Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar. Security Studies. Volume 26, Issue 4. October-December 2017.
This article provides a revisionist account of the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, one of the most conspicuous manifestations of anti-Americanism in recent history. Drawing solely upon primary documents, largely from various Iranian communists and Islamists, it questions the conventional wisdom that the Islamists’ takeover of the embassy was a grassroots reaction to American policies, particularly after President Carter admitted the ailing Shah. It also challenges the argument that the radical students stormed the embassy primarily to bring down the nationalist provisional government. Instead, I introduce a critical overlooked factor and argue that the Hostage Crisis can be better explained as a preemptive act by the Islamists to outbid the leftists’ anti-American activities. I demonstrate that the United States and the Islamists were seeking to maintain normal relations during and even after the 1979 revolution. However, various communist organizations that surfaced after the revolution posed an existential threat to the new Islamist-nationalist government, quickly dominating universities, labor unions, and intellectual circles throughout the country and accusing the Islamists and their nationalist allies of collaborating with the United States. In this climate, the Islamists strategically adopted the Left’s anti-imperialist language and eventually occupied the US embassy to establish their anti-American credibility.
On October 22, 1979, President Jimmy Carter granted permission to the recently deposed and cancer-stricken Shah of Iran to enter the United States for medical treatment. Within days, Islamist students stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats hostage for what would amount to 444 days. The nationalist provisional government quickly collapsed and the militant Islamist clerics took over in Iran. The Carter administration froze Iranian assets in the United States, banned trade, and eventually cut off all ties with the Islamic government. Since then, Iran has been depicted as the most anti-American nation in the world. Indeed, the Hostage Crisis constitutes one of the most conspicuous and tragic manifestations of anti-Americanism in recent history. Americans watched in shock and horror as their embassy was seized, their diplomats captured, and their nation humiliated.
The Hostage Crisis is often a reference point for Iran’s religious fanaticism and deep-seated grievances over US support of the Shah for 37 years. Fearing communist expansionism, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed a coup against the popular government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and reinstalled the Shah in 1953. Although the United States never publicly acknowledged its role in overthrowing Mosaddeq until recently, it was a fact known to many Iranians. In the twenty-five years following the coup, the Shah ruled with an iron fist through his US-trained secret service, SAVAK, and a flood of petrodollars. The sudden collapse of the pro-American monarchy in 1978-79 opened a Pandora’s box of anti-Americanism in Iran. Due to these circumstances, existing accounts of the Hostage Crisis widely emphasize anti-American sentiments among both the elite and ordinary Iranians as the driver behind the Islamists’ takeover of the US embassy in 1979.
This article challenges the conventional wisdom by introducing an overlooked factor using scores of primary materials, many of them recently released. It demonstrates that on the eve of the Hostage Crisis, the Islamists were in fact seeking to maintain normal relations with the United States, as they were preoccupied with a far more immediate domestic threat to their power: the communist Left. The Hostage Crisis was not merely a product of Khomeini’s preconceived and predictable Islamist ideology, nor was it an inevitable measure to protect the revolution against the plotting Americans. To be sure, the reluctant decision of the Carter administration to allow the deposed monarch into the United States did nothing to reduce anti-American anxieties in Iran. However, American officials privately and consistently assured Iranian leaders that Washington had accepted the Islamic Revolution and had no intention of investing in the dying Shah any longer. The new ruling Islamist-nationalist coalition, too, assured the United States that the cordial relations would continue. Before leaving Paris for Tehran—and even after the revolution—Ayatollah Khomeini and his clerical lieutenants sent numerous messages to President Carter indicating that if Washington ended its support of the Shah, the new Iranian government would maintain the flow of oil and establish normal relations with the United States and its European allies.
However, as they moved from opposition to incumbency, the Islamists’ threat perceptions shifted. In particular, no one expected the Iranian leftists to capitalize so successfully on the popular animosity toward the Americans after the Shah was ousted. Universities, labor unions, and factories—which had played a critical role in bringing down the Shah—were now hotbeds of both anticlericalism and antiliberalism due to the Islamist-nationalist coalition’s associations with the United States. For political factions clamoring for power in a climate of uncertainty following the revolution, anti-Americanism was a commodity to be appropriated for political gain. Leftist and Islamist factions instrumentally deployed anti-Americanism to outbid one another’s anti-imperialist credibility. This chain of strategic interactions culminated in the Islamists’ seizure of the US embassy on November 4, 1979. The embassy occupation effectively undermined the Left’s cohesion, prevented the radical Islamists’ defection to the Marxist camp, and further united the loose coalition of radical and conservative Islamists behind Khomeini. An account that combines the leftists’ activism with the Americans’ and the Islamists’ silent attempt to work with the new regime—two facets of this period that are under-appreciated in existing studies—helps to correct common misunderstandings of the Islamists’ threat perceptions in 1979 and therefore changes the entire story of the Hostage Crisis.
The empirical literature on this critical event largely infers the Islamists’ intentions from their observed behavior, with at least two consequences: 1) it underestimates the Islamists’ perceived threat from the Left; and 2) it overestimates the Islamists’ perceived threat from the United States. Scholars have principally focused on Islamist, nationalist, and American interests while downplaying, if not ignoring, the cardinal role of the Marxist-communist groups in shaping the anti-American narrative and consequently the political landscape in Iran. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that the Islamists would not acknowledge their intellectual debt to the Left, and their appropriation of its anti-American rhetoric to achieve a strategic edge in their political competition. They had every reason to mask their drive for power under a strong rhetoric of Islamism and anti-Americanism, making it difficult for observers to detect their underlying political concerns.
Additionally, scholarship tends to overlook the leftists’ important roles in the lead up to the crisis, perhaps because they had no official position within the revolutionary government and therefore did not constitute the political elite. Conventional accounts thus fail to consider the ways in which the leftists exploited bottom-up pressures against the new Islamic government by tapping into their vast network and popularity. To my knowledge, no one—from the hostage takers and hostages to US policy makers and academics—have systematically accounted for the Islamists’ outbidding competition with the Marxists as a critical factor that contributed to the seizure of the embassy.
Ignoring this important dimension has led many observers to reduce the growing anti-Americanism and the eventual seizure of the US embassy to American threats or the incompatibility of Western and Islamic values. They posit that the Hostage Crisis was a grassroots response to the American admission of the Shah, because it reminded many Iranians of the 1953 CIA coup. By taking American diplomats hostage, the Islamists primarily ensured that the United States would not repeat the ′53 scenario. The hostages themselves pointed to the Shah’s entry into the United States as the explanation provided to them by the radical students throughout their captivity. However, recently declassified documents reveal that Khomeini did not consider the United States an immediate danger to the Islamic Revolution, particularly after he brutally decapitated Iran’s American-trained army without any significant reaction from Washington.
Various US policymakers correctly surmised that the takeover was a deliberate attempt by the Islamists to unify the nation and divert the people’s attention from other internal crises. However, they either ignored the radicalizing role of the leftists or were oblivious to its significance, arguing that Khomeini used the embassy takeover to his own advantage primarily to sideline the US-friendly nationalists. In fact, some scholars noted the vicious rivalry between the Islamists and the leftists, and even the influence of the latter over the former, but they failed to link their outbidding competition to the actual Hostage Crisis. Barry Rubin identified anti-Americanism as an ideological “agreement” between the Islamists and the leftists. To Stephanie Cronin, the Left’s “influence, in both organizational and ideological terms, on the evolution of Islamist trends, including on Khomeini himself has been profound.” Ali Mirsepassi posits that the Islamists “unabashedly appropriated large portions of leftist discourse for their own purposes.” Others acknowledge the confusion among the leftists as an outcome of the crisis. They argue that the Islamists used the takeover and the ensuing US threats toward Iran to unite the masses behind them, which “took the thunder away from the Left.” What these scholars view as an outcome of the event, namely the Islamists’ ideological victory over the leftists, should in fact be seen as a primary cause of the Hostage Crisis.
