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For this dispatch - the Iranian hostage crisis - I had to look no further than trekker Neda! As you may recall from her first dispatch, Neda's parents left Iran when the revolution was afoot. She was just a nine-month-old baby when, on January 16, 1979, the ruler of Iran, known as the Shah, fled the country with his family, never to return. On that day, he gave up trying to hold on to power and decided that a life in exile would be better. Twenty-four hours later, Neda's family followed suit.
Although no one in Neda's family was taken hostage or participated in any hostage-taking activities, they know a lot more about the reasons that led to the crisis than most of us. Her mom and dad even attended some of the anti-Shah rallies that marked the beginning of the revolution. Like most Iranians, they resented his government for being corrupt, elitist, and completely out of touch with the harsh realities of the country.
For over two decades, the Shah ruled Iran with the tacit support of the United States. Through military training, arms sales, and economic treaties, the U.S. pumped money and personnel into Iran, all the while overlooking the fact that the vast majority of people did not approve of the Shah's government. Understandably, anti-Shah sentiments thus translated into anti-Americanism.
I asked Bijan, Neda's dad, to explain why he decided to leave with his family. "It was the middle of the revolution," he said, "and there was a lot of uncertainty. I was happy that the Shah was leaving, but not necessarily with who was replacing him." He told me that in the beginning, the protests were being led by intellectuals and university students. "But then the demonstrations got some kind of fanatic religious tone."
The tone was not only deeply religious, but also increasingly anti-American. After all, the U.S. had always sided with the Shah, and most Iranians believed it would try and restore him to power (like it did in 1953, but that's another story). So on February 14, 1979, revolutionary forces in the capital, Tehran, overran the U.S. Embassy and held 70 people captive for more than two hours.
Iranians didn't buy it. They were angry with the U.S. and immediately took to the streets. At first these protests seemed no different than the ones that had been occurring since Khomeini's return, but on the morning of November 4, 1979, exactly one year before the U.S. presidential election, a mob of 3,000 students stormed the Embassy's gate, overran the guards, and took the 66 people inside hostage, in the name of Khomeini. Bijan said that initially this situation didn't worry him too much. "I didn't think too much of it because there had been other demonstrations in Tehran and nothing had happened. But after the first days passed, some of the students started to take the lead," and things suddenly seemed more serious.
The hostage crisis lasted for 444 days. It impacted Americans in a way not seen since the Vietnam War. It led to the deaths of eight American military servicemen during a disastrous rescue mission. And it cost Jimmy Carter the re-election. As Craig Gordon explains on his Web site, Americans across the country watched with growing apprehension as the events unfolded:
"Television newscasts were filled with on-the-scene pictures of the dramatic event, which was virtually unprecedented in American history. The media, by giving the crisis an extremely high level of coverage, including nightly TV 'specials' on the situation, added to the emotional response of the American people, and showed huge mobs of crazed Iranians in Tehran chanting 'Death to America, Death to Carter, Death to the Shah.' Representations of Uncle Sam and Carter were burned and numerous American flags were spat upon, trampled, and burned in the street. More importantly, American television audiences were shocked to see blindfolded members of the United States Marines embassy guard, with their hands tied behind their backs, as they were paraded before TV cameras. Everywhere, the American public demanded that the government take some sort of retaliatory action."
Soon after the crisis began, Iranian demonstrators released all of the non-American hostages, as well as all of the blacks and most of the women. The blacks were released, the Muslims said, because they were victims of American oppressors. The women were freed because the Muslims did not wage war against women. Fifty-two people remained hostages until the end.
Not surprisingly, Carter rejected these terms and by April had ordered that all diplomatic ties with Iran be severed. He also approved a rescue mission known as operation "Eagle Claw," which failed miserably and only led to more name-calling by each side and a dip in the polls for Carter.
Most historians agree that Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan because of the hostage crisis. And ironically, Reagan's win (and the start of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980) is what prompted their release, which, by the way, occurred the day of Reagan's inauguration, after the U.S. released $8 billion in Iranian assets.
The hostage crisis was inexcusable. Ordinary Americans certainly didn't have anything to do with the their government's support of the much-maligned Shah. But they became an easy, if misdirected, target of Iran's frustration with the mighty United States. The U.S. was being told very clearly that it couldn't keep meddling in Iran's political affairs. If it did, it would pay the consequences.
The consequences weren't that consequential in the grand scheme of things. The worst thing to happen was that Carter lost the election, but in the end, all of the hostages were released unharmed. Iran, however, lost face in the international arena and became embroiled in a war with Iraq that sapped its economy and resources. During the 1980s and much of the 1990s, both governments hated each other.
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