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.”


#OurHomesAreOpen: Lebanese offer spare beds to Beirut blast victims

Updated 10 min 21 sec ago

#OurHomesAreOpen: Lebanese offer spare beds to Beirut blast victims

  • Social media users have freely offered up spare beds and empty properties to victims
  • Others shared contacts of doctors who were available to suture wounds in their clinics as hospitals were overwhelmed

AMMAN: Using social media, hundreds of Lebanese have offered shelter to strangers displaced by a devastating blast, which Beirut’s governor said may have left 250,000 people homeless.
Tuesday evening’s explosion in port warehouses storing explosive material was the most powerful ever to rip through the capital, killing some 110 people, injuring about 4,000 and tearing the facades off buildings and overturning cars.
Using the hashtag #OurHomesAreOpen in Arabic and English, social media users have freely offered up spare beds and empty properties to victims, providing their names, phone numbers and details on the size and location of the accommodation.
“I wanted to do something about it, I was going crazy,” said the founder of the platform ThawraMap, originally used to identify protest locations, which is curating a list of available beds, including free accommodation from hotels.
“Today a lot more people are going to be homeless. They go to their family or friends for a day or two and then what are they going to do?” the anti-government activist told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, who declined to publish his name for safety.

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The disaster — which rattled windows about 160km away — has united a city still scarred by civil war three decades ago and reeling from a financial crisis rooted in corruption and economic mismanagement and a surge in coronavirus infections.
ThawraMap, or Revolution Map, has been sharing its shelter list on Twitter and Instagram, along with a map of more than 50 locations offered so far, ranging from people with extra beds in their homes to hotels providing up to 40 rooms.
Lebanon on Wednesday declared a two-week state of emergency in Beirut where some 250,000 people lost their homes in the blast, which has caused $3 to $5 billion in damage, governor Marwan Abboud told local media after taking a tour of the city.
Other city residents have been using the hashtag to make their own offers, with some volunteering transport as well in a painful reminder of the 1975 to 1990 civil war that tore the nation apart and destroyed swathes of Beirut.
“For anyone in need of a house, I have an empty bedroom with an en suite bathroom, welcoming Beirut and its people,” wrote one Twitter user Wajdi Saad.
Others shared contacts of doctors who were available to suture wounds in their clinics as hospitals were overwhelmed.
The crisis has stoked anger against Lebanon’s political elite and raised fears of hunger as it wrecked the main entry point for imports for some 6 million people, including almost 1 million Syrian refugees, according to United Nations figures.
“Beirut is more than cursed,” tweeted one user named Reyna.
“The first morning after the tragedy: nothing in Beirut is in one piece. Not the streets, not homes, not people, nothing.”
President Michel Aoun told the nation the government was “determined to investigate and expose what happened as soon as possible, to hold the responsible and the negligent accountable, and to sanction them with the most severe punishment.”