The Iran hostage crisis was a diplomatic conflict between the United States and Iran that formally began on November 4, 1979, when Islamic militants overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran and seized its staff as hostages. This situation lasted through the end of President Jimmy Carter’s term and hurt him politically in the presidential election against Ronald Reagan.
Relations between the United States and Iran began to break down during the Iranian revolution in early 1979. Prior to this Iran’s ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had been an ally of the United States. The shah had purchased billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. arms and had committed Iran to a program of Westernstyle modernization—a program that by the 1970s had created a political and cultural backlash by Islamic fundamentalists (chief among them the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini). In an attempt to blunt this backlash, the shah resorted to increasingly heavy-handed internal measures, but only succeeded in alienating the Iranian populace. In January 1979 the shah was overthrown and forced into exile, and an Islamic-style theocracy, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, assumed power. The U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital, warned President Carter soon afterward that allowing the shah into the United States would precipitate a crisis with the new Iranian government, but the shah, ill with cancer, was admitted to a New York hospital on October 23. By this time the exiled shah had been legally deposed and formally sentenced to death in Iran. Less than two weeks later the long-brewing crisis of anti-U.S. feelings broke out when a mob of Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy, detained 66 members of the staff as hostages, and demanded the extradition of the shah to Iran in return for the release of the hostages. President Carter rejected this, but in December 1979 the shah left the United States, first for Panama and then to Egypt, where he died on July 27, 1980.
Since the hostage taking violated diplomatic convention and international law, Carter was able to rally world opinion against Iran and impose an economic embargo. The White House attempted several failed diplomatic initiatives. The Ayatollah Khomeini, who had privately sanctioned the actions of the hostage takers, refused to see U.S emissaries and rebuffed U.S. diplomatic efforts. In the only successful diplomatic measure, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) representatives gained the release of 13 female and African-American hostages. On April 7, 1980, the United States officially broke diplomatic ties with Iran.
Despite continued pressure on Iran, the hostages remained in captivity five months after the crisis began, and domestic pressure mounted on the Carter administration to find a solution. After much deliberation, President Carter decided that direct intervention was needed. Carter then authorized Operation Desert Claw, an ill-fated military rescue plan. The April 24, 1980, rescue mission suffered from having to traverse great distances by air, unexpected sandstorms, and untimely mechanical failures. The final mishap came during a desert refueling stop, when a helicopter collided with a tanker plane loaded with high-octane aviation fuel, killing eight U.S. servicemen.
The failure of the rescue mission did not end negotiations, but the Carter administration appeared to be paralyzed by the crisis. Finally, on January 19, 1981,
Vice President George Bush welcomes Colonel Thomas E. Schaefer,
one of the Americans held hostage by Iran.
U.S. secretary of state Cyrus Vance quietly signed the Algiers Accord, which established the pre–November 4, 1979, situation. Its main clause was the restitution of frozen Iranian financial assets in the United States. In return, on January 20 Iran released the U.S. hostages after 444 days of captivity, just minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.