On this day in 1981, 52 American hostages were released from captivity after an agreement was signed between the United States and Iran, thus ending the Iran Hostage Crisis. For 444 days, the Americans – who had worked at the embassy in Tehran – were held by Iranian student revolutionaries who had overpowered the embassy’s guards during the Iranian Revolution. As the crisis dragged on, the 52 hostages came to symbolize the deterioration of diplomatic efforts between Iran and America.
For the duration of the hostage crisis, American president Jimmy Carter faced immense pressure to resolve the issue. Six Americans had been smuggled out of Iran as part of a Canadian/CIA effort in early 1980 – the hostages were posing as Canadian film makers – but the majority of the hostages remained. A full-scale military invasion was vetoed; a smaller-scale rescue operation codenamed Operation Eagle Claw was planned for spring of 1980. But the mission – which was to be led by Delta Force commandos staging out of ships in the Gulf – failed due to poor planning on April 24th, 1980. The failure of Eagle Claw provided another propaganda win for the nascent Iranian regime and likely cost Carter his second term.
In the end, the hostage crisis was resolved mere minutes after new American president Ronald Reagan was sworn into office. Heavy sanctions against Iran followed, and relations between the two countries deteriorated. Many American commentators at the time expressed shock and horror at the “unprovoked” hostage seizure; but what many chose to forget was that the revolution was a reaction to the excesses and corruption of the former American-backed ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi. American efforts to keep Pahlavi on the Iranian throne (and prevent the spread of communism into the region) had spectacularly backfired, and modern Iran – one of the first “rogue states” – was born.