The year 1979 brought a shock of a different kind to national pride. A revolution in Iran, led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-89), toppled longtime U.S. ally Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, who fled into exile in January 1979. In October, desperately ill with cancer, the Shah was granted permission to come to the United States for medical treatment. In response to this gesture, on November 4, 1979, 500 Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 embassy employees hostage, demanding the return of the Shah.
While President Carter refused to yield to this demand, the Shah voluntarily left the United States in early December. Still, the hostages remained in captivity (except for 13 who were black or female, released on November 19-20). Stalemated and frustrated, President Carter authorized an army Special Forces unit to attempt a rescue on April 24, 1980. The mission had to be aborted, and although its failure did not result in harm to the hostages, it seemed yet another humiliating defeat for a battered superpower.
Not until November 1980 did the Iranian parliament propose conditions for the liberation of the hostages, including a U.S. pledge not to interfere in Iranian affairs, the release of Iranian assets frozen in the U.S. by President Carter, the lifting of all U.S. sanctions against Iran, and the return of the Shah’s property to Iran. An agreement was signed early in January 1981, but the Ayatollah Khomeini deliberately delayed the release of the hostages until January 20, the day Jimmy Carter left office and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Although the new president, in an act of great grace and justice, sent Carter as his special envoy to greet the returning hostages at a U.S. base in West Germany, many Americans saw the Iran hostage crisis as a failure of the Carter administration, and the release was regarded as a kind of miracle performed by the incoming president.