Between November 1979 and January 1981, 444 U.S. diplomatic personnel were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. U.S. officials considered negotiation with the Islamic regime, but President Jimmy Carter refused and, eventually, withdrew the American embassy staff.
Today, Iran and the United States are divided along major ideological lines, with many of the country’s media outlets criticizing the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran and its dealings with North Korea. Iran and the United States have conducted top-level diplomacy with each other since the hostage crisis. During this time, both sides have, at times, raised tensions.
The U.S. Embassy in Tehran was closed on Nov. 4, 1979, two days after the Islamic Revolution. On Nov. 6, Iran released 61 American hostages who had been seized in the U.S. Embassy. On Jan. 20, 1981, an Iranian gunman took 52 U.S. embassy staff members hostage. Twenty-one Americans escaped as the crisis began. Twenty-eight more Americans escaped after President Ronald Reagan ordered an assault on the compound the next day. Three hostages were released Jan. 28, 1981. Two days later, American forces entered the compound and rescued the remaining U.S. hostages. Iranian forces fled the site, and at least eight U.S. servicemen were killed. The remaining American hostages remained held in Tehran until Sept. 2, 1981.
Though the Americans had been held for three months, many U.S. policy makers underestimated their state of mind and took for granted their willingness to endure a harsh and stressful confinement. It was only in mid-January 1981 that State Department official Hamilton Ezell sought to assess the psychology of the kidnapped Americans and their families, so as to “assess how the released hostages were changing from a state of shock and disbelief at the Iranian new government to an internal acceptance of their status and the [United States] government’s policies in dealing with it.”
Using a psychologist’s “Persons Under Insane Commitment Scale,” Ezell polled the 52 Americans in the early 1980s. Only one-third of the hostages had ever heard of Iran, had no knowledge of the events surrounding the revolution, and had a low state of psychological development. Another one-third had read an average of about four and a half pages of news articles about the hostage crisis. Most of the others had read one or two. Roughly one-third had suffered from high anxiety, while 60 percent of the embassy workers exhibited only moderate anxiety.
Reported readiness to return to Iran during the crisis could be discerned from a variety of signs, such as high levels of stress, confusion about whether they would be arrested and, in one case, disrespect for his captors. Many also refused to wear their safety glasses.
Sources: U.S. Library of Congress; Today, Feb. 15, 2002; Iran Dispatch, January 31, 2010