Forty years ago in Iran, a few young people got together and thought it would be a good idea to seize and occupy a foreign embassy, to show their support for the revolution that had just brought a supreme religious leader to power. They called themselves Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line; by the imam, they meant Ruhollah Khomeini, that elderly, choleric leader.
Khomeini had returned to Iran at the beginning of the year, after the shah, who exiled him, had fled. He had followers who were ecstatic about his views: that Sharia was the only law, that America was the Great Satan, that Jerusalem must be liberated from Jews and that Iran must be governed by an Islamic jurist exactly like himself. When he returned, Iran already had an interim government and reformist prime minister. “I shall kick their teeth in,” Khomeini said.
Interim Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar was sentenced to death by Khomeini’s vassals and fled to France, where he survived multiple assassination attempts before three men sent by the regime stabbed him to death with kitchen knives, in 1991.
And so the long Persian night began – and it still continues.
In September, 1979, the five members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line debated seizing the Soviet embassy because the communists were atheists and the USSR was, Khomeini said, a manifestation of Satan. Two of the five liked that. The other three wanted to go for the U.S. embassy because America was, per Khomeini, the Great Satan.
Their plan was to occupy the U.S. embassy in Tehran for several hours, perhaps a day, so they could announce their opposition to the U.S. from within its own compound. They assumed, correctly, that if Khomeini saw that they were his followers and devout Muslims, he would not object. On Nov. 4, an Iranian student protest outside the U.S. embassy turned raucous and provided the cover for them to break through the gates using a metal cutter that one of the students hid beneath her chador. Khomeini said the embassy was an “American spy den.” The students found proof in embassy papers that some American diplomatic staff had worked with U.S. intelligence agencies.
Anyone who had read a book that was not a religious text should have known the U.S. and many other countries, including Iran, routinely gather intelligence in their foreign embassies; to discover this was akin to the feigned shock of Capt. Renault in “Casablanca” when he is told there is gambling at a casino.
Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage and held for the next 444 days. Americans, watching from afar, were traumatized by their helplessness.
The students started it but the hostages quickly came under Khomeini’s control. With his long beard and stern visage, he was the first glimpse many Americans had of Islamic fundamentalism. Soon they were buying and selling dart boards with his likeness in the bull’s eye. A recording of “Bomb Iran,” sung to the tune of “Barbara Ann,” was a stateside hit.
President Jimmy Carter’s failure to rescue the hostages proved his undoing, sealed by their release on the last day of his one-term presidency. The U.S. and much of the rest of the world never did find a way to peaceably coexist with Islamic-revolutionary Iran, in part because of its sponsorship of terrorism and suicide bombing through its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza and its denial of human rights at home and abroad.
Forty years later, Iran has increased the arrest of foreign nationals without proof of wrongdoing, “creating a new kind of hostage crisis,” The Washington Post recently reported.
In Iran, Khomeini is still revered in theory. Iranians are regularly punished for insulting his memory – but then, people regularly insult his memory. Perhaps there is hope yet.