By H Rastgoo
November 4, 2019
Four decades after United States diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran on November 4, 1979, the Supreme Leader’s associates and state-run media continue to defend this action —unconditionally. On that date, a group of university students, who were supported by Ayatollah Khomeini, seized the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days.
However, even among those who support the Iranian regime, critics of the crisis appear to outweigh those who still support it.
The majority of the critics have expressed their views on platforms that cannot be controlled by the Iranian government, including foreign-based media and social networks. But a considerable amount of criticism has also been voiced through legally-approved media outlets in Iran.
Many of these critics have particularly highlighted the heavy price the seizure of the US embassy in 1979 cost the Islamic Republic and question the benefits of the continuing hostility with the United States.
The Initial Support for Hostage-Taking
When a group of radical students seized the US embassy on November 4, 1979, the move received very widespread support from the Iranian public. In fact, the hostage-taking not only had support from different factions of the Islamic Republic, but also from a great majority of the political groups not linked to the Iranian regime. Today, it may seem strange that the majority of Iran’s opposition groups, including those who later engaged in armed confrontation with the Islamic Republic, agreed with the decision to take embassy diplomats hostage, seeing it as a bold act of anti-imperialism.
In such an atmosphere, Mehdi Bazargan, the prime minister of the interim government of Iran, and his cabinet members, who opposed the seizure of the US embassy, had no option but to resign, thus practically fading away from Iran’s political scene.
In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini and his associates used the hostage-taking incident to mobilize Iranian society behind their radical, anti-West ideology to gain the upper hand against the opposition, and to purge the Iranian government from any remaining elements that were in any way Western-minded.
In the years following the Iran hostage crisis, government institutions and state-run media presented an absolutely one-sided narrative of the events, which dominated and represented public opinion for a quite long period. According to this official narrative, the seizure of the US embassy had saved the nation from US interference, preventing embassy-based spies from carrying out a possible coup d’état against the Islamic Republic.
Those who did not believe in this narrative, even if they dared to speak out, had very little access to the media to make their point and present their different version of events.
The Emergence of Counter-Narratives
With the election of Mohammad Khatami to the presidency in 1996 came the emergence of dozens of reformist newspapers, many of which dared to cross some of the established red lines that had been imposed on Iranian media. Most of these media outlets, however, refrained from questioning the decisions of Ayatollah Khomeini, including his fierce support for the hostage-taking of American diplomats. In addition, many pro-Khatami reformist figures had previously been dedicated supporters of the action taken by the group. They included a considerable number of the students who had been involved in the occupation of the US embassy (but had later revised their views). This was yet another reason for the reformists’ hesitation to question the hostage crisis and why it happened.
But despite all these precautions, many critics of the Iran hostage crisis were able to use new media, and new media outlets, to call the 1979 hostage-taking into question, in particular through reminding people of the heavy costs Iran had to endure because of the incident. As a result, during the so-called reforms era, many ordinary Iranians, for the first time, become aware of what the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran really cost Iran.
At the same time, some conservatives also criticized those reformists who had been in charge of negotiating the January 1981 Algeria Declaration between the United States and Iran, which aimed to resolve the Iran hostage crisis (and was brokered by the Algerian government). They did not criticize the hostage-taking in itself, but blamed their reformist rivals for what they described as their failure to safeguard the interests of the Islamic Republic during the Algeria talks.
Some conservatives increased their criticism to such a level that, after President Khatami’s era, they highlighted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s opposition to the seizure of the US embassy in 1979, when he was a student activist (Ahmadinejad had opposed this action, but only because he believed the students should first take the USSR embassy).
Post-US Sanctions Era
In Ahmadinejad’s era, the criticism over the 1979 hostage-taking increased for a particular reason: the unprecedented intensification of US nuclear sanctions on Iran.
When the sanctions were first imposed, Iranian officials said they were not worried about the situation because the Islamic Republic had already been under US sanctions since 1979. But after US and EU oil and financial sanctions got underway in 2010, officials gradually realized that the new embargos were much more devastating than any other sanctions Iran had ever experienced.
