Inside The Revolution: How Iran seized the US embassy in Tehran 34 years ago today. “We were just plain asleep,” said CIA director.

Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.

Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.

A Time cover story in 1979 on the hostage crisis in Tehran.

A Time cover story in 1979 on the hostage crisis in Tehran.













>> Largest anti-American protest in years underway outside former U.S. embassy in Tehran. Iranians shout, “Death To America!”

The following are excerpts from my non-fiction book, Inside The Revolution (2009):

Dawn had not yet broken in Washington.

It was Sunday morning, November 4, when an urgent “Flash Traffic” message from Embassy Tehran arrived in the State Department’s top-secret communications center: “Demonstrators have entered embassy compound and have entered the building.”

More than three thousand Radicals, most of them students, had climbed over the embassy’s walls, penetrated the compound’s internal security fences and doors, disarmed the Marines (who had been ordered by their superiors not to shoot), and were holding sixty-six Americans hostage while rifling through whatever files they could get their hands on.[1]

Staffers in the White House Situation Room immediately awoke the president at Camp David with a phone call at 4:30 a.m. The president spoke with Brzezinski, just back from Algiers, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Both were concerned, to be sure, but neither was overly worried, believing the situation would be corrected quickly, as it had been on Valentine’s Day. The president, therefore, went back to sleep. It was the last half-decent sleep Carter would get until after he left office on January 20, 1981.

U.S. intelligence officials soon had a translated copy of the students’ first communiqué, which blasted “the world-devouring America” and stated, “We Muslim students, followers of the Imam Khomeini, have occupied the espionage embassy of America in protest against the ploys of the imperialists and the Zionists. We announce our protest to the world; a protest against America for granting asylum and employing the criminal shah while it has its hands in the blood of tens of thousands of women and men in this country.”

Top officials at the CIA and State all expected Khomeini to order the students to free the Americans and their compound in short order. It never happened.

To the contrary, the ayatollah quickly issued a statement praising the students. He then appointed his son, Ahmad, to serve as the liaison with the students holding the embassy.

Ahmad would later write that his father expected “thunder and lightning” from Washington, a quick and fierce military operation that would both rescue the embassy staffers and punish the new regime. But weeks turned into months without such a response. Instead, in Ahmad’s view, the Carter White House churned out feckless, limp-wristed statements and showed no serious interest in a military confrontation. President Carter’s envoy to the United Nations, Ambassador Andrew Young, publicly implored the ayatollah to show “magnanimity and compassion.”

Khomeini smelled weakness. He mocked the Carter administration as acting “like a headless chicken,” and exploited Carter’s indecision to the fullest.


For well over a year and a half, fifty-two American citizens were subjected to torture, interrogation, and all manner of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Islamic Radicals.

Some of the hostages were blindfolded and paraded before the Iranian media in pictures that would be flashed around the world. Others were repeatedly kicked and beaten. Some had guns put to their heads while students threatened to blow their brains out if they did not open safes or answer questions. At other times, the students played Russian roulette with them. At one point, a group of students forced a diplomat to the floor. One pulled out a knife, positioned it mere centimeters from the diplomat’s face, and threatened to cut out his eyes, one by one, if he refused to divulge classified information. And all the while, the Ayatollah Khomeini gave his full approval to such activities, and his son oversaw the terrorists’ day-to-day operations.

Back home, Americans felt a growing sense of humiliation and outrage as they saw the crisis in Iran play out on the evening news night after night with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel. Most people did not understand the motivation of the Radicals who had seized the embassy or the ayatollah whom they apparently worshiped. Nor did they understand why President Carter looked so weak in the face of such a serious threat to U.S. national security. All they saw were millions of Iranians chanting, “Death to America! Death to Israel!” and violent, fanatical mobs burning the American flag and burning President Carter in effigy. As the crisis worsened, Carter’s approval rating plummeted to a mere 25 percent.

Muslims around the world—Sunnis and Shias alike—were stunned by such a dramatic turn of events. Radicals were energized. Reformers were horrified.

Officials in Washington were stupefied. In less than a year, the White House, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency had missed the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the rise of Khomeini, the fall of the shah, and the takeover of the U.S.’s own embassy in a country central to its national security and sharing a 1,600-mile border with the Soviet Union.

Admiral Stansfield Turner, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Carter, would later admit in his memoirs, “We in the CIA served the president . . . badly with respect to our coverage of the Iranian scene. . . . We had not appreciated how shaky the Shah’s political foundation was; did not know the Shah was terminally ill; did not understand who Khomeini was and the support his movement had; did not have a clue as to who the hostage-takers were or what their objective was; and could not pinpoint within the embassy where the hostages were being held and under what conditions. . . . We were just plain asleep.”

[1] Initially, sixty-six U.S. Embassy staffers were taken hostage. Thirteen women and African-Americans were released in late November. One hostage was released in July 1980 for seriously declining health. The remaining fifty-two hostages spent a total of 444 days in captivity.

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