Listen carefully to the inevitable flood of 40th-anniversary retrospectives on the November 4, 1979, takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran, and you’ll hear an unusual choice of words to describe the hostage-takers. From the very first moment of the hostage crisis, Walter Cronkite and most other American journalists referred to the men who climbed walls, faced down Marine guards, broke into buildings, seized diplomats, and held them for 444 days as “students,” uncritically adopting the moniker used by both the hostage-takers themselves and Iran’s new revolutionary regime, which was anxious to avoid U.S. retaliation.
When the embassy was stormed and briefly occupied on Valentine’s Day 1979, it was an amateurish affair, quickly broken up by the provisional revolutionary government. But the November 4 takeover was a far more professional job. The attackers disguised their intentions with banners proclaiming “We do not wish to harm you. We just want to set in.”
As you watch the grainy old film clips today, notice how many of these alleged “students” appear to be sallow, weathered, middle-aged men. I was a college student in 1979, and I remember thinking that these guys looked more like my teachers than my peers, especially the ones in charge who paraded blindfolded Americans around for the cameras and jeering mob.
The hostages themselves were suspicious of their captors’ campus bona fides. Of the eight who wrote books about their time in captivity, many within the first few years of freedom, most put quotation marks around the word “students.” From 1983 to 1985, Tim Wells interviewed most of them for his oral history, 444 Days: The Hostages Remember (1985). Few called their captors “students,” using instead a variety of terms: Iranians, radicals, militants, terrorists, goons, guards, knuckleheads, turkeys, and assholes.
For Americans, the most visible “student” leader was Hossein Sheikholeslam, who convened press conferences for the legions of international journalists that flocked to Tehran. But he hadn’t been a student since the early 1970s when he attended the University of California at Berkeley. His proficiency in English also made him suitable to interrogate the hostages. Sheikholeslam “may have been trained in interrogation techniques,” wrote William J. Daugherty, one of only four CIA officers stationed at the embassy on November 4. “He exercised abundant self-control and seemed at ease in this environment.”
Another ringleader, Mohammad Hashemi, wasn’t a student at all and hadn’t been a student in more than a year, or at least he hadn’t attended any classes. He spent his time with friends forming a group, called “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line,” that gave orders to those who showed up to protest outside the U.S. embassy. They wore laminated photos of Khomeini around their necks and pinned to their jackets.
No doubt many of the protesters were students, for Khomeini had ordered “all grade-school, university, and theological students to increase their attacks against America,” but their registration status was incidental. Using the word “students” to refer to those who brutalized our diplomats and subjected them to mock executions misleadingly implies that their actions were born of naïve, youthful idealism and grievances. These were first and foremost religious zealots blindly following the will of clerics (Ali Khamenei and Mousavi Khoeni among them) who often visited the hostages, too. Many attended Amir Kabin University, “strictly allied with Khomeini and the new Mullah establishment,” according to Mark Bowden in Guests of the Ayatollah (2006). As Bowden puts it, they “were all committed to a formal Islamic state and were allied, some of them by family, with the clerical power structure around Khomeini.”
Bruce Laingen, who was the chargé d’affaires at the embassy, wrote in his journal that Khoeni was “the clerical link with the ‘students’ at the embassy since the day of the seizure and . . . the link before that, too, in the planning for the seizure.” On July 21, 1980, he wrote with certainty that Khoeni was Khomeini’s “liaison with the ‘students’ of the embassy” and that there “can be no question of the extent to which the clerical forces are solidly in control.”
The term “students” was inaccurate and misleading in 1979, and it is all the more so now. After four decades, the time has come finally to get it right.