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Flashback: Iranians seize U.S. mission, ask Shah’s return for trial

By Nicholas Cumming-Bruce,

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Washington Post’s coverage of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian students led with this Page A1 story by Nicholas Cumming-Bruce on Nov. 5, 1979. For more information on Tuesday’s storming of the British Embassy in Tehran, see our latest story and live blog .

TEHRAN, Nov. 4, 1979 -- Several hundred Iranian students today stormed and occupied the U.S. Embassy in central Tehran taking as many as 100 hostages, including diplomatic staff, Marine guards and local Iranian employes in an assault that appears to have left the government temporarily paralyzed.

The students, mostly in their early twenties, said in a press conference after the occupation that they would continue to hold the embassy staff until the United States agreed to send exiled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back to Iran for trial.

The shah has been hospitalized in New York since Oct. 22 undergoing treatment for cancer.

Spokesmen for the students appeared to have no clue what action would be taken if the U.S. government declined, saying only that it would conform with the wishes of the people.

The assault on the embassy came at about midday after hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through the capital in demonstrations commemorating students shot dead by the shah’s troops on Tehran University campus at this time last year.

About 400 students forced the gates of the embassy and scaled the compound walls in what was a largely nonviolent occupation.

The attacking force included a small group that was heavily armed, according to Iranian eyewitnesses, but no weapons were carried by the students, male and female, who later controlled the embassy compound.Many of them wore large pictures of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pinned to their chests.

A small group of U.S. Marine guards fired tear gas at the students as they broke into the compound but failed to check them as they rushed the embassy buildings.

Embassy officials destroyed sensitive files during the attack, according to the students, who produced charred remains of documents for inspection by the press.

They said they found other documents relating to events in Kurdistan and oil-rich Khuzestan, two provinces in which there has been bitter fighting since the revolution between security forces and dissident ethnic minority groups. They declined, however, to identify the contents of the documents.

The attack was completed quickly, but throughout the day and late into the night, hundreds stood outside the embassy compound chanting anti-American slogans.

“Khomeini struggles, Carter trembles,” they shouted along with more familiar cries of “Death to America” and “America is the number one enemy.”

A mock gallows was produced from which a poster dangled, reading, “for the shah” while other demonstrators burned banners condemning U.S. imperialism.

The students declined and the government was unable to specify the number of embassy staff held, but reports by the official Pars news agency quoted their reporter as saying there were 33 men and five women. Other estimates put the total at 50 or 80.

A student spokesman adamantly denied earlier reports that they were being held blindfolded in a cellar of the embassy.

“They are safe, we have treated them well,” he commented, adding that they were confined together in one large room and supplied with food and water.

The U.S. charge d’affaires, Bruce Laingen, who was out of the embassy at the time of the attack, was in close contact throughout the day with Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi, who had returned only this morning from a visit to Algeria. But there appears to have been no concerted action by the government and religious leaders to defuse the situation.

The students deny having had any contact with the government and say they do not want such contact. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said, however, that an independent mediator had been sent in to try to negotiate the release of those held.

No comment was available from Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s office, but a lengthy statement was issued by the Foreign Ministry. It charged the United States with ignoring strong representations by Iranian authorities that the shah not be allowed access to the United States, that he be examined by Iranian doctors approved by the revolutionary authorities and that he be sent back -- with all his wealth -- to Iran.

In an expression of sympathy for the students’ action, the statement added: “the action taken today by a group of our countrymen reflects the feeling of the Iranian nation toward the U.S. government’s disregard on this issue.”

There is no evidence yet whether the attack on the embassy was planned well in advance and whether it was carried out in concert with political groups.

The students today described themselves as Moslems and supporters of Khomeini with no political party affiliations.

But the incident did receive support from some Moslem clergy. Students at the embassy today claimed that the assembly of constitutional experts, which is dominated by the clergy, had today voted in favor of their action.

At the same time, the Islamic Republican Party newspaper bitterly condemned Bazargan for his meetings in Algiers with President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The paper said: “In these days when the leader of the revolution has launched the strongest attacks on the world predator imperialists led by the United States . . . you, Mr. Bazargan, sit and talk with Brzezinski in Algiers.”

Meanwhile, the 79-year old Khomeini added to his stringent criticism of the United States over the last week, which has helped ignite the recent upsurge in anti-American demonstrations.

In a statement broadcast today, the ayatollah warned “those who support the great powers such as Britain, which has given asylum to [former prime minister Shahpour] Bakhtiar and the U.S., which has given refuge to that corrupt worm, will be confronted in a different manner if they continue.”

In another development today, a Baghdad Radio broadcast reported that Iraq had lodged a strong protest with Iran over what was described as an attack on the Iraqi Embassy in Tehran yesterday and the abduction of four persons.

Note: An incorrect version of The Post’s lead story from Tehran in 1979 was originally published at this URL.

Read more: Tuesday’s coverage

Hard-line Iranian students storm British Embassy, residential compound

Live updates on embassy situation

Photos: Union Jack replaced with Islamic flag

Video: Dozens storm British embassy

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