The Iran Hostage Crisis

On November 4, 1979, Iranian students in Tehran seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran and took 52 Americans hostage.

The Iran Hostage Crisis lasted for 444 days and ended minutes after President Jimmy Carter left office in 1981. In support of National Archives' civics programming, this lesson looks at the causes of the crisis, the events during those 444 days, and the impacts of this conflict through the lens of primary sources and the U.S. Constitution.

Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran (1977-12-31) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

In 1977, the U.S. and Iran enjoyed a friendly diplomatic relationship. Carter and the Iranian leader's official discussions centered on peace prospects for the Middle East as well as ways to combat the energy crisis that had hit the U.S. and other Western nations as a result of the Arab Oil Embargo.

At the time, Carter hoped to enlist the shah’s help in reconvening peace talks between Israel and Egypt and to secure Iran’s help in supporting nuclear non-proliferation talks with the Soviet Union. As president, Carter used his constitutional powers as outlined in Article II, Sections 2 and 3 to employ ambassadors and other public ministers to achieve these measures. (Image: NAID 177337)

President Nixon and the shah of Iran (1969-01-20) by Nixon White House Photographs, 1/20/1969-8/9/74 Collection: White House Photo OfficeJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

During the shah's decades on Iran's throne, there were numerous U.S. presidents, each one having his own policy towards Iran. Though these policies may have differed from President to President, the shah’s close ties to the United States’ leaders served as one of the leading causes of the Iranian Revolution. (Image: NAID 194301)

President John F. Kennedy Bids Farewell to the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1962-04-12) by White House PhotographsJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

To illustrate, when John F. Kennedy became president in 1961 with Iran on the verge of revolution against the shah's unpopular policies, Kennedy sought to stabilize the situation by promoting democracy through a development plan based on the principles of modernization.

Over the years, the shah established and maintained relationships with presidents preceding Carter. Iran was important because it provided oil to the industrial West and separated the Soviet Union from the Persian Gulf and the oil states during the Cold War. The United States had an enormous stake in keeping it stable and independent.

Sign of the Energy Crisis (1973-05-01) by Environmental Protection Agency. 12/2/1970-Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

However, the one steadfast policy shared by multiple administrations centered on American energy. In the United States, between 1940-1980, there was a population increase of 71% and the Real Gross Domestic Product increased by 508%. To meet these demands, America became reliant on cheap fossil fuels and foreign oil.

It wasn't long before the U.S. imported 25% of OPEC's (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil. A sustained effort by the United States to counter Soviet influence in the Middle East resulted in the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-1974 and brought about a 350% increase in the cost of oil. (Image: NAID 550088)

Shah of Iran Toast with Carter * (1977-01-12) by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

On November 15, 1977, President Jimmy Carter welcomed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and his wife, Empress (or “Shahbanou”) Farrah, to Washington. Over the next two days, Carter and Pahlavi discussed improving relations between the two countries. Two years later, the two leaders’ political fates would be further entwined when Islamic fundamentalists overthrew the shah and took Americans hostage in Tehran. (Image: NAID 177344)

President Jimmy Carter * (1977-01-26) by President (1977-1981 : Carter). White House Staff Photographers. 1/20/1977-1/20/1981 (Most Recent)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

By 1979, however, when Carter had been in office three years, the shah was in trouble, feeling the consequences of years of brutal and unpopular policies. It was clear that the shah had lost the support of his people, but the president hoped a coalition of the moderate opponents might be formed. (Image: NAID 173490)

Ayatollah Khomeini Political Button (1979-01-01) by Museum Object 85.10.1396 Jimmy Carter Library and Political ButtonJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The stability of the country, though, was being threatened by a political and religious activist, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who opposed the shah’s efforts to modernize and Westernize Iran. Khomeini intended to establish a theocracy in Iran that would encapsulate the fundamental religious beliefs of the people.

Democracy is grounded in the guarantee of civil liberties such as those outlined in the Bill of Rights, and the right of citizens to vote in free elections as guaranteed by the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments. Theocracy is a form of government in which religious leaders provide ruling authority.  (Source: Carter Museum Collection, object number 85.10.1396)

Shah Flees Iran (1979-01-16) by Associated PressJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

In January 1979, the shah fled into exile, and the theocratic regime of Khomeini took power. There was little informed understanding in the U.S. government about the political implications of this fundamental regime. In the beginning, the Carter administration made some effort to establish a relationship with the new government, but by late 1979 it seemed futile. (Image: Associated Press)

Jimmy Carter Working on his State of the Union Address (1978-01-18) by President (1977-1981 : Carter). White House Staff Photographers. 1/20/1977-1/20/1981Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Up until this crisis, few Americans seemed aware of the deep resentments that many Iranian people continued to harbor toward the United States, a country they considered a symbol of Western influence into their society. Part of the problem stemmed from the desire of the shah, in October 1979, to come to New York City for cancer treatment.

