Case concerning United States Diplomatic and Consular staff in Tehran



During World War II, Anglo-Soviet forces invaded the then Empire of Iran to secure oil supply for the Allied forces fighting against the Axis powers in 1941.

Although Iran remained neutral, the Allied forces considered that King Reza Shah supported the Axis forces, and forced him to abdicate. The British took him as a prisoner in exile to South Africa where he died in 1944.

The British and Russians wanted to replace King Reza Shah with someone from the Qajar dynasty as they had served British interests in the past. However the heir Hamid Hassan Mirza, was a British citizen who didn’t speak Farsi.

The British reluctantly accepted the son of King Reza Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (now known as simply “the Shah”, to become the Shah of Iran in 1941. The Shah reigned for 38 years. He adopted a pro-western foreign policy and economic development in Iran. However his reign was marked by dictatorship and violence.

A parliamentary election in 1951 nominated Mohammad Mosaddegh to be Prime Minister. It was during this period that the US and UK had significant interest in the control of Iran’s oil supply (the British were invested in Iran’s oil since 1901). Mosaddegh was against this, aspiring Iran to be free and independent. He sought to end Iran’s oil reserves by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) (from 1908-1935 it was known as APOC, in 1935 it was renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).  In December 1954 it was changed to The British Petroleum Company, in the late 90’s, The British Petroleum Company merged with Amoco to become BP Amoco. In 2000, BP Amoco merged with other companies to be renamed BP.)

Along with the Iranian Parliament, Mosaddegh did this by nationalising the oil and APOC’s assets on 1st May 1951. This outraged the British. In 1901, the British had obtained a 60 year contract for the exclusive right of the oil in Iran. To Mosaddegh, it was seen as taking back control of what was theirs. To the British, it was seen as violating contractual obligations and breach of private property. As a result of this action, the British imposed economic sanctions on Iran and threatened them with military action.

The US intelligence services, supported by British intelligence, conspired to overthrow Prime Minister Mosaddegh and strengthen the rule of the Shah. It led to a successful coup d’etat in 1953 with the use of the Iranian military, replacing Mosaddegh with pro-western Prime Minister Fazlollah Zahedi.

Mike Metrinko, US Embassy Political Officer serving in 1979 said: “In Washington, the vast degree of suppressed hatred that had been caused by our bringing about the collapse of the Mosaddegh government, that was Iran’s chance to become democratic, we screwed it up, and we bragged about it.”

In 1963, the Shah began the White Revolution, which attempted to modernise Iran through land reform and women’s right to vote. It created more social tensions that the Shah was trying to avoid. Land reforms generated a larger gap between the rich and poor, and wealth gained through the oil industry was not equitably distributed. 

A prominent voice in this tension in 1962-1963 was one of Ruhollah Khomeini, where he spoke out against land reform and the emancipation of women. He was arrested and forced out of Iran, fleeing first to Turkey, then Iraq and later in France. He continued to voice his outrage against the Shah.

In 1973, growing unrest occurred in Iran against the Shah. He oppressed opposition with the help of secret police (known as the SAVAK).

Social unrest continued throughout the late 70’s with demonstrations around the country. The Shah imprisoned opposition leaders as tensions grew. A notable catalyst for what would follow in the next few years was Black Friday in 1978, where protestors (who were against the Shah’s rule) were shot at and killed in a demonstration at Jaleh Square in Tehran. The death count varies in different reports of the event, former BBC reporter Andrew Whitley calling it in the hundreds, and prominent French philosopher and writer Michel Focault who travelled to Iran days after Black Friday wrote the victims were between 2,000 and 3,000, who later raised it to 4,000.

In 1979, the then President of the United States Jimmy Carter visited Iran, Iranian students gathered to protest against the exile of Khomeini. The police opened fire on the protestors, killing 70 students. At this point millions of Iranians were calling for the Shah to die. In 1979, the Shah fled the country. 

