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INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS Name___________________________

International Law Date____________________Period_____
U.S. vs. Iran- The Iranian Hostage Crisis

By J. McCracken

Key Terms:

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - Iranian Shi'ite cleric who led the revolution that overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, and who was Iran's ultimate political and religious authority for the next 10 years.

Chador: is a full-length outer cloak worn by many Iranian women in public spaces.
diplomatic immunity: Formalized under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations Treaty of 1961, it is a form of legal immunity and a policy held between governments, which ensures that diplomats are given safe passage and are considered not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under the host country's laws (although they can be expelled).
Jimmy Carter - President of the United States, 1977-81 during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi - Shah of Iran from 1941 to 1979, who maintained a pro-Western foreign policy and fostered economic development in Iran.

OPEC- Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries; oil cartel instrumental in setting gasoline and petroleum product prices

Ronald Reagan - President of the United States, 1981 -1989.  Benefited much from the downfall of Jimmy Carter due to the negative impact of the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Sh’ia (Shi’ite) – Branch of Islam practiced in Iran, as opposed to the Sunni, which, for example, is the dominant branch in Saudi Arabia.
Student-militants – 300-500 Iranian student militants who seized control of the United States Embassy in Tehran. These students wanted the Shah (Pahlavi) to be returned to Iran from the U.S., and tried as a criminal.
Terrorism: While a universal definition has not been agreed upon, it is an act composed of the following characteristics: involving an action of violence, an audience, the creation of a mood of fear, innocent victims, and political motives or goals.
World Court: International Court of Justice (ICJ), located at the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands. In U.S. vs. Iran, the court ruled for the United States, declaring that Iran was in violation of obligations it owed to the US under conventions in force (treaties) and rules of general international law.

Reading I: The Iranian Hostage Crisis

Background for the Hostage Crisis in Iran

  1. Establishment of the Shah

In 1921, army general Reza Pahlavi took power in Iran, focusing on modernization through secularism and westernization. He strengthened and united Iran, but ignored their Constitution’s religious and democratic measures. Reza replaced Islamic laws with western ones, and forbade traditional Islamic clothing, separation of the sexes and veiling of women. These changes were partly responsible for the division between the Shah and religious Sh’ia in Iran.

In 1941, Reza was removed from power by British and Russian forces, who feared Reza’s sympathies with World War II enemy, Nazi Germany. His son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was installed as Shah of Iran by these foreign powers.

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi sought continue the path to the modernization of Iran, ruthlessly punishing dissent. As this was during the Cold War, Shah kept close relationships with the United States and the west. He remained steadfast in his opposition to communism, the ideology of Iran's powerful northern neighbor, the Soviet Union. Various Iranian groups demonstrated against the Shah’s violation of the Iranian constitution, political corruption, and the political oppression by SAVAK, his secret police.

  1. Rise of Ayatollah Khomeini

In 1963, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Sh’ia cleric and the leader of the Iranian revolution, rose to political prominence when he headed opposition to the Shah’s program of reforms. These reforms aimed to redistribute land owned by some Sh’ia clergy, permit women legal equality in marital issues, allow women to vote, and religious minority groups to hold office, all ‘western’ influences.

After public demonstrations, Khomeini publicly denounced the Shah as a "wretched miserable man" and promptly was arrested, his house arrest lasting for 8 months. After his release, he condemned the Shah’s cooperation with Israel and the extension of diplomatic immunity to U.S. government personnel in Iran. Khomeini was re-arrested in late 1964, and sent into exile for the next 14 years.

3. Iranian Revolution and the Carter Administration

In October 1971, the Shah sponsored an extremely costly celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire, inviting only foreign dignitaries. The cost was estimated to be in the range of $100–120 million during a period when many Iranians were suffering economic hardship brough about by inflation and drought. To them, the Shah appeared incredibly out of touch with his people.

Finally attempting to deal with the economic problems, the Shah took measure to lower inflation and reduce waste in 1976. This resulted in unemployment that heavily affected the poor and unskilled migrants in Iran’s population. Many of these people, who already saw the Shah's progressive Westernization as "alien and wicked”, went on to form the bedrock of revolution's supporters.