President Carter allowed the deposed shah to come to the United States and Khomeini’s government interpreted the move as another example of the West’s interference in Iran’s affairs. (Image: NAID 16921407)

American Evacuees (1979-02-18) by Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921 - 2008, Record Group 330Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

At the height of the Islamic Revolution hundreds of Americans were evacuated from Iran. In one such exodus, the evacuees were airlifted from Iran to Hellenikon Air Base in Greece. Four days earlier, on February 14, 1979, armed Iranians stormed the embassy and took 102 Americans hostage.

After the Ayatollah's forces intervened and returned control of the embassy to the United States, the U.S. State Department chartered 13 commercial Boeing 747 airliners, which flew an additional 4,099 people out of the country. This was the first attempted takeover of the American embassy. The second takeover on November 4th would culminate in 444 days of captivity for 52 Americans.  (Image: NAID 6377351)

Iranians with American Hostages (1979-11-11) by Associated PressJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The exiled Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran in February 1979 and whipped popular discontent into rabid anti-Americanism. When the shah came to America for cancer treatment in October, the Ayatollah incited Iranian militants to attack the U.S. On November 4, the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and its employees taken captive. The hostage crisis had begun. (Image: Associated Press)

Iran Situation Report (1979-11-04) by State DepartmentJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

President Carter was faced with a grave crisis and the events that led to the capture of American Embassy Personnel had reached its apex. Mehdi Bazargan was appointed by Khomeini as prime minister and as such became head of the new provisional government in Iran.

The more moderate Iranian prime minister resigned in protest after Americans were taken hostage and Khomeini was in full control. The militants demanded that the shah be returned to Iran to face trial in exchange for the hostages despite the fact that the Carter administration had arranged for the shah to leave the United States for Panama. (Image: NAID 24493739)

hostages in Iran Update * (1979-11-17) by President (1977-1981: Carter) Office of the National Security Advisor. 1/19/77-1/1981Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

President Carter received countless updates on the Iran Hostage Crisis from his cabinet members. One such example is this memorandum from National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. This written opinion from one of the president's principal advisors is another example of Carter drawing upon the tenets of of the U.S. Constitution (Image: NAID 23902373)

United States Constitution Preamble (1787-09-17) by Constitutional Convention. 5/14/1787-9/17/1787Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

President Carter had multiple Constitution-based options at his disposal. Among them were Congressional Legislation (subject to approval or veto by the President) in Article I Section 1, Executive Action (powers not regulated to other branches, nor explicitly denied to the Executive) in Article II Section 1, and Diplomacy (including the appointment of U.S.Ambassadors and the power to make treaties ) as stated in Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

Plains Box 23Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

(Image: NAID 593939)

Carter Press Conference (1977-01-20) by President (1977-1981: Carter), White House Staff Photographers. 1/20/1977-1/20/1981Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

 While facing mounting pressure from political opponents and the public, it was freedom of the press, as provided in the First Amendment, that enabled unabated information to make its way into national headlines. (Image: NAID 173605)

Executive Order 12170 signed by Jimmy Carter (1979-11-14) by Source: The provisions of Executive Order 12170 of Nov. 14, 1979, appear at 44 FR 65729, 3 CFR, 1979 Comp., p. 457, unless otherwise noted.Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

President Carter used his constitutional powers to exert pressure on the Iranian government by imposing economic sanctions. On November 14, 1979 (ten days after the takeover of the embassy), Jimmy Carter resorted to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (NAID: 18519539)

This act provided that the American president can regulate commerce upon declaring a national emergency due to an international threat. The move was intended to be severe yet incremental. It served as a warning that the United States could escalate to other options, including military force, if needed.

Sitting tense by White House Staff PhotographersJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

It's been said that there were "two White Houses" at the time of the crisis: One that was resolute in freeing the hostages and one that dealt with everything else. Aside from the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Carter administration faced foreign and domestic matters that included an energy crisis, peace talks between Egypt and Israel, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and a disaster at the nuclear facility at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. The burden of leadership wore on the administration. (Image: NAID 186127)

Carter Rescue Address (1980-04-25) by President (1977-1981 : Carter). Speechwriter's Office. 1977-1981Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Annotated Statement on the Failed Rescue Attempt

(Image: NAID 593298)

President Carter committed himself to the safe return of the hostages while protecting America’s interests and prestige. He pursued a policy of restraint that put a higher value on the lives of the hostages than on American retaliatory power. A spectrum of responses were deployed, including direct appeals, economic sanctions, and a military rescue mission. The toll of patient diplomacy was great, but President Carter’s actions eventually brought freedom for the hostages. In accordance with Article II Sections 2 and 3 of the U.S. Constitution, Carter relied on the collaboration and counsel of his cabinet members and other government officials in order to construct a careful strategy for the crisis.