Surprisingly, Iranian Islamists, commentators, and even the hostage takers themselves have recently stated that the anti-American statements and actions by Khomeini and his followers were directly aimed at disarming the leftists. Prominent reformist and former Islamist supporter of the hostage takers Emadeddin Baghi summarily points out that the seizure of the embassy broke the leftists’ monopoly over anti-imperialism. Without elaborating any further, Baghi even briefly acknowledges that the operation was “in fact about outbidding the Marxists.” Yet the role of the Left remains surprisingly underexamined in his rather lengthy analysis of the Hostage Crisis. Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who claims to be the mastermind of the seizure of the embassy, underlines the seriousness of the leftist threat, along with the prevalence of anti-American sentiments in Iranian society. He argues that in the absence of the radical students’ takeover, “more violent groups” would have certainly seized the embassy. Similarly, the hostage takers’ English speaking spokesperson, Massoumeh Ebtekar, acknowledges that the rivalry with the Left “might have been one of the factors” in the students’ decision to “take the initiative” and occupy the US embassy. At the same time, these activists are careful to make a distinction between their competition with—and their intellectual debt to—the Left. Ebtekar underscores that the radical students were by no means “influenced by the leftist trends, because they had their own intellect and organization.” Likewise, the hostage takers’ cleric mentor, Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, strongly denies the allegation that the Left played any ideological or organizational role in the occupation of the embassy. Four decades later, the hostage takers are still proud and firm in their conviction that the Islamists, not the Marxists, raided the US embassy. As Khoeiniha later boasted, one of the “benefits” and “blessings” of this embassy seizure was the “cohesion” that it brought to the nation. He claimed that it ended the enmity and divisive activities of the “armed students” throughout the country.
Despite these occasional statements regarding the Islamists’ outbidding competition with the Left, the hostage takers overwhelmingly remain adamant that the occupation took place in reaction to the Shah’s admission to the United States. However, even this explanation indirectly points to the Islamists’ fear of the internal consequences of Carter’s decision: they were alarmed by the possibility of the provisional government’s collapse and the Left’s eventual takeover. Asgharzadeh now claims that the Islamist students had good relations with Mehdi Bazargan throughout his tenure as the provisional prime minister and their frustration was that he was too weak to stand against the immediate threats the revolution faced internally and externally. Similarly, Abbas Abdi, another leading hostage taker, argues that Bazargan fell because his moderate path did not match the post-revolutionary radical climate. Iranian Islamists (both radical and conservative) have since stressed Bazargan’s impeccable moral character and critical role during the revolution. Former chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaei has argued that the alliance with the nationalists convinced the United States and Iranian army to end their support of the Shah and enabled an orderly transition from monarchy to the Islamic Republic.
That is not to deny the rivalry between the Islamists and the nationalists; they were engaged in a political competition within the regime after the revolution. The Islamists feared that the nationalists would become strong enough to take over the regime in the long term. However, both faced a more immediate security threat, namely the potential chaos and eradication by the Left. Thus, the Islamists had to manage two different threats— the nationalists within the state and the leftists outside the state. Consequently, the hostage takers’ statements can also be interpreted as follows: the radical Islamists, in an act of fratricide, brought down the nationalists before others, including the leftists, could. They had predicted that the provisional government would collapse as a consequence of the embassy takeover.
My empirical claim contributes to the recent political science literature on anti-Americanism. In the past, studies often differed on ascribing the sources of anti-Americanism to what the United States is or does. In recent years, however, scholars have gone beyond this value versus policy dichotomy to examine the instrumental use of anti-Americanism by elites—including the mechanisms through which they manipulate the masses via the media—to achieve political objectives. These scholars use public surveys and cross-national analysis to argue that anti-Americanism is a top-down phenomenon generated, at least partly, by competing elites in an outbidding war of narratives. The more intense the elite competition, the more exposed the citizens are to anti-American rhetoric, and therefore the more likely they are to adopt negative attitudes toward the United States. In contrast, the empirical evidence provided in this article shows that elites do not always lead—but rather at times follow—the masses. In their struggle for power, elites may capitalize on existing mass anti-Americanism as an important political asset (rather than create it), and they may even adopt it against their will. They do so to preempt their rivals, create mass allies, challenge the incumbent or outbid the opposition, and move toward capturing the state.
Drawing on a wide range of primary documents from leftist, Islamist, nationalist, and American political actors, this article traces the evolution of anti-American discourse in revolutionary Iran, examines its micro-foundations, demonstrates its contingent nature, and links it to factional competition. Various archives and presidential libraries throughout the United States have recently released documents that shed light on the leftists’ threat as well as the confidence-building communications between the Carter administration and the Islamists before, during, and after the revolution. In addition to a wide range of newly-released original materials from Iranian Islamists, this article makes use of two particular sources that previous studies have largely ignored or could not access: Mardom (The People), the daily paper of the Soviet-backed Communist Tudeh Party, as well as Kar (Labor), the weekly paper of the Marxist Fada’iyan-e Khalq Organization (FKO). These two papers express the threat perceptions of the dominant leftist groups, which fundamentally shaped the post-revolutionary landscape in Iran. Such systematic reliance on the media as a tool to study elite-level politics and shape public opinion in both democracies and autocracies is consistent with recent studies that view the state and the media not as a unitary player, but rather a set of actors competing in a tug of war over the formulation of policies.
As a caveat, this article does not seek to uncover the real Khomeini or, for that matter, any other political actor that appears in this account. Rather, it studies him and his fellow Islamists as rational actors without making any assumptions about their true ideological dispositions. The Islamists’ instrumental use of anti-Americanism neither negates nor confirms their sincerity.
This article utilizes process tracing of both events and discourses to first delve into US communications with the Islamists and then explore the Islamists’ fear of the Left. The remainder of the piece closely details how the showdown between the Marxist groups and the Islamist-nationalist alliance eventuated in the Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981.
Washington’s Channels to Khomeini
On November 9, 1978, US Ambassador William Sullivan sent a cable, entitled “Thinking the Unthinkable,” from Tehran to Washington to warn that the Shah’s days were perhaps numbered. He pointed out that Iran’s stability depended on an accommodation between two key institutions: religious hierarchy and the army. Impressed by the Iranian Islamists’ anti-communist credentials, Sullivan advised Carter to think beyond the Shah and link the military officers to the religious leadership through the nationalists. Despite initial resistance, Washington eventually opened channels to the religious-nationalist opposition in the final months of the Shah’s reign. Fearing the disintegration of the country and its US-trained army, American diplomats met with militant clerics and nationalist figures to contain mass protests. Although many former US officials and policy makers have pointed to the communication between the United States and Iranian opposition prior to the revolution, recently declassified documents shed further light on the important steps that both sides took toward each other. Amidst growing upheaval throughout Iran, the White House pressed the Shah to leave the country and pushed the army to negotiate with the opposition in an attempt to facilitate an orderly political transition to a US-friendly government. Even though Washington had no illusion about the golden days of the Shah being over, it hoped to foster amicable relations with the next government in Iran. Carter even offered the Shah refuge in the United States as both an incentive to abdicate and an appeasing gesture toward the “moderate” opposition. The level of communication between the US officials and the Iranian opposition gradually reached the highest clerical figure, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in exile in Paris. In what the US government considered the “first first-person” message that Khomeini conveyed to Washington through his nationalist representative Ebrahim Yazdi in January 1979, he proposed a quid pro quo. If the US helped neutralize the army, Khomeini would end the protest and bring about an American-friendly government:
The nation will listen to me and, through my command and implementation of my plan, stability will come. When I announce the provisional government, you will see that many of the points which are vague will disappear (Yazdi: Khomeini means areas which are fuzzy to USG) and you will see that we are not repeat [sic] we are not in any particular animosity towards the Americans, and you will see the Islamic Republic, which is based on Islamic philosophy and laws, is nothing but humanitarian one which will benefit the cause of peace and tranquility for all mankind.
Two weeks later, the Washington Post reported that the United States “intensified efforts to establish dialogues” with Khomeini. His clerical disciples met continuously with American representatives during the revolution. It was Yazdi and cleric Hojjat-ol Eslam Mahdavi Kermani who saved General Philip C. Gast, the highest US military official in Tehran, from armed groups and personally delivered him to the American embassy on the eve of the Iranian revolution. Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, Ayatollah Abdulkarim Mousavi Ardebili, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, Ebrahim Yazdi, and other clerical and nationalist figures were all embassy contacts up until the Hostage Crisis. The communications between the Islamists and the United States remained in place after the former came to power and abolished the monarchy in February 1979. President Carter later recalled the positive signals that he continued to receive from the new Islamist-nationalist government in Iran after the revolution: “From roughly March until through October of ’79 we had increasingly good relationships with Iran, even including [Ruhollah] Khomeini, who was sending emissaries over to talk directly to [Secretary of State] Vance and say, ‘You support the revolution, don’t try to overthrow our government,’ and ‘We want to increase trade,’ and so forth. And they were quite friendly. In fact, they made some beautiful speeches about the importance of repairing relations with the United States.”
