It’s November 4th, 1979 at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the capital of Iran.
In a small office building close to the main gates of the compound, Barry Rosen, the Embassy’s 35-year-old press attaché, hunches over a typewriter on his desk.
He’s writing a report on the political situation in Iran for his superiors back in Washington. But it’s not easy to summarize such a complicated situation in just a few hundred words. Frustrated, Barry leans back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. That’s when he notices the jeering of protesters outside…
Barry gets up from his desk and goes through a door that leads to the outer office. His secretary Mary stands by the window, staring out, her arms clasped around herself. Barry joins her at her side.
They’re used to witnessing anti-American protests outside the Embassy. But this one is different. The crowd is much larger, full of young Iranian college students who surround the main entrance. Mary cries out as one young man scales the gate and jumps down into the grounds of the Embassy. A US Marine runs after him, tackling him to the ground, but the young protester is quickly followed over the walls by several more young men. Soon, there are too many protesters for the American guards to stop. The growing mob swarms toward the nearest building – Barry Rosen’s office block.
Barry turns away from the window and hurries across the room. He locks the outer door to the office and tells Mary not to open it for anyone.
Then Barry runs back to his office. He hauls open the drawers of his desk and cabinets, searching through his files for any classified documents. He must destroy them before the papers fall into the hands of the protesters.
But as he gathers up the secret files, he hears a scrape of metal from the outer office. He looks up in alarm. Despite his instructions, Mary, in a panic, is unlocking the door. Barry shouts “Don’t!”, but it’s too late - the door flies open, and a crowd of young men push past the terrified secretary.
Barry shouts at them in Farsi to get out. They seem surprised he can speak their language, but they don’t heed his command. One of them waves a club in Barry’s face and tells him that he’s coming with them.
The young men manhandle Barry out of the office and into the corridor. The rest of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is soon overrun. And in all, sixty-six Americans are captured setting off an affair that will come to be known as the Iran Hostage Crisis.
In late 1979, Iran is in a state of revolution. The Shah – the King of the country – has been deposed and has fled into exile. He was a close ally of America and ruled with an iron fist for more than three decades. Now, Iran is being reshaped into an Islamic state under the hardline religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
The revolutionary anger of the mob ran off the Shah. Now, it’s being directed at the United States of America. A dangerous crisis is underway, one that will engulf a presidency, and lead to the loss of innocent lives - beginning with the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4th, 1979.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 4th, 1979: The Iran Hostage Crisis.
Act One: Captives and Fugitives
It’s almost Christmas 1979, in a warehouse on the American Embassy compound in Tehran.
Press attaché Barry Rosen rolls over on a thin foam mattress, trying to get comfortable. The male embassy workers are being held in a damp and windowless basement. They’ve nicknamed it ‘Mushroom Inn’, on account of the mold spreading over the clammy walls.
Each man has a small cubicle, created out of bookshelves. Fluorescent lights hum constantly overhead, casting a flickering glow that’s just bright enough to make reading possible. Books are one of the few activities the Americans are allowed in this makeshift prison.
When they were first taken hostage, Barry wasn’t too concerned. It wasn’t the first time the Embassy had been breached by protesters and Iranian authorities had moved quickly to restore order in the past.
But this time, Barry realized they were caught up in a far more dangerous situation. The storming of the embassy was wildly celebrated in Iran. The country’s new hardline leader Ayatollah Khomeini was eager to use this wave of anti-Americanism to bolster his new regime, so he too celebrated and threw his support behind it. Soon, the students occupying the Embassy were replaced by men drawn from the Ayatollah’s own Revolutionary Guard.
Now, Barry and the other hostages have been held in grim conditions for nearly two months. During their time in captivity, they’ve heard rumors that negotiations between the Iranian and American governments are going well, and that it’s only a matter of time before they’re released. But as Christmas nears, many of the diplomats in the Mushroom Inn are struggling with anxiety and depression.
The shadow crosses over Barry's book cast by a guard who growls a few words in Farsi to let Barry know it’s his turn to exercise. The American clambers stiffly to his feet and follows the guard down the row of cubicles toward the door.
Stepping outside into the Embassy grounds, Barry almost gasps. It’s a bright and cold day in Tehran. The sky is a brilliant blue and crisp white snow lies on the ground. After the damp grey gloom of the basement, the colors outside are blinding. But Barry doesn’t get the chance to linger and enjoy it. The guard barks a command and pushes him on. Barry and the other Americans in Mushroom Inn have many hard months of captivity ahead.
