PLO in Lebanon

1960s-

 

Algiers Accord with Iraq

1975

 

Islamic Revolution

1979

 

American Hostage Crisis

1979-1981

 

Algiers Accord with US

1981

 

Iran-Iraq War

1980-1988

 

American Hostages in Lebanon

1981-1988

American Embassy Hostage Crisis

Dr. Judith Yaphe

There were 52 hostages, almost all of them were in the [American] embassy as employees.  There were a few who were just there to get visas, they were taken too.  …it was a very hostile environment and few people were going out.  You have to understand that from the beginning of the [1979 Revolution] even before that, there was a bit of hostility, and by the time all these events unfolded there was a lot of anti-Americanism in the street.

Dr. Judith Yaphe ran the CIA's Iran desk during the American Hostage Crisis.

But you always think that you’re protected in an embassy and here was a case when you were not. And the reality was, these people were taken, they were blindfolded, they were mistreated.  There was at least one Persian speaker who was a world-class expert on Iran and he was taken.  He could understand, he could talk to them.  He was married to an Iranian woman, he had done a Ph.D. in Iranian studies at Harvard. And at first, there was hope that the Iranians would come to their senses and there was hope that Khomeini would say oh well, that was a wrong thing to do, and let them go.

Artwork by Sonia Balassanian

But the problem is, the revolution was in its very early stages and if there’s one thing that saves a revolution, and I don’t care what revolution it is, it could be the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, if you have an outside threat it brings the different factions together behind the government, the new government, the government that’s there. And in this case, two things happened that do this for Iran, and the first one was the taking of the American hostages in the embassy.  And it was done by a group that called themselves the Radical Students, something other, the Khomeini Line, and they would broadcast.  They had a woman who spoke perfect English.  And within a couple days, I think Khomeini and his advisors realized how popular this was and they decided to make it their issue and they approved it and encouraged, in effect, the hostage takers to continue. So this went on.  And while they were holding people and questioning them, they also went through the burn bags, because the embassy tried to burn everything.  There was so much paper, you couldn’t possibly do it, lesson learned, from this – embassy taking, don’t keep too much paper or keep yourself to a burn time, as they say, of five minutes or less.  But the embassy was overwhelmed.

And there were people who spent the next year or a couple of years putting together the strips of paper from a shredding machine and then publishing these studies. There were classified studies done by analysts in Washington which they thought told them what the government thought or would give them a lot of information.  I’m not sure how much they could actually learn from that, because one thing they would have learned, I think, if they’d thought about it, was we hadn’t a clue that the revolution was coming and we didn’t know what to do about it once it did. So there were some brief contacts sent out by – one by President Carter and then later another, to see if we could work with them but everything came back negative. So, the hostages were held for the famous 444 days of Ted Koppel’s counting.  And I think the other takeaway from that was, in the end, negotiation with Iran is extremely complicated and difficult.  And you’ve heard of the October Surprise?  Gary Sick’s famous book, he had been on the NSC as a staffer in the Carter Administration, and he was convinced that after the election Bill Casey and somebody else, I’m not really sure who he thought, maybe he thought it was the vice president’s election, George Herbert Walker Bush or whoever.  He put together a story that they had gone to Europe, met with the representatives of the incoming revolution and convinced them not to give up their valued hostages to an administration that was gonna be out of power very quickly and couldn’t do anything for them.  Wait until we get into office.

“I was adding news about Iran or about Americans, how they are dealing with Iran.  I wasn’t judging each side.  I was just trying to show my anger about human situation in this country and in Iran because I heard lot of places, they beat Iranian students or they kept hostages there.  I was angry to both government why they’re not doing something, you know, why the people, they have to suffer.  My political art actually started from there.”  Sonia Balassanian

And so the hostages – there had been a lot of very hard bargaining.  Warren Christopher, who had later become secretary of state under Bill Clinton, was the prime negotiator, furious.  They negotiated something like a year and a half, only to find on Inauguration Day, after Reagan was inaugurated, the hostages were released and they could be seen that evening coming off the plane in Algiers and they were on one side coming off the plane and Reagan’s on the other side, split-screen.  So they were furious that they had been cheated out of what they thought was a very hard-fought negotiation, which I’m sure it was.  …It was quite a controversy, and there was a lot of animosity between the parties, the two sides, for the next several years, really, over what happened. The second event, just to close the loop, which saved the revolution, in a sense, comes nine months later when Saddam Hussein invades Iran in September, 1980.

Read Dr. Yaphe's full interview with Archival Institute's Oral History

Learn about the history of modern Iran and what lead to conflicts of today.