Throughout this period, the United States used every opportunity to improve relations with the new Iranian government. Charles Naas, the Deputy Ambassador and Chargé d’Affaires in Tehran, planned to go to Qom and meet with Khomeini to reassure him that Washington had no intention of working with any opposition group. His trip never happened, but according to a State Department cable, he told Yazdi that his message to Khomeini “would have been that we accept the Iranian revolution and that we do not intend to attempt in any way to reverse its course. I pointed out that we are approached almost every day by a variety of individuals who do not wish the revolution or the PGOI [Provisional Government of Iran] well, seeking our help, and that our answer is always ‘no.'” As a confidence-building measure, US officials gradually began sharing intelligence with Iran. In October 1979—a year before Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980—the CIA informed Tehran of Saddam Hussein’s intentions and offered further intelligence collaboration against Baghdad. To be sure, US diplomats in Tehran had no illusion of their lack of popularity in that revolutionary country. Acknowledging a “latent anti-Americanism” upon which various actors were playing, Ambassador Sullivan warned that US ambitions had to be tailored to realities and that Washington had to “adopt a low profile.” Nevertheless, as it was largely understood across the board, Sullivan told Carter, “The long-term strategic interests of Iran dictate that Iran will wish to maintain decent relations with the United States. The military hardware Iran has bought from the United States will need to be serviced if the armed forces are to be revived. There are the seeds of a new relationship there. But they are going to have to be nurtured very slowly.”
Viewing Iran as a black box with systemic insecurity in the Cold War led many US policy makers to underestimate the immediate factional competition and the leftists’ threat in Iran. Ironically, US intelligence predicted that the leftist influence, particularly among ethnic minorities, was only growing after the revolution. Various assessments in Washington pointed out that Marxist groups—predominantly the Tudeh and the FKO—had ties with Kurdish, Azeri, Turkmen, and other ethnic minorities throughout the country. Others within the State Department stressed “a very uncertain immediate future for Iran,” in which the nationalist government could “disappear without a trace” due to the activities of the leftists. Ambassador Sullivan described the leftist student organizations as one of Iran’s three “real institutions of power,” along with the clergy and the army. However, American officials—like Iranian nationalists—expected that these challenges would only intensify the Islamist-nationalist alliance and its dependence on Washington. Both Iranian nationalists and American officials believed Khomeini and his Islamist followers needed them to stay in power. The nationalists were the technocrats who could manage the country and serve as the link with the army and the United States. Similarly, Washington perceived Khomeini as a figure whose periodic anti-American rhetoric was intended for the masses. American leaders’ non-confrontational assessments of Khomeini were not based on his limited engagement with the United States in the brief revolutionary period. According to a newly declassified document, a year before his famous speech against the immunity law granted by the Shah to American troops in 1964, he sent a message to the Kennedy administration through a University of Tehran professor. In his message, “Khomeini explained that he was not opposed to American interests in Iran. On the contrary, he thought, the American presence was necessary as a counterbalance to Soviet and possibly British influence. Khomeini also explained his belief in close cooperation between Islam and other world religions, particularly Christendom.” Many other classified reports from various American agencies pointed to a similar conclusion regarding Khomeini’s stance towards the United States. They viewed him as xenophobic, but not inherently anti-American. It is important to note that Khomeini’s pre-revolutionary statements against America were not confrontational, but rather expressed a collective sense of victimhood that implicitly offered Washington an opportunity to remedy its past mistakes in backing a dictator.
After the revolution, many American officials continued to believe that Khomeini and his trusted nationalist advisors were “struggling to protect Iran and the United States against a conservative majority.” A cable from Tehran to Washington accurately described the first brief takeover of the embassy on February 14, 1979 by the FKO as an attempt to capitalize on massive anti-American sentiments among ordinary Iranians: “The attack was an example of the leftist strategy to continue to pose problems for Khomeini and [Prime Minister] Bazargan without openly challenging the stated goals of the Islamic government. The [FKO] Chariks appear to have gambled that the attack on the Embassy would not provoke a crackdown by Islamic militia groups since such a move would be tantamount to defending ‘American Imperialism.'” In fact, the provisional government cast out the FKO members and apologized to the United States. However, the Left expanded its campaign against the Islamist-nationalist alliance by portraying it as a mere US stooge.
In this climate, both the Americans and Iranians understood that their communication should continue but remain quiet, lest it provoke dangerous anti-American sentiments. Ayatollah Beheshti, the powerful chairman of the Revolutionary Council, head of the judiciary, and Secretary General of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) told US officials privately that more changes in American policy, including cutting off the last ties with the remnants of the Shah’s regime, could help reduce anti-Americanism in Iran and improve the two countries’ relations quickly.
The following anecdote, recounted by embassy official John Limbert a few days before his capture, further underlines the internal dynamic and the United States’ dilemma:
On October 26, 1979—nine days before the “Moslem Student Followers of the Imam’s Line” seized the American embassy—I accompanied a visiting State Department official to Friday prayers at Tehran University. We heard a sermon from Ayatollah Montazeri [the chair of the constitutional assembly] in which he barely mentioned the United States and made no mention of the deposed Shah, who had recently arrived in the United States for medical treatment. After the sermon and the prayers there was a pep rally in which someone chanted slogans and the fist-waving crowd repeated them. Our visitor, whose Persian was not strong, asked me, “What should we do?” I responded, “Think about it. There are two of us. There are over a million of them. You know the answer.” The first slogans were innocuous enough: “The Kurds are our brothers!” and “Unity will bring us victory.” Then I heard, “Marg bar seh mofsedin, Sadat o Karter o Begin!” (Death to the three corruptors, Sadat, Carter and Begin). The visitor asked, “Isn’t there something in there about Carter?” I told him, “Yes there is, and you know what to do. Carter will understand and God will forgive us.” As we screamed for our president’s death, we were accompanied by our escort from the Foreign Ministry, who joined the chorus of denunciation with great enthusiasm. His face turned red and his eyes bulged as he shouted. A few minutes later the ceremony ended, and he asked us, “Please do me the honor of being my guest for lunch this afternoon.”
A day earlier, Ayatollah Montazeri had met with the same US officials and expressed “great admiration” for Carter as a Christian believer and human rights supporter. He stressed that the two nations shared similar values.
Despite their appreciation of the Islamists’ instrumentally adopted anti-American rhetoric, the U.S officials did not fully grasp the boiling context that produced such a discursive strategy. Perhaps even the Islamists themselves did not initially expect to act on their own slogans.
The Leftist Threat
Four decades after the ascendance of the Islamic government, it is easy to forget that the Iranian revolution was “far from an exclusively Islamic phenomenon.” Iran’s communist party was one of the first in Asia, even older than the Chinese communist party. The leftist tradition constituted a main pillar of Iran’s modern political history and intellectual dissidence. The Left was initially composed of a dozen competing groups, but after the revolution it quickly multiplied into about eighty organizations and subsequently continued to branch and spread with an increasing rate. The newly established Islamic Republic quickly found itself in a political—and eventually armed—struggle with growing leftist groups throughout the country, from the mountains of Kurdistan to the forests of the Caspian provinces to the deserts of Baluchistan. Foreign observers noted Khomeini’s inability to control the armed guerilla groups and the possibility of the collapse of the entire army—and consequently the prevailing political order. Meanwhile, thousands of youngsters had acquired up to one hundred thousand guns from defenseless army bases and were joining the Left, despite Khomeini’s plea to disarm and come under the Islamic banner. Similarly, workers who had obeyed Khomeini’s order to strike against the Shah were now leaning to the Left. In those critical days of the revolution, Iran experts such as Ervand Abrahamian predicted that the Left could soon control the labor force: “It is likely that the religious groups will soon begin to lose their hold over the labor movement. The Left will then have an easy entry into an arena that includes more than two-and-a-half million wage earners and forms the single largest middle class in contemporary Iran.” Khomeinists were aware of such a danger. They had long competed with the Left in universities, underground, in prisons, and abroad to forge a powerful opposition movement against the Shah. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the Islamists held political debates on TV with leftist leaders to demonstrate the latter’s ideological “bankruptcy” before arresting and bringing them back on TV to make forced confessions about their betrayal of the country. These public recantations, which continued throughout the 1980s, only reveal the depth of the Islamists’ fear of the Left’s ideological popularity. The Islamist militant forces cracked down on the mushrooming leftist organizations, demonstrations, and media that appeared after the fall of the Shah. Nonetheless, more and more students, laborers, and autonomy-seeking ethnic groups were joining the Left.
