Iran Hostage Crisis in the Election of 1980


By: Abigail Dorward, Katie Bearup, Anna Still, Charles Cory, and Jack Ware

On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students seized control of the American Embassy in Iran, taking sixty six hostages. These students were fueled by anti-American sentiment that was widespread in Iran, and their actions were sparked by America’s decision to grant the deposed Iranian Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, asylum in America to receive cancer treatment. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran during the hostage crisis, was known for his hatred of the West, and especially of America. He had lead the efforts to depose Shah Pahlavi because the Shah routinely cooperated with American interests.

This was the greatest ordeal that Jimmy Carter faced during his presidency, and it would be 444 days until the last of the hostages were released. The hostage crisis raised Khomeini’s global profile, granting an air of legitimacy to his anti-Western politics. Khomeini refused to release the American hostages until Carter released the Shah back to Iran to face his death. This ongoing crisis was poison for Carter’s reelection campaign. Reagan’s campaign played off Carter and Khomeini’s seemingly interminable stalemate to indicate that Carter was weak, incompetent, and unfit to be President.

As campaigning for the 1980 election began, Carter seemed to have the advantage. He was the incumbent president, the economy was doing well, and the New Right movement that backed Reagan still seemed a little extreme to most Americans. But the Iran hostage crisis changed that. Iranian oil supplies were cut off, causing a fuel crisis that harmed the American economy. The fear mongering of the New Right campaign now seemed presentient, and Carter’s inability to resolve the crisis gave Americans cause to doubt his capability for foreign policy, especially in the face of anti-Western hostility. The hostage crisis also drew Carter’s attention away from campaigning for the year leading up to the general election as he attempted to negotiate the hostages’ freedom. As such, the Iran hostage crisis can be viewed as a determining factor in Reagan’s eventual victory over Carter in 1980.