Just a few months after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the new government was dragged into its first and most serious diplomatic crisis.
On November 4 that year, a group of radical students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 American diplomats hostage to demand the extradition of the ousted shah back to Iran. A few days earlier, the U.S. administration of President Jimmy Carter had decided to allow the shah to enter the United States for cancer treatment.
The government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan opposed the seizure of the embassy and ultimately resigned.
Radical politicians however, supported it and named the initiators of the illegal action “followers of Khomeini’s line,” in order to suppress any opposition, since challenging the takeover of the embassy would automatically be equivalent to opposing Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
In fact, on the next day of the takeover, Khomeini called the United States the “great Satan” and approved the hostage-taking. A few days later, he referred to the U.S. Embassy as the “center of American corruption” and added that the United States “cannot do a damn thing” about the hostage-taking.
Khomeini's remarks contributed to the further glorification of the incident.
For the following decades, the regime justified the embassy takeover, calling it an “espionage nest” and encouraging its supporters on November 4 to take to the streets and celebrate the anniversary by chanting anti-American slogans.
In the meantime, ordinary Iranians started to question the righteousness of the action. Consequently, the number of participants in the anniversary ceremonies dwindles year by year. Almost none of the perpetrators of the hostage-taking are invited to the event, since many of them have undergone ideological changes and do not support the conservative establishment anymore; some of them even regret their actions in 1979.
“Plot” Against The Country
Ibrahim Yazdi, the foreign minister at the time, later wrote an open letter saying the hostage-taking was a plot that caused enormous damage to the country. He argued that the incident resulted in the resignation of Bazargan’s government -- consisting of relatively moderate politicians. It also led to the Iran-Iraq War and a major shift of policy from the West to the Eastern bloc, and ultimately a complete destruction of Iran’s economy.
In fact, history has proved that Khomeini’s remark that the United States “cannot do a damn thing” was not correct. America has been able to unify the world in imposing crippling sanctions against Iran. Khomeini also categorically rejected any negotiations with the United States, describing Washington as a wolf and his own country as a sheep.
Following in Khomeini’s footsteps, the next supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also opposed talks with the United States on Iran's nuclear program. He said that those who wanted to negotiate with the United States were either clueless about the basics of politics or had no honor.
However, when Khamenei realized his country was on the brink of collapse due to the sanctions, he allowed the government to hammer out the nuclear agreement with the United States and other world powers.
The fact that the seizure of the U.S. Embassy was never condemned by Iranian leaders also had another outcome: It made Iran the holder of a shameful world record in storming embassies.
In addition to the U.S. Embassy, regime supporters have attacked the Danish, the British, and the Saudi missions. None of those attacks has ever resulted in the conviction of the perpetrators, even though their actions had heavy diplomatic and economic costs for the country.
After the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as Iranian president in 2005, some Western media outlets published reports claiming he had been one the hostage-takers in 1979.
A photo was published showing a man bearing a resemblance to Ahmadinejad next to one of the hostages. Some of the former hostages had reportedly recognized Ahmadinejad, a claim that was rejected by the Iranian government and the organizers of the takeover.
On the occasion of this year's anniversary, Masoumeh Ebtekar, a deputy of President Hassan Rouhani, offered a complete new perspective on Ahmadinejad’s role.
Ebtekar claimed that the former president had opposed the plan of his fellow students to attack the U.S. Embassy and even threatened to expose it. Instead, he and his friends supported an attack against the Soviet Embassy, Ebtekar told journalists.
However, the majority of students thought the United States had “sleeper cells” in Iran and would soon try to restore the old regime. Therefore, they were determined and carried out their plan.
Iran still continues to pay the price.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Radio Farda or RFE/RL.