The most prominent leftist organizations included the pro-Soviet Tudeh, the Marxist FKO, and the Islamist-Marxist Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO). Starting as offshoots of Tudeh and the National Front, both FKO and MKO had decades of armed struggle and ideological exercise under their belt. The sudden victory of the Iranian revolution had challenged these groups’ class-based Marxist theories, which were predicting a bloody revolt led by the armed proletariat against the bourgeoisie and its reactionary allies. How could the latter two, namely the nationalists and their Islamist allies, carry out such a movement against a capitalist state backed by the United States and bring about a smooth regime transition from the Pahlavi monarchy to the Islamic Republic? Inspired by the Russian revolution, the leftist groups construed the nationalist Prime Minister Bazargan, and even Khomeini, as Iran’s Alexander Kerensky—the moderate chairman of the post-revolutionary Russian provisional government who was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Their rise only presaged the real revolution. But who would play the parts analogous to those of Lenin and the Bolsheviks? The fall of the monarchy, the thinking went, was only a political transition at the very top that did not constitute an authentic revolution, which was yet to come. According to leftist narratives, the Shah and his entourage were gone, but the rest of the state apparatus, including the political, economic, and military institutions, remained intact and tied to the international capitalist system. The old state institutions had to be dissolved altogether and replaced by classless, mass-based, anti-imperialist, and revolutionary organizations and councils. In short, the Left was pushing for a state-building project from scratch.
What was particularly worrisome to the Islamists was the Afghan communists’ ascendance to power in April 1978 through a coup, despite their marginal status in society. Iran’s leftists were far more deeply rooted in society, ethnic groups, labor forces, and the army. Iran also shared 1,250 miles of border with the USSR. US intelligence sources noted that the Left, including the Tudeh, was “strongly represented in northwest Iran and is assisting in the reconstitution of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party and the Kurdish Democratic Party, which seek autonomy for their areas.” These activities were reminiscent of the communist republics that the Soviet Union had once set up in Iran’s occupied Azerbaijan and Kurdish provinces during World War II.
The Left first aimed to exploit the growing rift between Khomeini’s Islamists and the nationalists in the former’s favor. They believed Khomeini would protect the revolution in the short term before “forces of history” could bring him down, too; this, in turn, would allow them to carry out the socialist revolution. Additionally, they calculated that they could not challenge Khomeini, whose enormous charisma and power as a unifying leader had brought the masses out to topple the Shah. Instead, driving a wedge between the two factions could facilitate the downfall of both. The Islamists would serve as a bridge in transferring the revolution from the nationalists to the Marxists.
In addition to deploying its ideology to undermine the alliance between the Islamists and nationalists, the leftists also used it to exacerbate tensions within the loose coalition of Islamists (between the radical left and the conservative right). The radical left wing of the Islamists had more affinity and competition with the communist Left, while the conservative right wing Islamists were closer to the nationalists. In post-revolutionary Iran, ideological overlaps among competing Marxists and Islamists along the entire political spectrum rendered detection of factional identities difficult on the margins, and defections were a common phenomenon. The porous borders between political factions only exacerbated Khomeini’s shaky ground. Pro-Khomeini activists and sympathizers who leaned left within the Islamist coalition were particularly at risk of succumbing to Islamist-leftist groups before ending up in the leftist camp. Many Islamist students eventually joined armed leftist organizations. Among them were the children of the most senior clerics within the Islamic government. For instance, Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati’s, Mohammad Mohammadi-Gilani’s, and Gholamreza Hassani’s leftist sons were all killed by Islamist forces.
The Left’s divisive strategy became effective particularly as the provisional government struggled to impose law and order in the post-revolutionary country. The newly established Islamic Republican Party (IRP) cautiously welcomed and contributed to the decline of Bazargan’s power. With the IRP’s parallel organizations—particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the paramilitary Islamist Komiteh—shadowing and purging the army and other state institutions, the nationalists struggled to remain a viable political force. But the IRP feared the long-term threat of the communists. While the former was securing more power within the state, the latter seemed to be winning the streets. Despite their internal divisions, the leftists’ networks and constituencies grew, thanks to decades of ideological and organizational work. They carried out large demonstrations and rallies in Tehran and other major cities, bringing hundreds of thousands of marchers out. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 supporters turned out in the 1979 Labor Day demonstration in Tehran. According to US intelligence reports, FKO’s rallies at its birthplace, the University of Tehran, alone attracted 50,000 to 150,000 supporters. Taking advantage of the new freedom in the immediate wake of the revolution, the leftists engulfed the fragile civil society by distributing previously underground bulletins and secret pamphlets as legal newspapers. The Left’s papers, including FKO’s Kar, reportedly had a weekly readership of 100,000 to 300,000.
The most dominant theme in their publications and statements was anti-Americanism. Mere days after the victory of the revolution, the FKO sent an open letter to Khomeini warning that the revolution had not ended. In fact, the letter continued, the struggle against American imperialism and its local forces had only just begun. The letter acknowledged Khomeini’s “critical” role in the movement, but also expressed concerns that “reactionary” Islamists had attacked the leftists’ newly launched newspapers, gatherings, and offices, while monopolizing power in the name of religion. Tudeh demanded that Bazargan expel US advisors and contractors, end Iran’s membership in the anti-communist Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), cease purchasing weapons from the United States, deny US companies any share of Iran’s oil export, pull Iranian troops back from Oman, and support the Palestinians. All leftist organizations were pushing for the nationalization of banks, factories, and other industries.
Khomeini’s previous strategy— adopting a moderate discourse and forging an alliance with the nationalists to ensure a peaceful political transition without any intervention by the army or the United States—was no longer effective in the increasingly uncertain post-revolutionary era. The regime transition had been relatively nonviolent, but now, after the revolution, the Islamist government faced real security challenges.
It was not even one hundred days after Khomeini’s arrival in Tehran that unexpected violence erupted. As the assassinations of Khomeini’s devotees by smaller, armed Marxist-Islamist groups began, his rhetoric against the United States became more radical. But the intended audience for this rhetoric seemed more internal than external. In a meeting with the students from the University of Tehran’s School of Law, Khomeini identified the United States as the real foe and cannily tied this enemy to the leftists. In the following month (June), Khomeini’s rhetoric grew more impatient as student unrest continued. In a meeting with another group of Islamist students, he said, “Gentlemen! Are you waiting for a few Communists [to] come and dominate the university? Are you less than them? … They need to be slapped in the mouth, gentlemen! You are more. Your hujjat [proof] is higher; their treason is evident. It needs to be said. Get together. Convey the issues. If you see a dean or a teacher who is a communist, kick them out of the university.”
Emadeddin Baghi, an Islamist activist at the time, has pointed out that the leftists’ recruitment success prompted Khomeini to match his rival’s anti-American rhetoric. “Before the revolution, the Leader had several negotiations with the Americans in Paris. But at the beginning of the revolution, the leftist current, meaning the Marxists, influenced the [internal] political atmosphere, which was very critical in radicalizing the foreign policy atmosphere. They [leftists] were in the minority, but they were potent in movement-making and political propaganda. With their terms and slogans, they mesmerized the youth and students, and the Leader had to promote more radical slogans to disarm them. The Hostage Crisis itself was in fact about outbidding the Marxists.”
Ongoing military operations against the Kurdish separatists added more fuel to the leftists’ narratives. Marxist groups accused the Iranian army of being a puppet of American imperialism and using the same anti-insurgency tactics as its old US patron did against the Vietnamese. They published chilling pictures of the executions of the Kurds to demonstrate the brutality of the central government in Kurdistan. As the leftists warned against the return of American imperialism, Khomeini and his Islamist supporters could less and less afford a neutral, or even mildly negative, tone toward Washington. Their alliance with Bazargan had become a liability in their confrontation with the Left. Every day, the provisional government was the target of ruthless attacks for its deep ideological and political dependence on the United States.
The Tudeh and the FKO pressed Bazargan to cancel all military contracts with US companies such as Bell Helicopter; otherwise, the country would have to pay for spare parts and bring back American military advisors. Tudeh’s newspaper Mardom argued against the Bushehr nuclear power plant as “completely illogical,” since Iran was sitting on the second largest gas reserves in the world. Ironically, it would be Tudeh’s patron, the Russians, who would come to complete the project decades later.
