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.”


Palestinians slam Pompeo over pro-settlement efforts

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, walks with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman as he prepares to board a plane at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Pompeo is en route to the United Arab Emirates. (AP)
Updated 24 November 2020

Palestinians slam Pompeo over pro-settlement efforts

  • US actions ‘will not change international consensus,’ says former UN envoy

AMMAN: Palestinian officials have downplayed the effectiveness of a statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his recent visit to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The statement included a move to allow products made in the occupied territories to be labeled “Made in Israel,” a clear contradiction to recent UN Security Council resolutions and efforts by the EU to reject such labeling.

Nasser Al-Kiddwa, former Palestinian envoy to the UN, told Arab News that the US efforts are “dangerous,” despite being ineffective.

“This is a dangerous move even though it will not have much of an effect and is reversible,” he said.

In harsh comments, Al-Kiddwa said that, while President Donald Trump’s administration is keen to help Israelis and settlers, the country’s efforts constitute helping Israel “commit a war crime.”

“While the Trump team wants to support settlements and settlers, their action makes the US an accomplice in a war crime,” he said.

Al-Kiddwa said the Pompeo statement violates UN Council Resolution 2334, which calls for differentiating between the West Bank and Israel. He said it was also a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Jamal Dajani, a lecturer at San Francisco State university, said the Trump administration is not “recognizing the reality on the ground,” but rather creating its own fictitious reality by implementing Benjamin Netanyahu’s settler-colonial vision.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement violates UN Council Resolution 2334, which calls for differentiating between the West Bank and Israel.

Nasser Al-Kiddwa, Former Palestinian envoy to UN

Dajani, who previously served as director of strategic communications and media in the Palestinian prime minister’s office, said the “true reality on the ground” is that Area C in the West Bank is an internationally recognized occupied territory. He added that the presence of Israeli colonial settlements in the region is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Al-Kiddwa, who is a member of the Fatah Central Committee, told Arab News that the US action will not alter the international consensus. “This is a biased administration that does not care about international law or the future of the region.”

He called on the newly elected administration in the US to reverse the decision.

“As a world citizen, I believe that the new administration must reverse all the decisions that were carried out without coordination with the US Congress, which are in clear violation of the way things are carried out,” he said.

Wadie Abunassar, a Haifa-based political analyst and the director of the International Centre for Consultations, told Arab News that the Trump administration has ignored the more than 7 million Palestinians to the west of the Jordan River.

“This administration repeatedly damaged US chances to be perceived as an honest broker by the vast majority of Middle East residents. The US would do well by respecting international law and encouraging Israel to do so.”

Senior Palestinian officials contacted by Arab News said that the gifts being bestowed on the Netanyahu government will not change anything on the ground.

“Trump and Pompeo are playing in lost time and their actions will not change anything regarding the occupied territories.”