Iran 1979.

On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of Iranian students, stoked by the Iranian Islamic Revolution that took place earlier in the year, ransacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held sixty-six American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days. The “Iran Hostage Crisis” became emblazoned on the American psyche as an unprovoked attack on our compatriots and national dignity. The Iranian revolutionaries, however, regarded the event simply as the “Conquest of the American Spy Den” and therefore, an appropriate response to years of perceived U.S. support for an installed corrupt puppet regime in the Iranian capital.

The inability—both diplomatically and militarily—to retrieve the hostages in a timely manner resulted in the loss of U.S. standing in the region, cost President Jimmy Carter dearly in his re-election bid, and bolstered Iran’s fervent Islamic revolutionaries, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It became clear soon enough that the recently overthrown, U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Pahlavi and his family would not return to power. The following April, the United States launched an accident-ridden rescue attempt, Operation Eagle Claw, which resulted in the deaths of eight American servicemen and an Iranian and the loss of two aircraft. The former Shah died a few months later, in July 1980. These events only solidified Iranian beliefs that Allah was on the side of the revolutionaries, and the American hostages continued to languish as guests of their Persian hosts. 

Egypt, 1979.

Predating Iran’s Islamic Revolution by only seven months, Egypt became the first Arab Sunni country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. For his bravery in pursuing an elusive peace, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and then assassinated by young military officer and fellow Egyptian Khalid al-Islambouli in 1981. The death of Sadat, who provided temporary refuge in Egypt to Iran’s deposed Shah, was celebrated as a victory to a new generation of Islamists, those opting for conservative, political, and occasionally violent interpretations of the tenets of Islam. The new theocratic leadership in Iran, for example, quickly declared al-Islambouli an exalted martyr upon his subsequent execution for Sadat’s assassination, making him an inspirational symbol and a first among many to be recognized for devotion to political and militant efforts to promote an Islamic religious agenda. Iran’s Persian and Shia leadership also adorned the memory of the Arab Sunni assassin by issuing a postage stamp in 1982 in his honor, and until 2004, Tehran memorialized him with the eponymous Khalid Islambuli [sic] Avenue

Saudi Arabia, 1979.

Also in November 1979, was the largely lesser-known seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia by young Saudi militant Juhayman al-Otaybi. Al-Otaybi and several hundred followers believed his brother-in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani to be the Mehdi (Islam’s prophesied Messiah, some thought to be a resurrected Mohammed, or perhaps Jesus, returned to earth to issue in the final days). The al-Otaybi group’s taking of the mosque, aimed at unseating the House of Saud, resulted in the deaths of hundreds, including militants, the Saudi National Guard, and still unknown numbers of religious pilgrims amassed for the annual hajj. Al-Qahtani and most of the armed militants were reportedly killed during the storming of the mosque by Saudi military and Pakistani and French mercenaries, and al-Otaybi and most of his surviving followers were publicly beheaded in cities throughout Saudi Arabia in January 1980. Ever the opportunist, Ayatollah Khomeini publicly blamed “American imperialism and international Zionism” for supporting this attack on Islam’s holiest city and incited anti-American demonstrations around the Muslim world. Mobs overran and burned the U.S. Embassies in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Tripoli, Libya over the following days. 

Iraq, 1980.

Meanwhile, next door in Iraq, Saddam Hussain, head of a secular political movement, the Ba’ath party, perceived the time ripe to emerge from the yoke of Ottoman and Western colonialism and return Iraq to glory not witnessed since the Islamic golden age and rule of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad from 750–1258 AD. Hussain believed that Iraq, though much smaller than Iran, could exploit ongoing Iranian turmoil and appeal to newly found Shia religious zeal, much of which adhered to theocratic beliefs established in marja’iyat—the holiest of Shia cities and institutions, located in southern Iraq and under Arab control. He also believed the some six million Iranian Arabs living on the eastern shores of the Arabian (vice Persian) Gulf would readily rise up and join Iraq’s return to glory. He miscalculated and underestimated Iranian unity and/or the iron fist of control the Iranian revolutionaries fervently wielded over their newly bolstered countrymen. 

Hussain’s invasion of Iran in September 1980 embroiled both countries in an eight-year war that cost around one million lives and resulted in untold destruction. This conflict re-introduced chemical warfare to the world and induced the shameful use of children as mine detectors. It also led to Iraq’s ill-fated 1990 invasion of Kuwait, largely an attempt to recoup war damages lost in the useless conflict that resulted in no border changes, just death and the destruction of both economies.

United States, 1981.

It was the death of the Shah and subsequent Iraqi invasion of Iran that led the Iranian government to negotiate with the United States over the hostages. With Algeria’s mediation, and via Canadian intervention, the Iranians released the sixty-six captives on January 20, 1981, just minutes after the swearing in of President Ronald Reagan. Khomeini’s defiance of what he perceived was American regional hegemony ensconced him and his theocratic, anti-Western rule as a new regional power and wedged a deeper schism between the Arab/Persian and Sunni/Shia worlds that sent ripples and then waves of conflict and unrest through Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Yemen, and beyond. It also launched a forty-year U.S.-Iranian grudge match and a cold war characterized by embargoes, sanctions, and proxy conflicts.  

These factual events contributed to the rise of Saudi Arabia’s Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terror group, multiple Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the Taliban in Afghanistan, recurring Gulf Wars, 9/11, and even the Arab Spring, and Daesh or ISIS. They also serve as the backdrop to our story, covering up stirrings that threaten an apocalypse with a reach far beyond that of the Arabian/Persian Gulf.