7 A.M. ET UPDATE: 36 years later: U.S. Embassy in Tehran grapples with memory of the hostage crisis

Iran hostages:

The captors were Ahmad Shahroudi, the founder of the Revolutionary Guard Corps; Ali Mohammadi, who heads its intelligence service; and Ali Fathollah Khomeini, the grandson of the nation’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The capture marked the first time Iranian forces had taken hostages, and none were released. After a protracted standoff, and while still holding the hostages, Shi’ite Islamic militants attacked the British Embassy and a U.S. consulate in Tehran, killing one and wounding another American and an Italian. The U.S. Embassy had been stormed the week before the hostage seizure and forced to close in response to a construction protest.

The hostage crisis ended when Iran obtained the release of the hostages in the negotiated departure of United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, a senior aide to President Carter, to Madrid.

– In 1987, a prisoner exchange that put Gorbachev in proximity to Carter’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, prompted Reagan to end an embassy attack and the hostage release. The U.S. Embassy was also invaded in 1979.

What the hostages told NewsChannel 5

“My only thought is for the inmates at their commissary and lunch, since they were the only ones who seemed well.”

–Food service worker Brad Townsend, who spent three months at the Islamic Republic of Iran’s detention center.

“I think any sense of equality they had in the beginning of the month diminished somewhat in a situation like this.”

–Chris Testler, who was working in the Marine unit that evacuated hostages from the embassy in 1979.

“It made me wonder about morality. I guess when they’re arguing about morals you sort of wonder — if that’s a virtue.”

–Richard Lee Thurston, who left Columbia University in Washington, D.C., for a job with the State Department but was recalled to Iran to take part in a hostage rescue.

“They weren’t helping out the embassy. They were just looking after their buddies.”

–Marie Charles, a student in Iran.

“I really didn’t have the feeling of fear until the very end.”

–Jane McDonough, who was 16 at the time of the embassy takeover and spoke to a friend on the weekend of the attack. She fled to Lebanon.

“I have seen death with my own eyes; there is nothing new.”

–Civilian hostage Maryam al-Hamidi

“I just couldn’t believe it, because I didn’t think the Iranians would do anything like that. The end result couldn’t be different from what it was.”

–Mike Salansky, deputy deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Iran Task Force, who knew all three hostages personally.

The 1979 hostage crisis is often recounted as though Iranian militants were fed a gunpowder-fueled script, sent to a classroom for lessons. It was more like the start of a frenzy as a reaction to U.S. policies toward Iran and Iranian-Americans. It began in December 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that “all right-thinking people” in Iran — including the pastor of the Marine chapel at Georgetown University, now called Marine Barracks Washington — should “free themselves from the American captivity and confront America.” Within a week, the students who’d been protesting construction in Iran overturned the U.S. Embassy and took 52 American hostages.

The threat continued and intensified over the next three years, as the hostage-takers conducted a nation-wide campaign against Americans and their families. Most immediately affected were several Iranians who were American citizens. The spread of this opposition was aggravated by increased government secrecy, news media bias, and the reluctance of authorities to join the battle against the hostage-takers. With Khomeini in power and his grip on Iranian society tightened, both the dissidents and the government were afraid of a bloody backlash in Iran should U.S. efforts to rescue the hostages fail.

While the remainder of the country watched helplessly, the American embassy in Tehran opened its front door one morning in June 1980.

–Ruth Blackburn for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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