With Iran being without its ruler it resulted in Ruhollah Khomeini, known as Ayatollah Khomeini, to return to Iran. A provisional government was setup with Khomeini as the leader. A national referendum to establish the Islamic Republic of Iran took place at this time, which was won with 97% of the vote. The change of government from the rule of a monarchy (the Shah) to an Islamic Republic is known as the Iranian Revolution.

Khomeini sent a message to the US administration in 1979 saying that “You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans…(the Islamic Republic will be) a humanitarian one, which will benefit the cause of peace and tranquillity for all mankind".

The US Embassy in Tehran

Prior to 1979, the US Embassy in Tehran was one of the biggest US embassies in the world with a staff of 2000. Seeing as the US helped restore the strength of the Shah’s rule in 1953, US support for the Shah remained firm. The Shah was at the time the world’s largest importer of US arms.

As a provisional government was setup during the revolution, the weeks following was a concerning time for the US Embassy. Armed groups would be on the streets and the US Embassy survived an attack in February 1979, in which 100-150 of US embassy staff, including Ambassador William Sullivan were trapped inside. An Iranian waiter was killed and four Americans were slightly injured.

During this turbulent time, many Americans fled Tehran, including US embassy staff, resulting in a rapid shortage of staff.

Mike Metrinko, US Embassy Political Officer serving in 1979 said: “In just the space of a few days, we went from a major embassy, one of the larger of the American embassies, to about 15 or 16 Americans, I stayed because I wanted to…you don’t get to see revolutions often…this is history, even though its dangerous people want to be part of history”

During the spring of 1979, the US hired more staff to work at the US Embassy to re-establish its workforce. Around 70 diplomats were recruited. Until an Ambassador was recruited, the US appointed Bruce Laingan as the Charge d’Affaires.

A Critical Decision

It is said that in 1978 the Shah was becoming ill with cancer. After the Shah fled Iran in 1979, his health was worsening and he was looking for refuge and medical treatment.

In October 1979 the Shah requested medical treatment in the US.

The Charge d’Affaires of the US embassy Bruce Laingan in Iran was asked by the state department how he would feel if the Shah was admitted to the US for medical treatment, in to which he replied that the Embassy risks the possibility of another attack as what happened in February.  

Hamilton Jordan, White House Chief of Staff 1976-1981, said it was President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy team that argued in favour of admitting the Shah to the US. Carter resisted and asked what would happen if the Iranians take US Embassy staff hostage in retaliation. None of his team conceived something like that would happen.

Henry Precht, the senior Iranian task-force officer at the US State Department said “As so many weak leaders do, when confronted with conflicting choices, they select both of them, and he (Carter) decided to keep the embassy open and to let the Shah in at the same time, a fatal mistake.”

In October 1979 President Carter reluctantly agreed to allow the Shah admission into the US for medical treatment. The New York Times in 1981 wrote “Government officials now concede that the Shah could have been treated in Mexico, and that he was admitted to New York Hospital despite the fact that an extensive, independent examination was never conducted by the United States into his medical condition or the medical facilities available to him there. But many doctors contended even then that the necessary medical care was available in any of the world's developed countries.”

The Iranian’s reaction to this news was that it was a threat to the government. Henry Precht, the senior Iranian task-force officer at the US State Department said: “one had the feeling that the Iranians, always suspicious, now sensed that they had indeed been duped and that the Shah had come to the United States not for medical treatment but to set up counterrevolutionary headquarters.''

Khomeini feared an American intervention in the government of Iran, that it could lead to a repeat of the 1953 coup d’etat (when Prime Minister Mosaddegh was ousted with the influence of US intelligence to strengthen the Shah’s rule.)

The Hostage Crisis

After the admission of the Shah, a group of students (known as the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s policy) reacted by planning to invade the US Embassy. The student leader, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh himself said “The decision to occupy the Embassy began with our reaction to what America had done. We felt that by allowing the Shah into America, they were conspiring against the revolution.”

The students told their plan to their contact Ayatollah Musavi Kohieniha, who was linked to Ayatollah Khomeini. The students wanted Kohieniha to tell their plans to Khomeini in order to gain permission and support to invade the US Embassy. Kohieniha, although saying he would not inform Khomeini or get him involved, encouraged them to proceed with their plan. 

