Key Lessons of the Iran Hostage Crisis


On November 4, 1979, the United States faced one of the most serious crises in modern history. Almost 100 of its diplomats were taken hostage in Iran, a country that had become bitterly hostile and unpredictable. Caught totally off-guard, the U.S. was paralyzed, unable to negotiate or take action. Four years later, on October 23, 1983, 241 U.S. marines were killed in a terrorist bombing of the Marine headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. The marines were part of a multi-national force demonstrating U.S. presence while negotiations continued for a withdrawal of hostile forces from the country.

The memories of these two days, representing two of the largest U.S. foreign policy failures in recent times, appear to have faded in the minds of President Clinton’s foreign policy team. The intent here is to call them back into much clearer focus. A recent shift in the purpose of the U.S. intervention in Somalia, resulting in the loss of U.S. lives, and the looming prospect of another intervention in Bosnia, have created new memories, much like those in 1979 and 1983.

These events, manifestations of Clinton’s ‘enlargement’ doctrine and reliance upon U.N. multilateralism, have led to a renewed questioning of the post-Cold War shape of U.S. foreign policy, especially whether it represent U.S. national interests. My purpose, therefore, is to demonstrate that important lessons from the U.S. experiences in Iran and Lebanon should serve as cautions for the Clinton Administration as it continues to shape and implement a foreign policy doctrine.




Before introducing my model of analysis, I will first provide selective reviews of U.S.-Iranian relations since 1960, then the events surrounding the two Multi National Forces missions to Lebanon. These reviews are in no way comprehensive, detailed histories; my primary objective is not to offer a new theory on why they happened, who should be blamed, and how they could have been avoided, but to demonstrate that the situations in 1979 and 1983 have viable relevance to U.S. foreign policy in 1993 and beyond.

Against this background, I will then establish my framework of analysis, what I call the “triangular base” model, for linking the lessons of Iran and Lebanon to Somalia and future U.S. intervention possibilities. I will explain this base in detail at that point.

In anticipating critical evaluations of my model, I then provide a theoretical background that might offer insight into why the above foreign policy experiences are linked, despite the different circumstances surrounding each nation, and why U.S. policies have taken the shape they did.


Part One:

Iran and the U.S. 1960-1980


As mentioned above, my purpose is not to give a comprehensive review of U.S.-Iranian relations, but to highlight aspects of this relationship that had direct effects on U.S., and Iranian, policy actions.

From the end of World War II to the advent of the 1960’s, the status of relations between Iran and the U.S had been relatively unchallenged. With Iran, the U.S. had found a strategic ally in the vital Persian Gulf region, and committed its support to the regime of Iran’s Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Shananshah Aryamehr. Under the Shah, Iran was beginning to warm to its role of regional power, and enjoyed strong U.S. support against possible Soviet aggression.

Between 1946 and 1979, Iran under the Shah was transformed from a largely agriculture-based economy to a modern society, involving massive changes in the traditional social, economic, and political orders.

The Shah accomplished this mainly through a package of reforms he called the “White Revolution.” His launching of such an ambitious reform process coincided with the Kennedy administration’s growing dissatisfaction with Iran’s economic progress. Economic development, as opposed to military strength, became the stress of long-term U.S. policy toward Iran. Land reform to the U.S. was critical, a view shared by the Shah as well. The other major initiatives of the White Revolution included profit-sharing for workers, the nationalization of forests and pastures, the sale of state-owned factories, the enfranchisement of women, and the creation of a literacy corps.(1)

The positive initial effects of the White Revolution pleased U.S. officials, validating their analysis of Iran’s economic problems. Here I must note that it is well beyond my means to chart in detail the economic course Iran took as a result of the Shah’s reforms, but some general trends are instructive in demonstrating the effects of reform and explosive economic growth for the course of Iranian affairs.

During this period, especially from 1960 to 1978, the shah’s regime successfully achieved most of its economic, social, and military objectives. World Bank data shows that in this period Iran’s annual real growth rate, 9.6 percent, almost doubled the average of countries in its category, and was higher than any other group of countries in the world. Iran registered positive growth for fourteen straight years until 1977, held unemployment to relatively low levels, pushed industrialization using oil revenues and not at the expense of agriculture, and made great strides in public health, education, and illiteracy. These economic benefits, however, hid long-term political and cultural consequences that would lead eventually to revolutionary unrest in many classes.