Tudeh sought to close ranks with the Khomeinists while pushing the nationalists out of the way. It also attacked other leftist groups for not backing Khomeini against the nationalists. In order to delink the Islamists from the nationalists, Tudeh strongly supported the referendum for the Islamic Republic under Khomeini’s leadership as a progressive and united front against “imperialism.” It claimed that it was the first political party that supported the referendum, but complained that the state-controlled TV under the nationalists was attacking the Kremlin instead of covering Tudeh’s support. Tudeh made explicit efforts to reconcile Islam and Marxism while criticizing the nationalists who “followed” in US footsteps and pointed to the “danger of Marxism” and “Godless communists.” It provided a revolutionary reading of Islam, claiming that Islam had ended the caste-based system established by the Sassanid Persian Empire (224-651 CE) and brought about a new civilization on earth. Tudeh further praised the rise of Shi’a Islam as an important movement in countering the Sunni Arab domination of Iran. Fiercely attacking other leftist groups for not following Khomeini, it stressed that religion was not an opiate of the masses and invited observant Shi’ites to join the organization. Communism and Shi’ism were not contradictory, it proffered; rather, they were quite compatible and shared a common enemy in the United States.
Unlike other leftist groups, Tudeh had to mind Soviet interests in Iran as well and help improve relations between Moscow and the new regime in Tehran. Nothing seemed to change Tudeh’s pro-Khomeini and anti-Bazargan stance, even when it reported that “suspicious elements” attacked its offices and communist bookstores in various cities and several of its members had been arrested and executed. Tudeh was careful not to blame the IRGC and Komiteh, claiming instead that the Shah’s SAVAK was now in those organizations. It expressed concerns that the remnants of the old regime were now infiltrating the revolutionary organizations that shadowed the state. Tudeh blamed the US embassy for suspending the revolutionary courts that were rooting out anti-revolutionaries. Throughout this period, as Mohsen Milani points out, the Islamists shrewdly “tolerated the Tudeh’s activity because it kept the Left divided and solidified their position” against the provisional government.
Even when they lost the constitutional assembly election to the Islamists, the leftists still continued their attacks on the nationalist interim government. They blamed their failure on the electoral engineering of the Islamists, the IRGC, and the low level of “mass consciousness.” Yet the nationalists were seen as the main enemy, for they kept the state under imperialist control. Throughout this phase, the leftists continued to view the Islamists as a less organized and less formidable enemy, attacking them primarily for allying with Bazargan. Until his downfall, the Left relentlessly pushed Bazargan to prove that his government was independent and that the deep pro-imperialist state had been eradicated. Tudeh asked why the government refused to release information about which countries bought oil from Iran. Considering how much of Iran’s oil resources had been “looted” in the past, the people deserved to know, Tudeh’s daily Mardom wrote. The paper further asked why Bazargan’s government had not established diplomatic relations with the Democratic Republic of Yemen and Cuba or expanded ties with other socialist countries such as Algeria, Libya, and Syria. A few weeks later, Tudeh expressed its approval that Cuban, Libyan, and Yemeni delegations had visited Tehran and praised Khomeini for breaking relations with Egypt after the Camp David Accord.
A Competition of Provocation
The Left stepped up its anti-American provocations when the United States nominated Walter Cutler as its next ambassador to Iran in April 1979. Referring to Cutler’s previous “roles” in plotting against revolutionaries in Vietnam and Zaire, Tudeh accused the nominee of preparing a coup against the Islamic Republic. It drew on the history of CIA coups against Iran’s Mosaddegh and Chile’s Salvador Allende. US officials assured Iranian leaders that Cutler was going to Tehran with the mission of re-normalizing ties between the two countries. Cutler made all the arrangements, chose his team, and even shipped his personal items, but before departing for Tehran, he was suddenly ordered to abort his trip. Anti-American sentiments reached a new level after the US Senate condemned the execution of Iranian-Jewish entrepreneur Habib Elghanian by the notorious judge Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali in May 1979. Although the Senate resolution expressed concerns over human rights violations in Iran, it respectfully welcomed Khomeini’s measures to establish the rule of law. The leftists pressured the provisional government to protest American interference in Iran’s internal affairs. Khomeini, too, demanded to know why Iran needed a relationship with the United States in the first place. The provisional government, which had initially consented to Cutler’s nomination, was forced to oppose his appointment. All competing political groups, including the nationalists, invited their supporters to rally against the United States. The leftists, however, went the farthest by organizing nationwide anti-American demonstrations and attacking the interim government for only threatening to reconsider relations with the United States. Tudeh claimed that the interim government’s delay in canceling contracts and treaties with the United States had emboldened Washington to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. Quoting Khomeini’s new anti-American statements, Mardom published poems to praise him, with references to the Prophet Muhammad and Islamic prayers.
From this point on, the frequency and intensity of anti-American rallies only grew. Nevertheless, both the nationalists and the Islamist militant clerics struggled to quietly maintain ties with Washington without further provoking the public’s anti-American sentiments. Bazargan revealed later that Khomeini had instructed him to maintain normal ties with the United States but warned, “You need to prepare the public opinion in order to continue the relations under these limitations.” The Left insisted on publicizing every communication that Tehran had with Washington and blaming it on the nationalists. After AFP quoted anonymous sources in Tehran stating that forty American military technicians had arrived in Iran, Abbas Amir-Entezam, the interim government’s spokesperson, pointed out that the government intended to continue its military ties with the United States so long as Washington was interested in friendly relations with the Islamic Republic, which “they themselves have repeatedly announced, too.” He denied reports that Iran was planning to resell the F-14 fighter jets and the Phoenix missiles. But the Left pushed to get rid of advanced US weapons beyond what the Shah’s last Prime Minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, had already canceled before his downfall. Prime Minister Bazargan argued that Iran could not throw out the $40 billion worth of Western weapons and that not every contract that the Shah had signed served the interests of the imperialists; many of them were for the well-being of the country and served to improve “the technical, economic, military, and defensive levels of the nation.” The FKO published “highly classified” documents from the office of the Prime Minister that revealed that the interim government had approved deals to maintain the military and logistical contracts with the United States in order to meet the needs of the army, particularly the air force. Even the names of US military advisors who had allegedly arrived in Tehran were published. The FKO asked for a single contract with the imperialists that favored the nation. Why did Iran need these sophisticated, expensive, and high maintenance weapons? A state that hosts the mobilized masses, like Vietnam, could defend itself against imperialists with the “most basic weapons.” The organization continued, “Instead of justifying, Mr. Bazargan needs to say explicitly that he is preserving these contracts to deepen the country’s dependence on imperialists…. People would like to know what American advisors are doing in Iran, and what the group by group return of CIA spies and US advisors is for and based on what kind of deal.” Through the FKO’s vast network within the state, every minor step, including the army’s measures to improve its image, would be revealed in that relatively censorship-free phase.
Every concession the provisional government made to the Left was followed by more radical demands. After the interim government announced that Iran was leaving the anti-communist CENTO, Tudeh demanded an end to the bilateral military accord with the United States as well. It claimed that the accord was worse than CENTO as it gave the United States the right to invade Iran and end the revolution. The reason such a scenario had not occurred yet, Tudeh claimed, was the Soviet Union’s warning to the United States—a year earlier in November 1978—not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs during the critical revolutionary months. Tudeh asserted that the United States was changing its posture, implementing an old plan to establish the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, and deploying a special Delta Force with 110,000 American troops in the region. Thus, the longer the interim government delayed canceling the bilateral military treaty, the more aggressive the United States would become.
As schools were about to reopen in the fall of 1979, all actors anticipated a showdown. Institutions of higher education were the center of the anti-Shah movements. Now, the Left aimed at using this network again to bring down the nationalists and eventually their Islamist allies. With the religious masses behind Khomeini, the leftists perceived students, workers, and the intelligentsia to comprise the bulk of their supporters. The Islamists were aware of this challenge too and feared a new uprising under an anti-imperialist banner.
Admitting the Shah
Early in the fall of 1979, the United States informed the provisional government that it would admit the Shah for medical treatment. Iranian officials warned of the serious consequences of this decision, but the State Department assured them once again that the dying Shah had absolutely no political future. Tehran requested to send its own doctors to examine the Shah to ensure that he had terminal cancer, but the State Department rejected that request. Fearing a public backlash, Iranian officials asked the United States to send the Shah to Europe—or at least Texas—for medical treatments; New York City was viewed by Iranian activists as “a center of Rockefeller and Zionist influence and this would compound the problem.” US officials told their Iranian counterparts that although they could not keep the Shah’s arrival secret, they would emphasize to him to “avoid any political activity.” They repeated to the new Iranian government that the Shah was out of the picture and that they were “anxious to work together in every way possible to build a new relationship with Iran.”