The plan was to start as a political demonstration, then invade the US Embassy. If Khomeini believed it right after the event, he would support it. If Khomeini didn’t, the students would take blame and responsibility.

On the 4th November 1979, the students invaded the US Embassy in Tehran. They seized 66 American nationals as hostages, and took control of the Embassy premises and archives. 

During the time of the invasion, Charge d’Affaires Bruce Laingan was in a meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Iran. After hearing the news of the invasion, his instruction was for the security personnel not to fire unless there was an immediate threat of their lives.

The US Embassy personnel were overwhelmed by the number of demonstrators invading. Once personnel realised the situation was deteriorating, they began to shred sensitive intelligence until they were detained as hostages in the US Embassy compound.

One of the hostages, Moorhead Kennedy (US Embassy Economics Officer 1979) said: “The decision was made somehow to surrender, somehow nobody was in charge…the preparations or the anticipation of this was non-existent.”

Charge d’Affaires Bruce Laingan urged the then Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi to resolve the situation, who reassured him that the situation is under control and that it would be worked out in the morning.

Lead student Ibrahim Asgharzadeh said: “We didn’t know what to expect from the Government or from Ayatollah Khomeini, The Provisional Government was extremely upset. They immediately made clear their strong disapproval.”

The Iranian President from 1980-1981 Abolhassan Bani Sadr said that the taking of hostages in the heart of Tehran was no victory, it was a humiliation.

The day after the invasion of the US Embassy, on November 5th 1979, the Iranian Provisional Government collapsed. The crisis was Khomeini’s chance to consolidate his power. Although he initially granted Foreign Minister Yazdi permission to expel the captors, he changed his mind. Khomeini announced his support and endorsed the actions of the students. Khomeini agreed with the proposal of the students: return the Shah back to Iran and the hostages would be released.

On the 18th November 1979, the US television network CBS were granted an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini:

“[Question] Then the hostages will remain there, in the American Embassy compound, what, for life? Forever?

[Answer] They will until the Shah returns. The fate of the hostages is in Carter’s hands. These hostages can be released by Carter; when he delivers our criminals to us, we will release the hostages.”

In answer to why Khomeini wants the Shah returned, he replied:

[Answer] There are two aspects to our nation wanting the Shah to come here on which we insist, and one of these aspects is of greater importance than the other. One aspect is this: We are a nation whose economy is not very strong at the moment and a great deal of Iran’s wealth is in the hands of the deposed Shah and his relatives which is accumulated in the US and other countries banks, and all of it is the property of the nation. The reason we insist on the Shah’s return is to ascertain the whereabouts of the property of the destitute which is in his hands and in the hands of his agents, where it is and how it can be returned to the nation. Another point which is even more important is that we want his return so that we can dig out the roots of the crimes this person committed over nearly 37 years in Iran, the treacheries he has done to Iran, the massacres he has committed; we want to find out on whose orders they were committed…For this reason, our nation insists that this man must come and these two points should be established at a trial; whatever the court orders will be acted upon.”

Jimmy Carter refused to return the Shah back to Iran. The hostages were kept in the US Embassy compound. Amid the constant negotiations during this time, two things were happening:

Captors analysing sensitive data and the treatment of the hostages

On the day of taking over the US Embassy, personnel of the Embassy shredded sensitive intelligence. However it was strip cut, and the captors attempted to retrieve the intelligence by piecing the information back together. Bruce Laingan the Charge d’Affaires retrospectively admitted that they should have had better destruction facilities.

The information pieced back together was used to support the Iranian government's claim that the US Embassy was acting as a base for espionage, and that the personnel were spies whose purpose was to undermine the Iranian government.

In an interview by the BBC television network on 19th November 1979 with Sadeq Gotzadeh, Iranian Revolution Council spokesman and Minister for National Guidance was asked about this:

[Question] You have mentioned that one of the reasons why the Embassy was invaded was because it was committing acts of espionage, but how could you know before going into the Embassy that it was committing espionage.

