehran was "one that started with desperation and disunity and ended in disaster."

Overrunning the U.S. Embassy in February 1979

Only four days after the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was attacked. The attack occurred at 10:15 a.m. on February 14, 1979. It was carried out by hundreds of supporters of the communist OPFG who climbed over the walls of the large compound on Takht-e Jamshid Street [now called Taleghani Street]. Here is how Nicholas Cumming-Bruce of the Guardian reported on the incident:

As they [the attackers] dropped into the compound they opened up with everything from G3 rifles to machine guns, spraying the main Embassy building and other offices with bullet. The Embassy's [19] U.S. Marines returned the fire with bird-shot to give official time to destroy secret documents and coding equipments, but were then ordered by the Ambassador [William H. Sullivan] to unload and discard their weapons.

The Embassy staff, about 100 to 150 [down from more than 300 before the Revolution], were taken to the communication room on the first floor, while marines filled the ground floor with teargas. But, this had only a temporary delaying effect. Gunmen eventually broke into the Embassy, forcing many of the staff at gunpoint to lie on the floor. Others ransacked the East Wing, broke up communication equipment and smashed the main switchboard.

One Iranian employee of the Embassy was killed, and U.S. Marine and three other Americans were wounded.

But after only an hour armed men led by the deputy prime minister of the provisional revolutionary government, Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi, arrived at the embassy and convinced the attackers to leave the Embassy.

U.S. State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, III, thanked the provisional government for its efficiency and speed that ended the embassy seizure. Through Iran's embassy in Washington, the Bazargan government relayed a message to the Carter administration, expressing deep regrets for the incident, and promised complete security for the Embassy and its staff.

Sullivan then left Iran. It was obvious that he could no longer be effective as the U.S. Ambassador. The U.S. nominated Walter L. Cutler as its next Ambassador to Iran, but Iran rejected him. Thus, Bruce Laingen, the Charge d'Affaires, became the senior American diplomat in Iran.

The Hostage Crisis: November 1979-January 1981

n00003669-r-b-004.jpgAlthough Islamic forces played a major role in the victory of the Revolution, they seemed to be sidelined in the first several months after the Revolution. The university campuses were dominated by secular leftists, or Islamic leftists not trusted by the forces loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini. Supporters of the OPFG had established their university branch called Daneshjouyan-e Pishgam [avant-garde students] who were very active on campuses. Followers of Paykaar [struggle], the Maoist offshoot of the MKO that had split from it in 1975, were also very active, as were supporters of the Tudeh [masses] Party, the pro-Moscow communist party. The most important student group was perhaps the Society of Muslim Students (SMS), the pro-MKO organization.

University followers of Ayatollah Khomeini also had their own organization, the Muslim Students Association (MSA). The campuses were buzzing with all types of meetings, debates, demonstrations, and gatherings. This was a nation suddenly freed from 25 years of Pahlavi rule. But still, the two dominant voices on campuses were that of the secular left and of the pro-MKO students. This had the pro-Ayatollah Khomeini forces worried.

At the same time, there were signs that the Carter administration was reaching an accommodation with the new provisional revolutionary government of Bazargan. When Kurdish forces started an uprising in Kurdistan and Bazargan sent the army to crush it, U.S. State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, III, seemed to support the move when he said that, "the United States supports the territorial integrity of Iran, and what the central government does to preserve it." At the same time, the flow of U.S.-made weapons to Iran, which the Shah had purchased and paid for, had continued.

The provisional revolutionary government was also controlled by members of the Freedom Movement of Bazargan and the more secular National Front. The Freedom Movement was founded in 1961 by Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Taleghani [1911-1979, a progressive and extremely popular cleric], Dr.Yadollah Sahabi [1905-2002], UC Berkeley-educated Dr. Mostafa Chamran [1931-1981], Dr. Ali Shariati, and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh [1936-1982], most of whom were members of the provisional government. [The Freedom Movement is currently led by Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi, a former aide to Ayatollah Khomeini and close friend of Bazargan.] They were considered as liberals by the forces loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini. In those days being a liberal was tantamount to being a counter-revolutionary. I personally consider Bazargan, Sahabi, and Taleghani as Iran's national heroes.

Although the Revolutionary Council that had been established by Ayatollah Khomeini was dominated by clerics close to him, the clerics were playing secondary roles in the government. Bazargan was also opposed to the mass execution of the members of the Shah government and his prominent supporters. He had also retained some key army officers in active duty.

