Hostage Crisis and International Reaction

  November 09, 2021   Read time 2 min
Hostage Crisis and International Reaction
The storming of the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis not only led to the severance of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, but marked the onset of an intense and long-drawn period of hostility between the two.

The initial concern of the Carter administration following the fait accompli of the Revolution and formation of the Islamic Republic had been to explore possibilities of negotiations with ‘moderate elements’ within the new provisional regime with the objective of safeguarding strategic interests in the Gulf. Its second aim was to protect US private property threatened by nationalisation, expropriation and repudiation of debt. The course of events in the early post-revolutionary period resulted in varying degrees of success in attaining these goals.

The Carter administration responded to the taking of US hostages in Tehran by immediately halting the shipment of military spare parts to Iran, imposing visa restrictions on Iranians, imposing an embargo on oil imports from Iran, and ultimately freezing all deposits in US banks and foreign subsidiaries. A military response was actively considered from the first moment of the seizure of the hostages. However, there were several constraints on such a policy. On the one hand, there was concern about the economic repercussions of a military operation. Moreover, bearing in mind the continued impact of the Vietnam War on the political process in the United States, the administration was determined to avoid a situation where the United States would be trapped into an escalatory cycle leading to land combat in Iran. Most importantly, the implications both for superpower relations and Soviet–Iranian relations bore heavily on US strategy, whose dilemmas had been made particularly acute by the Iranian Revolution and the disruption of the strategic and military regional alliance structure of the United States.

Decision making in Washington was greatly influenced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Sick notes the belief that ‘a U.S. declaration of war against Iran at that juncture would have disrupted the Islamic consensus building against the Soviet Union and would have provided the USSR with a golden opportunity to pose as the protector of regional states against the “aggressive” designs of the United States.’5 Although the option of declaring war continued to be discussed seriously in Washington, the constraints on such direct action were ostensibly too overbearing. The ‘Carter Doctrine’, spelt out in President Carter’s State of the Union address in January 1980, stated that ‘any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’ The serious implications of escalation in the region appeared thus to tie Washington’s options in the hostage crisis to a strategy of applying diplomatic and economic sanctions and attempting to negotiate a deal for the release of the hostages.

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