Blowback: The Iranian Hostage Crisis

"Taken Hostage," by David Farber, courtesy of Princeton University Press
“Taken Hostage,” by David Farber, courtesy of Princeton University Press

The Iranian Hostage Crisis was the quintessential element in the decline of optimism in the Carter Presidency and America at large. Concurrently, Ayatollah Khomeini exploited the situation to cement his Revolutionary Council and Sharia law into the seams of Iranian government, uniting his varied support though hatred of the Shah and the United States. The hostage crisis was more than just fifty-two American lives at risk; it was the psyche of the American people.

America had been through a relative decline in the 1970s. Stagflation chipped away at the hope of retirement and homeownership. Industry moved to the South, with lower wages and fewer unions, creating the Sunbelt. This move also signaled further impoverishment in the North, as the region became known as the Rustbelt.[1] The inflation rate climbed to 10 percent per year, and unemployment at 6 percent.[2] America was also energy dependent on foreign oil to create its post-World War II economic boom. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) enforced an oil embargo during the Yom Kippur War. David Farber, a history professor at Temple University, claimed this action was meant to “punish the United States for providing Israel with military equipment,” resulting in an energy crisis. President Carter labeled this escalating crisis as “the moral equivalent of war.”[3] The foreign policy actors of the United States, such as the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency, were still reeling from the consequences of the Vietnam War and Watergate. The American population became disillusioned by political elites. Farber defined this as “Vietnam syndrome: defeat haunted America and made Americans across the political spectrum loathe to make strong international commitments to anyone.”[4] The White House was stuck in a Cold War mentality and tended to view conflicts through the scope of political ideology rather than the wider regional geopolitical context. Farber noted, “When Americans looked at Iran, they saw Soviet Red and not Islamic Green.” [5] America, distracted by domestic issues such as the economy, became ineffective in foreign policy issues and ripe for exploitation.

The Iranian people at large had negative views of the United States because of a disappointing foreign policy apparatus consisting of the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. The militant Islamic students that took over the embassy saw their action as “a defensive act to protect the Iranian revolution from American interference,” fearing the Americans would reinstall the Shah after allowing him to enter the US on 23 October 1979 .[6] They had a strong basis for that fear. On 19 August 1953, the CIA under agent Kermit Roosevelt, spearheaded Operation AJAX – the forced removal of the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh, an ardent nationalist and anti-imperialist. Later, Operation Eagle Claw – the failed American attempt to rescue the hostages – justified the fears of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). While the Americans saw the hostage crisis as a foreign policy issue, the Iranians viewed the struggle as domestic to prove the sovereignty of the Revolutionary Council.

            Four actors – President Jimmy Carter, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, NSA Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Mohammad Reza Shah – heavily influenced the events of the Iranian Revolution. Jimmy CarterJimmy Carter arrived in the White House riding on the fact he was a political outsider; however, he was unable to cope with the entrenched interests in Congress.[7] He claimed America “faced a crisis of confidence,” and sought to solve this challenge in foreign policy by “defending human rights, exhibiting principled behavior abroad, and limiting world armaments.”[8] His relationship with the Shah was completely changed by the hostage crisis. Before 4 November 1979, he complimented the Shah, claiming, “because of the great leadership of the Shah, (Iran) is an island of stability.”[9] During the Iranian Revolution, Carter, who had personally micromanaged the release of the hostages with his reelection on the line, said in a voice of outrage, “Fuck the Shah.”[10]

Mohammad Reza Shah, later on the cover of "Time." Note the headline, "Iran: Struggle for Stability." Courtesy of Persian Carpet Guide
Mohammad Reza Shah, later on the cover of “Time.” Note the headline, “Iran: Struggle for Stability.” Courtesy of Persian Carpet Guide

The Shah had been the bedrock of the Nixon Doctrine and had spent billions of dollars on defense against the Soviets and his own domestic enemies. The Shah also led the brutal SAVAK against dissenters, and started the White Revolution for land reform.[11] This led the charismatic Ayatollah, who after his return from exile in France had been hailed as an Imam, to claim, “They have sold us, they have sold our independence.”[12] Ayatollah KhomeiniHe used the revolution to consolidate his power against competing Iranian factions and then exported Islamic fundamentalism to Lebanon. Brzezinski called for the U.S. to deepen our dialogue with the Muslim world; however, he also promoted Operation Eagle Claw and a tougher stance on communism.[13] Ultimately, the remaining 52 hostages (as 14 others had been released because of race, gender, and illness) returned back to freedom on 20 January 1981 to Ronald Reagan, as Jimmy Carter returned to Georgia after losing the presidential election.

            Taken Hostage and 444 Days to Freedom have their own strengths and weaknesses. Taken Hostage made good use of periodicals, especially The New York Times; however, the vignettes Farber used pale in comparison to Kinzer’s introduction to Operation Ajax. Farber also introduced the voice of America Held Hostage, the Iranian translator Mary, and Reagan with the possibility of the October Surprise. Farber also mentioned the attack on the embassy on 14 February 1979 – an ominous sign for the future. 444 Days to Freedom did an extraordinary job of interviewing the hostages. "444 Days To Freedom," courtsey of View Video The interviews were thorough, including the members of the Canadian Caper, the U.S.-Iran Society, and U.S. Marines. It would have been interesting to hear Jimmy Carter’s thoughts or the commentary of a member of the IRGC. Both were superb works, each giving a different viewpoint on the Iran hostage crisis. As Farber concluded, “The only obvious lesson of the Iran hostage crisis is that when a failed policy blows up spectacularly the best solution is to determine why it happened and then act with extreme prudence so long as nothing catastrophic really occurs.”[14] The Hostage Crisis had several ‘policies blow up’, such as the Carter’s faith in the Shah, the Navy helicopters at Desert One, and the faith of the American people in their president, which Farber recorded superbly in Taken Hostage.



Farber, David R. “Taken Hostage : The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam”. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

“The Iran Hostage Crisis : 444 Days to Freedom”. Dir. Les Harris. 2006. New York : V.I.E.W. Video, 1994.

“Jimmy Carter”. Created 2006.

O’Connell, Barry. “Notes on the Shah of Iran Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi.” Persian Carpet Guide:

Princeton University Press. “Taken Hostage”. Created 2008.

View Video. “Iran Hostage Crisis.” Created 2012.

[1] Farber, David R. “Taken Hostage,” p. 19.

[2] Ibid., p. 83.

[3] Ibid., pp. 23, 25.

[4] Ibid., p. 16.

[5] Farber, David R. “Taken Hostage,” p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 13.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Farber, David R. “Taken Hostage,” pp. 33, 82.

[9] Ibid., p. 5.

[10] Ibid.,p. 125.

[11] Ibid., pp. 60, 63.

[12] Ibid., p. 66.

[13] Ibid., p. 107.

[14] Farber, David R. “Taken Hostage,” p. 6.


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