ARGO and the Follow-Up: Iran and the United States


33 Years after the event, Hollywood has turned its attention to an episode that traumatized the United States for months: the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. As the US Embassy falls to a group of Islamist students and militants in support of the Iranian revolution and in retaliation for the USA's sheltering of the recently deposed Shah, six diplomats slip out and seek sanctuary in the Canadian’s ambassador’s residence. It is up to the CIA’s Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to extract them from the country before they are discovered by the Revolutionary Guards.  The plan? Create a fake movie, called Argo, and pretend they’re the crew.

Blog by D. Zwaagstra

“History begins as farce and ends as tragedy," says a Hollywood producer in ARGO.

"I think you have that backwards," responds a Hollywood make-up artist. "History begins as tragedy and ends as farce."

The historical accuracy of ARGO has been a topic of much conversation. The most disputed aspect of the movie’s version of events has to do with Canada’s role in the escape because ARGO is downplaying the actual extent of Canadian involvement, which was considerable. The factual details were declassified by (ex-) President Bill Clinton in 1997, but historical events alone don’t cut it, you need a Hollywood dramatization, and this is a very good one. Allthough i  have personally seen better movies this year, ARGO is said to be the movie to beat for the Best Picture Oscar.

Having said that, the film tells the story of the rescue of the six Americans from Iran, not that of the 52 Americans who spent 444 days (from November 4, 1979 to january 20, 1981)  in captivity in what's called the Iran hostage crisis.

ICJ case concerning United States diplomate and consular staff in Tehran

On November 29, 1979, the USA took its dispute with Iran over the hostage issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The USA charged Iran with violations of various legal principles embodied not only in customary international law but also in four treaties, among which the 1961 and 1963 Vienna Conventions on, respectively, Diplomatic and Consular Relations.  The case concerning United States diplomate and consular staff in Tehran produced two opinions from the ICJ. By an Order dated 15 December 1979, the Court indicated provisional measures in the case. Iran was thus directed to release the hostages, allow their safe departure and restore the embassy compound.

In the mean time after failed attempts to negotiate a release, the United States military attempted a rescue operation off the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier. On April 24, 1980,  Operation Eagle Claw resulted in a failed mission, the deaths of eight American servicemen and one Iranian civilian.

In its Judgment on the merits on May 24, 1980 the Court said that the question of the legality of the US military operation could have no bearing on the evaluation of Iran's conduct on 4 November 1979 and directed Iran to carry out the measures indicated on December 15.

Iran did not comply with the ICJ's  judgment immediately but on July 27, 1980, the former Shah died. Then, in September, 1980, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Iran. These two events, together with the freezing by the United States of all Iranian assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction as of 14 november 1979, may have made Iran more receptive to the idea of resolving the hostage crisis and to enter into negotiations with the U.S., with Algeria acting as a mediator. The hostages were formally released into United States custody the day after the signing of the Algiers accords (19 january 1981).

The Algiers Accords

The Algiers Accords stated that 'it is now and will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs'. The two main principles stipulate that the Unites States “will restore the financial position of Iran, in so far as possible, to that which existed prior to November 14, 1979” and to ensure the mobility and free transfer of all Iranian assets within the United States’ jurisdiction. It further stipulates that both Iran and the United States would terminate all litigation between “the government of each party and the nationals of the other,” and would settle such claims “through binding arbitration”. This established the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal, seated in the Hague. In return the Iranians released the 52 Americans they held hostage.

The Iran-US Claims Tribunal

The Iran-US Claims Tribunal (IUSCT) is the largest bilateral international claims adjudication program ever, it is unique in being a program between a Western country and a non-Western country. The Tribunal has finalized over 3,900 cases. The total amount of the awards to American claimants exceeds 2,5 billion $ and around 1 billion $ to the Iranian government. It is still working on some of the most complicated cases; disputes relating to contracts for sales and services of military equipment produced by US companies for Iran before 1979.

Meanwhile in the United States the former hostages have been trying to collect damages from Iran. They won a civil case by default, but then a judge ruled in 2002 that they could not collect damages, and this year the Supreme Court turned down their last appeal. The State Department has argued that damages are forbidden under the Algiers Accords,  and that if the courts interfered, it would become more difficult for the executive branch to conduct foreign policy. The hostages have now asked the US Congress to change the law. Their request comes at a time of new appreciation for the hazards of the Foreign Service, as demonstrated by the September attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Meanwhile the Iran Tribunal, held in the library of the Peace Palace, delivered its interim judgment last October. According to the Iran Tribunal, which has no legal standing, but which was set up in 2007 by survivors and families of victims of political crimes committed in the decade following Iran's 1979 Revolution, Iran committed crimes against humanity and gross violations of human rights against its citizens. The hope is that the Tribunal will force the UN to set up a commission of enquiry into the killings of around 20 000 people that have gone unpunished for over 25 years. One of these people was Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, Iran's foreign minister during the hostage crisis.

“History begins as farce and ends as tragedy," says a Hollywood producer in Argo.

"I think you have that backwards," responds a Hollywood make-up artist. "History begins as tragedy and ends as farce."

"Really? Who said that?"


"Groucho said that?"

History begins as a tragedy and ends up as a farce ? Only in American movies. The cycle of tragedy is, more often than not, more tragedy.