All of these things worried the young revolutionary supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. They thought that the country was drifting back into the West's sphere of influence. They blamed Iran's problems on the West, and particularly the U.S., and did not want Iran to be allied with the West again, or even to be neutral toward it. At the same time, they were losing the "mind and heart" battles on campus to secular leftists and MKO supporters.

So in September 1979, an umbrella group was founded to coordinate the activities of all the MSAs. The organization was called the Office for Consolidation of Unity (OCU). It was originally known as the Dafter-e Tahkim-e Vahdat-e Howzeh va Daneshgah [Office for Consolidation of Unity Between Universities and Theological Seminaries]. Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti [1928-1981], a key aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, a member of the Revolutionary Council, and the first judiciary chief after the Revolution, was the key driving force behind the establishment of the OCU. Beheshti was worried about the influence of the pro-MKO organizations on university campuses, the SMS, and helped found the OCU to counter them.

The OCU was strongly critical of the Bazargan government. It was aided in its criticism by the Jonbesh-e Mosalmaanaan-e Mobaarez [Movement of Militant Muslims (MMM)], an Islamic leftist group led by Dr. Habibollah Paymaan, a dentist. Paymaan was active against the Shah and had published several books under the pseudonym Habibollah Paaydaar before the Revolution. The MMM mouthpiece was Ommat [Muslim masses], a highly analytical daily. I not only read most issues of the Ommamt until it voluntarily ceased publishing in summer of 1981, but also distributed copies of it to anyone who was interested. The MMM was a progressive movement, fiercely opposed to reactionary and backward interpretations of Islamic teachings, and is now a key member of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition, an opposition group in Iran.

On October 22, 1979, the Carter Administration allowed the Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment. He had cancer and needed treatment, but many countries had turned him away. But the revolutionaries in Iran saw it differently. They viewed it as the first step toward another coup, similar to the 1953 coup that had overthrown the government of Iran's national hero, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh.

On November 1, 1979, Bazargan, his Foreign Minister Dr. Yazdi, and Defense Minister Dr. Chamran, met in Algiers, Algeria, with Zbigniew Brezezinski, President Carter's national security advisor. On the same day there were huge demonstrations in Iran against the Shah being admitted to the U.S.

As far as the Islamic leftist students active in the OCU were concerned, the Algiers meeting and the Shah being admitted into the U.S. were the last straw. They decided that they needed to do something drastic to force the closure of the American Embassy in Tehran, with the hope that Bazargan's government would also fall, because they knew that he was fiercely opposed to such actions, and that he was tired of his struggles with the clerics who were opposing many of his policies.

The top three leaders of the plan were all engineering students: Mohsen Mirdamadi from Tehran Polytechnique [now known as Amir Kabir University], Habibollah Bitaraf of Faculty of Engineering of Tehran University, and Ebrahim Asgharzadeh of Sharif [Aryamehr] University. Of these, Mirdamadi and Asgharzadeh were also members of the central committee of the OCU. All were Islamic leftist students. But other members of the OCU council included right-wing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran University of Science and Technology, and Seyyed Nejad of Teachers' Training University. They, together with Ezatollah Zarghami [the present head of Seda va Sima, Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic that runs the national radio and television stations] and Fereydoon Verdinejad [who later joined the reformists and was director of IRNA, Iran's official news agency during the Khatami administration], were opposed to storming the U.S. Embassy. Ahmadinejad and his group advocated taking over the Embassy of the Soviet Union instead.

Thus, the three decided to add other students to their group and carry out their plan on their own. First, Rahim Bateni of Sharif University and Reza Seyfollahi of the National University [now known as Shahid Beheshti University] were added to the group. Next, another council was formed called the Shoraaye Bazoo [the arm council] that helped with preparations for storming the Embassy. It included Abbas Abdi and Mohammad Hashemi of Tehran Polytechnique, Akbar Refan, Mehdi Ghiyasi, Saeed Hajjarian, and Rahman Dadman of Faculty of Engineering of Tehran University, and Mohammad Naeimipour and Ali Zahmatkesh of Sharif University. Mohsen Rezaei, a former student at Sharif University who had joined the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) [and later became its top commander from 1981-1997], was also consulted.

