By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Iran seized a Vietnamese oil tanker, claiming on TV it was rescuing the oil from the U.S. By casting the seizure as a rescue from American aggression, Iran has escalated friction with the U.S. Tensions between both nations piqued in 1979.
A Vietnamese oil vessel seized last month by Iranian paramilitary troops remains just off Iran’s port of Bandar Abbas. Iran took the ship on October 24 and framed the act as one of heroism on state-sponsored television, claiming it carried Iranian oil and had been detained by Americans but rescued by the Iranian troops. The United States has refuted those claims.
Recent tensions between Iran and the United States have partly stemmed from international efforts to reduce the former country’s nuclear weapons capabilities, but perhaps the most notable incident is the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. In his video series The Agency: A History of the CIA, Dr. Hugh Wilford, Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach, detailed events leading up to the crisis.
Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution
In 1978, Iran was a powder keg. Its king, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was a U.S. asset for several political reasons, including U.S. access to Iran’s oil fields, cooperation with Israel—America’s only other Middle Eastern ally—and more. However, the Iranian public balked at former President Jimmy Carter’s praise of the shah of Iran, who had wasted much of the nation’s money and let the poor languish.
“With political repression, American imperialism, and economic suffering providing ample combustible material, the spark came from an obscure, elderly cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini,” Dr. Wilford said. “Exiled by the shah to Iraq in 1964, Khomeini had become a leader-in-exile to the emerging Iranian opposition. He spoke powerfully to the growing belief of many Iranian Muslims that the shah’s secular regime had trampled on their faith.”
In 1978, a protest against the shah led to the deaths of six protestors, leading to further protests and killings. Iraq was pressured into deporting Khomeini even as the shah’s rule deteriorated. In September, the shah declared martial law but didn’t use force against protestors. Four months later, the shah fled the country. The Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979 had succeeded. Khomeini returned to Iran to the cheers of millions and within weeks was proclaimed Grand Ayatollah of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“At a stroke, the revolution deprived the U.S. of a crucial strategic and military asset, and access to a critical oil supplier,” Dr. Wilford said. “And then things got worse.”
Throughout the summer of 1979, U.S.-Iranian relations seemed to be improving and President Carter began to look to moderates in Tehran to work on diplomacy. However, some of his advisors pressured the president to allow the deposed shah of Iran into the United States in order to receive treatment for cancer. Carter reluctantly did so. The new government demanded that Carter turn Shah Pahlavi over to them to stand trial for crimes he was accused of and Carter refused.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants broke into the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and kidnapped 52 Americans, holding them hostage for over a year. In April 1980, Carter authorized a military extraction of the hostages, which failed and contributed to Carter’s reelection loss to Ronald Reagan.
“On January 20, 1981—444 days after the crisis began, and minutes after Reagan took the oath of office—the hostages were released,” Dr. Wilford said. “In a final humiliation for Carter, Ayatollah Khomeini delayed the plane’s departure until the U.S. transition was official.”