Today marks the 37th anniversary of the beginning of Iran’s US embassy siege. It was an episode that would last more than a year, creating an international crisis and forever changing relations between the two countries.
Some 52 Americans, comprising both diplomatic staff and citizens, were held hostage in Iran for 444 days between November 4, 1979 and January 21, 1981 by a group of students supporting the Islamic Revolution.
Six diplomats managed to evade capture and took refuge in the residence of a Canadian diplomat in Tehran. They were subsequently provided with Canadian passports by ambassador Ken Taylor and smuggled out of the country by CIA operatives posing as filmmakers. Their story – known as the Canadian Caper – inspired the 2012 movie ‘Argo’.
Members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s line had been frustrated by the United States’ refusal to extradite Iran’s deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom the White House had backed for decades despite his autocratic regime.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who seized power from Pahlavi to become Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, supported the embassy siege, dubbing America the ‘Great Satan’.
In April 1980 US marines launched a disastrous airlift operation to free the hostages. The rescue bid failed and eight American service personnel were killed when two of their aircraft collided.
Later that year, amid the ongoing crisis, diplomatic relations between the countries were formally severed, with the US having previously ceased the purchase of Iranian oil.
The siege finally ended on the day President Ronald Reagan took office in Washington D.C.
With the Algerian government working as intermediaries, the US agreed to free almost $8 billion in frozen assets belonging to Iran. In return all 52 hostages, some of whom had been subjected to mock executions during their captivity, were released.