Then, the leaders decided to consult with a few people about the wisdom of occupying the U.S. Embassy, similar to what had happened right after the Revolution. The two people that they wanted to consult with were Ayatollahs Khamenei and Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha. But the former had gone to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage. Thus, they asked Mousavi Khoeiniha whether it was wise to ask Ayatollah Khomeini's opinion. According to Asgharzadeh, Mousavi Khoeiniha opposed the idea of asking Ayatollah Khomeini, on the ground that if Ayatollah Khomeini was asked before the takeover, he might not express his true views openly. He did, however, support the takeover of the embassy and told the students to "go ahead and occupy the Nest of Spies [the name given to the U.S. embassy in Tehran at that time]." He also told them that he believed that once the embassy was seized, Ayatollah Khomeini would support the action.

In a speech to university and theological students just a few days before the Embassy takeover, Ayatollah Khomeini urged them to confront the U.S. The OCU leadership thought that Mousavi Khoeiniha had told the Ayatollah about their plans, and that the speech was his way of giving them the green light. That was not true, but the decision had been made.

At 6:30 a.m. on the morning of November 4th, 1979, on the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's forced exile and one-year anniversary of killing the students at Tehran University, 350 students selected by the group and calling themselves Daneshjouyaan-e Khat-e Emam [Students Followers of Imam's Line], stormed the U.S. Embassy. They had first gathered at Tehran Polytechnique, a short distance from the Embassy. The work had been divided among the leaders:

The operation to overrun the Embassy was led by Zahmatkesh.

The responsibility for safekeeping of the hostages was with Mirdamadi.

Bitaraf was in charge of collecting the documents inside the Embassy.

The spokesmen were actually two female students, Masoumeh Ebtekar, known in the U.S. media as Sister Mary, and Forouz Rajaeifar. Ebtekar was a daughter of Dr. Taghi Ebtekar, a well known and respected academic and professor of mechanical engineering at the Faculty of Engineering of Tehran University, where I studied in the 1970s.

Other female students brought the tools for cutting the metal gates of the Embassy, and hid them under their chadors.

After the takeover, Ayatollah Khomeini sent his son Ahmad to the embassy to show his support. Mousavi Khoeiniha also went to the embassy. Huge demonstrations in support of the takeover took place all over Iran. Mehdi Bazargan promptly resigned. It took 444 days to end the hostage crisis, but its consequences are still felt today.

At first, 69 people were taken hostage. But, 13 of them, female and African-American employees of the Embassy, were quickly released. That left one African-American and two women hostages. Another hostage, Richard Queen, was released in July 1980 after he fell ill with multiple sclerosis. The remaining 52 hostages were held captive until January 1981

The most senior diplomat in captivity was Bruce Laingen. Six other diplomats took refuge in the Swiss and Canadian Embassies. As fate would have it, I was living in a dormitory at the University of Minnesota at that time, where Laingen's son was also living. We never spoke to each other though.

Laingen has said that when he protested to his captors that what they were doing was illegal [and he was, of course, correct], one of them responded, "You have no right to complain, because you took our whole country hostage in 1953."

Originally, the students had intended to occupy the Embassy for only a few days.

Asgharzadeh said in an interview years later, "Our goal was to protest against the American government by going to their Embassy and occupying it for several hours. Announcing our protest from within the occupied compound would carry our message to the world in a much more firm and effective way." Mirdamadi told an interviewer, "We intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more." Ebtekar has said that those who rejected Asgharzadeh's plan [for a short detention of the diplomats] did not participate in subsequent events

But it became clear quickly that the affair was going to last much longer. Ayatollah Khomeini referred to the takeover as the second revolution. Dr. Yazdi has said that when he told the Ayatollah about the take over, he told Yazdi, "Kick them out," but he changed his mind by the end of that day because he had sensed that the takeover was popular. He declared that, America hich ghalati nemitooneh bokoneh [America cannot do a damned thing].

The clerics used the takeover to purge the system of most of Bazargan's group and the National Front and to consolidate their hold on power. The event was the beginning of the infiltration of the government by the clerics. It also created a super-revolutionary environment in the country that allowed the clerics to carry out their plans for establishing the theocratic system of government in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini himself said,

This action [overrunning the Embassy] has many benefits. ... It has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us. We can put the constitution to the people's vote without difficulty, and carry out presidential and parliamentary elections.

That encouraged the students to organize themselves better, and further divided the work. The central committee inside the embassy making all the decisions consisted of Asgharzadeh, Bitaraf, Mirdamadi, Bateni, and Seyfollahi, plus Mousavi Khoeiniha as the senior advisor.

