It has long been the conceit of Iran specialists and political commentators that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was not informed that militant students intended to take over the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. The Western intelligentsia has vouched for the Islamic Republic and claimed that the hostage crisis was a product of an internal power struggle. It was not about America, but rather about a revolution sorting itself out. As such, the hostage drama should not stand in the way of a rapprochement between the two nations.
Now, more than three decades later, evidence has come to light to suggest that this was a fiction of political convenience. The truth is that Khomeini was informed beforehand about the attack on the U.S. embassy, and hoped that it would solidify Iran’s antagonism toward the United States.
Iran’s Islamic revolution and its inscrutable philosopher-king Khomeini offered a unique challenge to the prevailing norms of the international system. The essence of Khomeini’s message was that the vitality of his Islamist mission was contingent on its relentless export. Moreover, because God’s vision was not to be confined to a single nation, Iran’s foreign policy had to be an extension of its domestic revolutionary vision. For the grand ayatollah, the global order was divided between states whose priorities were defined by Western conventions and Iran, whose ostensible purpose was to redeem a divine mandate.
Khomeini’s internationalist vision had to have an antagonist, a foil to define itself against. A caricatured concept of the West soon became the central pillar of his Islamist imagination. Accordingly, the Americans were rapacious imperialists determined to exploit Iran’s wealth for their self-aggrandizement. The Islamist themes were not far behind, as America was also seeking to subjugate Muslims and impose its cultural template in the name of modernity. The psychological dimension of the crisis cannot be understated, as Khomeini relished the opportunity to humiliate America. By capturing and parading the diplomats for 444 days, Tehran disgraced Washington, and demonstrated that Jimmy Carter’s America was a paper tiger.
On November 4, 1979, the scene outside the U.S. embassy did not seem all that different from any other day. Demonstrators denouncing the shah, admitted to the United States for medical treatment, and protesters chanting “Death to America” were not unusual occurrences. However, this time a number of students breached the walls of the embassy. The startled American diplomats were unsure about how to proceed. At first, they hoped that the occupation would be short-lived and the impetuous students would be dispatched from the grounds. After all, the regime was seemingly oblivious to the latest provocation of its frenzied constituency and would soon uphold the sanctity of the diplomatic compound. This was not to be the case.
It is often suggested that the revolutionaries meant to undermine the provisional government led by moderate prime minister Mehdi Bazargan, and thus needed to provoke a crisis. The evidence to support this claim is not inconsiderable as many of the students have asserted that, although they had hoped that Khomeini would approve of their action, he did not provide them with an explicit green light. In recent years, however, evidence has gradually come forth to make a cogent case that Khomeini did approve the plot in advance.
In his published memoirs, the late Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani, a member of the Revolutionary Council and the head of the Revolutionary Committees, offers an intriguing insight into the events surrounding the hostage crisis. Soon after the occupation of the embassy, in his role as the head of the Revolutionary Committees, which were largely responsible for internal security, he contacted Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, who acted as his father’s chief of staff and intermediary between Khomeini and his advisers, to inquire about the developments surrounding the embassy.
“The night of the embassy’s occupation I contacted Ahmad and asked him what is happening?” wrote Mahdavi Kani. “Initially, he just laughed and would not answer. I asked him did you know about this? He laughed. Finally, after I insisted, he said the Imam [Khomeini] is satisfied with this and you should not get involved.” Mahdavi Kani’s pointed questions to Ahmad about his knowledge of the events only elicited bemused laughter, suggesting a prior understanding.