What caused the hostage crisis in Iran

Background current

35 years ago, 52 American embassy staff were held hostage in Iran. More than a year earlier, students stormed the US embassy in Tehran. The US and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since that event.

Iranian students storm the US embassy building in Tehran on November 4, 1979. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

On November 4, 1979, a group of students stormed the grounds of the US embassy in Tehran and captured 63 American citizens; three other embassy employees were picked up at the Iranian foreign ministry. The students asked the United States to extradite Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlewi to try in Iran.


Since 1977, the Iranian monarch had come under increasing criticism: for his autocratic practice of rule, the repressive treatment of the opposition and allegations of corruption against the government, as well as his efforts towards modernization, which were based on the West. At the same time, support for the exiled adversary of the Shah Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini grew. After the mass demonstrations peaked in late 1978, the Shah fled to Egypt. Revolutionary leader Khomeini then returned to Iran and appointed Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister of a transitional government. When the seriously cancerous Shah traveled to the US for treatment in October, radical supporters of the Ayatollah stormed the US embassy in Tehran about two weeks later.

National and international reactions

The growing gap between Ayatollah Khomeini and the transitional government was also evident in the reactions to the hostage-taking: While the Ayatollah approved the hostage-taking, the provisional revolutionary government under Mehdi Bazargan protested in vain against the occupation of the embassy. Eventually, faced with impotence, the government resigned while Khomeini was able to further stabilize his power in Iran.

On November 17, 1979, Khomeini gave the order to release black Americans and women from among the hostages. Thirteen members of the embassy were then released, and another was later released from hostage detention due to a serious illness. The official justification for this was that Islam respected women and blacks were oppressed in the USA.

The US government, headed by President Jimmy Carter, had previously refused to extradite the Shah. To put the Iranian regime under pressure, the US set up a trade embargo and decided to ban imports of Iranian oil. Ten days after occupying the embassy, ​​President Carter froze all funds held by the Iranian government that were in the US or under US control abroad: a total of 12 billion US dollars. The US also sought international sanctions against Iran through the UN Security Council. However, this failed due to the veto of the Soviet Union. Other states also reduced their trade with Iran in the course of the hostage-taking: At the request of the USA, some states allied with them prohibited the export of weapons to Iran and the granting of financial credits.

One of the 52 American hostages, blindfolded and tied, in the midst of some of the hostage takers. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Failed liberation

After unsuccessful diplomatic efforts, Carter made the decision a few months later to free the hostages militarily. The secret operation "Eagle Claw", carried out on April 24, 1980, failed due to technical problems with the helicopters used. Eight American soldiers died in the collision of a transport plane with a helicopter. For Carter, the failed operation was a major setback in the current election campaign. His Republican challenger Ronald Reagan won the US presidential election on November 4, 1980.

Ultimately, continued negotiations and changed framework conditions led to a diplomatic solution to the hostage situation: In July 1980, the Shah died in Egypt. In September the First Gulf War began with the invasion of Iran by Iraq. On January 19, 1981, the American and Iranian negotiating partners reached an agreement through the mediation of Algeria. After 444 days in captivity, the remaining 52 hostages were released on January 20, 1981. In return, the US ended the trade embargo, released the previously frozen Iranian assets and promised not to intervene in Iran's internal affairs in the future.

Consequences for Iranian-American Relations

The hostage-taking in Tehran marks a break in the Iranian-American relationship. During the Shah's reign, the United States had close ties to the regime originally brought to power by the US intelligence agency, the CIA, and the British MI6. The hostage-taking marked the end of diplomatic relations between the US and Iran. To this day, the two states do not maintain an embassy in the respective other country and are represented there by friendly countries: the USA by Switzerland, Iran by Pakistan.

Relations between the two countries have eased somewhat recently. In July 2015, France, Great Britain, the USA, Russia, China and Germany reached an agreement with Iran that would regulate the Iranian use of nuclear energy. In this context, the sanctions against the country are to be lifted.

More on the subject:

  • Current background (July 31, 2015): 25 years ago: Beginning of the Second Gulf War
  • Current background (06/17/2013): Rohani wins presidential election in Iran
  • Current background (23.01.2012): Oil embargo against Iran
  • Current background (10.02.2012): Iran and the revolution