The storming of the American Embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran and the subsequent hostage drama lasting 444 days and nights — well, that easily stands out as the most engaging captivity-crisis of our times.
Travelling as an undercover journalist, Nadim Siraj visited the American Embassy in Tehran — venue of that epic story — and narrated his observations in his book on Iran. It’s called Secret Notes from Iran: Diary of an Undercover Journalist (Leadstart Publishing/Platinum Press).
Following is an excerpt from a chapter in that book that deals with the Tehran Hostage Crisis:
444 DAYS: THE LONGEST WAIT
The Tehran hostage crisis, followed by the dramatic events surrounding the former American embassy, stands out as the most remarkable episode in the history of modern-day Persia. The turbulent times marked the lowest point of Iran-US relations.
In a guerilla move on 4 November 1979, a massive team of Iranian youngsters, supported by the new anti-US government controlled by the then Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, stormed the US embassy complex, capturing 52 Americans as hostages. Among those taken captives were senior US government officers, American intelligence officials, and a good number of ordinary US passport holders. The hostage period lasted 444 days — an eternity from the captives’ point of view.
The hostage situation was carried out by young members of the MSFIL (Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line), an organisation backed by the Supreme Leader. The captives were holed up in the embassy where they were taken hostage by the MSFIL young guns.
When the storming and subsequent hostage situation unfolded, it was absolutely clear that Khomeini’s administration gave the attackers the go-ahead. In fact, a move like that had been on the cards ever since the uprising ended in February 1979. The pro-Shah regime was long gone.
It is necessary here to note that the MSFIL students who carried out the storming operation represented leading science and technology universities like Tehran Polytechnic, University of Tehran, and Sharif University of Technology.
The captives were eventually set free on 20 January 1981, but by then the episode had become the lengthiest ever hostage scenario in over a century. The unenviable record has yet to be matched.
The storming of the US embassy was apparently triggered by a controversial decision taken by then US President, Jimmy Carter and involved the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
A MISERABLE END
During the 1979 Iranian Revolution’s closing days, when the US-backed autocratic Shah was busy trying to tackle the unrest across Iran, he was struggling with something very serious on a personal front. The Iranian ruler was battling a fatal disease — lymphatic cancer (known in medical circles by the complicated name, Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia).
Shortly after Mohammad Reza gave up the seat of power and fled Tehran on 16 January 1979, the White House announced that the US had decided to open its doors to the ailing Shah as a humanitarian gesture, in order to help him undergo advanced cancer treatment. The Shah was in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca when the Carter-led American administration invited him to the US for treatment.
As Khomeini’s government, Iran’s new powerbroker, watched helplessly, the former ruler of Iran flew to New York from Mexico City, checked into the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center, and began surgical treatment. Incidentally, the Pahlavi royal was admitted in the high-profile hospital disguised as David Newsom, who was actually the US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the time.
Much later, it emerged that while Mohammad Reza was being passed off as Newsom by the US security apparatus, Newsom himself had no idea his name was being used as a cover for the former Iranian ruler.
Carter’s decision to roll out the red carpet for the Shah didn’t go down well with the powers-that-be in Tehran. The Iranian administration made its displeasure felt in public, demanding that Washington DC should put Mohammad Reza on a flight to Tehran at once, to face a mountain of serious charges back home. In response, the Carter government squarely snubbed Tehran, trashing Iran’s demand.
Daggers were already drawn. The face-off between Tehran and Washington DC escalated to a whole new level. Angered by America’s stance, Iran severed all diplomatic ties with America by giving the plan to storm the US embassy in Tehran a de facto go-ahead.
The Shah, weakened by fast-advancing cancer, made two more moves. Following a lengthy phase of treatment in New York, he flew to Panama, where he spent a short time before moving on to Egypt, where he spent the final days of his checkered life. He eventually died there on 27 July 1980, at the age of 60. It is interesting to note that his funeral ceremony in Cairo was attended by former US President Richard Nixon.
Coming back to the topic of the infamous hostage situation, there’s a story behind the story that is most intriguing, although it remains unsubstantiated. Many foreign affairs observers believe the prolonged hostage situation had much to do with the 1980 US elections.
Carter, the Democratic Party candidate, was the incumbent US President when the hostage drama was underway. His image had taken a tremendous battering in the run-up to the polls in which he locked horns with Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party candidate.
CARTER OUT, REAGAN IN
As the 52 Americans remained in captivity with no end in sight, the Carter administration continued to leak voter confidence with every passing day. Riding that anti-incumbency wave, the former Hollywood actor stormed to a firm victory in the elections on 4 November 1980. Reagan assumed power on 20 January 1981, and on the same day, Tehran decided to let the US captives walk free!
The strange coincidence — if it was one at all — sparked a massive buzz across global geopolitical circles. Some observers claimed that Reagan’s victory and the welcome release of the captives in Tehran was nothing but a lucky coincidence. Others, however, suspected foul play. They felt the Republicans had colluded with the Tehran administration to coax Supreme Leader Khomeini to hold back the discharge of the hostages till after the elections, so the irate American public would vote against Carter.
The most prominent of the collusion claims came from Gary Sick, a former US navy official, who had served in the White House as a principal aide on Iran for the Carter administration’s National Security Council.
In his controversial book, October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan, Sick sensationally claims that during the hostage drama, CIA director William Casey and the then US vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party, George Bush Senior (former US President), had visited Paris for under-the-radar talks with Iranian administration representatives. The summit agenda? To somehow defer the discharge of the Tehran detainees, according to Sick.
Sick’s startling claim, no matter how temptingly convincing, has yet to be proven. Having said that, the strange timing of Reagan’s victory and the Iranian government’s decision to set the American captives free will always appear too fortuitous, especially when you look back and consider that exactly 20 minutes after Reagan’s swearing-in as US President in Washington DC, the Iranians announced in Tehran that the hostages were free to go.
Just 20 minutes. It was certainly the mother of all coincidences.
For more stories about Iran and an understanding of the grand chess game of West Asian oil politics, you may read the book ‘Secret Notes from Iran‘, published by Platinum Press (Leadstart Publishing).