25-Year Anniversary of End of Iranian Hostage Crisis

Twenty five years ago in Iran, and just hours after President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, Americans captured at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held hostage for 444 days were finally allowed to go home. Karen Grigsby Bates talks with two former hostages about the atmosphere in Tehran at the time, and the ordeal they endured while waiting for release.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Iran is in the news again today. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has refused a European Union request to speed up a report on the state of Iran's nuclear program. European and American leaders have been scrambling for ways to respond to that nation's nuclear ambitions.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

International and particularly American anxiety over Iran largely began with the Iranian hostage crisis. It ended 25 years ago today. This was an event that absolutely dominated public life for more than a year. We spent hours watching television news and tying yellow ribbons around trees in the front yard hoping that the 52 hostages would return safely. And then finally the country rejoiced to hear news of their release.

(Soundbite of news report on hostage release)

Former President JIMMY CARTER: Just a few minutes, few moments ago, on Air Force One, before we landed (unintelligible) I had received word officially for the first time that the aircraft carrying the 52 American hostages had cleared the Iranian S Base on the first, first leg of a journey home, and that every one of the 52 hostages was alive, was well, and free.

CHADWICK: That's former President Jimmy Carter speaking 25 ago on the day that his successor, Ronald Reagan, was inaugurated.

BRAND: The crisis began in 1979 with a startling announcement. The American embassy in Tehran, that's Iran's capital, had been overrun by militant students. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates takes us back.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, reporting:

In November of 1979, students in Iran burned effigies of Jimmy Carter in the streets to protest the President's decision to allow the deposed and terminally ill Shah of Iran to come into the United States for medical treatment.

(Soundbite of 1979 news report)

Unidentified Male #1: This is a message of the students in the American embassy of Tehran. We are not against the beacon of the U.S.A., we are against of the United States policy in Iran.

GRIGSBY BATES: Bruce Laingen was the embassy's charge d'affaires and its highest ranking officer at the time. He vividly remembers the tension among embassy staff in Tehran as a provisional government fought to establish itself following the Shah's forced exit in February of that year.

Mr. BRUCE LAINGEN (President, American Academy of Diplomacy): We were largely concentrated inside the compound of 26 acres, living in small houses. There were frequent demonstrations outside the walls of the embassy, not necessarily directed against us, but as a part of the general uncertain political scene at the time.

GRIGSBY BATES: At first a few, then a hundred, then thousands of people streamed through the embassy's gates and into the building. Embassy personnel frantically hurried to burn sensitive documents. Barry Rosen was the embassy's press attaché.

Mr. BARRY ROSEN (Former U.S. embassy press attaché): Those, quote, "Students following the line of the Imam who took over the embassy," were able to garner all the confidential files within the embassy, and thereby find those middle-class Iranians who were politically opposed to Khomeini, and then one by one Khomeini was able to remove any of these people from power, execute them, or put them in jail.

GRIGSBY BATES: But the greater consequences of the embassy takeover were not clear on that first day. Both Rosen and Laingen believed the Americans would be released in a few days. They were worried but not frantic. The same thing had happened for a few hours immediately after the Shah's departure, Laingen says, but diplomatic negotiations had secured the staff's quick release. At first he says there was no reason to think this would be any different.

Mr. LAINGEN: I can recall, as my colleagues can recall I'm sure, that surely this will end by Thanksgiving, we'll be back in the offices. Christmas, New Years, that sort of hope we held onto until we simply had to conclude that this was not going to be accomplished very soon and we'd have to wait while our government in Washington worked out something.

BATES: And President Carter did try to work something out all through the crisis, including a daring rescue attempt in April of 1980. But top secret Operation Eagle Claw failed, something the president later admitted to the American people.

Former President CARTER: With a steady unraveling of authority in Iran and the mounting dangers that were opposed to the safety of the hostages themselves and the growing realization that their early release was highly unlikely, I made a decision to commence the rescue operation's plans.

GRIGSBY BATES: The helicopters sent to free the Americans had crashed in a fiery accident and the hostages remained prisoners of the Iranians. Eventually the Carter administration was able to strike a deal for the Americans' freedom, but the crisis is widely believed to have cost Jimmy Carter a second term. After nationwide celebrations to commemorate their release, the former hostages began to settle back into their lives. Bruce Laingen, now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, says many returned to government service, most of them with a new appreciation of their lives at home.

Mr. LAINGEN: I think all of us came out of this situation wiser about ourselves, deeply convinced that the human spirit is stronger than any of us believe until we are severely tested. We came out with a deepened sense of patriotism and a strong view that diplomacy must be the first line of the country's defense.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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