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Summary & Analysis

September 11 and November 4

For many Americans, September 11 brought back powerful—and awful—memories of another, earlier attack on America by Islamic radicals.  On 4 November 1979, several hundred Iranian students, loyal to the fundamentalist Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stormed the United States Embassy in Iran and took 66 Americans captive.  Fifteen were soon released, but the remaining 51 were held as hostages.

Americans were stunned by the brazen attack against their embassy in Tehran.  Embassies were traditionally viewed as safe havens, sanctuaries respected by all civilized nations in deference to diplomacy over warfare.  The attack, in other words, was an assault on civilized behavior.  At a different level, the attack by unorganized, crudely armed students on an American outpost represented an unfathomable assault on American power.  What were they thinking?  The United States was the most powerful country in the world.  Did these students think this would go unpunished?

But as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, Americans had to face the even more troubling suggestion that the students’ attack would go unpunished. The students were unimpressed by American threats. They vowed that unless the deposed Shah, at the time seeking medical asylum in America, was returned to face punishment by his former subjects in Iran, they would never return the hostages.  Instead of capitulation, they filled the evening news with daily demonstrations of anti-Americanism in the streets of Tehran.  As Americans watched their flags burned and effigies of Jimmy Carter destroyed, they were forced to consider other questions.  What had produced this hatred of the United States?  Why were we being held responsible for the crimes of the deposed Shah of Iran, someone most Americans had probably never even heard of?

The Making of a Shah

The fact of the matter was that the United States had played a large role in the rise of the Shah to power in 1953.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, was nudged into power in 1941 by Britain and Russia, two countries worried that his father, Reza Shah, would not be a cooperative ally in World War II against Germany. And indeed, the 22-year-old Shah did prove a more reliable asset during the war.  Following World War II, moreover, the Shah proved just as reliable in support of pro-western interests in the region during the Cold War. 

Within Iran, however, the Shah’s pro-western policies generated considerable dissent and, by 1951, widespread political opposition led by the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq.  The European-trained lawyer opposed the Shah’s too-cozy relationship with western powers.  In particular, he objected to the monopolization of the country’s oil by British companies.  As an alternative, Mossadeq urged nationalization of the vital resource.

The United States and Great Britain watched the ascendance of this popular nationalist with alarm.  Mosaddeq was only loosely aligned with his country’s Communist Party.  But the western powers feared that Mosaddeq might open the door to Communist influence in the country, placing its huge oil supplies entirely outside the reach of the West.  Alarm reached crisis levels in 1953, when clashes between the Shah and Mosaddeq’s followers forced the Shah to leave the country.  In response, British and American intelligence agencies organized a coup—code named Operation Ajax—that overthrew Mosaddeq and restored the Shah to power.

The Shah: A Problematic Ally

The Shah repaid the western powers handsomely for their support.  Over the next 25 years, he ensured a steady supply of affordable oil.  And he pursued a series of “reforms” that suggested he was modernizing and westernizing the country. He granted women the right to vote and he mounted a high-profile literacy campaign. 

But while some applauded the Shah’s commitment to modernization, traditionalists opposed his “White Revolution.”  Hard-line Islamic clerics, led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned the measures that they believed threatened the moral and religious values of Islam. And they criticized the Shah’s tight relationship with the United States and conciliatory policies toward Israel. 

The Shah reacted harshly to these criticisms.  Khomeini was arrested and eventually forced into exile.  The Ayatollah’s followers remaining in Iran faced even harsher treatment.  The Shah built an elaborate security police—the SAVAK—that cracked down on further dissent with brutal force. 

But these measures only increased opposition to the Shah and his program among Islamic traditionalists.  And they also cost the Shah support among many moderates inside Iran.  Even many of those supportive of modernization were horrified by the brutality of SAVAK and disgusted by the Shah’s opulent lifestyle.

American policymakers were not blind to the dark side of the Shah’s regime.  But he was too valuable an ally to be dumped.  He was an ardent anticommunist and, since Iran bordered the Soviet Union, he represented a critical geographical ally.  The Shah spent billions on American military hardware, boosting American industries and reducing America’s trade deficit.  And he was a powerful and moderate force in OPEC, urging the oil producing nations to maintain reasonable oil prices. 

In other words, there were plenty of good reasons to continue supporting the Shah, but there was a price.  As popular dissatisfaction with the Iranian leader grew, so too did hatred for the United States.  It was America, after all, that had helped him into power… and then kept him there.  And it was American weapons that armed SAVAK and consumed a disproportionate part of the national budget.  For religious traditionalists, moreover, America and the Shah’s modernization campaign were synonymous; America’s ubiquitous commercial goods, its music, movies, and fashions were the insidious purveyors of destructive cultural values.  Soon Islamic traditionalists labeled America “the Great Satan.”

