Guest Columnist

Hostage to history: Americans were taken hostage in Iran 40 years ago

** FILE ** Kathryn Koob reaches out to touch hands during her ride through downtown Des Moines, Iowa Feb. 5, 1981. She w
** FILE ** Kathryn Koob reaches out to touch hands during her ride through downtown Des Moines, Iowa Feb. 5, 1981. She was one of the 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days in Tehran, Iran, after Iranian revolutionaries attacked the U.S. embassy Nov. 4, 1979. (AP Photo/ The Des Moines Register, Warren Taylor)

November marks the 40th anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and the abduction of 52 Americans as hostages. They were held for 444 days until their release nearly a year and a half later, on January 20, 1981. It was an international crisis that continues to shape global policy decades later.

One of the captives, of two women who were held for the duration by the insurgents, was Kathryn Koob, of Jesup. Koob, who had been director of the Iran American Council in the Iranian capital city, had been given the opportunity to flee, but chose to remain behind with her fellow Americans. Upon release, she went on to become an adjunct rrofessor of reconciliation at Wartburg College and author of an autobiographical account of her ordeal, titled, “Guest of the Revolution.” Just five years ago, after three decades of waiting, she was one of 37 remaining former hostages to be approved to receive $10,000 a day for every day held, as part of a court decree levied upon PNB Bank for violating sanctions against the current Islamic Republic of Iran.

This was not the first time economic sanctions had been emplaced against Iran. Such embargoes played a critical role in the motivation that led to the taking of the hostages in 1979.

For perspective, Iran, which had been largely of the Zoroastrian faith, became predominantly Muslim by the 8th century A.D. The tenets of the Islamic religion had been spoken by the Prophet Muhammad, who related what he said was the word of Allah (God) to his scribes, whom later wrote the text that would be known as the Quran.

One of the provisions of that text, the opening phrase in Chapter 24 Verse 31, states that “women should not expose their private parts and adornments,” which was translated to include hair, some of the face, and the bosom. As a result, to be in compliance with the scripture, females would wear “hijab,” scarves wrapped around their head and full length clothing from shoulder to foot. This was custom, to varying degrees in Iran, until the 1920s, when Shah Reza Pahlavi, the reigning king, in an attempt to modernize his country, banned women from donning the “cover.”

By the 1950s, his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, had ascended to the throne and continued this premise of economic and cultural advancement, allowing the British to build oil infrastructure throughout the nation. Iran, itself, though, received less than a third of the revenue derived from the crude oil production. The government of England also insisted that the British prime minister be allowed to name who would be appointed Iran’s minister of defense. In protest, Mohammed Mossadegh, a nationalist who believed in Iran First, led a campaign in which Iran’s oil production was operated by the Iranian government. The British Empire then introduced an embargo against all exports from Iran.

The boycott, however, failed, and in 1952, the C.I.A. of the United States and English Intelligence agencies, financed a coup in which Mossadegh was removed from power.


The Shah then, restored as head of state, feared an uprising by those loyal to Mossadegh, and organized SAVAK, a secret police network with the right to jail those who did not comply with his vision for modernization, including women that continued the tradition of hijab. As crackdowns proceeded, Ruhollah Khomeini, a fundamentalist cleric, advocated public protests against the Shah. Khomeini was banished to France, but remained a vocal opponent of what he perceived as the Iranian government’s abandonment of religious principles.

By the late 1970s, with a worldwide downturn in the economy alongside the mandatory religious reforms, increasing demonstrations were orchestrated against the Shah. In January of 1979, citing his failing health due to lymphatic cancer, Pahlavi fled to Egypt, and Khomeini returned to Tehran to serve as Supreme Leader of a newly formed theocratic government. Pahlavi, at the same time, was charged with crimes of abuse under Sharia (Islamic) law resulting in demands for his extradition to Iran for trial.

With superior health care available in the United States, President Jimmy Carter granted the former leader clearance to enter the U.S. for medical treatment. When Carter later refused to deport Pahlavi back to Iran, the fundamentalists saw this as the final insult, and on November 4, 1979, more than 500 students broke down the gates of the U.S. Embassy and captured 66 hostages, 14 of which, mostly women (except for two, including Koob), were freed shortly thereafter.

The Carter administration attempted to negotiate a resolution to the crisis multiple times, but with no progress, the president ordered a military rescue of the captives. On April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw was launched from a remote desert post. As it commenced, a sandstorm obliterated all visibility and a helicopter collided with a cargo plane, killing eight of the Special Forces. That Spring, Pahlavi, with U.S. assistance, sought treatment for his cancer in Panama, then, ultimately, was granted asylum in Egypt by Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat. Pahlavi died there July 27. Sadat was killed a year later while reviewing a parade in Cairo.

Dissatisfied with the United States’ refusal to unlock financial assets that the Khomeini government believed were due back to Iran, the hostage crisis continued. Negotiations stalled and it was rumored that the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan had entered into agreement with the captors to unfreeze 8 billion dollars in assets in exchange for release of the hostages. Carter pressed hard for their freedom as well, remaining in the White House on the phone with negotiators until fifteen minutes before Reagan’s inauguration. All 52 were released within hours after Reagan was administered the oath of office, and former President Jimmy Carter flew to Wiesbaden, Germany to officially welcome them back on free soil.

Economic sanctions were not effective 60 years ago with Mossadegh, and 40 years ago, in an environment of sand and mountainous terrain making military maneuvers difficult, failed military actions only strengthened the standing of subsequent Iranian leaders. Khomeini was condemned by the people of the U.S. because of his nationalist, our own country first, philosophy, in which he led a nation whereby foreigners were perceived as threatening the economy and values of a homeland. He was seen by the western world as a tyrannical dictator and fanatic.

Ironically, despite protestations against globalization and the introduction of ideas and beliefs from around the world, perhaps the current president of the United States has imported at least one concept from overseas … and a regime he says, because of its internal policies, should be ended. It is an idea of isolation and despotism that hasn’t been productive in Iran, or anywhere else, for the last three quarters of a century. As the old saying goes, if you don’t know history, you may be doomed to repeat it. This is an age old lesson that is truly global.

David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.

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