The inauguration of the new American President, Jimmy Carter, took place in January 1977. Because of Iran's history and strategic location, it was important geopolitical ally to the United States. Iran shared a long border with America's cold war rival, the Soviet Union, and the largest, most powerful country in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Entering into a post-Vietnam era, the new administration desired a more ‘benevolent’ American foreign policy; the Administration reminded the Shah of the importance of political rights and freedom. The Shah responded by granting amnesty to approximately 350 political prisoners, and permitted the Red Cross to visit prisons, launching a new period of liberalization by the Shah. Taking full advantage of this new liberalization, throughout 1977 opposition to the Shah formed organizations and openly denouncing the regime. Dissent groups could now gathered without the customary police arrests. Unknown to the Shah or President Carter, this was the beginning of the end of the Shah’s regime.

Demonstrations continued and began to escalate in 1978. By September, the nation was rapidly destabilizing, and major protests were becoming a regular occurrence. The Shah declared martial law, and banned all demonstrations to no avail. On September 8, 1977, “Black Friday occurred as thousands of protesters gathered in Tehran and security forces fired on and killed dozens. This was followed by escalating unrest and a general strike, which parallyzed the economy.

Facing a serious revolution, the Shah appealed to the United States for support. On November 4, 1978, Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski told the Shah that the United States would "back him to the hilt." However with the Carter cabinet, other high-level officials decided that the Shah had to go, regardless of who replaced him. President Carter could not decide how to appropriately use force and opposed a U.S.-led coup. Ultimately, President Carter supported a regime change and did not provide support for the Shah.

The Shah and the empress left Iran on January 16, 1979, as the successful revolutionaries and crowds cheered. Meanwhile, Washington believed it had worked out a deal with the Iranian military leadership to shift support to a new moderate government. The return of Ayatollah Kohmeini from exile in February 12, 1979 dashed all plans for this new pro-American government in Iran.

On October 22, 1979, the Carter Administration permitted the Shah, who was ill with cancer, to enter the U.S. for medical treatment. The American embassy in Tehran had discouraged the request, understanding the political delicacy, but political pressure to approve the request prevailed.

In Iran, this intensified anti-American sentiment and spawned rumors of a U.S.-backed coup to re-installation of the Shah. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini heightened rhetoric against the “Great Satan”, the United States, talking of what he called “evidence of American plotting.” Later it was learned that the hostage takers were convinced that the U.S. embassy was a center of opposition to the new government.

The Hostage Crisis Unfolds


In September 1979, Iranian student-militants at the University of Teheran began to play the seizure of the U.S. embassy. They formed a group for this purpose, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line.

The student-militants observed the security procedures of the U.S. Marine guards from nearby rooftops overlooking the embassy. They also used experiences from the recent revolution, during which the U.S. embassy grounds were briefly occupied. They enlisted the support of police in charge of guarding the embassy and of Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

According to the group, Ayatollah Khomeini did not know of the plan before hand. The Islamist students had wanted to inform him, but they feared the government would use police to expel them. On the other hand, if Khomeini learned the embassy occupiers were his faithful supporters and that large numbers of pious Muslims had gathered outside the embassy to show their support for the takeover, it would be impossible for Khomeini to oppose the takeover.


On November 4, 1979, Iranian student-militants stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took approximately seventy Americans captive. This terrorist act triggered the most profound crisis of the Carter presidency that lasted 444 days.

Initially, the student-militants’ planned to only make a symbolic occupation of the embassy, release statements to the press and ending the seizure when Iran’s security forces came to restore order. When it became clear the U.S. embassy guards would not use deadly force and that a large angry crowd had gathered outside the coumpound to cheer the occupiers and jeer the hostages, the occupation changed.

Not pleased at first, Ayallatolah Khomeini came to support the embassy takeover. The student-militants bound and blindfolded the embassy soldiers and staff and paraded them in front of photographers. Many of the embassy staff who had snuck out of the compound were rounded up and returned as hostages.

President Carter was determined to see the safe return of the hostages while protecting America's interests and prestige. He embraced a policy of restraint that valued the lives of the hostages more than the use of America’s coercive military muscle.

444 Days of Crisis

As part of his policy of restraint, Carter began economic pressure on Iran. On November 14th, 1979, he announced a ban on Iranian oil imports and cancelled a pending sale of weapons to Iran. Both measures hurt the Iranian economy and military capability. The full impact was felt when the Iran entered a war with Iraq in 1980. However, the ban kept fuel prices in America high during a time when consumers were already being squeezed by the OPEC oil embargo. On November 15th, the Department of the Treasury froze $8 billion dollars in Iranian assets held by American banks. This measure further crippled Iran's government financially. Unfreezing the assets later became a condition of the hostages' release.

