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  • Jonathan Pearl

Crisis Negotiation Stories #2 – Iran Hostage siege




Mediations are not hostage-taking situations. But many of the methods used to resolve hostage-taking are used successfully in mediation, and some of problems faced are often similar.


The Iran hostage crisis negotiations were held 1980 - 1981 between the US and Iranian Governments to end the Iranian hostage crisis. The 52 American hostages, seized from the US Embassy in Tehran by militant students in November 1979, were finally released on 20 January 1981.

The negotiations were greatly complicated by the volatile situation in the region – the Soviets invaded Iran’s neighbour, Afghanistan, during the siege; and disagreements between hard-line and moderates on both the Students and the Iranian Government sides. In July 1980 Iraq, emboldened by its neighbour’s preoccupation with the crisis and believing in the maxim “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, invaded Iran. [Mediators should always consider what has happened and what may happen outside the room.]

In 1980 there was a failed attempt at reaching a compromise, when American Vice President Walter Mondale told an interviewer that "the crisis was nearing an end." The plan fell apart however after Ayatollah Khomeini gave a speech praising the embassy occupation as "a crushing blow to the world-devouring USA" and announced the fate of the hostages would be decided by the Iranian parliament, which had yet to be seated or even elected. [Mediations are confidential for a very good reason. Breaches of confidence lead to a breakdown of trust.]

The next unsuccessful attempt occurred in April 1980 and called first for the American president Carter to publicly promise not to "impose additional sanctions" on Iran. In exchange custody of the hostages would be transferred to the Iranian government, which after a short period would release the hostages—the Iranian president and foreign minister were both against the continued holding of the hostages. To the American's surprise and disappointment, after Carter made his promise, President Banisadr added additional demands: official American approval of resolution of the hostage question by Iran's parliament (which would leave the hostages in Tehran for another month or two), and a promise by Carter to refrain from making "hostile statements". Carter also agreed to these demands, but again Khomeini vetoed the plan. At this point President Banisadr announced he was "washing his hands of the hostage mess". [Mediators need to ensure that those attending have the necessary authority to settle the matter being discussed. Of course, those attending rarely have unlimited authority, but set-backs like this can kill mediation stone dead.]

Relatively little happened during the summer of 1980, as Iranian internal politics took its course. In early July, the Iranians released hostage Richard Queen, who had developed multiple sclerosis. In the States, constant media coverage—yellow ribbons, footage of chanting Iranian mobs, provided a dispiriting backdrop to the presidential election season. Many felt that Carter had not been tough enough in foreign policy, and the hostage crisis came to symbolise this. But the death of the Shah on 27 July 1980, and its war with Iraq, may have made Iran more receptive to the idea of resolving the hostage crisis.


Talks that ultimately succeeded in bringing a release began secretly in September 1980 and were initiated a brother-in-law of Khomeini's son and a mid-level official in the former-provisional revolutionary government. By this time resolution of the crisis was made easier by the fact that two of the hostage takers demands were met—the Shah was dead and most of his wealth had been removed from American banks.


Iran now had only four demands for the release: an expression of remorse or an apology for the United States' historical role in Iran, unlocking of Iranian assets in America and withdraw any legal claims against Iran arising from the embassy seizure, and a promise not to interfere in the future. The talks hammered out an agreement to three of these demands but not to an apology.


Talks were stalled first by Iraq's invasion of Iran, which Iranian officialdom blamed on the U.S. Then negotiations began over how much money U.S. businesses owed Iran—Iran believing the sum to be $20 to $60 billion and the United States estimating it at "closer to $20 to $60 million".


On 2 November 1981, the Iranian parliament finally set out formal conditions for the hostages' release and eight days later Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrived in Algiers. The Iranians had refused to communicate directly with the president, or any other American, so Algeria had agreed to act as an intermediary. This arrangement slowed down the negotiating process. The Iranians, who spoke Persian, would talk only with the Algerians, who spoke only French and Arabic. Any question or proposal had to be translated twice as it went from Washington to Algiers to Tehran, and then the answers and counter-proposals had to come back to me over the same slow route. [Quite often basic logistics can be crucial to the success or failure of a mediation.]


Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the November 1980 presidential election. Pressure was added to the negotiations by the President-Elect's tough talk of not paying "ransom for people who have been kidnapped by barbarians", and a New Year's Day threat from Radio Tehran that if the United States did not accept Iran's demands the hostages would be tried as spies and executed if found guilty.


The negotiations resulted in the Algiers Accords of 19 January 1981. These called for Iran's immediate freeing of the hostages, the unfreezing of $7.9BN of Iranian assets and immunity from lawsuits Iran might have faced in America, and a pledge by the United States that "it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs". The Accords also created the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal, and Iran deposited $1 billion in an escrow account to satisfy claims adjudicated by the Tribunal in favour of American businesses that had lost assets after the hostage takeover. The Tribunal closed to new claims on January 19, 1982. In total, it received approximately 4,700 private U.S. claims, and ordered payments by Iran to U.S. nationals totalling over $2.5 billion.


A series of small crises slowed down the process. There was a delay in the transfer of assets to Iran; the Federal Reserve Bank of New York did not have its part of the money, so funds were shifted among the reserve banks. Another difficulty concerned the time difference between Washington and Tehran. Because of the war with Iraq, Iran’s airports were not allowed to display runway lights. This meant that once it got dark in Iran (about 9:30 a.m. Washington time), even if the deal had been sealed, the Algerian pilots could not take off. There were also last minute wrangling over the terms and conditions in the banking agreements, and the Iranians insisted on being paid in gold rather than dollars.

The hostages were released on 20 January 1981, the day that President Carter's term ended.

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