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40 Years after Taking Americans Hostage, Iranians are Poorer and Less anti-American

November 5, 2019
Faramarz Davar
6 min read
Two Americans held during the Iran hostage crisis
Two Americans held during the Iran hostage crisis
Many former hostage-takers say they now regret their 444-day occupation of the US embassy in 1979
Many former hostage-takers say they now regret their 444-day occupation of the US embassy in 1979

Forty years after 10am on November 4, 1979, none of the hostage-takers now defend the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran with much revolutionary zeal.

Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, a leader of “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line” who took over the embassy, says that he regrets his actions. And Mohammad Naeimipour, another of the hostage-takers, says that they should have left the embassy after 10 days instead of staying for their famously occupation. Their sentiments reflect what Iranians have felt in their daily lives over the past 40 years – and their conclusions are far different from those of the leaders of the Islamic Republic.

The US embassy hostage crisis saw 52 Americans held for 444 days – but four decades later it now seems that part of Iran’s leadership have themselves become hostages to that event. On the anniversary of the embassy takeover, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once against rejected the idea of negotiating with the United States. The Americans, he told a group of students, want to “restore the condition that existed before the Revolution in Iran. This Revolution was against the US. They want to restore the same conditions, but the Revolution is much stronger. ... By Allah’s favor, the willpower ruling over the Islamic Republic is made of steel and it has firm determination. It will not allow the United States to return to the country with these tricks.”

At the same time, the US is also moving in a direction that makes any reconciliation between the two countries even more difficult. And right on cue, on November 4, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the inner circle of Ayatollah Khamenei: his son Mojtaba Khamenei,  Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, father-in-law of Mojtaba Khamenei, a member of the Expediency Council and also an advisor to Ali Khamenei, as well as Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani and Vahid Haghanian, two senior officials of the Supreme Leader’s staff, Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior adviser to Khamenei in international affairs, and Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, not to mention the whole armed forces’ general staff.

How Khomeini “tricked” the US

The occupation of the US embassy has proved to be a grab bag of ongoing costs for Iran.

“Choosing Mehdi Bazargan as the prime minister was the biggest trick that Imam [Khomeini] played on America,” says Mohsen Rezaee, a former Revolutionary Guards commander. Bazargan was a moderate, with a mainstream and secular demeanor, and the version of Iran he presented to the world in the early days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution was not a scary one. But Bazargan and his government were unable to stop the bloodthirsty revolutionary courts from their purges – and a few days after the occupation of the US embassy they became one of the first victims of the event.

The fall of his government — who could not expel the hostage-takers from the embassy or release the Americans, due to Ayatollah Khomeini’s support for their actions against the embassy — was a harbinger of future Islamic Republic governments who wanted to improve relations with the US but have always been prevented from doing so. The fate of these later governments was foretold by that of Bazargan and his government – who could not carry out Iranians’ own wish to release the hostages because of Khomeini.

But the radicalization of Iranian politics after the occupation of the US embassy (and that first government’s loss of power) was not the only cost to Iranians. The sanctions that soon followed has been the most devastating blow to Iran and its people.


Testing Sanctions in the Iranian Laboratory

The practice of imposing economic sanctions took on a new meaning in the international system after the US embassy hostage crisis. Only 10 days after the embassy was captured, the US government announced new laws against Iran, while blocking Iranian assets on American soil and in American banks and financial institutions in other countries. The delivery of modern military equipment – for which the Shah had made advance payments – was stopped and Iran was even barred from buying passenger planes that used American technology.

The first and the paramount victims of these sanctions were Iranian citizens who were denied a safe and modern passenger air fleet. And now sanctions have been extended to the person of the Supreme Leader, his staff, his inner circle, parts of the nation’s armed forces and every corner of the Iranian economy. Iranian state properties – which ultimately belong to the Iranian people – are being confiscated by American courts and the link between the name of Iran and international terrorism has cast a dark shadow over Iranian nationals.

In recent years if an Iranian wished to visit the United States, to visit Iranian-born relatives living there, he or she had to visit a US embassy in a neighboring countries to request a visa; and even if they succeeded in securing the visa, they had been forced to spend several times more than would otherwise have been necessary they been able to apply for the visa in Tehran. The Untied States even suggested making this possible as far back as 2008 – but the suggestion was rejected [Persian link] by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Now, of course, President Donald Trump has imposed a travel ban on Iranian nationals and has made granting visas to Iranians a very difficult proposition.

American sanctions against Iran have proven immensely effective against the whole political, military, economic and banking structure of the Islamic Republic.

Anti-Americans with Children in the US

Opponents of improving US-Iran relations have in recent days again repainted the walls of the former US embassy with anti-American images and graffiti. But studies show a widespread desire among Iranians for emigrating to America. Numerous children of senior Islamic Republic officials live in the US, such as those of Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament, and Masoumeh Ebtekar, a current vice president who was one of the student occupiers of the American embassy and was called “Sister Mary” by Americans.

Forty years after the embassy was seized and the hostages were taken, ordinary Iranian citizens see things differently from top leaders of the Islamic Republic. There is no doubt that the prospects for the lifting of various heavy sanctions against the Islamic Republic are not promising but, what is more, there is no desire or motivation among Iranian leaders to do what is necessary to end these sanctions.

The devastating effects of sanctions on the lives of Iranians are visible everywhere and they have led to what can be called a national despair. A statement by Hasan Rouhani, when he was campaigning for the presidency, captures the situation: “One can find a way to make a living under sanctions. But what about the country’s development?”



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