Iranian student leader 'regrets' 1979 US embassy takeover, 444-day hostage crisis that destroyed relations

Iranian student leader 'regrets' 1979 US embassy takeover, 444-day hostage crisis that destroyed relations
The relationship between Iran and the US remains fraught after the US pulled out of the nuclear deal last year.
3 min read
02 November, 2019
There is widespread anti-American sentiment in Iran as it is crippled by sanctions [Getty]
One of the Iranian student leaders who was part of the 1979 US embassy takeover in Iran says he now regrets the situation it created and the 444-day hostage crisis that followed.

Speaking ahead of Monday’s 40 anniversary of the attack, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh told the Associated Press that he now understood the repercussions of the seizure even as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington over the former’s nuclear programme.

Even though the takeover has been enshrined in myth among hard-liners in Iran, Asgharzadeh has cautioned others against following in his footsteps. He also dismissed a revisionist version of the story being spread by supporters of Iran's Revolutionary Guard that they directed the attack, instead insisting that all the blame rested with the students who let the crisis spin out of control.

"Like Jesus Christ, I bear all the sins on my shoulders," Asgharzadeh told AP.

[Also read: Iran hopes UN nuclear watchdog will act 'neutrally' under new leader]

What led to the takeover of the US embassy in 1979 had remained unclear to Americans who could only watch as the hostage crisis continued for months.

Anger in Iran against the United States was rooted in the 1953 CIA-backed coup that toppled the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and increased the power of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was more favourable to American interests.

Months of anger and unrest spread across the country in the lead up to February 1979, when the Shah fled the country seeking medical treatment. This paved the way for the Islamic Revolution.

In this power vacuum, then-President Jimmy Carter allowed Pahlavi to seek medical treatment in New York. That lit the fuse for the events of Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranian students took over the US embassy to try to force Carter to return the Shah to Iran.

Like other former students, Asgharzadeh said the plan had been to simply stage a sit-in. However, it soon spun out of control when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the long-exiled Shia cleric whose return to Iran sparked the revolution, gave his support. He would use the popular anger to expand the Islamists' power.

"We, the students, take responsibility for the first 48 hours of the takeover," Asgharzadeh said. "Later, it was out of our hands since the late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the establishment supported it."

"Our plan was one of students, unprofessional and temporary."

The relationship between Tehran and Washington has been famously strained ever since, and has reached new heights over Iran’s nuclear programme.

A groundbreaking nuclear deal signed in 2015 by then American President Barack Obama, European powers and Iran meant that the latter would receive relief from longstanding sanctions in return for curbing its nuclear programme.

However, that deal broke down last year when President Donald Trump abandoned it, reimposing sanctions on the middle eastern nation as part of his campaign of “maximum pressure” on the regime.

Since 1979, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh has become a reformist politician and spent time in prison. He has argued that Iran should work toward improving ties with the US, a difficult task with Trump’s America bent on crippling Iran’s economy.

"It is too difficult to say when the relations between Tehran and Washington can be restored," Asgharzadeh said. "I do not see any prospect."

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