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Revisiting The Iran Hostage Crisis 35 Years On

With the deadline approaching for a nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran, Radio Farda journalist looks back at a defining event in the two countries’ troubled history together

Three and a half decades later, the consequences of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis continue to affect journalist Farin Assemi’s life, and the lives of her entire generation, she says.

“One of the most important events influencing how the world views Iran is the hostage crisis, and it’s frustrating to think about how different my life could have been if the demonstrators hadn’t gone to the U.S. embassy on that day,” said Assemi, who works for Radio Farda, RFE/RL’s Persian language service.

She attributes a host of troubles to the hostage crisis, including the difficulties Iranians face when they travel, and a general sense of fear that westerners have about her compatriots. Despite its ramifications, the event is never discussed openly in official Iranian media.

“In Iranian state media you can only find propaganda about it, with the hostage takers portrayed as victorious heroes, so I decided to make a documentary and tell the truth,” she said.

In her 13-part radio series “444 Days,” Assemi tracks the events that led up to the crisis and the period between November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, when 52 American embassy staff members and civilians were held hostage by Iranian student supporters of the Islamic Revolution. The students demanded the return of ousted leader Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had fled to the United States under the pretense of seeking medical attention, to face trial in Iran. They also demanded a formal apology from the U.S. government for its involvement in deposing democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.

Radio Farda journalist Farin Assemi. Photo by Elahe Kianpoor.
Radio Farda journalist Farin Assemi. Photo by Elahe Kianpoor.

In order to tell the story, Assemi interviewed actors on all sides of the crisis. Ambassador John Limbert, an official with the U.S. embassy in Teheran at the time and one of those taken hostage, recounted harsh treatment and a mock execution among the methods of psychological intimidation employed by the captors. A Persian speaker and renowned Iran expert, Limbert later authored a series of highly regarded books on Iran drawing on his experience.

One listener commented on Radio Farda’s website:

"I'm so touched by Mr. Limbert saying he is not angry with the hostage takers. He is so fair. We have to learn from him."

While another listener expressed continued resentment of U.S. actions:

"The U.S. has interfered in Iran before, and it was a right thing that students seized the embassy. They created a coup in Iran and they would repeat it if they had a chance."

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One of the Iranian captors, who asked that his name be withheld from the interview, insisted the hostages were well-treated, but expressed remorse that events so quickly escalated out of hand after what he said was meant to be only a brief occupation of the embassy in protest of U.S. policy toward the Shah.

In other segments of the series, Assemi continues the process of bringing independent research and an uncensored point of view to events relating to the crisis. She explores the roots of anti-American sentiment in Iran, stretching back to the 1953 coup and culminating in the occupation of the embassy; the role of Islamic Revolution leader Ayatollah Khomeini in the hostage crisis; the failed U.S. hostage rescue mission; and the effect of the crisis on Iran’s image in the world. Assemi interviewed an erstwhile Iranian member of parliament to illuminate the political backdrop at the time, and, finally, her series takes the measure of current U.S.-Iran relations.

Assemi says that while Iranian state media propaganda on the relationship is pervasive, it’s by no means potent.

“It's difficult for the younger generation to learn the truth because they have grown up in the Islamic regime, but they are so smart, and they know how to bypass the limitations,” she said.

Radio Farda's radio and satellite broadcasts are routinely jammed by Iranian authorities, and readers have to use proxy servers to access its website, which is blocked.

Assemi studied journalism in Iran and worked for various official Iranian newspapers before being forced to flee the country in 2003 after her reporting for other, independent outlets made her a target of government pressure. She joined Radio Farda at RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters that same year, and, except for a brief stint with BBC’s Persian Television from 2008-2010, has been there since.

When asked about the specific challenges of being a woman in her profession in Iran, Assemi says it’s difficult for anyone to be a journalist in Iran, but especially for a woman.

“Some officials won’t even look you in the eyes when you talk to them because of their conservative thinking,” said Assemi. “It’s very difficult to be a woman--there are so many red lines that you cannot cross and things you cannot talk about. I couldn’t always tell the truth at the newspapers where I was working, and that’s what I knew I wanted to do.”

--Emily Thompson