As Commander in Chief, as provided by Article II Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, President Carter approved a hostage rescue mission by an elite paramilitary unit, the American commandos led by Colonel Charles Beckwith but it failed. The aborted mission seemed to many Americans as a symbol of U.S. military weakness in the post-Vietnam era. Carter’s popularity plummeted to 20 percent, even lower than Nixon’s during the Watergate scandal.

Blindfold worn by Consul General Richard Morefield and pewter cross (1979/1981)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

During President Carter's last days and weeks in office, he poured every effort in to freeing the hostages. Carter remarked later that, “Of course, their lives, safety, and freedom were the paramount considerations, but there was more to it. I wanted to have my decisions vindicated. It was very likely that I had been defeated and would soon leave office as President because I had clung to a cautious and prudent policy in order to protect their lives during the preceding fourteen months. Before God and my fellow citizens, I wanted to exert every ounce of my strength and ability during these last few days to achieve their liberation.”  (Source: Carter Library, Richard Morefield Papers, NAID 590481)

Carter Speech with Mondale (1981-01-01) by Department of Defense. American Forces Information Service. Defense Visual Information Center. 1994-Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

Neither a multinational economic embargo of Iran nor the death of Shah Pahlavi in July 1980 broke Iran’s resolve. However, in mid-August, Iran installed a permanent post-revolutionary government that at least entertained the idea of reestablishing relations with the Carter administration. In addition, the September 22 onset of the years-long Iran-Iraq War reduced the Iranian officials’ ability and resolve to continue hostage negotiations. (Image: NAID  6344607)

1980 Carter/Mondale Political ButtonJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The hostage crisis had grave consequences in President Carter’s attempt to win reelection in 1980. Many voters perceived his inability to resolve the crisis as a sign of weakness. In addition, dealing with the crisis prevented him from campaigning effectively.

The country was plagued by many problems—double-digit inflation, rising unemployment, the crisis in Iran, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Americans cast their ballots in accordance with the terms laid out in Amendment XII of the U.S. Constitution and the result was a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan.  (Source: Carter Museum Collection, object number 88.15.38)

Freed Americans at Rhein-Main U.S. Air Force Base (1981-01-21)Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

With neutral Algerian diplomats acting as intermediaries, new hostage negotiations continued throughout late 1980 and early 1981. Iran, at last, released the hostages on January 20, 1981, just moments after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president. (Image: Associated Press)

Delta Team Monument (1987-09-09) by Department of Defense. American Forces Information Service. Defense Visual Information Center. 1994-Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

The consequences of the Iran Hostage Crisis were not limited to their geopolitical repercussions. There was a human toll as well. While American hostages suffered psychological and physical scars, some U.S. military personnel made the ultimate sacrifice. Iran also suffered greatly from the crisis.

Besides losing all international support in the Iran-Iraq war, Iran failed to get any of the concessions it had demanded of the United States. Today, some $1.973 billion of Iran's assets remain frozen in the United States, and the U.S. has not imported any oil from Iran since 1992. Indeed, U.S.-Iranian relations have degraded steadily since the hostage crisis. (Image: NAID 6436867)

White House Ceremony and Reception for Freed American Hostages Held in Iran (1981-01-27) by President (1981-1989 : Reagan). White House Photographic Office. 1981-1989Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

In 2015, the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund to assist the surviving Iran hostages and their spouses and children. Under the legislation, each hostage is to receive $4.44 million, or $10,000 for each day they were held captive. By 2020, however, only a small percentage of the money had been paid out.(Image: NAID 75854849)

Research Room_Carter (2021-01-01) by Jimmy Carter LibraryJimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

President Carter utilized Executive Authority, Congressional legislation, and diplomacy in accordance with the tenets of our founding documents to resolve the Iran Hostage Crisis. Americans, in turn, exercised their constitutional rights to express their sentiments and, ultimately, issue a referendum on the administration's performance through the democratic process.

While the Iran Hostage Crisis is now behind us, other challenges have emerged in its place. American policy and public sentiment have changed over time but the instruments of our democracy have remained steadfast.

Credits: Story

Researcher: Michael J. Hancock, Archives Specialist, National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Curator: Michael J. Hancock, Archives Specialist, National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Project Managers: Joshua Montanari, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Christopher Geissler, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

Special Thanks To:
Ceri Mccarron, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

Carla Ledgerwood, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

Brittany Paris, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

Sara Mitchell, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

Daria Labinsky, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps