Nov 4, 1979 still held hostage by history

Nov 4, 1979 still held hostage by history
ID : N-577 Date : 2017/11/04 - 09:12

(Persia Digest) - Thirty-eight years ago, on November 04, 1979, the US Embassy in Tehran was stormed by a university student group that objected to US intervention in Iran and its support for Mohammad Reza Shah (1919–1980) - the last Shah of Iran from September 16, 1941 until his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution on February 11, 1979.

Three events in a single day

November 04, 1979 is a special day in contemporary Iran because three major events occurred on this day in three different years. The first event in 1964 was Reza Shah’s exile of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to Turkey. Then, on November 04, 1978 the Shah’s forces opened fire on protesting students, killing 56 people. Finally, the third event, perhaps the most important and influential, was the US Embassy takeover in Tehran by the so-called Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line on November 04, 1979.

While an earlier US embassy takeover occurred on February 14, 1979, three days after the start of the Islamic Revolution when the US Embassy in Tehran was attacked by Marxist groups, Ayatollah Khomeini (1902–1989) refused to support this action and the interim government was able to restore the situation back to normal. However, the second takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran on November 04, 1979 was different. In fact, the embassy takeover is considered a turning point in the contemporary political history of Iran thereby shaping the future course of the country’s foreign and domestic politics.

What was the students’ goal?

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the student leaders who seized the US Embassy, admits that the group had no intention of holding the embassy and just wanted to voice their grievances by occupying the compound for 2 or 3 days. The students were protesting the deposed Shah’s stay in America and the meeting between the (then) US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and the interim Prime Minister of Iran Mehdi Bazargan. Asgharzadeh said, “If the US had expelled the Shah immediately, the embassy takeover would have been over. We considered the takeover a defensive action and were not interested in holding the hostages (for so long).” Nonetheless, Ayatollah Khomeini's support for the action transformed the incident from a revolutionary move by a group of students into a formal, state-sponsored act.

These two events convinced the students that the US was planning to stage another coup against the Iranian people’s revolution. According to documents released by the US government, on August 19, 1953, the US, in collaboration with the UK, overthrew the democratically elected, popular government of Mohammad Mosaddeq and laid the groundwork for Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s return to power. In the 1990s, Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, confessed to the US sponsored coup d’état.

What was the impact of domestic rivalries on the students’ decision to take over the Embassy?

Sadegh Ziba Kalam, Professor of Political Sciences at Tehran University, believes the students did not attack the US Embassy for fear of a repeated coup d’état. He said, “At that time, the University campus was a hub for the leftist students and the Student Followers of the Imam’s Line. Each group accused the other of being American agents. To slap the leftists in the face and prove that they are not pro-Americans, the Followers of the Imam’s Line occupied the embassy.”

But Hossein Sheikh al-Islam, who joined the students after the embassy takeover, confirms Asgharzadeh's narration in a conversation with Persia Digest, and says: “The events leading to the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran began when a number of US officials planned to let the Shah into the United States, antagonizing the students and the Iranian people. Moreover, he emphasizes that he was not in Iran during the takeover, and adds: “There was no rivalry among the students to incite anti-US feelings.”

According to the documents obtained inside the embassy after the takeover, Iran claimed that members of the US Embassy in Tehran were spies and not diplomats. Tehran announced that it would only exchange the American hostages for the Shah of Iran. On the other hand, Washington demanded the release of the hostages based on the 1961 and 1963 Vienna Conventions on immunity for diplomats and diplomatic premises and considered the Iranian government to be in violation with these treaties.

The consequences of Embassy takeover for Iran: From the elimination of moderates to Saddam's invasion of Iran

Although politicians maintain some differences in opinion regarding the cause of the Embassy takeover, there is little disagreement about its implications. Ziba Kalam believes that the US Embassy’s takeover and Ayatollah Khomeini’s support for this action antagonized the US and this was the predominant political discourse in the country, that anti-Americanism and the slogan of “death to America” were not among the goals of the revolution, and that the Iranian Revolution was a protest against despotism and an attempt to ensure free elections.