The new conditions made many Iranian journalists, activists and experts focus on cost-benefit calculations of Iran’s conflict with the United States. A part of this focus inevitably concerned re-examining the 1979 hostage-taking episode, and seeing it as the starting point of US sanctions. Critics of the Iran hostage crisis were normally unable to use official media during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but they had gained access to a number of new platforms, ranging from social media to foreign-based Persian media outlets. Despite the government’s uncompromising efforts to control the media through jamming TV satellite broadcasts, blocking foreign-based websites and filtering social media platforms, millions of people still managed to bypass the government’s censorship to access independent or opposition media.
After President Ahmadinejad’s term, it was a very popular perception that President Rouhani’s administration could pave the way for the lifting of nuclear sanctions and an end to the tensions in Tehran-Washington relations.
It is worth mentioning that, within the Iranian political establishment, Rouhani and his entourage were not known as anti-US politicians, to such an extent that their rivals accused them of advocating for the normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic’s enemies. Hassan Rouhani and his associates, unlike many other Islamic Republic insiders, were also not known as dedicated supporters of the hostage-taking incident. It was therefore no surprise that many of the supporters of the new administration did not agree with the hostage-taking and some of them did not hesitate to cautiously point to how this event in history had produced negative consequences for the country.
After the finalization of the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), between Iran and world powers, it was widely perceived that Tehran and Washington were heading toward a new era of tension-free relations. In this new atmosphere, analysts inside and outside Iran made occasional references to the hostage-taking episode to remind people of the necessity of turning the page and of ending decades of animosity between the two countries.
Nevertheless, the JCPOA failed to meet the great expectations of those who believed the agreement could normalize relations between Iran and the United states.
The situation became much more complicated for Iran when Donald Trump, a dedicated opponent of the JCPOA, won the US presidential election in November 2016. When President Trump took office in January 2017, the new US administration gradually deescalated the implementation of the JCPOA, and finally withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May 2018.
This move gave a stronger voice to those of the Leader’s confidantes who were, from the beginning, against Iran-US talks, emphasizing that the Islamic Republic had no option but to resist the United States, and to continue the same path it had been following since Tehran-Washington diplomatic relations ended in 1979. One cannot deny that the JCPOA experience had also made many ordinary people quite pessimistic about any possible improvement in Tehran-Washington relations.
On the other hand, it appears that the intensification of US sanctions has made a great number Iranians more worried than ever about the heavy costs of ongoing tensions between Iran and the United States. This worry is reflected in the fact that a considerable amount of people criticize the Iranian authorities on social media for their useless and costly confrontation with Washington. It is important to acknowledge that many ordinary Iranians and public figures who are quite critical of US policies against the Islamic Republic state that Iran must end hostility with Washington to mitigate the risks of the four-decade-long confrontation between the two countries.
An Exceptionally Difficult Job
There is little doubt that, despite all critical views regarding the Iranian regime’s foreign policy, the Leader of the Islamic Republic and his associates are still quite dedicated to their anti-US approach. They toughly criticize those insiders who believe Iran should normalize relations with the United States, and blame the ex-revolutionary figures who hesitate to defend anti-US actions such as the 1979 hostage ordeal.
Under such circumstances, Iran’s state-run TV networks have prepared dozens of reports, documentaries and interviews to mark the 40th anniversary of the occupation of the US embassy in Iran. On this occasion, there are plans for state-sponsored gatherings to be held in Tehran and all Iranian provinces, and, according to Iranian media, all government institutions have planned to commemorate this anniversary as a national festival.
Nevertheless, the Leader’s supporters and state-run media outlets have an exceptionally difficult job in trying to justify the Iran hostage crisis on its 40th anniversary, especially in the midst of unprecedented economic hardship due to US sanctions. At the end of the day, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that the hostage-taking of American diplomats in Iran now appears to be one of the least popular actions the Islamic Republic has taken in its short history.