In January 1981, I stood at the foot of the Air Algerie flight that flew 52 American diplomats to freedom after 444 days as hostages in Iran. Some of them were my friends. I still remember their gaunt appearances after being caged and cut off from the world for so long as they quietly disembarked. That original hostage crisis was a turning point in U.S. history in the 20th century — and has shaped angry American views of the Islamic republic ever since.
The takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 tore at the soul of a nation as the last of three events in just five years that made Americans — citizens of a superpower — feel vulnerable, fallible and flawed. In August 1974, Richard Nixon, leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, had resigned over the Watergate scandal. Less than nine months later, in April 1975, the fall of Saigon marked the end of the Vietnam War, where more than 58,000 Americans had died and Washington had spent $168 billion (roughly $1 trillion in today’s dollars) during its decade-long military intervention against a far less powerful, poorly armed and Third World militia. Then the student takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in just hours became a symbol of American weakness at the hands of a bunch of kids. Americans anguished with the daily updates on ABC’s “Nightline,” a program originally launched to track the hostage crisis. The yellow ribbon — tied around trees, fences, telephone poles, doors and the collars of pets to show support for the imprisoned diplomats — soon became as much a symbol of America as apple pie and baseball.
Seizing American Hostages: A Global Phenomenon
Since then, seizing American hostages has become a global phenomenon precisely because U.S. governments — under both Republican and Democratic presidents — have recognized the importance of individual life and basic human rights. More than four decades after the first Iran crisis, hostages have increasingly become valuable commodities for terrorist groups or governments to trade in exchange for lives, assets or policy shifts. “Since 2012, there has been a significant rise in the number of wrongful detentions of U.S. nationals,” according to a report this month by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. (Foley was a journalist detained by ISIS in Syria and eventually executed in 2014.)
In September 2023, more than 50 Americans were wrongfully detained by 14 countries, the foundation claimed. The largest numbers were held by China, Russia and Venezuela, but also by Belarus, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The final five held in Iran were released on September 18, 2023. A Rand Corporation study reported that hostage-takers gain even when their demands are not met because “terrorists derived benefits from kidnappings, including publicity, alarm, and throwing governments into crisis.”
Since the 1970s, successive administrations have acted to free Americans seized on five continents. U.S. policy has officially been no concessions — and no payment of ransom — to terrorist groups. But U.S. policy on Americans “wrongfully detained” has led to varying interpretations in practice.
In January 1981, Iran released the original 52 hostages as the costs finally outweighed the benefits. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had invaded Iran in September 1980 at a time that Iran was militarily vulnerable after dismantling the monarchy’s military. It had to urgently rebuild its army, navy and air force, virtually from scratch. International condemnation for the U.S. embassy takeover complicated Tehran’s access to arms. And U.S. sanctions made the young revolution a pariah state. The Carter administration had frozen all Iran’s assets held in U.S. banks and blocked access to American goods of any kind. To end the crisis, one of the conditions was that Washington unfreeze some assets and let a special tribunal, established in The Hague, adjudicate what Iran, in turn, owed the United States after nationalizing American companies.
The hostage crisis in the mid-1980s was equally complicated. Ronald Reagan engaged in a secret arms-for-hostages deal with Iran to free Americans kidnapped off the streets of Beirut by Hezbollah, then an underground militia and Iran’s most important proxy in the Middle East. The president initially denied secret talks. “We did not — repeat — did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we,” he said in a nationally televised address in November 1986. “We have not, nor will we, capitulate to terrorists.”
But four months later, in March 1987, Reagan had to backtrack amid media reports on the clandestine diplomacy. He confessed on national television that “what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages.” He added, “There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake.” Three Americans were released — and then three more picked up by Hezbollah. Some of them, again, were friends when I was a correspondent based in Lebanon. It was the biggest scandal of Reagan’s presidency. The last of several Americans held by Iran’s proxy weren’t released until 1991 — after Reagan left office.
For the United States, winning freedom for Americans usually involves a confluence of factors. In January 2016, Iran freed five Americans — including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and Matthew Trevithick, my former research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars — after 14 months of secret diplomacy conducted on the sidelines of talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers that produced the 2015 historic nuclear deal.
During the implementation of the nuclear deal, in January 2016, Iran released the five, while the U.S. freed seven Iranians convicted of violating U.S. sanctions. The Obama administration also transferred $400 billion in frozen funds that Iran had paid for U.S. military equipment during the monarchy in the 1970s. Earlier administrations had blocked the transfer of military supplies — and froze Iran’s funds —after the 1979 revolution.