White Revolution policies greatly expanded the autonomous capabilities of the Iranian state, and allowed the Shah to portray himself as progressive. Moreover, increased autonomy allowed the Shah to pursue his own priorities. His quest for military superiority in the Gulf, his desire to modernize Iran and create an industrialized welfare state within a decade- all dependent upon Iranian oil revenues- became too ambitious and too much of a burden upon traditional Iranian society. Before the program officially ended in 1971, the land reform program provided land to over 50% of Iran’s peasant population, but eliminated almost all of the large landowners, destroying the traditional upper class in Iranian society.

Another important effect was the rural migration to urban areas as a result of the land reform program and Iran’s rapid economic growth. Land reform failed to lessen rural poverty: 32% of the peasants still did not own land in 1971, and 75% owned less than the minimum for subsistence. The ignorance of rural needs, therefore, pushed peasants into urban areas, where they lacked any modern skills or experience. This held great significance, for in the midst of the confusion caused by a collision with twentieth-century mores, the peasants would turn to their mullahs for guidance.

This shift in political power contributed significantly to the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the religious revolution in 1979.

The early 1970’s would prove to be critical in U.S.-Iranian relations. Changing political and economic conditions in the U.S., largely a result of the Vietnam war, reduced U.S. abilities to maintain its commitments overseas. Foreign policy officials in the Nixon Administration, therefore, began to rely on regional powers taking greater responsibility for collective security. These powers would receive U.S. arms, but not U.S. forces, unless it was clearly in U.S. interests.

Deciding to rely on the Shah and Saudi Arabia, U.S. policymakers developed the “twin pillars” policy toward the Persian Gulf, in which the two nations would assume responsibilities for maintaining security. Most Iranians, however, understood that Iran was the only regional country to fill the vacuum left by the British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971, and “resented the United States for demanding this role from Iran and the Shah for playing it.”

With the twin pillars policy logically came an increase in arms sales to Iran. Since Iran was willing to contribute to its own defense, and U.S. commitment to its security maintained stability in the Middle East region, conventional wisdom became uncritical acceptance of Iranian requests for new weapons. The extent of these arms sales, and the appetite of the Shah for advance military hardware and capabilities, was not anticipated at first, however.

During the next eight years, Iran became the top buyer of military equipment of any developing nation, with almost 27% of its budget allocated to defense spending. Between 1973 and 1978, Iran bought over $20 billion worth of U.S. military hardware, representing over sixteen times the amount sent by the U.S. to Iran over the previous two decades.

Iran was able to purchase such large amounts of weaponry with the influx of oil money that resulted from the success of OPEC in 1973. But such unchecked spending began to strain not only Iran’s economy, but the patience of its people as well. Religious elements in Iranian society castigated the Shah’s regime for adopting a Western model of development that made Iran “dependent upon foreign raw materials, managerial know-how, technology, and trade.” In response, a disenchanted public took an increasingly negative view towards the modernization efforts of the Shah.

To many, they became associated with “disorganization, waste, corruption, incompetent administration, dependence on foreigners, inflation,…uncomfortably dizzying change,…[and a] poorly planned crash modernization [that] damaged Iranians economically and culturally.”

Iranian resentment spread also to the growing American presence in their country. The booming arms sales business and intensified trade ties brought thousands of U.S. citizens into Iran, whom were offered numerous perks, such as triple salaries, tax-free shopping, and extended holidays. This created resentment and envy among those working with Americans, who “were representatives of an alien and threatening faith.

The relaxed way in which these strangers dressed, their love of liquor, their noisy parties, their car and motorcycle races and their ostentatious opulence could not but arouse…mistrust and anger over the years.”

In response to the Shah’s reform efforts, the disproportional spending on military equipment, and growing anti-Americanism, opposition groups slowly reemerged in Iranian society in the 1970’s. The women’s rights movement carried out in 1959, along with the land reform program, angered much of the Shi’i clergy (mullahs), whose ideology had great appeal to traditional Iranian middle classes.

Gradual and quiet activism carried out by the mullahs had built up a large base of support in the urban lower classes, which continued to grow rapidly and became more disillusioned with Iran’s economic, social, and cultural problems.

Iranian student groups overseas, largely in the U.S., became quite adept at mobilizing students against the shah’s regime and focusing attention on Iran’s growing human rights abuses.

These groups could not effectively operate inside Iran, however, mainly because of the Shah’s repressive apparatus. Another opposition group involved small guerrilla bands, whose attempts to launch violent uprisings repeated failed to generate popular support. Their violent tactics and complex ideology alienated them from most of the Iranian society, and furthermore made them prime targets for security forces.

