By the 1970s, many Iranians were fed up with the Shah’s government. In protest, they turned to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a radical cleric whose revolutionary Islamist movement seemed to promise a break from the past and a turn toward greater autonomy for the Iranian people. In July 1979, the revolutionaries forced the Shah to disband his government and flee to Egypt. The Ayatollah installed a militant Islamist government in its place.
The United States, fearful of stirring up hostilities in the Middle East, did not come to the defense of its old ally. (For one thing, President Carter, aware of the Shah’s terrible record in that department, was reluctant to defend him.) However, in October 1979 President Carter agreed to allow the exiled leader to enter the U.S. for treatment of an advanced malignant lymphoma. His decision was humanitarian, not political; nevertheless, as one American later noted, it was like throwing “a burning branch into a bucket of kerosene.” Anti-American sentiment in Iran exploded.
On November 4, just after the Shah arrived in New York, a group of pro-Ayatollah students smashed the gates and scaled the walls of the American embassy in Tehran. Once inside, they seized 66 hostages, mostly diplomats and embassy employees. After a short period of time, 13 of these hostages were released. (For the most part, these 13 were women, African-Americans and citizens of countries other than the U.S.–people who, Khomeini argued, were already subject to “the oppression of American society.”) Some time later, a 14th hostage developed health problems and was likewise sent home. By midsummer 1980, 52 hostages remained in the embassy compound.
Diplomatic maneuvers had no discernible effect on the Ayatollah’s anti-American stance; neither did economic sanctions such as the seizure of Iranian assets in the United States. Meanwhile, while the hostages were never seriously injured, they were subjected to a rich variety of demeaning and terrifying treatment. They were blindfolded and paraded in front of TV cameras and jeering crowds. They were not allowed to speak or read, and they were rarely permitted to change clothes. Throughout the crisis there was a frightening uncertainty about their fate: The hostages never knew whether they were going to be tortured, murdered or set free.