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Iranian Hostage Crisis: Negotiations and Diplomacy Essay

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Updated: Jul 6th, 2021


The Iranian coup d’etat of 1953 was a series of events leading to the overthrow of the country’s leader, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The events were instigated, managed, and supported by the US and the UK, both of which had political and economic interests in the outcomes of the coup d’etat. One of Mosaddegh’s goals was the audit of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a British corporation in control of a major segment of the country’s oil industry (Homaeefar 2017). In response, the British authorities initiated a boycott of Iranian oil while at the same time using Iranian agents to undermine the integrity of the government. The recently disclosed documents confirm the fact that the planning and execution of the coup were led by the CIA (Dehghan & Norton-Taylor 2013). These factors have resulted in the emergence of anti-US sentiment in the country, where all foreign powers were treated with suspicion and resentment.

The regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who came to power after the coup, was becoming gradually more repressive over the years. At the same time, the destabilization of the global economy coupled with fluctuations in oil consumption undermined the country’s economic stability, leading to high inflation rates and the population’s buying power. The combination of these factors has contributed to the formation of a coordinated opposition and, by extension, the revolution of 1978.

One of the most significant events associated with the revolution is the Iranian Hostage Crisis, in which a group of Revolution supporters held 52 American citizens hostage for 444 days. After an unsuccessful military operation Eagle Claw, the crisis was resolved in negotiations. The crisis is considered the longest known hostage situation and a major factor in the relationships between the two countries.

USA: Carter and Administration

First, it is necessary to highlight the key figures in the Carter Administration. On the one hand, some of the individuals, such as the secretary of state Cyrus Vance and Vice President Water Mondale, criticized the realpolitik approach and argued in favor of an international-oriented solution (Office of the Historian n.d.). In addition, it is possible to suggest that Vance followed a liberal approach whereas Mondale supported the idea of resolution via military action. On the other hand, some of the administration members, such as the National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, argued that the realpolitik approach in the form of a confrontational stance was the most feasible option (Carden 2013). Simply put, the existence of two camps with opposing views within the Administration led to indecisiveness and created several conflicts of interests, further complicating matters.

Another important factor that supposedly aggravated the crisis was the indecisiveness of Jimmy Carter. President Carter was a prominent supporter of liberal ideas and international human rights proponents. Thus, his initial response to the hostage situation was a relatively ambiguous speech that did not specify the desired outcome and did not impose any sanctions on Iran. This step was seen by the electorate as a sign of weakness and a waste of time (Collins 2013). It is also important to understand that at the time, the crisis was portrayed in the U.S. media as a major violation of the rights of American citizens and a threat to national security. As a result, the dominant public opinion viewed the lack of specificity in Carter’s actions as a sign of his weakness (Rosenfield 2016). Finally, it is necessary to understand the significance of the event’s timing: the issues in the domestic economy combined with the ongoing pressure within the U.S. led to Raegan’s victory in the presidential elections. As can be seen, timing played at least some role in the development of the conflict.

Finally, it is necessary to recognize the impact of military action in the negotiations. Operation Eagle Claw had several flaws that led to its eventual failure. First, it did not take into account whether conditions, leading to damage and loss of military equipment. Second, it was poorly planned, managed, and coordinated (Farwell 2013). In response, President Carter ordered mission abort. Overall, the operation ran contrary to Carter’s liberal approach and alienated both sides of the conflict with its hostility and inefficiency.

Iran: External Factors

It is also necessary to understand the political climate in Iran at the time of the crisis. As was mentioned above, Carter preferred a liberal approach in politics. This has led to a popular perception that his indecisiveness and avoidance of confrontation were signs of his weakness as a leader. In addition, by the late 70s, the United States was already vilified in the eyes of the Iranians due to the country’s earlier involvement in Iran’s political struggle.

Next, it is important to note that, unlike the previous, Western-oriented monarchy, the revolutionaries embraced the theocracy-oriented, anti-Western agenda. In this light, the U.S. response to the hostage situation was inevitably demonized by Iran’s authorities. Social justice was firmly connected to faith, allowing to frame the U.S. as a malevolent force. Finally, it should be understood that a significant proportion of the Iranian population did not share the radical anti-American sentiment, leading to tensions within the country. This diversity was partially responsible for the readiness to negotiate with the United States, which can be considered an example of a pragmatic approach to diplomacy.

Tactics and Theories

The initial strategy employed by the Carter administration was a non-confrontational approach that would not compromise the already tense political and economic relationships between the two powers. This approach is consistent with the liberalist diplomatic approach, based on cooperation and negotiation. For instance, an attempt was made to obtain support from the Iranian government, which failed with the fall of the provisional government. Next, envoys were dispatched to Iran in order to negotiate the condition of hostage release. However, the envoys were unsuccessful in obtaining the agreement from the revolutionaries and were eventually barred from entering the country. This fact showed the decline of credibility of American politicians as a trusted actors (Larson 1982).

At the same time, attempts were made to gain a positive image on the international scale by going through the United Nations Security Council. While this move was partially successful, it did not lead to hostage release and polarized the views on the matter, leading to the escalation of the tension. In the same manner, two applications were filed to the International Court of Justice, resulting in a resolution favorable to the United States.

Finally, a number of trade sanctions were used, intended to create economic pressure. The effectiveness of this intervention was compromised by disrupted schedules. Nevertheless, it is generally considered to have a significant impact on the decision to release hostages.

Once the ineffectiveness of the liberal approach became apparent, the Carter Administration resorted to the realist approach based on confrontation using military powers. However, by this time the effectiveness of the approach deteriorated. In combination with the poorly planned and executed military rescue operation, the realist approach further aggravated the situation.


As can be seen, each of the strategies used in the Iranian Hostage conflict had the potential to resolve it. However, poor timing and improper utilization of some of the advantages led to the opposite result. Instead of establishing trust, Carter’s liberal stance created an image of indecisiveness and vagueness, compromising the subsequent realist-based military intervention. Thus, recognizing the window of opportunity and acting in a timely manner is crucial for diplomatic success.

Reference List

Carden, J 2013, , The American Conservative, Web.

Collins, MK 2013, ‘The effect of the Iranian hostage crisis on the 1980 presidential election’, Tenor of Our Times, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 28-35.

Dehghan, SK & Norton-Taylor, R 2013, , The Guardian, Web.

Farwell, JP 2013, , Huffington Post, Web.

Homaeefar, M 2017, , Tehran Times, Web.

Larson, DL 1982, ‘The American response to the Iranian hostage crisis: 444 days of decision’, International Social Science Review, vol. 57, no. 4, pp. 195-209.

Office of the Historian n.d., , Web.

Rosenfield, D 2016, The portrayal of the Iranian hostage crisis by American media and its effects on the presidential election of 1980, Web.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Iranian Hostage Crisis: Negotiations and Diplomacy." July 6, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/iranian-hostage-crisis-negotiations-and-diplomacy/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Iranian Hostage Crisis: Negotiations and Diplomacy'. 6 July.

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