Mohsen Aminzadeh, Mohammad Reza Khatami, Mohammad Naeimipour and Iraj Taghipour (a photographer) worked in the public relation area. Vafa Tabesh and Hossein Sheikholeslam joined the work to inspect the documents. Most of the documents had been shredded. It took years of hard work to put together the shredded documents, to make sense of them, and to publish them. Some were never publicized, because they indicated the behind-the-scene negotiations between some within the leadership of the Revolution and the Embassy. Some were used against the opponents of the clerical rule.

As a side note, it is truly amazing to me how many of the leaders I knew personally. Hajjarian was my classmate at Tehran University for two years. Dadman was a good friend [and one of the nicest, purest people I have ever known], and I knew Bitaraf as well; he was a friend. Sheikholeslam's younger brother, Mansoor, was my childhood friend. We attended the same high school, were classmates and close friends for five years [he is now a distinguished medical doctor in Tehran].

Breaking off diplomatic relations, rescue attempt, and the release of the hostages

Many attempts were made to negotiate the release of the hostages. The dwindling number of moderates within the Iranian government, including Ghotbzadeh who was the Foreign Minister from November 1979 to August 1980, and Abolhassan Banisadr who had been elected the first president of the Islamic Republic in January 1980, wanted to end the hostage crisis. But none was successful because Ayatollah Khomeini vetoed them.

President Carter broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in March 1980. Executive Order 12170 froze all of Iran's assets in the United States, totaling billions of dollars [some still remain frozen]. Then he decided to go forward with a rescue attempt called Operation Eagle Claw.

In the early hours of April 24,1980, eight RH-53D helicopters took off from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and flew to a remote road in the Great Salt Desert in central and eastern Iran, near the town of Tabas. Four hours later, six of the helicopters met up with several C-130 transport and refueling airplanes, waiting at a landing and refueling area dubbed "Desert One." Of the two that did not make it to Desert One, one returned to Nimitz due to avionics failures. The other had a fracture in one of its main rotor blades and was abandoned in the desert. The crew was rescued by another helicopter that continued to Desert One.

The helicopters had been ordered to maintain radio silence for the entire flight. The silence prevented them from requesting permission to fly above the sandstorm that the C-130 aircraft had, which meant that they flew the entire route at low levels. Of the six helicopters that made it to Desert One, one had a failed primary hydraulics system and had flown on a secondary hydraulics system. The commander of the operations then recommended the mission be aborted. President Carter approved his recommendation. But as the helicopters positioned themselves for refueling, one ran into a C-130 tanker aircraft and crashed, killing eight U.S. servicemen and injuring several more. The rescue mission was a total failure.

After several rounds of failed negotiations, the talks that finally succeeded in ending the crisis began secretly in September 1980. They were initiated by Sadegh Tabatabai, a brother-in-law of Ayatollah Khomeini's son Ahmad. The Shah had passed away in July 1980, and there was a real threat of war with Iraq, which meant that Iran needed American-made spare parts for its military weapons, which it had already paid for [the U.S. never delivered them]. Iran's negotiation team was led by Behzad Nabavi. Algeria mediated and helped advance the negotiations.

During the negotiations Iran made four demands: (1) an apology from the U.S. for its historical role in Iran [it did not come]; (2) unfreezing Iran's assets in U.S. [it was done partially]; (3) withdrawal of any legal claims against Iran arising from the Embassy takeover [done so far], and (4) a promise not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs [the promise was made, but has been broken many times]. Iran had threatened that if the U.S. did not accept Iran's demands, the hostages would be tried as spies and executed.

The negotiations finally resulted in the Algiers Accords of January 19, 1981. The U.S. did pledge that, "It is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs." The pledge has been broken many times. The hostages were released at noon in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 1981, right after President Carter's term had officially ended. That was the final act of revenge on a president whom the Iranians wanted to punish for his support for the Shah.

Where are the Students Now?

What has happened to the student leaders who stormed the U.S. Embassy 30 years ago? Some of them disappeared from the political scene and I do not know what they are doing now. Others have followed different paths. The following is an update on the student leaders who I am aware of:

Mohsen Mirdamadi obtained his PhD in political science. In 1998 he was one of the key people who founded the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), which is now the largest political party in Iran, as well as the most important reformist group. In the 6th Majles [2000-2004] he was the Chairman of the National Security Committee. He then succeeded Mohammad Reza Khatami as the Secretary-General of the IIPF. A day after the rigged presidential election of June 12, he was arrested and is still in jail.

