1979 hostage crisis: Iran’s long history of antagonism

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The storming of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 sparked tumult in the Middle East, turning Iran into an international outcast. (Supplied)
Updated 04 November 2018

1979 hostage crisis: Iran’s long history of antagonism

  • Looking back: on this day 39 years ago, Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 Americans hostage
  • The date coincides with the same day the US set for a second set of sanctions to be reinstated on Iran after Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal

DUBAI: When a group of Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran 39 years ago this Sunday, taking more than 60 Americans hostage, it marked the start of a long and precipitous decline in relations between then two countries.
Now, almost four decades later, the anniversary of the embassy takeover coincides with a fresh round of economic sanctions to be imposed on the Islamic republic. The sanctions follow the US withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and will hit Iran’s shipping, finance and energy sectors.
In 1979, the American hostages were seized by Iranian students demanding the extradition of Iran’s ruler, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was in the US receiving treatment for cancer (he had fled from Iran to Egypt in January). The issue escalated rapidly after the storming of the embassy. The following day Iran ended military treaties with the US and the Soviet Union, which allowed for military intervention. Then, on Nov. 6, Ayatollah Khomeini took power.
“The hostage crisis was the first time the American public acquired a negative view of Iran,” Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said this week.
“Of course, many Iranians had long had a negative view of the US, stemming from the 1953 Mossadegh episode (the overthrow of Iran’s prime minister) and the subsequent US support for the shah. I well remember how Iranian students frequently demonstrated against the shah’s regime and US support for it during the 1970s.”
Matters worsened when US president Jimmy Carter sent former attorney general Ramsey Clark and Senate Intelligence Committee staff director William Miller to Iran on Nov. 7 to negotiate the release of the hostages, and Khomeini refused to meet with them. One week later, Iranian assets in US banks were frozen — the first of many restrictions on the Islamic republic.
“The hostage crisis had a profound effect on American views of Iran,” Katz said. “Before the Iranian revolution, Iran was seen as an ally; afterwards it was seen as unremittingly hostile and even irrational. This was partly because most Americans had no notion of Iranian grievances against the US.”
On Nov. 19 and 20, women and African-American hostages were freed, leaving 53 Americans captive in the embassy. Although the United Nations had passed a resolution in early December 1979 calling for Iran to release the hostages, President Carter cut diplomatic ties with Iran in April 1980, imposing more sanctions and ordering all Iranian diplomats to leave the US.
“The hostage-taking marked the moment American-Iranian relations began deteriorating,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “But relations were not always the way they are today. When the shah was in power, relations were extremely good between both countries — Iran was more or less Washington’s main strategic ally in the region.”
Kahwaji said Iran had a status that was equivalent, if not higher, than Israel with respect to the US. “The weapons given to the shah were even more advanced than those given to Israel,” he said. “So it was a high-level strategic relationship. At that time, Iran was openly and publicly, with US knowledge and indirect support, starting its own nuclear program as well.”
The hostage-taking came as a major shock. “The revolution was a blunder on the part of American intelligence, which didn’t expect it to happen,” Kahwaji said. “So the revolution and the subsequent hostage-taking was a major setback in relations between the two countries.”
On Jan. 20, 1981, 444 days after the storming of the embassy, the US hostages were released and flown to Wiesbaden air base in Germany. The release was negotiated after the US and Iran signed an agreement to free Iranian assets.
Today, as Iran prepares to face a new set of sanctions imposed by the US, experts look back on the events of 1979 as among the most significant and far-reaching in the region.
“Iran was the number one ally to Israel in the region and it became the number one enemy,” Kahwaji said. “So, with the revolution, Iran shifted 180 degrees and all of its previous allies became its main enemies, and vice versa.”
New alliances emerged in the region. “Subsequently, with the Iran-Iraq war, we had Iran on the side of everything that opposed the US and the West, and it still is today,” he said. “The whole political landscape in the Middle East changed.”
On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the new sanctions would deprive Iran of the revenues “that it uses to spread death and destruction around the world. Our ultimate aim is to compel Iran to permanently abandon its well-documented outlaw activities and behave as a normal country.”
He said the sanctions were a part of a US government effort to change the behavior of the Iranian regime.
“On Nov. 5, the US will reimpose sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear deal on Iran’s energy, ship-building, shipping and banking sectors,” he said.
“These sanctions hit at the core areas of Iran’s economy. They are necessary to spur changes we seek on the part of the regime and our actions today are targeted at the regime, not the people of Iran, who have suffered grievously under it.”


Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 24 August 2019

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”