A Brief History of the Iranian Hostage Crisis

January 20, 2020Matt Fratus
January 1981:  United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days. One of the hostages is waving his fists in the air, and a sign on the plane door says, ‘Welcome Back to Freedom’.  (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

January 1981: United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days. One of the hostages is waving his fists in the air, and a sign on the plane door says, ‘Welcome Back to Freedom’. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

The history and formal relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran spans back to World War II. The Nazi influence swept through Europe and all major regions across the world. In order to counter this, U.S. allies — particularly Britain’s troops from their bases in Iraq, along with the Soviet Union — invaded Iran in 1941. The resistance was minimal, the Shah (emperor or ruling monarch) was exiled to South Africa, and the country divided between their invaders in an agreement called the Tripartite Treaty of Alliance. Iran remained a strategic but neutral nation during the war. 

A decade later, the next elected Shah was Mohammed Mossadegh, and despite his issues with the British, he tried to nationalize the oil industry. During this time there were assassinations, riots, and mass protests in the streets, and the World Court weighed in on the prosperity of Iranian oil. British and American intelligence services worked together to overthrow Mossadegh in a coup d’etat through covert action in 1953. It took four days for him to be ousted and another coup to keep his replacement, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, an anti-communist and pro-Western mind, in power. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious leader, spoke out publicly in protest of Pahlavi’s “White Revolution” and his relationship with the U.S. and Israel. Khomeini was subsequently exiled to Turkey in 1964. 

iran hostage crisis
Street demonstrators hold up photos of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, 1978. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Khomeini, though exiled and watching from afar in Iraq, remained vigilant in returning to Iran to become the supreme leader. Time magazine wrote that Khomeini was a “theological maverick” and that he suspected SAVAK, Iran’s secret service, was behind the alleged assassinations of his son, Mostafa, and a prominent Islamic professor, Dr. Ali Shariati, in 1977. By 1979, the Iranian Revolution turned into anarchy as no police force existed to quell the lawlessness nor was there a court system to enforce justice.

On Sunday, Nov. 4, 1979, as many as 3,000 student protestors stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 98 hostages, many of whom were Americans. The Iran Hostage Crisis lasted 444 days, and several key events happened in between to ultimately secure the safety of the American diplomats and embassy staff held inside. Two of these events were the Canadian Caper and Operation Eagle Claw.

Canadian Caper

As the days ticked by, Americans and the families of the hostages back home eagerly kept their eyes on the news for the status of the Americans held in Iran. The world paid close attention, too, as to what the response would be from President Jimmy Carter and his administration. This was not the first time Carter negotiated a hostage crisis in Iran. Earlier that year, on Feb. 14, 1979, in what became known as the Saint Valentine’s Day Open House, embassy guard and U.S. Marine Kenneth Kraus was wounded by a shotgun blast. He was hospitalized, imprisoned, and tortured for nearly a week as a direct result of an angry mob that jumped over the walls. It was the first time in U.S. history that an embassy was overtaken. Carter secured Kraus’ release; he returned to the U.S. with a hero’s welcome. 

Student protestors climb over the gate to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.
Student protestors climb over the gate to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In October 1979, first-tour CIA operations officer and veteran Vietnam War Marine aviator William Daugherty was receiving daily intelligence reports in Tehran about the tensions in the region. The Iranian people were adamant that the Americans were trying to use the Shah as a pawn in their scheme to influence the nation. President Carter offered the Shah “humanitarian assistance” inside the United States, which further angered the Iranian populace. “To the ever-suspicious Iranian radicals, the admission of the Shah for medical treatment was a sham designed to hide a conspiracy aimed at overthrowing their revolutionary government,” Daugherty wrote. 

Carter announced the Shah’s entry into the U.S., not suspecting that there would be backlash. The Iranian people overwhelmingly sided with Khomeini, who later became the new supreme leader of Iran. Iran then retaliated in what became the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

A large crowd gathered together by the embassy’s gate at 8 AM, and by 9:30 AM, the first assailant was over the brick wall. The young students overwhelmed the embassy staff, including Daugherty. The atmosphere was unnerving, especially considering that some were mere teenagers welding Uzi submachine guns.The embassy staff surrendered, having their hands tied and faces blindfolded. 

The hostages were subjected to interrogations and threats of executions. Daugherty wrote that just before the embassy takeover, the entire library of the Tehran-American school was delivered to the embassy. There were novels, English mysteries, and nonfiction books to keep the hostages occupied. The supply of books, of which he estimated he read about 500 while in captivity, along with his training as a Marine aviator, is what he credits to outlasting the frequent espionage accusations, solidarity, threats, and the unknown. 

Two American hostages during the siege of the U.S. Embassy. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

During the siege of the embassy, six diplomats evaded the assailants and escaped the 27-acre compound to the home of John Sheardon, a Canadian Consular who hid them for three months. While the U.S. government envisioned a military rescue of the staff held in the embassy, the CIA and Canadian intelligence services worked together to sneak out the six diplomats. Tony Mendez — a CIA intelligence officer, Office of Technical Service officer, Chief of Disguise Section, and later the Authentication Chief of the CIA’s Graphics and Authentication Division — was in the perfect position to take on the job because his role was to think outside the box. It would have been next to impossible to convince the Iranians that they were anybody other than spies if they didn’t have a bonafide cover

“Normally we make a cover that is very boring, very forgettable. But we couldn’t go as teachers as the international schools were closed,” Mendez said. “We couldn’t go as oil technicians. We couldn’t go as nutritionists pretending to be inspecting crops.”

