40 years of embassy occupation: How Washington and Tehran became enemies

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Forty years ago, revolutionary students occupied the US Embassy in Iran, taking 52 Americans as hostages for 444 days. The consequences of the action can still be felt today.

By Ulrich Pick, SWR

The mood in Tehran on the morning of 4 November 1979 was irritated. Less than three days ago, Revolutionary Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for "an action" from his followers, as he called it. An action that was to once again demonstrate to the entire world that Iran had finally become an Islamic Republic after the successful revolution and that the Shah of Persia deposed once and for all. That Shah who, in the eyes of the aged theologian, had been just an incompetent vassal of Washington and, a year earlier, left hundreds of demonstrators shooting down in the street.

"Death America!" Several hundreds of Revolutionary students chanted in front of the US embassy, ​​and several tens of them climbed over the fence in the late morning and forcibly entered the building. They captured 66 US citizens, of whom they held hostages to the horror of the entire Western world.

International Fanal

For Washington's diplomatic mission in Iran, Khomeini confidante and later Secretary of State Sadegh Tabatabai said, was in her eyes a haven of espionage: "If the American embassy in Tehran was really a diplomatic center and activities were purely information gathering or intelligence services, then one could have spoken differently But since it has been proven that these people in the American Embassy after the revolution were involved in many unrest in the country, and even planned this, it is right to come up the final demand that it was not a veritable center of diplomacy, but a spy center. "

The occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran was an international scandal. The fact that a diplomatic mission was stormed and the people working there were exposed to the aggression of the host country did not exist even at the time of the Second World War.

The rulers in Iran obviously wanted to demonstrate unambiguously to the world public that more had happened in their country with the victory of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 1979 than a normal change of power. A new age had begun in her eyes. For the first time in history, an Islamic republic was established under the leadership of the Shiite clergy, for whom, moreover, more than 90 percent of the population had spoken out in a referendum on 1 April.

Failed relief action

Therefore, Ayatollah Khomeini had the message squatters granted: he neither approved the action, nor did he condemn it. For he knew that every day the hostage-taking lasted, his authority grew, and with it the pressure on Washington.

Since negotiations were unsuccessful, US President Jimmy Carter saw only one way out. And so on April 24, 1980, he launched a military relief operation – with devastating consequences, he had to admit: "After the team withdrew after my order, two helicopters collided on the ground after refueling at a refueling station in the Iranian desert There were no hostilities, but to my dismay eight crew members were killed, but we will not give up. "

The failed rescue operation dropped Carter's popularity and in November 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House. But on the day he was introduced to his post, Carter stepped once more into the limelight. Because on January 20, 1981, the ex-president of the United States could receive his released compatriots in Frankfurt am Main – after exactly 444 days hostage.

Spontaneous initiative

"I want to make it very clear that the Iranian government – all those responsible – may for all time be damned for the treatment they have given to our fellow citizens," said the ex-president.

The embassy occupation of November 4, 1979, made Washington and Tehran, who had worked closely together for decades, fierce enemies. There was no plan for the action.

Rather, it was – said Abbas Abdi, one of its spokesman, 30 years later SWR – the consequence of a spontaneous initiative: "There was no planning for a longer action, it was not intended, we thought about a short protest, in which case it would have been forgotten after a while, a reason that it took so long This has meant that basically and potentially similar actions were possible, so I can not say what would have happened if we had not, otherwise it would have happened. But the students definitely did not want to stay there for more than five days and thought they would leave after five days. "

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