The well-organized attackers took 52 American members of the staff hostage and held them for 444 days. By the time the incident ended, in January 1981, the United States had severed diplomatic ties with Tehran and had attempted, unsuccessfully, to liberate the hostages in a commando operation.
Then U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced the failure of the U.S. commando operation: "I share the disappointment of the American people that this operation was not successful."
The rescue operation had to be unexpectedly aborted after a helicopter developed engine trouble in a staging area in the Iranian desert. The mission ended in the deaths of eight Americans, as two U.S. transport planes collided.
Gary Sick was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis. He said those events continue to shape the tense relationship Tehran and Washington have today.
"A lot of this also goes back to the early days of the [Islamic] Revolution, which was seen not only as a revolution against the shah but a revolution against the United States," Sick said. "The concept of 'Death to America,' the 'Great Satan' and other such slogans and words have become very much part of the revolution, particularly after the mass demonstrations associated with the takeover of the U.S. Embassy. So it is very much part of Iran's domestic politics. At the same time, the United States suffered greatly because of the takeover. And Iran became the U.S.'s 'Satan.' They are now part of the axis of evil. Many politicians have identified them as the sort of permanent bad guys in the Middle East and that, of course, is increased by the fact that Israel regards Iran as its No. 1 enemy. So between Israel and the U.S., the rhetoric on the American side is in some cases no less as dramatic as on the Iranian side. And this has become part of American domestic politics, too, which immensely complicates any kind of discussion or any hope for developing better relations."
For Tehran, the hostage taking also remains a powerful symbol. But it portrays the event as a just reaction against what it calls decades of U.S. exploitation of Iran.
As an example, Tehran charges the United States with helping orchestrate the 1953 coup that toppled the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq after he nationalized Iran's then foreign-dominated oil industry. Some U.S. involvement was subsequently acknowledged by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.
Tehran also saw the United States as propping up the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, which was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution in January 1979. Revolutionary leaders regarded the shah's government as corrupt and ruthless in its use of its state Intelligence and Security Organization (Sazeman-i Ettelaat va Amniyat-i Keshvar, SAVAK) to target opponents.
The leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, made anti-Americanism a principle of the Islamic Republic's foreign policy, lashing out at Washington in many of his speeches.
"We are here to prevent America committing evil acts, to defend ourselves," Khomeini once said. "We do not expect America to do any good to us. We trample upon America in these matters. We will not let it interfere with our affairs. Nor will we let any other party interfere [with] us. And if they want to invade, we will not let their planes land. We will kill their paratroopers in midair."
Today, relations between the United States and Iran continue to be characterized by hostile statements on each side. Occasional attempts at starting talks to ease tensions have always run aground due to preconditions set by both sides.
Iran says there can be no talks until the United States first ends it efforts to isolate Iran through unilateral sanctions.
The United States says there can be no talks until Iran ends what it charges is its state sponsorship of terrorism and its rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Washington also wants Tehran to renounce any efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney recently expressed Washington's position toward Iran. "[Iran] has been a major source of state-sponsored terrorism, if you will, and [is] devoted to the effort to destroy the peace process," he said. "We find that clearly something that we can't accept, and we've made clear our opposition to that, as well as to their efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction."
Iran denies it supports terrorist groups or is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.
(Part 2 looks at Iran's alleged ties to Middle Eastern militant groups that the United States considers to be terrorist organizations.)
Iran: Reformers Insist Hard-Liners' History Of Political Assassinations Continues (Part 3)
Iran: Rushdie Affair Continues To Cloud Tehran's Claims Of Rejecting Violence (Part 4)