But what their Iranian jailors don’t realize is that they did not capture all the diplomats when they stormed the halls of the Embassy. Six escaped and are in hiding. And on the other side of the world, a daring mission to rescue them is about to be underway.
It’s a few weeks later, on the morning of January 27th, 1980 at the international airport in Tehran.
28-year-old Kathleen Stafford waits to board a Swissair flight bound for Zurich in Switzerland. An Iranian border guard checks the passengers’ papers. Kathleen has with her a Canadian passport and she tries not to tremble as she nears the front of the line.
Kathleen is nervous because she’s an American, one of six diplomats who escaped capture in the storming of the embassy and have been in hiding ever since. Now, they’re trying to sneak out of Iran in a covert operation known as the Canadian Caper.
When they originally escaped through a backdoor of the American compound, these six diplomats headed first for the British Embassy. But their way was blocked by protesters. Eventually, after days on the run, they were taken in by the Canadian ambassador. The question then became how to get these fugitives out.
CIA officer Tony Mendez developed an audacious plan. He and another agent traveled to Iran undercover and rendezvoused with the diplomats in hiding. They brought with them fake Canadian passports, identifying the six men and women as members of a Hollywood crew that had come to Iran to scout locations for an upcoming movie.
It was an elaborate cover. The CIA utilized a real script and real concept art for the fake film. They even placed advertisements for the film in industry newspapers. They printed business cards for the diplomats to use. And if anyone in Iran tried to call the number listed on them, they would reach a real office in Hollywood.
And now, after almost three months of hiding, Kathleen and the other five diplomats donned their disguises, took up their fake papers, and headed to the airport to catch a flight to freedom.
Kathleen finally reaches the front of the line and hands over her Canadian passport. The guard squints at the picture inside.
Kathleen has tied up her long hair up and put on fake glasses. But she’s not an actress. If the guard asks too many questions, she might not be able to keep up the ruse and the whole operation could fall apart.
After a few agonizing moments, the guard hands the passport back and jerks his head for her to pass.
Kathleen and the other five fugitives board the plane and are soon on their way to Switzerland. Their ordeal is at an end. But more than fifty of their fellow Americans remain in captivity. And the attempts by the U.S. Government to free them will be far less subtle than the Canadian Caper. And, in the end, they will also prove far less successful.
Act Two: A Failed Negotiation and A Failed Rescue
It’s late on February 16th, 1980, three months after the hostage crisis began, in Paris, France.
A dark car speeds through the cold streets of the French capital. In the back seat is Hamilton Jordan. The 35-year-old is Chief of Staff to American President Jimmy Carter. Despite his prominent position though, he’s hoping nobody in France will recognize him. And just to be safe, he’s wearing a wig, a false mustache, and glasses.
Soon, the car pulls up outside an ornate building. Jordan heads inside to the luxurious apartment where he’ll await the arrival of the Foreign Minister of Iran.
Jordan flew in on the supersonic passenger jet Concorde – he needed to get to Paris fast, but he paid for the tickets himself, not wanting to alert anyone in the American press by going through official government channels.
Because he’s here to secure the release of the American hostages still being held in the embassy in Tehran. Secret talks with the Iranians have been taking place for weeks through intermediaries. Now, Jordan hopes they are on the cusp of a deal.
It’s past midnight by the time the Iranian Foreign Minister finally arrives.
Sadegh Ghotbzadeh is one of Ayatollah’s closest allies. But it is still a dangerous meeting for him. In Iran, America is now known as the ‘Great Satan’. The minister jokes that if word gets out of their negotiations, Ghotbzadeh will lose his job – and then his head.
But the negotiations are deadly serious, and Ghotbzadeh has to the meeting with a final request. He tells Jordan that he wants the Americans to assassinate the exiled Shah, the former ruler of Iran.
Jordan is stunned – this has not been discussed before. It’s an infuriating pattern the Americans have seen again and again in the talks. They’ll think they have a deal – and then suddenly, at the last minute, there’s some new, impossible demand that sends negotiations back to square one.
Jordan refuses to agree to the assassination. And he leaves the meeting without a deal. But as he prepares to fly back to America, he’s still hopeful that an agreement can be made eventually. He knows it would be an enormous boom for Jimmy Carter ahead of the Presidential election due in ten months’ time.
