Thirty years ago this week a group of Iranian “students” shouting “death to America” stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking nearly 100 hostages, among them 65 Americans. Though foreign national employees and some Americans were released within a few weeks, the remaining 52 were held for 444 days.
For the American people, it was an introduction to militant Islam. For President Jimmy Carter, intent on “engaging” the radical regime that replaced Shah Reza Pahlavi, it was a disaster. The Obama administration appears to have missed the lessons of this debacle.
Though Carter described the embassy takeover as “a disappointing development” and “surprising,” it shouldn’t have been. Strikes, mass demonstrations and student protests throughout Iran began early in 1978. In September, the shah responded by declaring martial law. It didn’t help.
— Catch an encore presentation of the "War Stories Classic: The Desert War," Monday, November 9 at 3 a.m. ET
On January 16, 1979, the shah — seriously ill with cancer — fled and sought refuge in Morocco, Mexico and the United States. Two weeks later, February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to be greeted by more than 5 million devotees lining the streets of Tehran. Ten days later he proclaimed himself Iran’s supreme leader.
When hundreds of students chanting anti-American slogans flooded into and briefly occupied the U.S. embassy on February 15, the Carter administration delivered a “strongly worded diplomatic note” protesting the “lack of protection by Iranian authorities.” For the next eight months, despite increasingly strident pronouncements by Khomeini and officials of his new “Islamic Republic,” Carter and his aides made repeated overtures to “engage” the regime in Tehran.
On November 1, 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski met in Algiers with the ayatollah’s Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan. Three days later the “students” charged into the U.S. embassy again. This time they stayed.
Though some of those who participated in the takeover subsequently claimed they planned nothing more than a “sit in” like those on U.S. college campuses during anti-Vietnam War protests, the ayatollah’s most radical followers were actually in control of events. Despite Carter administration protests, Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards and police, posted outside the embassy walls, did nothing to end the takeover or the hostage situation. Carter responded by freezing Iranian assets in the U.S. and “severing diplomatic ties” with Tehran.
On Christmas Day, less than two months after the hostages were seized in Tehran, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Once again, President Carter, wracked by intelligence failures and indecision, said he was “shocked and surprised” and boycotted the Olympics.
Over the course of the next year, while the Carter administration dithered, Khomeini and his council of militant clerics created all of the instruments of state control common to revolutionary regimes, but with an Islamic twist. He purged the military and the Iranian civil service; created a massive internal secret police network; a “block warden” system to spy on neighbors; took control of print and broadcast media; rounded up opponents and tried them in “special courts” under Sharia law.
By the spring of 1980, when Carter ordered our deeply under-funded U.S. military to rescue the hostages held in Tehran, Khomeini was convinced that he was on a divine mission to “purify Islam” and re-establish a “caliphate” in the “Lands of the Prophet.” When Operation Eagle Claw failed catastrophically on the night of April 24-25 with the loss of eight American lives — and without the Iranians firing a shot — the ayatollah claimed it was because Allah “protected the Islamic State from infidels.” He also began predicting an apocalyptic battle against the U.S. and Israel which would destroy “The Great Satan,” and “the Zionist entity.”
Though the hostages were released on January 20, 1981 — just hours before Ronald Reagan’s inaugural — Tehran’s wave of terror didn’t stop. By 1982, despite a bloody war with Iraq, the ayatollah’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had created a proxy force in Lebanon: Hezbollah. Over the course of the next five years, Hezbollah terrorists — armed, trained and paid for by Tehran — hijacked, kidnapped, bombed and killed more Americans than any terror organization on the planet until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the three decades since the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the rhetoric of revolutionary Islam is little changed. The words and pronouncements of Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Seyyed Ali Khamenei and the declarations of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad echo those of Khomeini 30 years ago.
Their actions are also unchanged. This week, while our Fox News Team was at an Air Force base in the Nevada desert, Israeli commandos seized 60 tons of Iranian weapons en-route to Hezbollah.
The regime in Tehran still proclaims “Death to America.” They still promise to destroy Israel. Only now the Iranians are building nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them.
Like the Carter administration, President Obama and his advisers are apparently convinced that “engaging” the Iranian regime will somehow make things different. After 30 years they still don’t get it.
— Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of "War Stories" on Fox News Channel and the author of "American Heroes."