The election of Jimmy Carter to the Presidency cast a new shadow over U.S.-Iranian relations in 1977. The special relationship between the nations could not prevent certain allegations of human rights abuses, and the initial emphasis of the Carter Administration on linking U.S. foreign policy with human rights appeared to seriously question U.S. assistance to Iran. In fact, the two priorities Carter campaigned on in 1976 involved limiting U.S. arms sales overseas, and giving a greater role to human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Differences with Iran were unavoidable if these goals were to be pursued.

Relations between the two nations remained unchanged, however. Iran and Saudi Arabia continued to anchor U.S. strategic policy in the Persian Gulf, and the Shah appeared determined to ease Carter Administration fears of human rights violations in Iran.

Beginning in 1977, the Shah instituted a series of reforms which prohibited the use of torture by security forces, released a number of political prisoners, loosened censorship rules, and made other minor policy changes. Whether or not this liberalization led to further demands for more reforms, and the eventual downfall of the Shah, is a possibility, since revolutionary forces were gathering significant strength in 1977 and 1978.

The Shah’s visit to Washington, D.C. in November of 1977 is an excellent example of the status of U.S-Iranian relations, and the surrounding environment, at this point. At the initial press conference, televised nationwide in Iran, 4,000 anti-shah students engaged 1,500 pro-shah demonstrators in a violent clash outside the White House, resulting in 124 injuries. Tear gas was needed, and a cloud of the gas drifted toward the conference, causing Carter and the Shah to blink and wipe their eyes. Privately, however, Carter praised and reassured the Shah, telling him how Iran was “‘a very stabilizing force in the world at large’ to which the U.S. was ‘bound with unbreakable ties.'” New arms sales were discussed, as well as controlling OPEC prices.

Only eight days after Carter returned from a visit to Iran in January of 1978, riots broke out in Iran that signalled the beginning of the end for the Shah. The riots continued to escalate in number, violence, and bloodshed throughout the summer, while the Shah desperately looked to the U.S. for advice and assistance, and continued to alternate between extending more liberalization and suppressing the violence.

Finally, with tacit U.S. support, the Shah appointed General Gholam Reza Azhari prime minister of a military government on November 6. (My summary of these and subsequent events leading up to November 1979 is taken primarily from a chronology of events found in Barry Rubin’s Paved with Good Intentions.)

Three weeks later, Carter reaffirmed U.S. support for the Shah, and declared that the U.S. would not interfere in Iranian domestic affairs.

Oil production continued to fall in Iran, causing huge shortages which ground the economy to a virtual standstill. As riots continued in most Iranian cities, Azhari resigned from the government on the last day in December of 1978. Four days later, the Iranian parliament appointed Shahpour Bakhtiar as prime minister, to whom the U.S. immediately offered cooperation. The Shah would leave Iran, and effectively end his thirty-seven year reign, on January 16.

The solidification of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s power was in evidence upon his return from exile on January 31, when hundreds of thousands of supporters greeted his arrival back into Iran. His announcement of Mehdi Bazargan as his choice for prime minister of a provisional Islamic government, led to the resignation of Bakhtiar in February. Bakhtiar’s departure effectively shut the U.S. out of the Iranian government, for the Embassy and foreign policy officials had failed to cultivate any genuine ties with Iranian officials who still remained in some position of influence.

U.S. attempts to generate diplomatic ties with the new religious power in Iran were for the most part unsuccessful. Throughout the spring of 1979, Khomeini and Iranian students continued to demand that the U.S. admit its guilt for past involvement in Iranian affairs, and return the Shah to Iran to be tried by the Islamic government. U.S. officials refused, and any further hopes of reconciliation were dealt a severe blow when the Carter Administration agreed to let the Shah come to New York for medical treatment in October.

On November 4, one day after the Iranian Foreign Ministry formally protested the U.S. decision to admit the Shah for treatment, Iranian students staged a sit-in at the U.S. Embassy, which ended violently with the taking of U.S. diplomatic personnel hostage. Khomeini shortly thereafter condoned the event, stating that “if they [the U.S.] do not give up the criminal…then we shall do whatever is necessary.” Khomeini had received his wish- a direct confrontation with the “Great Satan,” that would last over 440 days and cost the lives of eight U.S. servicemen in the aborted rescue attempt in April of 1980.


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