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From Crisis to Conspiracy: The 1979 Iran Hostage Situation

Image via Daily Mail

The Iran Hostage Crisis introduced America to political Islam and helped usher in a new era of conservatism, but the lasting legacy of the ordeal remains linked to a fictitious scheme and human fallibility.

Not unlike the crowd that stormed the U.S. embassy nearly four decades ago, throngs of demonstrators chanting “death to America” flooded the streets of Tehran on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the Iran Hostage Crisis.

In typical fashion, both the American flag and effigies of the president were burned by rally participants. However, above the predictable banners and black chadors, a notable addition towered over the 2017 assembly: a Ghadr ballistic missile.

The weapon’s unprecedented inclusion in the annual celebration implies that, amongst other things, President Trump’s recent decision to “decertify” the Iran nuclear deal has increased animosity in the Islamic republic.

Though somewhat unsettling, such a surge in anti-American sentiment is rather unremarkable. Over the years, as reflected in the very roots of last week’s gathering, American-Iranian relations have oscillated between impolite and precarious.

Beginning on Nov. 4th, 1979, the Iran Hostage Crisis saw over 50 Americans held hostage inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran for a total of 444 days.

The captors, backed by Ayatollah Khomeini, demanded that the American government return their freshly overthrown royal leader so that the Shah may face justice. In exchange for the hostages, the revolutionaries also required that the U.S. acknowledge past inequities and, in the future, leave Iran to its own devices.

President Carter, in spite of his best efforts, was unable to negotiate a timely release. Many people back home grew impatient, as the weeks of captivity quickly turned into months.

The president’s perceived ineptitude spread around the country and eventually proved detrimental to his career. During the 1980 presidential race, American voters simply could not stomach re-electing a Commander-in-Chief who showed weakness in the face of adversity. Ronald Reagan, consequently, won in a landslide.

A few months after the presidential election, the signing of the Algiers Accords formally brought an end to the crisis. On Jan. 20, 1981, only moments after Reagan’s inauguration, the remaining captives were set free.

In the end, not a single hostage lost their life. Though, the peculiar timing of their release left several observers in the U.S. suspicious and unsatisfied.

Some people believed, and indeed still believe, that the Reagan campaign conspired with Iran to prolong the hostage crisis and prevent a last-minute liberation from helping Carter at the polls.

The so-called “October Surprise” conspiracy theory, according to Newsweek, originated in the eccentric circles of the LaRouche movement. For several years, it survived only on the fringes of political commentary. After Contragate and a few influential endorsements, however, the theory gained traction and entered the mainstream.

In 1991, lifelong academic and former White House aide Gary Sick wrote a book claiming to prove the existence of a secret Iranian-American agreement.

Sick’s allegations caused such a stir that in 1992 and 1993 the Senate and the House of Representatives each conducted their own investigation into the October Surprise conspiracy.

Unfortunately for Sick, the reports concluded that there was no credible evidence to support the idea that the Reagan administration colluded with Iran in the lead-up to the 1980 election. A number of independent analyses completed by various individuals (most notably, distinguished historian Daniel Pipes and former CIA agent Frank Snepp) reached similar conclusions.

Nevertheless, the October Surprise conspiracy theory managed to avoid extinction and remains alive and well to this day.


Patternicity,” according to renowned science writer Michael Shermer.

Suppose that an early hominid is drinking from a stream and hears a rustle in the bushes (to modify an example used by Shermer). They can do one of two things: stay and drink or run and hide. The noise could be the wind or a hungry lion. If they run and a “type I error” is made, the hominid simply goes thirsty. If they stay and a “type II error” is made, the parched primate becomes breakfast. Humans largely evolved from those who avoided type II errors and survived believing in illusory patterns.

Susceptibility to conspiracy theories is, therefore, built into the human brain. Because of this, regardless of age, sex, or political affiliation, many people simply cannot resist the allure of groundless conjecture. Even the President of the United States has found it difficult to escape conspiratorial thinking. Time and time again, to echo Christopher Hitchens, President Trump has managed to be both a pimp for, and a prostitute of, conspiracy theories.

But can you really blame The Donald? Or his detractors? Or, even, the diehards that still believe The Gipper and the Grand Ayatollah worked together to win the presidency in 1980?

Of course not.

Peddling “fake news” and endless, empty talk of “collusion” are, after all, in our nature.


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