It was on November 4, 1979, that a group of Iranian students from an organization called “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line,” possibly with the pre-approval of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took 66 US citizens hostage. Thirteen of them would be released within three weeks, and another was let go in July 1980 after he’d fallen quite ill. But 52 hostages remained in the custody of those student-militant-hostage takers for 444 days, only being freed in January 1981. It’s hard to make a lot of sweeping pronouncements about the importance of any particular event so soon after it happened, at least 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 has influenced US-Iran relations ever since. It even launched Ted Koppel’s career.
It’s 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 Ayatollah Khamenei recently argued doesn’t actually mean “death to America”) and Iran’s often used description of America as “the Great Satan” both hail from around this time, and it all sort of telescopes into the notion that the Islamic Revolution was All About Us, that it was officially, fundamentally anti-American, that America is the aggrieved party in this relationship. Unsurprisingly, the truth is more complicated than that.
When it took place, the Islamic 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 America, 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 Mossadegh government and removed the popular/democratic limits on the Shah’s authority, he’d run the country in an increasingly autocratic, paranoid fashion.
The shah 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. And also because he was kind of a lousy ruler. His attempts at “reform” (Westernizing, breaking the power of large landowners) failed to benefit the lower classes in Iranian society, and so they just wound up alienating everybody instead. 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. Given the widespread Iranian revulsion toward the Shah, you might have found a lot of sympathy from many corners of Iranian society for the stated motivation of the students who seized the embassy, which was to force the United States to send the Shah back to Iran to stand trial. Anti-American sentiment was high, owing to the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup and America’s continued support of the Shah despite all of his serious misdeeds. Yes, there were plenty of 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 even many of them probably harbored some resentment toward America. Seeing the exiled Shah wind up in the US would have just exacerbated those anti-American 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 the Russian Empire, particularly during the 19th century “Great Game” period when the Russians and Brits divided the country into spheres of influence, and the Islamist elements among the revolution despised the USSR’s whole Marxist/atheist ethos.)
However, the idea that the students were actually motivated by the Shah’s arrival in the US, or a desire to force the US to send him back to Iran for trial, doesn’t quite ring true. First, the characterization that the Shah had found refuge with his pals the Americans was somewhat unfair–after he’d been forced to leave Iran in January 1979, he’d 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 to be treated for his lymphoma and for surgery to treat his gallstones, but then-President Jimmy Carter made it clear that, despite the fact that the Shah had been a close US ally, he would not be permanently welcome in the US (Carter wasn’t too keen on letting him in even for the medical treatment). And, indeed, he left the US as soon as his doctors gave the OK. Second, the fact is that the US embassy had already been stormed once, by Marxists in February, and the students who seized it in November started planning their operation in September…before the Shah set foot in the US.
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 in the revolution (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? Well, 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 Shia 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.
It’s not clear that Khomeini’s more secular co-revolutionaries really knew what he was envisioning at first, but as a new constitution began to take shape over the course of 1979, they (leftists in particular, but also secularists more broadly) started to resist the more theocratic elements of the Ayatollah’s plan. When the embassy was seized, it provided the perfect chance for Khomeini to go out before 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 definitely capitalized on the moment.
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), tasked elements of his Revolutionary Guard with securing 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 having a public debate over the merits of Khomeini’s proposed constitution vanished. Moderate liberals who opposed taking the embassy and antagonizing the US were discredited. Most of the Marxist revolutionaries, who opposed the Vilayat-i Faqih but supported any attack on the US, were savvy enough to just shut up and cheer on the students, but that wing of the revolution never had a great deal of popular support to begin with, and Khomeini was able to purge them pretty easily later on.
The Iranian revolution initially left its relations with the US in limbo. Washington did have decent relations with the Shah, in spite of a growing uneasiness over the excesses of his brutal authoritarianism, and in the chaos that followed his overthrow in January it was unclear how the US would respond. The hostage crisis took the US-Iran relationship out of limbo and killed it (and helped kill Carter’s presidency too). One person who watched this happen with great interest was Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who may well have seen the collapse of the US-Iran relationship as his final green light to start a war with Tehran.
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 Americans to the Iraqis. If we’ve got a legitimate beef with Iran over the hostage crisis, then certainly they’ve also got a legitimate beef with us over what happened next.