On Jan. 20, 1981, within minutes of the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as the 40th President of the United States, 52 U.S. captives who had been held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, were released. It ended a sad 444-day saga in American history.
The crisis began on Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranian “students,” outraged that the U.S. government was allowing the Shah of Iran — who had fled the country when his U.S.-supported government collapsed earlier that year — to travel to New York City for cancer treatment, stormed the embassy, overpowered the guards and assumed control of the building. Some of the hostages have since claimed that the leader of the “students” was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s current president.
Iran’s religious and spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, assumed control of the situation and began releasing all non-U.S. hostages and all female and minority Americans. But he ignored U.N. Security Council demands and appeals from other Arab nations to release the hostages.
As the crisis dragged on, President Jimmy Carter’s image as a weak and feckless President grew, and was cemented when a rescue operation ended in the Iranian desert in a huge fireball that killed eight U.S. military personnel.
As the 1980 Presidential primary grew near, the Reagan campaign complained that Carter was about to pull off an “October Surprise” that would see the hostages released and hand Carter his re-election. The Carter campaign alleged that the Reagan campaign had its own surprise in store. From that, the term October Surprise entered our lexicon.
Allegations surfaced that Reagan Campaign Director William Casey had met secretly with some Iranians in Madrid to keep the hostages until after the elections in order to deny Carter a victory that would give him a campaign boost.
A Democrat-controlled House committee, dubbed the House October Surprise Task Force, cleared Casey because “Credible witnesses and corroborating documents showed Mr. Casey to be in California” at the time the Madrid meeting was supposed to have taken place, according to The New York Times.
Of course, America continued to be involved in Iranian affairs. A scandal that came to be called the Iran-Contra Affair began in 1985, when the Reagan Administration sold arms to Iran — which was by then at war with Iraq — and used the proceeds to arm Nicaraguan guerillas called the Contras who were fighting the Communist government of Daniel Ortega.