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh was elected to the third Majles [1988-1992]. He was then elected to Tehran's first city council in 1998. He is now the leader of the Solidarity of Islamic Iran Party.

Habibollah Bitaraf
served in the administration of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He was then Minister of Power in the Khatami administration for 8 years. He is now active in the private sector.

Reza Seyfollahi
is a Brigadier General in the police force.

Abbas Abdi was the editor of Salaam, the leading reformist newspaper from 1991-1999. He has been an outspoken reformist and was jailed for advocating that the reformists should quit the government, because the hardliners kept Mohammad Khatami from implementing his programs.

Mohammad Hashemi is active in the private sector. He is married to Masoumeh Ebtekar and they have two children.

Saeed Hajjarian earned his Ph.D. in political science from Tehran University in 2003. In 1984 he was one of the founders of the Ministry of Intelligence and was its deputy minister for counter-intelligence. He left the Ministry in 1989, and was a leading strategist in the campaign of Mohammad Khatami in 1997. He founded Sobh-e Emrooz [this morning] in 1998, one of most important reformist newspapers in Iran, until it was closed in 2000. In 1998 he was also elected to Tehran's City Council and was its deputy head. The hardliners tried to assassinate him in 2000. He survived, but was gravely injured and has not recovered. After the rigged election of June 12 he was arrested, but was released two weeks ago.

Rahman Dadman obtained his PhD in civil engineering and served his nation in many positions. He was Minister of Road and Transportation in the Khatami administration. He passed away on May 18, 2001, in the crash of an Iranian YAK-40 plane, 13 miles from the city of Sari in northern Iran. In 2008, when Abbas Palizdar, an ally of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made corruption accusations against a large number of clerics, he also alleged that the aircraft in which Dadman was flying had been tampered with and, therefore, he was actually murdered.

Mohammad Naeimipour served in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the Khatami administration. He then founded Yaas-e No [new jasmine], the popular reformist daily. It was closed for several years by the hardliners. It began publishing again right before the rigged June 12 election, but was closed again after a few issues.

Ali Zahmatkesh is an engineer and works for Tavanir Company in Tehran, an electrical power corporation owned by the Ministry of Power.

Mohsen Rezaei was the top commander of the IRGC from 1981-1997. He left active duty in 1997 as a Major General and was appointed secretary-general of the Expediency Council [a constitutional body that arbitrates over disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council]. He was a candidate in the June 12 rigged election [and was among the three candidates who disputed Ahmadinejad's alleged landslide win].

Masoumeh Ebtekar [Sister Mary] obtained her PhD in science. She was the first female vice president in Iran from 1997-2005, serving under Khatami as a vice president and the head of Iran's Environmental Protection Agency. She is currently the director of the Peace and Environment Center in Tehran, as well as a member of Tehran's City Council (elected in 2006). She was also a founder of the IIPF.

Mohsen Aminzadeh obtained his PhD in political science. He is a key member of the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization, the second most important reformist group. During the Khatami administration, he served as deputy Foreign Minister for eight years, and proved to be an exceptional diplomat. The day after the rigged June 12 election, he was arrested and is still in jail.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of the former president, is a medical doctor (nephrologist). He was a deputy Health Minister for two years. Khatami was one of the founders of the IIPF in 1998, its first Secretary-General, and currently a member of its central committee. He is also a faculty member at Tehran University of Medical Sciences. He was elected in March 2000 to the 6th Majles as the first Tehran deputy with 1,794,365 votes. He was also the managing editor of the now-banned reformist daily Mosharekat [participation], the mouthpiece of the IIPF. He is married to Zahra Eshraghi, Ayatollah Khomeini's granddaughter and women's rights activist. They have two children.

Vafa Tabesh, a nephew of Khatami, has been a reformist Majles deputy from Ardakan for several years.

Hossein Sheikholeslam was a deputy Foreign Minister in the Rafsanjani administration. Since 2004 he has been a Tehran deputy to the Majles, and a member of its conservative faction.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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Oral History


Breathtaking incompetence of Carter

Shah / March 2, 2010 12:56 AM

This misery was created by the Carter administration. Thugs, criminals and murderers (virtually all of them seyeds) took to the streets and murdered the peace loving Iranans. Khomeini, the arch satan was just a stooge of the British and the US.

Ahankar Kermani / December 10, 2010 4:37 AM