Ziba Kalam believes that anti-Americanism has inflicted serious damage on Iran’s national interests and has impeded political and economic development. Ali Motahari, Vice-Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, believes that the takeover was a natural reaction of the Iranian people against American actions resisting the Islamic Revolution after its triumph. However, Motahari maintains that the prolonged occupation of the embassy did not serve the interests of the revolution and the Iranian people. On the contrary, he says, the prolongation led to the international isolation of Iran and provoked Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to invade Iran.

On the consequences of events that took place, Sheikh al-Islam tells Persia Digest: “The US Embassy takeover was never detrimental to Iran; on the contrary, it protected the Revolution from harm.” He adds: “US hostility towards Iran did not begin with the Embassy takeover; it began to take shape from day one of the Revolution and not after the hostage taking events.”

Asgharzadeh believes that this act by the students eliminated the moderates from the political sphere within Iran although they later shaped their own reformist movement. The takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran led to the resignation of the provisional government, headed by the Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, and by the transfer of power to the revolutionary forces. Meanwhile, the embassy takeover was one of the reasons that Jimmy Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in the US presidential elections.

Increasing US Pressure on Iran

The US Embassy takeover and hostage taking in Tehran led to the unilateral severance of diplomatic relations by the US on April 07, 1980. Subsequently, the US imposed economic sanctions against Iran and blocked access to its assets in the US. Although the hostage crisis ended on January 20, 1981 with the adoption of the Algiers Accord by the governments of Iran and the US, November 04, 1978 is still commemorated in Iran as a day of Defying Arrogance by holding nationwide marches.

By the same token, the US did its best to receive compensation from Iran through any possible means. In December 2015, US lawmakers passed legislation to pay the 53 former hostages up to $4.4 million each, or $10,000 for each of the 444 days they were held, funded through fines collected from companies that had defied US sanctions against Iran, Sudan, and Libya, including $8.9 billion paid by the French bank BNP Paribas. That means that close to $250 million was paid in compensation to the hostages despite the fact that under the Algiers Accord the US government or citizens were not prohibited from seeking compensation from the Iranian government through American court rulings.

The US Takes Financial Advantage of the Hostage Crisis

In the Algiers Accord, the US agreed to settle Iran’s financial claims. Iran’s claims can be divided into five categories. First, Iran claimed military hardware, such as tanks, aircraft, and spare parts, worth several billion dollars. But two years ago, following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal), the US paid $400 million as a first installment to Iran in light of the Hague Tribunal’s ruling that it must pay $1.7 billion to Iran for a weapons contract signed in the 1970s. Second, Iran claimed the property of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his family, which included the former Pahlavi Foundation (Alavi). The US made a commitment to return these assets to Iran under the Algiers Accord. Third, Iran claimed cash and gold deposited in the Federal Reserve (Central Bank of the US), amounting to about $13.5 billion. Fourth, Iran claimed civilian property, which included the property and claims of Iranian companies or investors and private citizens in business arrangements with U.S. counterparts. Fifth, Iran claimed diplomatic property, which is divided into three categories: immovable diplomatic property, which includes 13 properties for the use of Iranian diplomatic and consular premises in the US; movable assets inside those properties; and assets in Iran's estimated 118 diplomatic bank accounts in the US.

According to executive documents released under the Algiers Accord, the US committed to only three out of the five above-mentioned categories of claims, and even those were not completely fulfilled. According to these commitments, the US has repaid the majority of Iran’s cash assets, gold, and securities (about $10 billion), and part of its obligations to private Iranian companies. However, Washington continues to refrain from fulfilling its commitment to deliver Iranian military goods and properties, and from repatriating Shah’s properties, Alavi Foundation assets, or the diplomatic properties of Iran. Furthermore, according to information available, about $2.5 to $3 billion in Iranian cash, securities, and gold deposited in American banks are not mentioned in the Algiers Accord and is therefore unclear if they will be returned.

Over the years, various experts and analysts from both countries have studied the dimensions and background of the US Embassy takeover. One common conclusion is that the embassy seizure on November 04, 1979 provided an excuse to escalate US actions against Iran. Meanwhile, it added to Iran’s pessimistic attitude towards the US and prevented normalization of relations between the two countries. Many of the current disputes between Iran and the US originate from the US Embassy takeover, an incident, which, in the words of Asgharzadeh, was supposed to take only 2–3 days, but whose consequences continue until today, even though 38 years have passed.


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