Taking America Hostage and Radicalizing a Revolution

By Behnam Roshan*

Nov 04, 2009

On November 4, 1979, student activists from different universities in Tehran climbed up the wall of the U.S. embassy, overtaking the huge compound and taking hostage fifty-two American diplomats and staff. At the time, the students had no clue whatsoever about the repercussions of this undertaking on Iran's domestic politics and foreign relations. In fact, few, if anyone, could foresee that the trajectory of post-revolutionary Iran would change in fundamental ways. The leaders among these students – as at least two of them later claimed – had in mind a very short period for occupying the embassy and holding on to the diplomats for only a few days, thereby sending a strong signal to the U.S. government not to ever contemplate meddling in Iranian affairs or plot a coup similar to the one staged in 1953. However, like many other promised but unfulfilled goals of the revolutionaries, and not unlike other unintended consequences of actions taken by the key players and groups, events way bigger and incredibly more powerful than originally planned had overwhelmed the students and displaced their objectives. From then on, the students were no longer in charge and had become themselves a pawn in the ever-more ferocious and nasty struggle over power and ideology.

One of the most enduring and probably less discussed effects of the hostage crisis was the injection of anti-Americanism into the Iranian revolution that was not so much a natural and immutable part of the revolution. It is true that the revolutionary discourse of the 1970s had an affinity for a third-world, anti-imperialist tradition found in other social movements. And it is also true that Iranians had a lot of grievances against America for their unequivocal support of the Shah, but the vehemently anti-American characteristic of the post-revolutionary narrative was, by and large, shaped by the hostage crisis. It was a "master frame," constructed, albeit not entirely deliberately, in the evolving political dynamics of post-revolutionary state-building. In other words, the new motto was an accidental necessity for a permanent revolution in the making.

Through radicalization of the Iranian revolution, the taking of the U.S. embassy in part caused a major reconfiguration of the domestic political landscape. It not only helped the articulation of a different radical, political, and ideological discourse, but it also eliminated or marginalized a moderate Islamist tradition which could have potentially checked the natural excesses of the revolution. Moreover, the hostage crisis provided the power-elite with the perfect weapon by which to consolidate the revolutionary project and neutralize the real and imagined "counter-revolution." It would not be too far-fetched to argue that the taking of American hostages and the ensuing estrangement between Iran and the United States played a major role in inaugurating the "terror" phase of the revolution. A phase in which friends and foes were more sharply separated and the standards by which to measure loyalty to the ideals of the revolution became stricter and narrower.

On the international front, the hostage crisis significantly changed Iran's definition of itself and the others. The taking of the American embassy in Tehran resulted in a prolonged crisis through which the identity of both sides and images of one side for the other dramatically altered. The construction of perpetual enmity has not really ended ever since. The identity construction aspects of the event have, thus, been far more serious than the concrete and real impacts on Iran's foreign relations and the material consequences that it has brought for Iran. It put Iran in a position where it could more easily be branded as an "abnormal" state and a constant "puzzle" for world powers to deal with. Although some problematic aspects of Iran's foreign policy have long ceased, the normative and symbolic content is not as easily erasable or forgettable. This, by far, is the more important cost that Iran has had to pay. The Iranian leadership obviously would not like to admit that, and implicitly claims that the cost associated with such a project is tolerable and that resistance in and of itself is paying off. As a matter of fact, the "export of the revolution" as a slogan was, to a large degree, an outcome of this dynamic process.

At a more practical level, the hostility between Iran and the United States, the most powerful actor on the world stage, has been enormously costly for Iran's economic and political fortunes. Indeed, it has also been costly for American foreign and security policy. It has complicated the possibility of creating stability in a region that so badly needs it. In a geopolitically important part of the world, a superpower and middle-ranged power collaboration could have created different arrangements more conducive to security and stability. However, the hostage crisis locked Iran in a trajectory of becoming lonelier and, thus, in need of building an indigenous capacity to secure its interests, thereby creating a vicious circle of reinforced threat perception and further estrangement from the world. One could argue that the building of an independent post-revolutionary state was definitely made possible by the anti-Western tilt in the Iranian revolution, and that was, in part, solidified by the hostage crisis and the ratcheting up of the domestic political scene.

This year's anniversary of the taking of the American embassy in Tehran is being celebrated when many of the students and some of their leaders who carried out the takeover thirty years ago are in jail for actively leading the reform movement. It is ironic that the radical turn in the direction of the revolution that they made possible back then is once again reborn by a new generation to haunt them. It is the revival of radicalism that is primarily responsible for their incarceration. What would have happened to the Iranian revolution if Ahmadinejad – who at the time was as a student at the Science and Technology University in Tehran and was in favor of overtaking the Soviet embassy – had prevailed in his idea and the U.S. embassy was not taken?

*Behnam Roshan is a pen name for a contributor from Iran.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

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