Source: Map template IR, The World Fact Book

President Jimmy Carter faced another crisis in the Middle East during the last year of his presidency, the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which more than 60 American hostages were taken from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. The events leading up to this crisis started decades before the hostages were taken in 1979. Read about the background between the United States and Iran below.

Oil Change in Government The Iranian Revolution
  • The United States had an interest in Iran after its discovery of oil in the early 1900s.
  • American corporations controlled much of Iran’s oil reserves.
  • The control of oil was profitable for the American corporations.
  • In 1951, a new Prime Minister was elected in Iran.
  • Prime Minister Mossadegh planned to nationalize the oil industry.
  • The United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported a coup that replaced Mossadegh with another leader, Reza Shah Pahlavi.
  • The Shah returned some of the oil reserves to the United States in return for foreign aid.
  • The Shah modernized the economy, improved education, and expanded women's rights, but he was a repressive dictator who used violence to crush his opposition.
  • Islamic clergy led opposition to the Shah and westernization.
  • Iranians began a series of protests against the Shah.
  • The Shah fled to Egypt in January 1979, and his government was dismantled.
  • The Ayatollah Khomeini, who was previously exiled by the Shah, became the leader of Iran.
  • Khomeini instituted a strict Islamic government.

Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran after 14 Years in Exile (1979)

Image of Khomeini exiting an airplane, led by a pilot and surrounded by his followers

Source: Imam Khomeini in Mehrabad, Sajed, Wikipedia

Quick Reflection - Why was the change in government in Iran important to the United States?

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The United States lost economic interests and a political ally in the Middle East. The new Islamic government opposed the United States and western culture.Close Pop Up

The Shah of Iran and President Jimmy Carter

Image of the Shah and Carter standing side by side laughing

Source: Shah and Carter, Iran Persian Gulf Forever, Wikipedia

Several months after fleeing to Egypt, the Shah was diagnosed with cancer. He was in need of treatment and requested permission to come to the United States. Reluctantly, President Carter allowed the Shah to enter the United States, despite fearing that Americans in Iran might be attacked.

Carter’s fears became reality on November 4, 1979, when a group of Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. The students demanded that the United States return the Shah to Iran for trial before the hostages would be released.

On November 11th, Carter placed an embargo on Iranian oil and froze the financial assets of Iran in the United States. In response, Khomeini freed African Americans and women hostages, citing that these Americans had already been oppressed by the United States. The remaining hostages remained in captivity while the United States and Iran failed at negotiation attempts.

The Wreckage of Operation Desert One

Image of a wrecked airplane and two downed helicopters

Source: Eagle Claw wrecks at Desert One April 1980, Cabotfor, Wikipedia

After negotiations failed, Carter decided to use a military operation to rescue the hostages. On April 24, 1980, the plan to rescue the hostages, Operation Desert One, was to be executed, but President Carter had to call off the mission. Several of the helicopters malfunctioned and one helicopter crashed into a plane while taking off. Five people in the airplane and three Marines in the helicopter were killed. This failed mission placed a blemish on the Carter Administration and halted negotiations.

Americans were growing weary of the crisis, and tempers flared as demonstrations and protests took place in Washington, D.C.

Image of 12 rows of men bowing in prayer. A row of police officers is behind them and Several men stand in front of police officers at the student demonstration

Source: Men bowing in prayer at an Iran Hostage Crisis Student demonstration, Washington D.C., Marion Trisoko, The Library of Congress
Iran Hostage Crisis student demonstration, Washington D.C., Marian Trisoko, The Library of Congress

The hostage crisis continued as Carter was running for reelection against Ronald Reagan, who used Carter’s failure to fuel his campaign for the presidency. By September of 1980, Khomeini grew tired of the economic sanctions that the United States placed on the Iranian economy. Ronald Reagan won his election and took office as President of the United States on January 20, 1981. The hostages were released immediately after Reagan took office.

The Iran Hostages Return to the United States

Image of Iran hostages disembarking from an airplane. There are several people waiting for them on the tarmac

Source: Iran hostages return, Don Koralewski, Wikimedia

Click here to listen to the audio response to the release of the hostages.

Audio segment. Assistance may be required. American Hostages Released from Iran Audio

Quick Reflection - Why do you think the hostages were released the minute that Reagan took office?

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By releasing the hostages when Reagan took office, Khomeini emphasized the failure of Carter’s foreign policies. Close Pop Up

The United States as a World Power

Interactive exercise. Assistance may be required. Think about what you have learned about the Iran Hostage Crisis. Which of the following characteristics of a world power did the United States illustrate during the crisis? Click on the correct attribute(s).

Lesson Summary

The Camp David Peace Accords and the Iran Hostage Crisis are examples of how the United States’ role as a world power can change within a matter of years. President Carter used the influence of the United States to accomplish important steps toward peace in the Middle East between two countries that had been at war with each other for decades. During the same administration, he experienced multiple failures over more than a year before finally succeeding in freeing the American hostages who were being held by Iranians.