In spite the economic pressures, it soon became clear that releasing the hostages quickly was not in the best interests of the new revolutionary government of Iran. As Ayatollah Khomeini told Iran's president:

“This action has many benefits. ... This has united our people. Our opponents do not dare act against us. We can put the constitution to the people's vote without difficulty, and carry out presidential and parliamentary elections”.

Thirteen hostages were released when the student-militants declared their solidarity with other "oppressed minorities" and "the special place of women in Islam," released women and African-Americans in the mid-November 1979. Additionally, one more hostage, Richard Queen, was released in July 1980 after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The remaining 52 hostages were held captive until the end of the crisis.

By early 1980, Carter was in a quagmire with no strategy to resolve the standoff. On April 25, 1980, the U.S. military attempted a daring rescue mission, seeking to retrieve the hostages. Unfortunately, mechanical failure and a raging dust storm caused Operation Eagle Claw to be aborted. Two helicopters, with vision obscured by the dust and dark, crashed into each other. Eight U.S. servidemen and one Iranian citizen were killed. The White House announced the failed rescue operation the following day. As a result, the 52 hostages were scattered across Iran to make a second rescue attempt impossible. With the wreckage mocked on Iranian television, the Carter administration appeared inept and weak, not a desirable position with a presidential election season in full swing.

The failure of his military rescue signaled the death knell of his Iranian policy of restraint and to the President’s reelection hopes. Deals for the release of the hostages were negotiated, accepted by Iranians, and then rejected once again over and over, frustrating the Carter Administration. During the summer, the Shah, who had left the U.S. for exile in Egypt, died of cancer. In September 12th, 1980, as Ayatollah Khomeini announced four conditions for the release of the hostages:

  • The Shah's American fortune, amounting to billions of dollars, was to be remitted to the Iranian government.

  • American claims against Iran in the International Court of Justice were to be nullified.

  • Iranian assets frozen in American banks were to be released

  • The United States was to promise never to interfere with Iran's affairs.

In 1980, the U.S. filed a suit against Iran in the World Court, or International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands. It would later win its’ argument, as the World Court ruled that Iran was in violation of obligations it owed to the US under conventions in force (treaties) and rules of general international law, namely the immunity of diplomats. Iran was instructed to immediately secure the release of the hostages, restore the embassy and make reparations for the injury caused to the U.S. Though this was a legal victory, it did not help the Carter campaign


That November, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the U.S. in November 4, 1980 by a landslide, 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. Just weeks before, American diplomats entered into tense negotiations with Iran, with the neutral nation of Algeria serving as an intermediary. It was decided that in exchange for their release, the U.S. agreed to turn over $8 billion of Iran's frozen assets, and to refrain from interfering politically or militarily in Iran's internal affairs. The U.S. and Iran signed the agreement on January 19, 1981, but in a final embarrassment to Carter, the student-militants did not release the hostages until January 20, the day President Reagan was inaugurated. The hostages were flown from Teheran via Algiers to Germany and were met by special envoy, former President Carter. The crisis was finally over.

Impact of the Crisis

The lasting effects of the crisis were numerous. The failure of Operation Eagle Claw to rescue the hostages, together with the intelligence problems caused by President Carter's cutbacks to the CIA, gave President Reagan political fuel for a major military buildup. Iran began a long war with neighboring Iraq with its economy and military capability severely damaged. Antipathy between the U.S. and Iran was established, lasting until today.


Reading I: The Iranian Hostage Crisis

Critical Thinking Questions -

  1. Why did the Ayatollah Khomeini say, “This action has many benefits.” What benefits was Khomeini referring to?

  2. Under international law, many embassy personnel around the world have diplomatic immunity, that is, form of legal immunity and a policy held between governments, which ensures that diplomats are given safe passage and are considered not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under the host country's laws (although they can be expelled). The Iranian student-militants violated this norm (rule). Where they criminals or terrorists? Explain.

  3. Was there any reasonable justification for the student-militants for seizing the hostages? Explain your response.

  4. What argument could the U.S. have used in case, U.S. vs. Iran?

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