On the 30th Anniversary of the Iranian Hostage Taking

By Pardis Mahdavi, Ph.D. Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center

Nov 04, 2009

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Iran. Exactly 30 years ago to this day, a group of Americans were taken hostage and held for 444 days by their Iranian captors following the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979. This marked yet another rupture in relations between the two countries which had been strained since at least the 1953 CIA-backed overthrow of elected President Mossadeq.

The taking of American hostages in Tehran sent a strong signal not just to the U.S., but to all of Euro-America. This was a new Iran, members of the Iranian revolution said through their actions, and one that would not act 'under the thumb' of the United States or Western powers. This action – bold, defiant and dangerous – earned them praise from many of their Arab neighbors who were pleased to see a country 'finally standing up to' Western hegemony. However, this also marked the beginning of a relationship between parts of Euro-America and Iran based on fear, suspicion, and the labeling of this new Iran as a potential threat at best, and evil (à la George Bush) at worst.

The events leading up to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 were as significant for their shaping of November 4, 1979, as they are for understanding November 4, 2009. During the late 1970s, a movement, led by young students, thinkers and later clerics and members of the bazaar, began to coalesce around disenchantment with the Shah. Iran's monarchical ruler, they claimed, was leading Iran down a path of decadence, 'westoxication' (or gharbzadegi it was called), and straying away from core Iranian ideals and values. Iranians began taking to the streets in 1978, publicly demonstrating their disenchantment, and pushing for an overthrow of the monarchy. For many months, this coup looked simply like a few demonstrations in the streets. Some women took on the veil as a public message to the monarchy that they wanted to reclaim their bodies for Iran and away from 'Western' gazes, wanting to push for a more austere Iran, one inspired perhaps by Islamist Marxism. For many months the world watched people pour into the streets, asking each other, is this a revolution? After these many months, the various groups began to organize and worked with members of the bazaar to formally begin the workings of regime change, a process that would later be referred to as the Iranian revolution.

Today, the streets of Tehran resemble the mass demonstrations that led to the Iranian revolution thirty years ago. Young people, disenchanted and frustrated with a regime that does not embody their sense of ‘Iranianness,' take to the streets, coalescing behind a leader and movement referred to as the Sabze, or Green Movement. The process that was set into motion after the election of President Ahmadinejad in June was part of a social movement that had been building amongst various groups of Iranians within the country, including the youth movements, women's movements, and Reform movements. This was a large body looking for a head, and it found its head in Mir Hossein Moussavi as the ultimate symbol of someone who had been wronged by members of the regime.

But the Sabze movement is about more than Moussavi, just as the revolution was about more than just taking down the Shah. This movement is about Iranians communicating through their actions to the global public that they are not happy, that they want a change of system and apparatus. People are taking to the streets, comporting their resistance in what they choose to wear, how they choose to present themselves, and are now in a process of signaling their message to the world. On this anniversary of a major public action led by Iranians in the streets, we should look back to Tehran's streets thirty years ago and hear these new calls for change and for hope.

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

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