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Khamenei's Anniversary Video Marks 43 Years of Iranian Hostage-Taking

November 6, 2021
Aida Ghajar
6 min read
Khamenei's Anniversary Video Marks 43 Years of Iranian Hostage-Taking

The date of 13 Aban, November 4 in the Gregorian calendar, is tied to a number of events in Iran’s historical memory, and for the past nine years has for many brought to mind the face of Sattar Beheshti: a regime-critical blogger tortured to death in 2012 just days after his arrest by security forces. It’s also the anniversary of the 1979 attack on the US embassy in Tehran. On the very same date this year, the official website of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published a video dictating his stance on the nuclear talks, which also underscored the ongoing nature of the Islamic Republic’s 43-year policy of hostage taking.

The video made public, for the first time, an interview Khamenei had given to the Islamic Republic Party’s student wing on October 29, 1984. The then-president tells listeners that on November 4, 1979 he was on Hajj in Saudi Arabia with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and heard news of the assault on the US embassy on the radio. “As soon as we heard the name of Muslims and followers of the Imam’s line as the attackers, we were relieved,” he says. “We realized it was not the leftists, hypocrites [a term used by regime members for the People’s Mojahedin Organization] or opportunists, [but] a handful of local, Muslim students who had done this."

The clip then shifts focus to archived news items, in one of which Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, is depicted opposing any attempt to release the hostages: "No! No one has the right to negotiate with the United States." He then promises "comprehensive" support and the provision of "revolutionary arms" to the attackers.

Though the video was shared on the anniversary of the US embassy hostage crisis, the selection of this particular part of Khomeini’s speech – right after news last week of the resumption of the nuclear talks – indicates it was intended to articulate Khamenei’s position on dealing with the US today. That is, he is averse to the US taking part in direct negotiations. On November 1, the Iranian government also reiterated that it did not intend to negotiate directly with the United States when the fresh round of talks gets under way on November 29.

In another section of this piece of well-calibrated PR, the young Ali Khamenei is shown giving a speech on November 30, 1979 in front of the occupied US embassy. Then a member of the Revolutionary Council, he is seen shouting: "Today the executioner of this nation is under the protection of the American government. The nation will never forgive that government." With this he referred to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the former Shah of Iran, who had fled the country and sought sanctuary in the US. In the complete file of Khamenei's speech, he also talks about the need to put Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on trial after the revolution in Iran. "We are at a critical juncture in Iranian history," Khamenei also said in the same speech. "The future looks to us. The future in history speaks for itself."

The clip also features footage dated April 14, 1980. Khamenei is depicted walking among the hostages, telling them: “These students and the entire Iranian nation do not want you to be here. On the contrary, they want you to leave as soon as possible. The key is not in their hands. It is not in our hands either. It is in the hands of those who are not willing to respond to the demands of a nation. Do you agree that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi should come here to stand trial?"

Fast forward to April 25, 2020, and Khamenei is depicted giving another speech on those turbulent days: "I and the late Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani and [Abolhassan] Banisadr went to the Imam to ask what to do. We asked if they were pressuring him to release them [the Americans] as soon as possible. Imam turned to us and said, 'Who’s afraid of America?'. I said no, we were not afraid. Then he said, ‘Ok then, don't release them.’"

The “key” to the US diplomats’ release, it turned out, was not the trial of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Instead 444 days after the hostage-taking, according to the new clip on Khamenei's website, the Americans were released because the US had pledged not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs, to lift commercial and economic sanctions and to release Iran's frozen assets.

This early success shaped the policies of the Islamic Republic for decades to come. Even now in 2021, Tehran is trying to extort rival nations using human beings – typically foreign and dual nationals – as bait. The case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose husband Richard Ratcliffe has now been on hunger strike for two weeks, is perhaps the best known. A blameless charity worker and mother-of-one, Nazanin has been held in the country since April 2016 over a historic £400m debt the Islamic Republic claims it is owed from Britain. British-Iranian businessman Anousheh Ashouri was also abducted and jailed in Iran the following year. To this day, the British government refuses to publicly use the word “hostage” to describe their situation.

Hostage-taking has many forms. In the Islamic Republic, it is sometimes also turned inward. Last week, on the anniversary of Sattar Beheshti’s death, security forces descended on the home of his mother and sister, arresting them both and taking them away to an unknown location. It came days after 75-year-old Gohar Eshghi had published a new video criticizing the Supreme Leader for her son’s death and the “destruction” of Iran. These innocent people, too, are hostages: their arrest deterred a activists from paying their respects to Beheshti at a memorial service, as planned, and may prevent others from seeking justice in the case.

For Ali Khamenei, November 4 is significant for three reasons, as he himself related in a speech to student organizations on June 7, 2017: "The deportation of the Imam in 1964, the killing of teenage students in 1978 [an attack by the Shah’s forces four months before the Islamic Revolution], and finally the capture of the spy nest in 1979. In all three incidents, one side is the Iranian nation [...] and the other is the arrogant US government." For Iranians who seek justice and accountability for their people, Aban means something quite different.

Related coverage:

Sattar Beheshti's Mother and Sister Arrested

Sattar Beheshti's Mother to Khamenei: You Have Destroyed Our Country

How Can We Prevent Hostage-Taking States Like Iran?

Nazanin's Husband: Hostage-Taking by Iran Must End

No-one is a Guest in Iran: US Embassy Hostage Crisis Survivor

The Islamic Republic is Addicted to Hostage-Taking as a Diplomatic Strategy

Austrian MP Accuses Iran of Systematic Hostage-Taking of European Citizens

The Algiers Accords at 40: Iran Continues to Take Hostages Decades After Historic Agreement

UN Special Rapporteur Issues Damning Report on the State of Human Rights in Iran

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