Throughout this period, Iran’s state-owned media continued to cover routine stories about the United States-Iran relations with occasional anti-American and anti-Soviet headlines. For instance, as late as September 1978, Ettelaat reported the US embassy’s six-month delay in issuing visas for thousands of Iranians who applied every day. When the Shah arrived in the United States on October 22, 1979 the IRP, the provisional government, and their media outlets covered the news mildly. The government’s spokesperson announced that the United States had admitted the Shah for humanitarian reasons and that Iran had received assurances he would not engage in any political activities during his stay. Barry Rosen, the embassy’s press attaché, noticed, “The [Iranian] press outrage was less explosive than we had anticipated. Reaction was relatively controlled.” State-owned newspapers ran small headlines about the Shah’s entry into the United States for medical treatments. They reported that he was about to die and that Iranian officials warned US officials against his political activities. Interestingly, the Islamist IRP’s official newspaper, Jomhuri Eslami, only covered it as a short news story on page eight. The front page quoted then Deputy Minister of Defense and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei saying, “Our Confrontation Today Is Not Only With America.” Khamenei warned against “reducing” the revolution’s internal and external enemies down to the United States. Ayatollah Khomeini’s own first reaction was, “What will happen to our money?” He was concerned with the billions of dollars that the Shah had allegedly taken with him to the United States.
However, the Left immediately jumped on this opportunity to attack the nationalists and galvanize fears of US interference against the revolution. Suddenly, this news became the main topic of all leftist media and forums. Tudeh alleged that the Shah had turned his hospital into a political campaign headquarters, coordinating with his allies in the region and inciting unrest in Iran. The leftists organized rallies and promoted chants of “Death to America” throughout the country; this slogan, originating first and foremost from the communists, would only later become a symbol of the Islamic Revolution. Thanks to their effective tactics, leftist students in particular gained further leverage against the Islamists on campuses. They were now mobilizing restlessly to seize the opportunity, rally the population around anti-Americanism, and take over the state from the streets. Khomeini matched the leftists’ tone by speaking of an imminent American plot, and the IRP decided to outbid them by organizing a mass demonstration in front of the US embassy on November 1. According to a State Department cable, the embassy appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Tehran Police to provide security for what it estimated to be a one million participant march on that day. The IRP rerouted the demonstration in an attempt to avoid attacks against the building and American diplomats. In response, the Tudeh, FKO, MKO, and other leftists planned for a showdown with the government. They called for a massive anti-American demonstration on November 4. They chose this date because it coincided with Student Day, which commemorated students who had been killed by the Shah’s forces a year earlier.
The leftists provocatively publicized the news that Bazargan and Yazdi had met with US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in Algeria a few days earlier after the Shah had entered the United States. They accused the nationalists of collaborating with Washington to undermine the revolution. Despite the nationalists’ claim that they had not acted against Khomeini’s wishes, the latter hesitated to back them publicly and remained quiet. Although Khomeini was critical of external powers in his previous writings and statements, he did not have an anti-imperialist tone. Sensing the tide was shifting, he now had to ratchet up his rhetoric against the United States and become unprecedentedly confrontational toward Washington. Echoing the leftists, Khomeini suddenly denounced Iran’s military ties with the United States and urged the “rotten brains that love America and the West” to be purged. However, his words were not enough to establish an anti-American credibility for his Islamist camp. His discursive shift required empirical credibility.
It was in this context that Khomeini’s radical followers, the left wing of the Islamists who had the most contact and rivalry with the Left, decided to demonstrate who was truly anti-American. They chose an act that would constitute unmistakable proof: on November 4, 1979, a group of Islamist students, apparently without Khomeini’s knowledge, climbed the United States embassy walls, overwhelmed the security forces, and took sixty-six American diplomats hostage. The internal and international ramifications of what would become known as the Hostage Crisis would surpass all expectations. Soon, new terms appeared throughout the Islamic Republic. The “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line,” as the group strategically called itself, occupied the embassy and stole the anti-American torch from the patently anti-imperialist—and now stunned—Left.
Preparations for taking over the US embassy had begun before the admission of the Shah to the United States. About four hundred students linked to the militant cleric Khoeiniha, himself a student of Khomeini and a close associate of Khomeini’s son Ahmad, meticulously planned and implemented the assault. They secretly acquired the equipment and materials with which to bind and blindfold the hostages and methodically created a brand to distinguish themselves from their leftist rivals. They feared their plan would fail either because of the provisional government’s intervention or, more importantly, because it would be hijacked by one of the better-organized leftist groups, particularly the FKO. The Islamist and leftist students were already competing in occupying hotels and other government or foreign-owned buildings throughout the country. According to Ebtekar (one of the hostage-takers and their translator) a leftist group was working on the “same strategy” to take over the embassy and “there was a general consensus that something had to be done.” The main concern was that their action would be “undermined, blocked, or destroyed” by their Marxist rivals. Despite their anti-Bazargan rhetoric, the Islamist students evidently feared the leftists more than the nationalists or other rivals because, as Ebtekar acknowledged, “they [Marxists], not the nationalists or other religious groups, did all they could to obstruct us.” It is therefore not surprising that Khomeini’s followers were determined to preempt their rivals.
The student leaders printed pictures of Khomeini to neutralize the Islamist paramilitary Komiteh security guards and carried specific identity cards to prevent the Left from infiltrating their group. They called themselves “Muslim Students” to be distinct not only from the atheist FKO, but also the Tudeh communists who claimed to be following Khomeini’s anti-imperialism. Additionally, the “Following the Imam’s Line” description would distinguish them from the Islamist-Marxist MKO. With the exception of the main organizers, the rest of the students were apparently unaware of the plan to seize the embassy until November 4. On the morning of the attack, Islamist student leader Mohsen Mirdamadi gathered his followers and informed them of the plot. The students initially expressed shock and questioned the prudence of such an act, citing concerns over how Khomeini would react, what his supported provisional government would do, and whether the Komiteh would stop them, since it had recently clashed with the communists assaulting the embassy. In response, Mirdamadi—who two decades later became an unlikely proponent of democracy and better relations with the United States—gave them a provocative analysis of the recent American moves against Iran. He argued that the United States was preparing to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs, reverse the Islamic Revolution, and restore the old order. He assured them that although Khomeini was “not aware” of their plan, they had “information” that he would not object to what was supposed to be a “one- or two-day” occupation. He also stressed that Bazargan’s weak government would collapse as a result of the takeover. Students were then divided according to their university affiliations to capture key buildings within the embassy. They swiftly overcame the passive security guards outside, neutralized the US Marines inside, and seized the compound. Shortly after, they contacted the state-controlled radio to announce the news. In the statement that they had prepared for the media in advance of the occupation, they claimed that the embassy takeover was a reaction to the anti-revolutionary plots by “the world-devouring America,” and more specifically Carter’s decision to grant asylum to the Shah.
As news of the occupation spread, Prime Minister Bazargan angrily called Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, a militant cleric in charge of the Komiteh whose armed men were protecting the embassy, asking, “Who are these who entered the embassy? Aren’t you responsible for protecting the security [of the embassy]?” Although the Komiteh forces had previously removed the FKO members from the embassy, this time they did not act when they noticed the perpetrators were their own Islamist allies. Baffled and concerned, Mahdavi Kani’s first action was to inquire with Khomeini’s son, Ahmad. His conversation with Ahmad clearly suggested that there had been coordination with Khomeini’s office, if not Khomeini himself, before the occupation of the embassy. In his memoir, Mahdavi Kani recalls three decades later that he anxiously asked Ahmad who was behind it, what their objective was, and who was going to be held accountable for it. Ahmad, on the other end, tried to calm him down. He “kept laughing and saying, ‘It’s not a big deal’ and in the end said, ‘If Imam [Khomeini] is happy, do you still have any issue [with this incident]?’ I said no. If Imam has ordered this, then no problem. But … why do we have to learn about it later?” Mahdavi Kani concluded that Ahmad’s reaction revealed that “this act had been coordinated. But I do not know if they [the students] committed it and then asked permission or they had the permission beforehand. I do not know these things, maybe beforehand after all.”