The Iranian Revolution

By 1979, opposition to the Shah had reached revolutionary proportions.  From Paris, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini orchestrated a campaign of strikes and protests that crippled the oil industry vital to the Iranian economy and the government’s budget.  Recognizing that his hold on power was untenable, and dying from cancer, the Shah fled the country on 16 January 1979.  Within weeks, the Ayatollah was welcomed back into Iran as a conquering hero.

Over the following months, American officials and Iranian revolutionary leaders eyed one another suspiciously. Many in Iran feared that the CIA would launch another coup in an attempt to restore the Shah to power yet again.  President Jimmy Carter had no such intentions.  But his decision to allow the Shah to enter the United States in October 1979 to seek medical treatment only strengthened Iranian suspicions.  The Shah checked into New York’s Weill Cornell Medical Hospital on 22 October.  Two weeks later, the American Embassy in Tehran was attacked.

American Impotence

The ensuing hostage crisis all but destroyed Jimmy Carter’s presidency.  For more than a year, the dean of the evening news, Walter Cronkite, closed his broadcasts with a painful reminder of just how long Carter’s policies had failed to win the release of the American prisoners—”And that’s the way it is… the 222nd day of captivity for the hostages in Iran.”  In reality, Carter was far from passive in his response to the crisis.  He placed an embargo on Iranian oil, froze Iranian assets in American banks, and terminated all arms sales to the country.  And in April 1980, he approved a risky operation by Special Forces meant to blaze into Tehran by helicopter gunship to rescue the hostages.

But months of diplomacy yielded nothing, and the military rescue operation proved a complete catastrophe when the helicopters broke down en route, malfunctioning in a severe sandstorm.  Part of the problem for Carter was that the Iranian demands were all but impossible to meet.  For example, initially they demanded the return of the Shah to stand trial.  But within weeks of the American embassy’s takeover, the Shah left New York, first for Panama and then for Egypt.  Even more problematic for American negotiators, in July 1980, the Shah died. 

In the end, the hostages were released in exchange for the unfreezing of Iranian assets held in the United States.  Although negotiated by Carter’s administration, the release was timed to coincide with his departure from office, triggering all sorts of speculation that incoming president Ronald Reagan’s campaign team had made some kind of deal with the Iranians. Those allegations remain unproven, but clearly the hostage crisis did doom Jimmy Carter’s campaign and ensure the election of the former California governor to the American presidency in 1980.  In January 1981, on the very day that Jimy Carter relinquished office, Iran set its captives free.

From 1979 to 2001 and Beyond

Thus ended the Iranian hostage crisis.  But to a certain extent, the episode continues.  Thirty years later, the United States has yet to remove many of the economic sanctions against Iran first imposed in 1979.  In fact, in recent years the United States has only increased its economic pressure in hopes of forcing Iran to suspend its nuclear weapons program.  Today, Iran remains as committed to reducing American influence in the region as ever.  In 1982, Iran was instrumental in the founding of Hezbollah, a political/terrorist organization responsible for attacks against American and Israeli interests.

Nor has the rhetoric exchanged between the two countries changed much since 1979.  Iranian proclamations still refer to the United States as the “Great Satan.”  In 2002, President George W. Bush labeled Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, part of the “axis of evil.”

Yet, demonstrating just how complicated American relations with this part of the world are, the link between 1979 and 2001—between Iran and Al Qaeda—remains a huge mystery.  Given the history of ill will between the United States and Iran, Bush administration officials immediately linked Iran to the September 11 attacks.  But almost a decade later, it remains dubious whether Iran supported or was linked in any fashion to Al Qaeda. Historically, Shiite and Sunni Muslims have been bitter enemies.  In fact, to a certain extent, fundamentalist Sunni groups like Al Qaeda were formed as a reaction against Iranian claims that with the ascendance of an Islamic theocracy under clerical rule in Iran, Shia Iran had become the spiritual center of the Muslim world.  The tension between these two claimants to fundamentalist leadership was made apparent when many Al Qaeda members who fled to Iran following the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 were promptly arrested by Iranian authorities.

But while sectarian differences may separate the two Muslim groups, their shared hostility toward the United States provides common ground.  Understanding the region, and mapping a strategy for both national security and improved relations, rests on recognizing the complexities of the region—and perhaps most importantly, the possibilities as well as the dangers to be found in the centuries-old Sunni-Shiite schism.

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