Iran Hostage Crisis: Summary, Timeline & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The Iran Hostage Crisis lasted more than a year and greatly affected U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Learn more about how this important historical event unfolded and how it defined one president's legacy.

444 Days of Misery

For 444 days, more than 60 Americans feared for their lives during the Iran Hostage Crisis. This siege, lasting from November 1979 to January 1981, began when angry Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran and took hostages. This incident profoundly impacted U.S. relations with Iran and cost Jimmy Carter re-election as president. Let's explore the story by looking at datelines of major events.

Dateline: 1950-1979

Let's start 30 years prior. The U.S. had a close relationship with the Shah, the political and religious leader of Iran, and Iranians hated this association. The United States supported the Shah because Iran provided oil. This commodity was so important to the United States that in 1953, the U.S. forcibly removed a man who challenged the Shah's rule. Iranians grew tired of U.S. pressures and anti-American feelings began to simmer just under the surface.

Angry Iranians protest in Tehran

The coziness with America was not the only reason Iranians despised the Shah. In the 1960s, he promised economic and social reforms to improve people's lives, but very few people ever experienced any kind of improvement. Those opposing him were arrested and exiled. The Shah also had relationships with other Western nations, and that ingredient was a vital one in the recipe for disaster.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter didn't help the situation. At a 1977 dinner, he toasted the Shah and praised him as a solid and dependable leader. Iranians felt differently, especially since the Shah treated them poorly through his political oppression. In 1979, the situation escalated and the Shah fled to Egypt in fear of his life. He never returned, and one month later, a new leader with a decidedly anti-Western stance took power. His name was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, or the Ayatollah for short.

The Shah (l), the Ayatollah (c), President Jimmy Carter (r)

  • FACT: The Ayatollah was one of those the Shah had arrested for opposition and exiled, and this fueled his anger and thirst for power.

Dateline: November 1979

The Ayatollah preached a strong anti-Western message, calling the United States the 'Great Satan.' During this time, the Shah was diagnosed with cancer and President Carter allowed him into the United States for treatment. This pushed Iran further over the edge. On November 4, all of these issues came to a head and angry Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran's capital. When the smoke cleared, Iranians had taken 66 Americans hostage. Nearly two weeks later, 13 of the hostages were released, leaving 53 being held against their will.

  • FACT: One hostage developed multiple sclerosis during the time he was held captive, and he was released several months after the group of 13, leaving 52 hostages.

One of the hostages in captivity

During their captivity, the hostages were mistreated and belittled. Sometimes, they were taken out and paraded in front of crowds, and they woke up every morning with great fear and anxiety about what the day held. The hostages were treated poorly both mentally and physically. They were forced to be alone for long periods, endured beatings, faced mental torture, and underwent a mock execution.

Dateline: April 1980

President Carter was in trouble. The hostage crisis was constantly covered on U.S. news programs, and the American public grew impatient for a resolution and the safe return of the hostages. Carter tried economic sanctions, diplomatic approaches, and negotiation. He even tried military force, authorizing a secret mission that ended with two helicopters in smoking heaps on the ground and eight soldiers dead. Nothing worked.

Crash site of one of the helicopters during failed rescue attempt

  • FACT: The television show Nightline was created to cover the hostage crisis. It gave a daily count as to how many days the hostages had been held in captivity and focused on how poorly Carter was handling the situation.

In the 1980 presidential election, California governor Ronald Reagan used the crisis to denounce Carter as a weak leader. If Carter was unable to secure the hostages' release, how could he continue to lead the country? Ultimately, the hostage situation cost Carter a second term in the White House.

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