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Iranian Extremists Seize US Embassy, Take Hostages

By Patrick Mondout

On November 4, 1979, an estimated 3,000 militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and captured 54 embassy staff members. Religious extremist and Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini praised their actions. The militants demanded that: the Shah, who ruled Iran for decades with an iron fist and was now seeking medical treatment in the West, be turned over to them for trial; that the United States apologize for crimes against the Iranian people; and that the Shah's assets be paid to them.


Under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran had been a long-time ally of the United States. The Shah's secret police, the Savak, were notorious abusers of human rights, however. President Carter writes in his biography, Keeping the Faith, that he asked the Shah whether he could curb the human rights abuses in Iran. The Shah answered, "No, there is nothing I can do. I must enforce the Iranian laws, which are designed to combat communism."

The Shah declared martial law in September 1977. A bloody confrontation between police and Muslims killed several hundred people. Muslims called for the Shah's abdication. The Shah tried to pacify them by granting amnesty to several opposition leaders, including Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been living in exile in France.

The Shah also appointed a prime minister, who once in power called for the Shah to leave and disband his secret police. On January 19, 1979 millions of marchers rallied to back Khomeini, who announced from France that he was forming a new government. Khomeini flew into Teheran, the capital of Iran, on February 1, 1979. Meanwhile, the United States was evacuating Americans from Iran. The Shah fled to Morocco.

In April 1980, a U.S. rescue mission failed. The hostages were released in 1981, on President Ronald Reagan's inauguration day, 444 days after they were taken.


David Farber, Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam, Princeton University Press, 2004.



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The cozy relationship between the Shaw of Iran and the United States angered extremist Muslim Ayatollah Khomeini, who was exiled in France, and his followers. They would soon take out their anger on American diplomats in Tehran.

NARA - 11/15/77

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