Iran Hostage Crisis

Iran hostage crisis, in U.S. history, events following the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by Iranian students on Nov. 4, 1979. The overthrow of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi of Iran by an Islamic revolutionary government earlier in the year had led to a steady deterioration in Iran-U.S. relations. In response to the exiled shah's admission (Sept., 1979) to the United States for medical treatment, a crowd of about 500 seized the embassy. Of the approximately 90 people inside the embassy, 52 remained in captivity until the end of the crisis.

President Carter applied economic pressure by halting oil imports from Iran and freezing Iranian assets in the United States. At the same time, he began several diplomatic initiatives to free the hostages, all of which proved fruitless. On Apr. 24, 1980, the United States attempted a rescue mission that failed. After three of eight helicopters were damaged in a sandstorm, the operation was aborted; eight persons were killed during the evacuation. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had opposed the action, resigned after the mission's failure.

In 1980, the death of the shah in Egypt and the invasion of Iran by Iraq (see Iran-Iraq War) made the Iranians more receptive to resolving the hostage crisis. In the United States, failure to resolve the crisis contributed to Ronald Reagan's defeat of Carter in the presidential election. After the election, with the assistance of Algerian intermediaries, successful negotiations began. On Jan. 20, 1981, the day of President Reagan's inauguration, the United States released almost $8 billion in Iranian assets and the hostages were freed after 444 days in Iranian detention; the agreement gave Iran immunity from lawsuits arising from the incident.

In 2000 former hostages and their survivors sued Iran under the 1996 Antiterrorism Act, which permits U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments in cases of state-sponsored terrorism. The following year they won the lawsuit by default when Iran did not offer a defense. The U.S. State Dept. sought dismissal of the suit, arguing it would hinder its ability to negotiate international agreements, and a federal judge dismissed the plaintiffs' suit for damages in 2002, ruling that the agreement that resulted in their release barred awarding any damages.

See G. Sick, All Fall Down (1985).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam
David Farber.
Princeton University Press, 2006
US Foreign Policy and the Iran Hostage Crisis
David Patrick Houghton.
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Terrorism's War with America: A History
Dennis Piszkiewicz.
Praeger, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "The Holy War: Terror in Tehran"
Headline Diplomacy: How News Coverage Affects Foreign Policy
Philip Seib.
Praeger, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981)" begins on p. 31
The International Politics of Secularism: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Islamic Republic of Iran
Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman.
Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 29, No. 2, March-May 2004
The Modern Presidency and Crisis Rhetoric
Amos Kiewe.
Praeger Publishers, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Iran hostage crisis begins on p. 143
"I Had Left One America and Come Home to Another One": First-Person Accounts of Captivity during the Iranian Hostage Crisis
Scott, Catherine.
Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2004
The Evolution of Special Forces in Counter-Terrorism: The British and American Experiences
J. Paul De B. Taillon.
Praeger, 2001
A Running Family Feud - Canada and the United States Share a Common Border and Similar Problems. They Have Also Come to Each Other's Assistance, as Exemplified by an Unforgettable Story from the Iran Hostage Crisis
Herschensohn, Bruce.
The World and I, Vol. 18, No. 5, May 2003
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