What is the Iranian Hostage Crisis?

Jessica Hobby

The Iranian hostage crisis began 4 November 1979 under the administration of United States President Jimmy Carter when Islamic militants entered the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 66 Americans hostage. The Iranian hostage crisis was the culmination of the disintegration of relations between the United States and Iran prompted by U.S. support for Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi, after he was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini at the start of the Iranian Revolution. The hostages were held for a total of 444 days and released 20 January 1981, minutes after the inauguration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

American hostages were held in Iran for 444 days.
American hostages were held in Iran for 444 days.

History has recorded the presidency of Jimmy Carter as one of the worst in the United States because of his failed attempts to end the Iranian hostage crisis. Shortly after the hostages were taken, Carter attempted to pursue every alternative to negotiate the release of the hostages, including diplomacy, political pressure and economic sanctions.

The Iranian hostages were freed just minutes after the inauguration of President Reagan, after being held for more than 400 days.
The Iranian hostages were freed just minutes after the inauguration of President Reagan, after being held for more than 400 days.

Carter and his administration built a campaign to persuade the international community to put pressure on Iran. Many governments supported the United States. Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), considered a terrorist group by the United States at the time, was able to negotiate a release of 13 of the hostages at the request of John Shaheen, a friend of Ronald Reagan and William Casey, who was Reagan’s campaign manager.

In addition to freezing the assets of Iran held in American banks, President Carter ordered a number of economic sanctions against Iran in order to end the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter issued Proclamation 4702, which halted the importation of Iranian oil into the United States. Executive Order 12205 instituted an embargo on exports leaving the United States and heading for Iran. Carter’s final economic sanction against Iran was Executive Order 12211, which created a ban on all Iranian imports and prohibited American citizens from traveling to Iran or conducting business there.

After the hostages had been held captive for five months, Carter authorized a military mission to rescue the American hostages. The mission began with a meeting between six military transport planes and nine helicopters in a desert southeast of Tehran. The mission was reduced to five helicopters because of mechanical trouble and one of the last helicopters crashed into one of the transport planes after departing from a refueling stop. Eight soldiers died and four suffered injuries, prompting Carter to abort the mission. After the failed mission, the Carter administration continued to negotiate without any success, until the hostages were eventually released in January 1981.

In 1979, Islamic militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage.
In 1979, Islamic militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 66 Americans hostage.

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Discussion Comments


I am an Iranian and I will tell you that Iranians are very kind and wise people. Unless some greedy, oil-thirsty Machiavellian governments like USA do not interfere with our affairs, we welcome the honest people of all countries.

But when such a terrorist government, who would do anything to achieve its evil purposes, we will defend our dignity to death or victory. I hope for a better life for those who do unto others as they want others do unto them.


@burcinc-- That is not correct. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi became the Shah of Iran in 1941 but Jimmy Carter did not take office until 1977. The US supported Pahlavi's regime even before Carter took office because we didn't want the Soviets to become influential in Iran.

You've implied in your comment that Carter was unique in supporting the Shah, angering Iranians and resulting in the hostage crisis. Carter did not start this support, he merely continued what US Presidents before him had done out of national interests.

Carter is in no way responsible for the Iranian embassy hostage crisis, his decisions did not lead to it. He could have managed it better, but that's a whole different issue.


@Burcinc - You are right but who they in put to replace the Shah was our worst nightmare so we have to be careful what we wish for.

What I do find interesting about the hostage crisis in Iran is that immediately after President Reagan was sworn into office the hostages were mysteriously released.

This was something that the Carter administration could not get done in a year and President Reagan did this in minutes. I think that reason is obvious.

You need to have an aggressive stance when someone harms your people and Iran knew that President Reagan was not going to be putting up with this and would take aggressive military action if needed.

Carter would not go that route which is why he failed miserably. You have to stand up to your enemies and be willing to do what it takes to get respect from them.

The Iranian government didn’t take Carter seriously which is why the Iranian hostage crisis took place.


@Turquoise- Unfortunately it is a reminder that we live in a dangerous world and our relations with Iran remains strained. I think that the extremist ideology from Iran has not changed and has gotten worse.

We have similar circumstances today with Iran because they are on their way to building a nuclear bomb and continue to take steps in that direction despite Obama’s threats.

We also had American hostages taken recently and if we are not careful we might have another hostage crisis in Iran much like the one we saw in 1979.


I think that Jimmy Carter is partly responsible for the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Not only was he unable to resolve it but he also helped bring it on with his stance towards Iran, the shah and Khomeini.

I've never understood why Jimmy Carter was so supportive of the shah. The shah of Iran was an oppressive leader who often used force against his own people. I think that Carter made a big mistake by supporting him because it was pretty obvious that he wasn't supported by the Iranian people and would soon lose his power.

Not only that, but Carter allowed the shah to come to the U.S. when he was driven out of power. This probably became the last drop, so to speak, for Iranians.

I'm not justifying this horrible attack towards America, but we can't deny that Carter messed up and made things much worse with his decisions.


Despite being decades since the Iran hostage crisis took place, I think it's still very fresh in the minds of Americans.

I was too young to remember the crisis but I have heard a lot about it through newspapers and other media. Whenever a new tension occurs between Iran and U.S. now, we are reminded of the hostage crisis. I think that the crisis was a huge blow to U.S.-Iran relations. It has never improved since then, on the contrary, it seems to have gotten worse and worse.

I think Americans have been expecting a due apology for many decades which never arrived. The government we opposed in Iran back then is still in power and the anti-American stand of this administration hasn't changed.

As much as I am angry about what happened in 1979, I wish that U.S.-Iran relations had become friendly once again so that we didn't have to be reminded of this crisis so often. I think that the Iranian hostage crisis has become a major trauma for us.

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