But then, at the end of February, negotiations fall apart completely. Ayatollah makes a speech in Iran that rails against America and praises the students that took the diplomats captive. The cleric then announces that the hostages’ fate will be decided by Iran’s new parliament – one that hasn’t even been elected yet.
Jordan is crushed. With the hopes of a diplomatic solution fading, his boss, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, decides that the best course is military action.
It’s the night of April 24th, 1980, in the deserts of central Iran.
Major Jim Schaefer of the U.S. Marine Corps pilots his helicopter low and fast over the dark sands. He’s exhausted having flown for hours throughout the night, but finally, he can see the lights of his destination ahead.
A strip of dirt road in the middle of the Iranian desert has been transformed into a temporary American air base, the first staging post in an elaborate operation to free the hostages being held in the US Embassy in Tehran. Signaling to his crew, Schaefer makes preparations to land.
He has been training for this mission for weeks. Codenamed Operation Eagle Claw, the plan is a complicated, multi-stage operation. It involves helicopters, planes, and trucks, as well as more than a hundred of America’s best soldiers who will assault the embassy and rescue the hostages.
So far, though, the operation has been littered with problems. Eight Sea Stallion helicopters set off from an American aircraft carrier 60 miles off the coast of Iran. But a malfunction forced one of the helicopters to abort early. The remaining seven flew straight into a desert sandstorm which forced another helicopter to turn around.
Major Schaeffer’s bird is the first to arrive at the desert staging post. And soon, five more descend out of the hazy darkness. But one of them has a technical problem, pulling it out of the mission too. Now, just five of the original eight are operational. It’s too few to safely continue the mission. So the commanding officer makes the decision to abort the rescue.
Major Schaeffer hears a radio command to move his hovering helicopter out of the way so a plane can take off from the strip. But his maneuvering kicks up a massive dust cloud. And losing his bearings in the swirling darkness, Schaeffer accidentally rams his helicopter into a transport plane loaded with fuel.
A massive explosion lights up the desert. Schaeffer somehow manages to escape the inferno, but eight other men are killed.
The failure of the rescue is a devastating blow to the families of the hostages and those who lost their lives. There will be no further attempts to resolve the Hostage Crisis by force. And instead, the Americans will return to the negotiating table. But it will take another eight months of talks before a deal can be made to finally set the hostages free.
Act Three: Release
It’s January 20th, 1981, at the international airport in Tehran, fourteen months after the American diplomats were taken into captivity.
A convoy of buses crawls over the tarmac toward a waiting plane. On board are the U.S. Embassy staff who have been held hostage in Iran for over a year.
Press attaché Barry Rosen peers out the window of his bus. The Iranians have one last humiliation prepared for their American guests. A crowd of angry students has gathered outside standing between the hostages and the plane. One by one, the Americans are taken off the bus and marched through the jeering crowd.
When Barry’s turn comes, he strides steadily forward, his head up, as the students leap and snarl around him, shouting “Death to America!” and “Yankee, go home!”
But that’s precisely what Barry intends to do. He feels lucky to be alive. And grateful that after 444 days in captivity, he will soon set foot again on American soil.
The release of the hostages takes place in the final minutes of Jimmy Carter’s term as President. The previous November, he lost his bid for re-election in a landslide to Republican Ronald Reagan. But in the months between that defeat and the formal end of his time in office, Carter worked tirelessly on a deal to free the hostages.
In January 1981, an agreement was finally reached. Among the main concessions, America agreed to never intervene in Iran’s internal affairs again and to remove the sanctions it had placed on the country’s economy.
But the agreement is controversial. Some say the Iranians deliberately delayed the deal until after the American presidential election in order to deny Jimmy Carter the diplomatic victory. Others suggest the Reagan campaign quietly encouraged Iran to hold out in return for later military support. The rumors are so persistent that Congress will open investigations into the matter. In the end, the conclusion will be that the evidence falls short of proving there was an agreement between the Reagan campaign and the Iranians.
But for the hostages, the most important thing is that their long ordeal in captivity is over; a nightmare that began with the storming of the American Embassy in Tehran on November 4th, 1979.
Next onHistory Daily: November 7th, 1637. Puritan reformer Anne Hutchinson stands trial in Massachusetts Bay Colony for heresy.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.