Despite strong circumstantial evidence, there continues to be uncertainty as to whether or not Khomeini himself was aware of the plan to occupy the embassy. According to Ebrahim Yazdi, the interim government’s Foreign Minister, Khomeini immediately urged him to expel the students out of the embassy. However, it is possible that Khomeini was aware, but preferred to deflect accountability and maintain plausible deniability of his involvement in the illegal act. In any event, Khomeini immediately blessed the seizure of what became known as the “Nest of Spies,” sent his son to the embassy, and exhorted the Islamist students to stay there. Although he was careful not to call for an end to diplomatic ties with the United States, Khomeini called it the Great Satan and the takeover the Second Revolution, one that was bigger than the First Revolution, thus stealing the left’s Leninist terminology.
The immediate fruits of the occupation of the embassy were greater than Khomeini could have expected. With one blow, both the interim government and the Left were weakened and eventually entirely eliminated. Although Khomeini had rejected Bazargan’s previous resignation attempts, this time he accepted it without hesitation and called for a complete purge of all imperialist elements. Bazargan stressed repeatedly that he had already submitted his last resignation to Khomeini just before the Hostage Crisis. He adamantly objected to the Islamist students’ bragging to the leftists and taking credit for his fall. Although some of Khomeini’s close disciples—such as his successor Ali Khamenei, future president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the head of both the judiciary and the IRP Ayatollah Beheshti—were apparently unaware of or even opposed to the action of the radical students, they soon came on board and tried to use the event to further marginalize their rivals. Suddenly, the usual meetings between US officials and Iranian militant clergy stopped; Khomeini refused to meet with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark or other US emissaries, nor would any other Islamist dare to have public or private communication with American officials. Secret messages that European or other interlocutors conveyed to Tehran largely remained unanswered. When the Swedish Ambassador to Tehran carried a secret proposal from the US to Beheshti, the powerful cleric helplessly and vaguely kept referring to “the social facts of Iran” that prevented the hostages from being released.
The occupation of the US embassy certainly created an external enemy for the Islamic government, but it weakened its more immediate internal adversary. It provided a whole new arsenal for Khomeini and his followers as they united and pushed all their rivals aside. Neither the international condemnation nor the isolation that resulted from the Hostage Crisis prevented Khomeini’s faction from benefiting from it enormously. The Islamists could shape the elected and appointed bodies and thus effectively institutionalize Velayat-e Faqih (the clerical Rule of the Jurist) in those critical days of debating the constitution in the assembly. The Islamists labeled dissidents and opponents of Velayat-e Faqih as American spies. They silenced and intimidated their opponents, including the nationalists and the dissident moderate clerics, in the run up to the first presidential and Majles elections. So continued the embassy seizure, whose golden treasure—the classified documents—was about to be excavated. These documents would be used to blackmail or eliminate any opposition to the Islamists.
The Ideological Disarmament of the Left
In this political coup, the Left went mute and the Islamist students gained the upper hand. Those who had criticized Khomeini for being reactionary and supporting the Westernized interim government now struggled to attack him. Islamist students published pictures of blindfolded American hostages with a quote from Khomeini: “Others Talk, We Act.” In ridiculing as fake their anti-imperialism, the poster was clearly aimed at the leftists. Within days after the occupation of the embassy, Khomeini turned the tables and sarcastically asked the leftist groups, and particularly the formidable FKO, “My ears did not hear that they supported [the occupation of the embassy]. If they are not pro-American, why didn’t they support [this act]?” The utter confusion that the event created instantly among the nationalists and even some right wing Islamists cannot be overstated. But for the leftists, the result was nothing short of an identity crisis. Viewing it as a natural reaction of angry people against a looming US plot, they initially extended their strongest support to Khomeini. A week later, however, the FKO came to a different conclusion: “In our 14 Aban (November 5) statement analyzing the seizure of the American embassy, we committed a serious mistake. We considered an act that a segment of the clergy committed in order to … maintain its domination against the [nationalist] liberals and of the masses, a self-motivated move by the masses.” In a long analysis, the FKO argued that the Islamists originally used the liberal technocrats as their executive arm to compensate for their own lack of managerial skill in running an inherited capitalist state. However, the article continued, the ensuing economic, social, and political crises alarmed the Islamists who decided to create “a controlled anti-imperialist wave” to regain their mass popularity and remove the liberals.
In another analysis a few months later, the FKO acknowledged Khomeini’s successful appropriation of anti-Americanism to compensate for his diminishing popularity:
Except for a few pockets of the left, almost all forces backed the seizure of the embassy one way or another. A new movement around the struggle against imperialism was born. The authority of the faction following “The Imam’s Line” and particularly Khomeini himself that had been partially lost during the war in Kurdistan was renewed and strengthened with Ayatollah Khomeini’s 26 of Aban [November 17] message. Khomeini said that he wanted all people to shift their pens and machine guns towards the Great Satan, that is, America. And in practice, to some extent this happened as well. Millions of people marched in front of the American spying base several times a week and chanted against American imperialism.
But by then, the discovery of Khomeini’s strategy to undermine the Left’s cohesion came too late to be of use. Disagreements and confusion over the nature of the Islamic Republic had already divided the leftists. The FKO eventually split into the Majority and Minority factions. The hostage-takers snubbed the MKO’s and Tudeh’s prominent leaders and refused to meet and grant them “the prestige of entering the embassy grounds.” The Islamists permanently hijacked popular anti-American sentiments; they would no longer allow other groups to hold anti-imperialist rallies. The Komiteh attacked and arrested non-Islamist anti-American students and workers who were demonstrating at the US embassy in Tehran or consulates throughout the country, ironically accusing them of being American stooges.
As the crisis continued, more and more leftist organizations and groups broke ranks and joined Khomeini’s anti-American expedition. His success in absorbing a wide range of key constituencies and undermining the cohesion of the Left through this move cannot be overstated. Farmers, peasants, toilers, and labor unions ranging from major industrial complexes to small local factories sent telegrams or joined anti-American demonstrations to express support for Khomeini’s anti-imperialist project. Prominent writers, poets, and artists such as Siavash Kasrai, Amir Hushang Ebtehaj (Sayeh), and Ahmad Shamlu sent open letters to Khomeini and the Islamist students praising the occupation of the embassy and inviting other intellectuals to join. Many were longtime leftist figures and communist sympathizers. Others were independent members of the intelligentsia, some of whom became anti-American at this focal point to make up for their “un-Islamic” past and association with the monarchy. Yet Khomeini did not want the situation to get out of hand. There were now demands for further measures, such as confiscating the assets of the rich and other capitalist agents of Western imperialism. Anti-Moscow leftists and some competing Islamists were planning to occupy the Soviet embassy in Tehran. Soviet officials had supported Khomeini since his return from Paris and warned the United States several times not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. Khomeini issued a statement and called on the people to prevent the “C.I.A. agents” from occupying the Soviet or any other embassy.
As the FKO was losing the anti-American bidding war to the Islamists, it doubled down on both the Islamists and the remaining liberals in the hopes of prolonging the crisis and winning this war of narratives. Fearing the crisis would end within a few weeks, it questioned the Islamists’ anti-imperialist credibility by maintaining that they protected certain class interests and thus remained a tool of the United States. As the hostage takers published pictures of the embassy’s spying devices and documents, Khomeini publicly banned all members of the Revolutionary Council from negotiating with US officials. After finally canceling the bilateral military treaty, the Revolutionary Council cut off oil exports to the United States as well. However, it stopped short of severing diplomatic ties with Washington, despite mounting pressure from the Left. The Revolutionary Council’s Chairman Ayatollah Beheshti, known for his communication with high-ranking US officials until a few days earlier, struggled to defend this decision. He said the issue had been discussed as “a possibility” but cautioned against any reactive measure. For five months, until April 7, 1980, the Islamists resisted breaking diplomatic relations with the United States. Even then, it was Jimmy Carter who took the initiative to sever diplomatic ties with Iran, before the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw to rescue the hostages.