Every deal to release Americans involves often lengthy and complicated diplomacy — and usually at a controversial cost. In 2014, the Obama administration agreed to transfer five Taliban prisoners (including two military commanders) held at Guantanamo Bay in return for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had deserted his unit in 2009. Qatar oversaw the talks and the transfer.
The 2023 swap with Tehran — with each side releasing five prisoners — followed two years of talks by the Biden administration negotiated through Qatar and Oman. Iranian officials have refused to hold direct talks with their American counterparts since the Trump administration abandoned the nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed more than 1,500 sanctions on Iran.
The talks were tricky, especially over the terms for the United States to waive sanctions so South Korea could transfer almost $6 billion for past oil purchases. The funds had been frozen in Seoul. The diplomatic momentum accelerated after Oman hosted indirect talks in May 2023. Qatar then hosted several rounds of negotiations in Doha, with the kingdom’s envoys shuttling between the American and Iranian delegations in separate hotels.
“When the opportunity came together after pretty principled, persistent diplomacy, a number of things, obviously, we completely flat-out rejected,” a senior administration official told me and other reporters the night before the swap. “When the opportunity arose that we thought a deal that was very much in our interests, that’s when we chose to move forward.” Iran will not have direct access to a single rial. The funds were deposited in a special account in Qatar, which will oversee all Iran’s purchases and only for humanitarian goods such as food and medical, educational or agricultural goods. The United States will have oversight of all purchases, which it expects to be used over years, not weeks or months. But the financial terms led to widespread criticism from Republicans over charges that Washington had paid ransom or set a dangerous precedent that endangered future hostage seizures. Others charged that the funds — which had never been in U.S. possession — could liberate money for Iran to use for military or other purposes.
The timing of Iran’s agreement to release the five Americans may again have been determined by the cost-benefit ratio. U.S. sanctions, including dozens more added by the Biden administration, have stymied Tehran’s development. When I first went to Iran in 1973, one dollar was worth 70 rials. Under U.S. sanctions, one dollar has soared to as high as 600,000 rials. Iran has lost an estimated $450 billion in oil revenues over the past decade, according to its own media.
Politically, Iran has also faced growing challenges at home. The pattern and pace of protests — over issues ranging from the price of eggs to headscarves for women — have accelerated since 2017. Last year, protests erupted nationwide after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after her arrest for improper hijab. They lasted three months. Some 500 died, and as many as 20,000 were arrested, according to human rights groups. Seven have been executed for undermining the state.
A second round of protests erupted in the first 4 months of 2023 after the poisoning of as many as 7,000 girls at schools in at least 28 of Iran’s 31 provinces. In both cases, demonstrations evolved from a single issue to condemnation of the entire government, centered on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Both rounds reflected deepening public restlessness, political disillusionment and personal fury.
In response, the government of President Ebrahim Raisi has focused heavily on improving Iran’s image in the region, deepening ties with Washington’s rivals in Moscow and Beijing, and joining international organizations to end its pariah status. In 2023, Iran was invited to join the BRICS alliance, which was launched by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in 2010. It renewed relations with rival Saudi Arabia, and each reopened embassies. And it became Russia’s largest military supplier. The exact day of the swap may not have been an accident, since Raisi arrived in New York the same day to speak at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly the next day.
On the day the five Americans were released, I asked John Limbert, who had been one of the 52 U.S. diplomats seized in 1979, what the flight to freedom was like — and whether he supported controversial diplomatic compromises. “As a prisoner, you care only about getting out, and don’t care a fig about the political implications of any deal that brings you freedom,” he told me. “In my case, for example, I saw no problem with returning the shah if doing so would get us out. I would have thrown in Henry Kissinger for good measure.” Kissinger was pivotal in the U.S. decision to allow the shah, after his ouster, to come to the United States, which led Iranians to suspect an American plot to restore the monarchy — as the CIA had done in 1953 — and was the motive for the U.S. Embassy seizure.
The question now is whether the latest release marks the end of Iranian tactic of hostage-taking. Since 1979, almost 100 Americans have been seized in Iran, with dozens of others taken by Iran’s proxy militias elsewhere in the region. Haleh Esfandiari, former director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East program, who was held for more than 100 days while visiting her mother in Tehran in 2007, thinks not. “This would probably not be the last time Iran takes hostages,” she told me. “It is a way of trading hostages for regime-linked Iranians in prison in the U.S. It also gives Iran some leverage with the U.S. on other issues.”
And many other issues do loom — over Iran’s ominous nuclear advances, its proxy attacks on American targets in the Middle East, its financial and political support for extremist groups, and its increasingly brutal political repression at home. Most are issues going back decades. The hostage release may create openings for future diplomacy but there should be no illusions about how far or how fast future negotiations with an increasingly hardline regime may go.