1979 hostage crisis: Iran’s long history of antagonism

1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3
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
0

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.”


Daesh is down but not out, say fleeing families

Updated 23 February 2019
0

Daesh is down but not out, say fleeing families

  • Hundreds more remain holed up in Baghouz, the last redoubt of the militants’ proto-state
  • Some evacuees say they would have stayed if it were not for the call from their leaders to leave

OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria: They were living in holes in the ground, with only dry flatbread to eat at the end. Those injured in an intense military campaign had no access to medical care, and those who were sick had no medicine.

Yet, if it were not for the call from their leaders to leave, they would have stayed. Such is the devotion of several hundred men, women and children who were evacuated on Friday from the last speck of land controlled by Daesh, a riverside pocket that sits on the edge of Syria and Iraq. Hundreds, if not thousands, more remain holed up in Baghouz — the last redoubt of the militants’ proto-state that leaders once said would stretch to Rome.

They include militants, of course, but also their family members and other civilians who are among the group’s most determined supporters. Many of them traveled to Syria from all over the world. And they stuck around as the militants’ control crumbled.

At least 36 flatbed trucks used for transporting sheep carried the disheveled, haggard crowd out of the territory to a desert area miles away for screening. 

They were the latest batch of evacuees from the territory following airstrikes and clashes meant to bring about the militants’ complete territorial defeat.

For now, the civilians are expected to be sent to a displaced people’s camp, while suspected fighters will go to detention facilities. Previous evacuations have already overwhelmed camps in northern Syria, and at least 60 people who left the shrinking territory have died of malnutrition or exhaustion.

In a dusty area surrounded by grass, women engulfed in black robes from head to toe and children in dirty jackets — many of them crying for food — formed one line. Men wearing tattered headscarves formed another. Foreign men were in yet a third.

One woman had given birth in one of the trucks. An old man was carried in a blanket by two others to the screening line.  A young girl sat under the shade of the wheel of a truck looking dazed, while another moved between the crowd, asking for food.

The evacuees included French, Polish, Chinese, Bengali, Egyptians, Tajiks, Moroccans, Iraqis and Syrians.

It is impossible to know if all are wholeheartedly behind the militant group or how many expressed support out of fear of reprisals. But many vehemently defended Daesh, arguing the group was down — but not out — and said they only left because of an order from the remaining leader in the area.

Some referred to the wali, the provincial leader, while others said the order was from the group’s top leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

It is not clear if Daesh leaders were in agreement. Amid the military pressure, reports have emerged of disagreements among them. The war monitor group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one Daesh leader was beheaded in recent days for urging civilians to leave.

All those interviewed gave nicknames or spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their safety.

“Baghouz maybe is the most difficult moments of all my life,” said 21-year-old Um Youssef, a Tunisian-French woman who came to Syria at 17 with her mother. 

Um Youssef — which means mother of Youssef in Arabic — sent her two kids and her mother out of the pocket last month and stayed with her husband.

She said she had no regrets and was at “peace,” describing the last few weeks as “the best” since she moved to Syria because they taught her life lessons.

It was hard to see how that could be from the hills overlooking Baghouz. A four-year international campaign has reduced the Daesh reign — which once sprawled over nearly a third of Syria and Iraq — to a tent encampment and a few homes in this village overlooking the Euphrates river.

An estimated 300 Daesh militants are besieged there, hemmed in by the river and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia spearheading the fight against Daesh following an intense push since September. Thousands of civilians have also poured into the area.

The presence of so many civilians— and possibly senior members of the militant group — in Baghouz has surprised the SDF and slowed down the expected announcement of the extremist group’s territorial defeat.

Recapturing Baghouz would mark an end to the militants’ territorial rule, but few believe that will end the threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq and that has active affiliates in Egypt, West Africa and elsewhere. The group also has a presence online, using social media to recruit new members and promote its attacks.

In the past few weeks, nearly 20,000 people have left Baghouz on foot through the humanitarian corridor, but the militants then closed the passage and no civilians left for a week until Wednesday, when a large group was evacuated.

Among those evacuated Friday was a group of 11 Yazidi children. Thousands from the Yazidi minority were kidnapped by Daesh in Iraq in 2014, and are still missing.

In the dusty clearing where the evacuees were being screened on Friday, a 16-year-old mother of two from Aleppo said she has not had food for a couple of days, opting to feed her children instead.

A child said he has not showered in a month, and a woman from Tajikistan asked for a phone to call her mother. Frantic and in tears, a mother held out her pale and still toddler, screaming for help. Tears of hungry children rang through the open desert as SDF officials searched the evacuees’ belongings.

But of over a dozen people interviewed by The Associated Press, only four said they did not want to be in Baghouz.

They described living in holes dug in the ground with tents hoisted to protect against airstrikes. Some said they initially got lentil soup, but then only barely-husk bread was available— a green-brownish loaf of flatbread.

“We weren’t going to leave, but the Caliph said women should leave,” said Um Abdul-Aziz, a 33-year-old Syrian mother of five whose moniker means mother of Abdul-Aziz in Arabic. She was referring to Daesh leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

Her husband stayed behind to fight.

A few were critical. “Order or no order, I wanted to get out,” said Aya Ibrahim, an Iraqi mother who said she was unable to secure medicine for her children. “Many families died from airstrikes. Many kids died from hunger.”

The 16-year-old Syrian mother of two from Aleppo said she lost four husbands, her father, sister and two brothers. Um Mohammed said the last days have been hard, with food prices soaring and intensive bombings keeping them in hiding.

About 2 pounds of sugar went for nearly 30,000 Liras ($70), more than 30 times the price in other parts of Syria, while a liter of cooking oil cost 10,000 Liras. “I have not eaten in four days,” she said.

Then the order came for them to leave. But, for some, it is not the end.

Um Youssef, the French-Tunisian, said she has no plans or desire to return home in Tunisia, saying she would find her way to another Syrian city.

Daesh is over? Says who? asked a 14-year-old Syrian girl who refused to give her name. “Wherever you go there is” Daesh.