[Answer] “…We know all the time…We have talked about it for years that the American Embassy is a centre of espionage, and of active espionage. After the revolution we were hoping that they cease this kind of action, and we gave them another chance. But by having the Shah going to the United States continues to escalate its provocation, its sort of acts of interference in our affairs…”

The captors subjected the hostages to demeaning and terrifying treatment, but never seriously physically injured.

Col. Charles Scott, US Embassy Defence Liaison 1979 said: “They had two or three different interrogation teams…I was beaten…I was hung by my wrists…marched into trees with a blindfold on…sleep deprivation…I was tied so tightly that when they weren’t interrogating me that they would tie me up like a pretzel and come in about every 15 minutes to give me a couple of good swift kicks…”

Another account highlighting the psychological stress experienced was given by three of the hostages: Charles Jones (US Embassy Communications Officer 1979), Col. Charles Scott (US Embassy Defence Liaison 1979), and Moorhead Kennedy (US Embassy Economics Officer 1979). On 4th February 1980 they were marched into a room, thinking it was a waiting room for an execution. The door then burst open and in came a group of guards wearing masks and carrying automatic weapons. The three hostages were lined up against a wall, stripped down to their underwear, and told to turn against the wall and not turn around. The guards marched behind them making clicking sounds from their guns. One of the guards shouted in Farsi “get ready, take aim” and then nothing. The guards then started the fire commands all over again, and repeated the process for around 30 minutes without giving the command of "fire".

The crisis dominated the headlines and news broadcasts, making the US administration look weak and ineffectual.

US Efforts to Save the Hostages

Between November 1979 and July 1980 many noteworthy events happened and often overlapped, but these events still could not bring about the release of the hostages. Negotiators came and went, initiatives blossomed and withered.

On 29 November 1979 the United States of America had instituted proceedings against Iran at the International Court of Justice (“the Court”) in The Hague in a case arising out of the situation at its Embassy in Tehran.

Delivering its judgment of 24th May 1980 the Court said that:

  • By 13 votes to 2, Iran violated and is still violating obligations owed to the United States under international conventions, as well as customary international law.
  • By 13 votes to 2, Iran bears the responsibility of these violations under international law.
  • By unanimous judgment, Iran must immediately terminate the detention of all US nationals held hostage, must ensure all persons have necessary means of transport to leave Iranian territory and place the premises of the US Embassy back into the hands of the protecting Power.
  • By unanimous judgment, any member of the US diplomatic or consular staff must not be subjected to any form of judicial proceedings or participate in them as a witness.
  • By 12 votes to 3, Iran is obligated to make reparations for the injury caused to the United States.
  • By 14 votes to 1, the form and amount of such reparation shall be settled by the Court if an agreement fails between the parties.

In December 1979, the Shah left the US to Panama, and later accepted an offer from Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat for medical treatment in Egypt. The Shah died in Egypt in July 1980.

The Court judgment and the death of the Shah had no effect on the release of the hostages. They were still held against their will in the US Embassy in Tehran.

Carter initially favoured the then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s policy of negotiation with the Iranians. In 1980, the then national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski proposed a more aggressive stance. Brzezinski proposed a rescue mission involving the US special forces “Delta Force”.

Known as Operation Eagle Claw, it prepared for three US Air Force special mission aircraft (MC-130) carrying an 118 man assault force to a remote spot 200 miles from Tehran, where it would be accompanied by an additional three special mission aircraft (EC-130) to act as fuel transports.

The three MC-130s and three EC-130 would then wait to meet eight special mission helicopters (RH-53D) stationed at sea aboard the USS Nimitz. When the helicopters arrive at the remote spot, the assault team in the MC-130s would board the helicopters. The helicopters would then fly near Tehran, where the assault team would disembark, be driven to the US embassy, storm the US embassy, free the hostages and be picked up by the helicopter force, and fly all personnel and hostages out of Iran.

