| November 1979
Under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran had been a long-time ally of the United States. The Shah's secret police, the Savak, were notorious abusers of human rights, however. President Carter writes in his biography, Keeping the Faith, that he asked the Shah whether he could curb the human rights abuses in Iran. The Shah answered, "No, there is nothing I can do. I must enforce the Iranian laws, which are designed to combat communism."
The Shah declared martial law in September 1977. A bloody confrontation between police and Muslims killed several hundred people. Muslims called for the Shah's abdication. The Shah tried to pacify them by granting amnesty to several opposition leaders, including exiled Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah also appointed a prime minister, who once in power called for the Shah to leave and disband his secret police. On January 19, 1979 millions of marchers rallied to back Khomeini, who announced from France that he was forming a new government. Khomeini flew into Teheran, the capital of Iran, on February 1, 1979. Meanwhile, the United States was evacuating Americans from Iran. The Shah fled to Morocco.
On November 4, 1979, 3,000 militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and captured 54 embassy staff members. Khomeini praised their actions. The militants demanded that: the Shah be turned over to them for trial; the United States apologize for crimes against the Iranian people; and the Shah's assets be paid to them. In April 1980, a U.S. rescue mission failed. The hostages were released in 1981, on President Ronald Reagan's inauguration day, 444 days after they were taken.