The Canadians based in Ottawa handled all the pocket litter that the operations officers needed for their departure and entrance into Iran so as to not raise suspicion. They were provided passports, academic backgrounds, business cards, credit cards — anything that would be found in a wallet or a purse to build a cover story. 

Mendez recruited John Chambers, an Academy Award-winning make-up artist responsible for crafting Spock’s ears in the “Star Trek” series and the costumes for the 1968 “Planet of the Apes” movie. Bob Sidell, a special effects professional, added his expertise to the team. With Hollywood’s help, their story of going into Iran to scout film locations for a sci-fi movie based on the novel “Lord of Light” came into fruition. To make Studio Six, their fake production company, and “Argo,” their fake movie proposal, authentic, they hired Jack Kirby, the notorious comic book artist behind “X-Men,” to draw concept drawings. 

On Jan. 25, 1980, the team knew every trivial fact about their cover and flew into Iran disguised as a film crew. They went through customs without a hitch, linked up with the stranded diplomats at the Canadian residence, and prepared for their exfiltration. Three days later they snuck through Tehran by vehicle, went through immigration and customs, boarded their Swiss airplane with the tail insignia AARGAU, and as the plane lifted to altitude, they were home free. Mendez was awarded the CIA’s intelligence star for his role in the mission. 

As the Americans departed, Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor left a sign outside their embassy that read, “Canadian Embassy Temporarily Closed.” It’s “temporary” status remained in effect for the next eight years because of the hostility in Iran.

Operation Eagle Claw

Mitch Bryant, John Koren, Mike Lampe, Bud Gonzales, Dick West, John Carney, Bill Sink, Rex Wollmann, and Doug Cohee. Carney secured Desert One in a solo mission in preparation for Operation Eagle Claw. Photo courtesy of Sgt. Mac’s Bar.

The CIA and Canada had successfully carried out a historic deception rescue, but there were still Americans held at gunpoint in the American embassy in Tehran. Diplomatic solutions were at a stalemate. In April 1980, President Carter authorized the launch of Operation Eagle Claw, which has since been cast as the Desert One Debacle. U.S. special operations forces from all four military branches were tasked with the mission. U.S. Army’s Delta Force, the Army’s Special Missions Unit (SMU) took ownership as the lead element for the hostage rescue. Delta Force was created for this very reason — to conduct high-risk operations.

Delta Force had five months to prepare for the raid. The mission would last two nights, and before any aircraft landed at Desert One, a salt flat staging area on Masirah Island in the Gulf of Oman, an impromptu airstrip needed to be created. Weeks ahead from the rest of the assault force, Charlie Beckworth, the creator of Delta Force, volunteered seasoned U.S. Air Force Combat Controller (CCT) John Carney for the job. A tiny plane carrying two CIA pilots picked up Carney in Athens, Greece, and flew to the site. Carney had one hour to mark the airfield before the plane would leave without him. 

“It was the shortest hour of my life,” said Carney. “I had so much to do and so little time to do it, I didn’t really think about anything but getting the job done.” 

Working alone in the desert, Carney had to install infrared lights underground using his K-bar knife as a shovel. The infrared strobes could be seen under night vision goggles, but not with the naked eye. After the risky job was complete, he boarded the CIA’s plane; he would return 23 days later with a full CCT team. He worried about his hurried work but later said, “When I saw the satellite imagery, it was a perfect diamond-and-one,” in reference to the setup of the lights.

A group photograph of the former hostages in the hospital. The 52 hostages are spending a few days in the hospital after their release from Iran prior to their departure for the United States. Photo courtesy of the U.S. government via Wikipedia.

After Carney’s early success, the Pentagon moved forward in their plan for three MC-130 aircraft to fly approximately 118 Delta Force operators to Desert One. Here, as the plan went, a force of eight U.S. Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters would fly enroute from the USS Nimitz sailing in the Arabian Sea and rendezvous with the assaulters. They’d refuel, pick up the operators, and fly to a second location — called Desert Two — just 65 miles outside of Tehran. 

The second night, Delta Force operators would conduct the hostage rescue mission and ferry the hostages to a nearby soccer field. At the same time, U.S. Army Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment would secure the Manzariyeh Air Base in Iran. Once the airbase was secured, the hostages would board two MC-130 aircraft and escape. 

This multi-step plan never made it past the transport stages because of a terrible series of failures. Three RH-53 helicopters had issues: one turned back to the USS Nimitz because of a sandstorm; another landed short of Desert One because of a cracked rotor warning light; and the third arrived safely at Desert One but had hydraulic failure and couldn’t continue. The mission was aborted. As the remainder of the four helicopters departed, one of them hovered and crashed into an EC-130E killing everyone on board.

The tragedy and failure of the mission resulted in a necessity for a unified command that stressed joint operational training. The tragic failures of Operation Eagle Claw helped establish Special Operations Command (SOCOM), today’s most reputable special operations command in the world. On Jan. 20, 1981, the same day President Ronald Reagan gave his inaugural address, the last of the hostages held in Tehran were released after 444 agonizing days.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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