In Washington, the Carter administration was utterly confused to see the US embassy in the hands of Khomeini’s followers even as the Leader’s disciples and allies were in close communication with top American officials. The White House viewed the seizure of the embassy as an ideological gambit and “entirely a function of Iranian internal politics,” according to Gary Sick, a US National Security Council (NSC) staffer at the time. For the Carter administration, it was merely a showdown between the Islamists and the nationalists. American officials hoped to see a quick resolution after factional scores between these two groups were settled. As the crisis dragged on with no end in sight, the White House struggled further to comprehend the course of events. Crucially, neither the president nor his cabinet appears to have understood the anti-leftist dimension of Khomeini’s instrumental deployment of anti-Americanism. The eternal realist Brzezinski, who was previously dismissive of any role for religious figures in post-revolutionary Iran, now recommended threatening to bomb the holy city of Qom. Carter on the other hand, himself a religious man, viewed Khomeini positively as a man of belief—although an irrational one: “It’s almost impossible to deal with a crazy man, except that he does have religious beliefs…. I believe that’s our ultimate hope for a successful resolution of this problem.” Carter invited theologians, clerics, Islamic studies scholars, and Muslim politicians to help him fathom Khomeini’s mentality and to make a Shari’a case to convince him to free the hostages. But as the CIA noted, Carter’s use of Islam was doomed to fail, because Khomeini himself was “the ultimate interpreter of Islamic law.” Additionally, Khomeini would use Christianity to discredit Carter and even the Pope. He told the Vatican mediators, “If Jesus Christ were here today, he would call Carter to account and deliver us from the clutches of this enemy of humanity.” Khomeini advised the Pope to follow his footsteps and rise up against oppression: “He should proclaim to all Christendom the crimes that Carter has committed and reveal his true identity to the world, just as we did with Muhammad Reza [Shah].” To add insult to injury, the Iranian embassy in Washington published the text of Khomeini’s message to the Pope in a paid advertisement in the New York Times on November 18, 1979.
While exploring every possible political and religious contact with Iranian officials, Washington ended military assistance to Iran and, on November 14, froze Iranian assets. Carter ordered the Attorney General to take action against fifty thousand Iranian students and eighty thousand other Iranian citizens who were in the United States on visas. At a time when the Islamists were cracking down on dissident youth, Washington believed that this would be a “firm, punitive step against Iran.” Thousands were rounded up and deported to Iran, while heavy restrictions were imposed on issuing new visas for Iranian nationals. When these actions failed to force the Islamists to release the hostages, on April 24, 1980 Carter resorted to a military option to rescue the captive diplomats. But Operation Eagle Claw was unsuccessful when mechanical failures during a desert storm resulted in a helicopter colliding with a C-130 transport aircraft, killing eight American servicemen. The remaining Delta Force commandos escaped the scene, leaving behind their equipment, documents, and the burned bodies of the dead. These confrontational measures gave more credibility to Khomeini’s anti-American rhetoric at the expense of the Left. The Islamists proved to the Left that the American animosity toward them was real and they were much more capable of humiliating the United States than any other competing group.
Ending the Crisis
As the leftists’ ideological power diminished, the Islamists were now more emboldened to remove them. The Islamists prevented the Left from winning the first parliamentary elections in March and May 1980. In the first round, the MKO and the IRP candidates had won about 906,480 and 1,617,422 votes in provinces, respectively. Yet, the MKO could not secure a single seat, while the IRP won more than half the 96 seats filled in the first round. The IRP’s and IRGC’s massive riggings and electoral engineering prompted even Khomeini’s brother to question the elections outcome. Tudeh used its small but sophisticated organization and effective propaganda expertise to attack anti-Khomeini leftists and silence the IRP’s moderate clerical and nationalist rivals. Iran scholar Zabih argues that the Tudeh was “instrumental in ensuring the victory of the [parliamentary elections] candidates of the Islamic Republic Party in close to 35 percent of the districts where a run-off was held.” Despite the Left’s potent presence in Iran’s political scene, as these figures reveal, the cost of suppressing it was declining in the aftermath of the Hostage Crisis.
In the spring of 1980, the Revolutionary Council issued an ultimatum for political groups to shut down their offices and vacate university campuses. Soon after, security forces brutally cracked down on leftist students. Radical Islamist students began to seize university campuses throughout the country, shutting down classes. The Cultural Revolution, as it became known, lasted for two years, during which time university professors, students, and curriculums perceived to be anti-Islamic were purged. The Cultural Revolution deprived the Left of a critical forum to spread its message and to recruit new members.
In the ensuing violence between the leftists and Islamists, the former lost thousands, while the latter was nearly decapitated. In the bombings of the IRP’s headquarters and subsequent assassinations in 1981, about one hundred of the most senior Islamist leaders—including Ayatollah Beheshti (head of both the judiciary and IRP), President Mohammad Ali Rajai’e, and Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar—were killed. Many more clerics, officials, judges, and IRGC members were targeted in suicide bombings and other leftist operations in the first several years after the revolution. But the leftists paid a dear price for their activities, too. The MKO alone announced that close to eight thousand of its members were killed by state security forces in this reign of terror.
After stealing the leftists’ message, removing their university lifeline, and gradually liquidating them, Khomeini moved to end the Hostage Crisis. He referred the resolution of the crisis to the new, Islamist-dominated legislative body. Although the hostages were finally freed in January 1981, the incident and its aftereffects would continue to bring sanctions and international isolation upon the country in the years and decades to come. But as one of the hostage takers unequivocally summed up the situation four decades later, the occupation of the embassy was instrumental in changing the internal balance of power—consolidating the Islamists and defeating their formidable leftist rivals:
Seizing the Den eradicated many internal problems. There were the issues of Kurdestan, Gonbad, Khuzestan and the danger of disintegration that was threatening Iran. There were questions that the communists were promoting ruthlessly but they were lies. That this [Islamic] government that has come to power is [pro-] American. Since the Shah was [pro-] American, the people were awfully anti-American. No one liked America. We were saying we were anti-American. The communists were saying, ‘No, you are American.’ You can almost say that the occupation of the embassy disarmed the communist tremendously in this respect and established heavy security in Iran. One of the main positive consequences of the seizure of the embassy was that it created a solid security that dissolved the Monafeghin’s [MKO and FKO] and Tudeh’s plans. These groups were forced to support [us] and the American labeling lost its credibility. But now from a political perspective, I think our confrontation with the US was not prudent.
This role of the leftist-Islamist competition has been underappreciated in understanding why the Hostage Crisis occurred. As Khomeini and his followers worked to institutionalize clerical control of the state, the Islamists emphasized an anti-American discourse that was meant to garner the Left’s intellectual and mass support. But to outbid the Left required anti-American credibility, which the Islamists lacked in the early days of the revolution. Not only were the clerics allied with the US-friendly nationalist provisional government, but they themselves preserved ties with the Western bloc and US-backed institutions, such as the army. In this climate, radical action against the United States—such as the seizure of the American embassy by Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line—would (the Islamists believed) help establish their anti-imperialist credentials among the intelligentsia, students, and labor unions. Thus, although Marxist communist groups deployed their anti-American narrative masterfully and boxed in the Islamists, the latter eventually outbid the former. The Left’s doubling down after the seizure of the embassy only contributed to prolonging the crisis and institutionalizing anti-Americanism. The Left was so concerned about the pro-US “deep state” (namely the alliance of the remnants of the Shah’s regime, the nationalists, and the conservative clerics), that by the time it woke up, it was facing an Islamist deep state that—unlike its predecessor—was capable of liquidating the opposition altogether. Without this internal competition, the Islamists would not have turned so viciously anti-American. Without resorting to anti-Americanism and occupying the US embassy, the Islamists might not have consolidated their power. Although that drastic action brought about massive political and economic costs that undermined Iran’s national security for decades, it empowered the Islamists and helped them capture the debilitated state. Their factional interests trumped the state’s interests and determined their ideological turn.
As the Iranian case demonstrates, it is imperative for scholars and policy makers to look beyond systemic explanations or actors’ self-serving statements to understand the role anti-Americanism and other ideologies played in politics. Future research should examine whether and how elites in other contexts with similar popular sentiments—such as anti-Americanism in the broader Middle East and Islamophobia or anti-immigration sentiments in the United States and Europe—outbid each other for internal gains. This article reveals that at least in the Iranian case, anti-Americanism is endogenous to elite rivalries rather than a fixed element of any particular party or ideology. In their struggle for power, political actors develop narratives and discourses that strengthen elite cohesion while generating mass mobilization. The change in the use of these non-material factors corresponds to shifting public opinion as well as the position of the elites vis-à-vis the state. Ideology should not be ignored in understanding actors’ material interests. Nor should it be viewed as a driving force of political action. Rather, studies should focus on how actors promote and deploy certain ideologies to advance their political interests.