According to the US Air Force website, it was an extremely complex mission that depended on everything going according to plan. It involved eleven groups of men drawn from the U.S Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The mission went ahead on 24th April 1980. The first MC-130 landed at its planned remote spot near Tehran. The personnel in the MC-130 were to plan the landing zone for the other aircraft. The plan began to fall apart as a passenger bus approached on the highway near the landing zone. The 45 bus passengers were detained. Then a fuel truck approached on a highway near the landing zone. It failed to stop, and so the Americans fired an anti-tank weapon which set the tanker on fire. A truck then approached on the highway near the landing zone, but turned away when it saw the tanker on fire.     

The mission continued as the five aircraft successfully landed (the two other MC-130 and the three fuel transport aircraft (EC-130).

They waited for the helicopters who were en-route. During two of the helicopters flight, it experienced mechanical problems and aborted. Six helicopters remained en-route. One of the six developed hydraulic problems but continued on. The six helicopters arrived one hour behind schedule.

Of the six helicopters that arrived, the helicopter that had hydraulic problems could not continue. With five helicopters left to carry the assault team and make space for the hostages, the commander decided to abort the mission.

The plan now was to get all military personnel safely out of Iran. There were six aircraft (three MC-130 special mission aircraft and three EC-130 fuel transport aircraft) and six helicopters, one of which was out of order.

When taking off to get away from Iran’s territory, one of the working helicopters' blades collided with an EC-130 accidentally. Both aircraft exploded, killing five men on the EC-130 and three marines on the helicopter. The commander then instructed all personnel to board the remaining two EC-130s and abandon the MC-130s and helicopters.

President Carter was notified of the mission’s failure, and the events were broadcast to the world. It further raised tensions between Iran and US.

The Ending of the Crisis

The ending of the Iran hostage crisis came with two key events. The first being the Algiers Accords, with the Algerian government acting as an intermediary to US and Iran negotiations. At the time of the Algiers Accords being drawn up, there were still 52 US nationals detained in the US embassy (during the hostage crisis, some US nationals were released)

The Algiers Accords was a peace agreement designed to solve the crisis. The US would agree to certain provisions and in return, the Iranians would release the Americans held hostage.

The two main provisions are:

  • The US agree not to intervene directly or indirectly, politically or military, in Iran’s internal affairs.
  • The US agree to transfer Iranian assets (approximately 9 billion USD) held in US banks back to Iran via an intermediary mutually agreed Central Bank under the control of the Algerian government via the Algerian Central Bank. If the Algerian government certify that the 52 Americans have safely departed Iran, it will inform the Algerian Central Bank, which will in turn instruct the mutually agreed Central Bank to transfer the funds to Iran.

The second key event is the timing of the hostages released. All of the hostages were released on 20th January 1981. It is on this exact date that President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President and Jimmy Carter stepped down. It continues as speculation whether or not this day was intended by the Iranians for the release of the hostages, but it seems more than likely that it was intended. Gary Sick, White House Iran Aide 1979-1981 said: “We were waiting for any kind of response, we knew the deal had been done and the Iranians had accepted it, the money had been transferred, everything had happened and we were simply waiting for a sign that they were going to follow through on what they had agreed to do. They waited until President Reagan had taken the oath of office at which point they immediately released the hostages within five minutes.”

Retrospective Opinion on the Crisis

In October 2014, President Jimmy Carter was interviewed by CNBC about his thoughts looking back on the Iran hostage crisis to which he said:

"Um, well I could've been re-elected if I'd taken military action against Iran, shown that I was strong and resolute and, um, manly and so forth. But, er, I think if I, I could have wiped Iran off the map with the weapons that we had, but in the process a lot of innocent people would have been killed, probably including the hostages and so I stood up against all that, er, all that advice, and then eventually my prayers were answered and every hostage came home safe and free. And so I think I made the right decision in retrospect, but it was not easy at the time (laughs)"

While this was taking up the US’s attention in 1979 other events were happening around the world. Directly quoting the US Department of State's website: "The Administration’s vitality was sapped, and the Soviet Union took advantage of America’s weakness to win strategic advantage for itself. In 1979, Soviet-supported Marxist rebels made strong gains in Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique. Vietnam fought a successful border war with China and took over Cambodia from the murderous Khmer Rouge. And, in late 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support its shaky Marxist government."