CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- Thirty years ago this week, a group of Iranian "students" shouting "death to America" stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking nearly 100 hostages -- among them 65 Americans. Though foreign national employees and some Americans were released within a few weeks, the remaining 52 were held for 444 days. For the American people, it was an introduction to militant Islam. For then-President Jimmy Carter, intent on "engaging" the radical regime that had replaced Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, it was a disaster. The Obama administration appears to have missed the lessons of this debacle.
Though Mr. Carter described the embassy takeover as "a disappointing development" and "surprising," it shouldn't have been. Strikes, mass demonstrations and student protests throughout Iran began in early 1978. In September, the shah responded by declaring martial law. It didn't help.
On Jan. 16, 1979, the shah, seriously ill with cancer, fled and sought refuge in Morocco, Mexico and the United States. About two weeks later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to be greeted by more than 5 million devotees lining the streets of Tehran. Ten days later, he proclaimed himself Iran's supreme leader.
When hundreds of students chanting anti-American slogans flooded into the U.S. Embassy on Feb. 15 and briefly occupied it, the Carter administration delivered a "strongly worded diplomatic note" protesting the "lack of protection by Iranian authorities." For the next eight months, despite increasingly strident pronouncements by Khomeini and officials of his new "Islamic republic," Mr. Carter and his aides made repeated overtures to "engage" the regime in Tehran.
On Nov. 1, 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski met in Algeria with the ayatollah's prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan. Three days later, the "students" charged into the U.S. Embassy again. This time they stayed.
Though some of those who participated in the takeover subsequently claimed they planned nothing more than a "sit-in" like those on U.S. college campuses during anti-Vietnam War protests, the ayatollah's most radical followers were actually in control of events. Despite Carter administration protests, Khomeini's Revolutionary Guard and police, posted outside the embassy walls, did nothing to end the takeover or the hostage situation. Mr. Carter responded by freezing Iranian assets in the U.S. and "severing diplomatic ties" with Tehran.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.