Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Presidential Decisions: The Iran Hostage Crisis
Jared Werges
American Government
Time Frame:
Ninety minutes
Iran Hostage Crisis

Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:

After studying articles and timelines on the Iran Hostage Crisis in groups, students will participate in a class discussion of the circumstances and causes of the crisis. Groups will then study primary documents with the goal of providing a recommendation to President Carter as to how he should proceed.


I want students to understand the difficulty and ambiguity involved in presidential decision-making. Further, I feel that students should know about this often-overlooked event, in light of current relations between the United States and Iran.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

Distinguish between fact and opinion and analyze sources to recognize bias and point of view Develop a research plan and identify appropriate resources for investigating social studies topics Distinguish between and analyze primary sources and secondary sources SHOW ME STANDARDS 2. Continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States and the world 6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions 7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents) KANSAS STANDARDS (High School-US History) Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills. 1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time. 2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers. 3. (A) uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S. history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating on its meaning (e.g., uses provided primary and secondary sources to interpret a historical-based conclusion). 4. (A) compares competing historical narratives in United States history by contrasting different historians' choice of questions, use of sources, and points of view, in order to demonstrate how these factors contribute to different interpretations.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

“444 Days: Understanding the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis” at http://www.presidentialtimeline.org/html/

Fast facts on Iran from CBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/08/30/country_facts/

Timeline of US-Iran ties: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3362443.stm

Timeline of US relations with Iran until Obama: http://web.mit.edu/mitir/2009/online/us-iran-2.pdf

Modern history of Iran: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/indepth_coverage/middle_east/iran/

Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:

Diary entries from one of the hostages:

Robert C. Ode: http://www.presidentialtimeline.org/html/educators/JEC/hostagecrisis_wq/odediarypage.pdf


Carter speech on rescue operation:


Washington Post article on the SAVAK, the Iranian secret police: http://www.presidentialtimeline.org/html/educators/JEC/hostagecrisis_wq/iraniansecretpolicearticle.pdf.

Selection from the failed commando rescue mission report, 1980: http://www.presidentialtimeline.org/html/educators/JEC/hostagecrisis_wq/rescuemissionreportaugust1980.pdf

The U.S stake in Iran: http://www.presidentialtimeline.org/html/record.php?id=835 (this is a lengthy document that students need not read in its entirety, but may skim for relevant points)

Full description of activity or assignment.

Students will work in groups to read and summarize the main points from the secondary sources Students should read with the purpose of better understanding the relationship between the United States and Iran leading up to the hostage crisis. Students may use other electronic sources, as well. The teacher should help students to find appropriate sources. Provide students the following questions to guide them:

Thoroughly describe the relationship between American presidents and the Shah in the years leading up to the hostage crisis.

Why was the relationship this way?

How did the Iranian people feel about the Shah? How can you tell? Why would they feel this way?

Some sources refer to the hostage takers as "students," while some sources call them "militants." Does this change how you view them? Explain.

Why did the Iranian students/militants take American hostages?

Who was the Ayatollah Khomeini? How did he feel about the United States and the hostage crisis? After students have had the opportunity to read the secondary sources and answer the above questions, discuss the questions as a class. Then ask students to suggest possible responses to the crisis. Keep track of these on the whiteboard. Try to guide students toward the following options:

1. do nothing

2. continuing political and economic sanctions

3. undertake another rescue mission

4. mine the harbors

5. all-out military strike

Have students work in groups to come up with the pros and cons for each response. Students will then assume the role of advisors to the president. Each group will analyze primary sources, with the goal of determining the appropriate response for President Carter. Students will complete document analysis sheets for each source. The analysis sheets can be found at http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/worksheets/written_document_analysis_worksheet.pdf

When groups have finished analyzing the primary sources, they must write a memorandum to President Carter explaining how they think he should respond and why. The letter should be dated December 31st 1980. President Carter is anxious to resolve the situation before he leaves office. Students should be sure to provide the president a thorough analysis of the situation and thoroughly explain why their response to the crisis is better than the other possible responses. Students must cite at least four of the primary sources in making their case.

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

Groups will be formally assessed on the degree to which they write a coherent and well-reasoned memorandum to the president. An outstanding paper will include the following: a thorough and clear explanation of the appropriate response to the crisis with no spelling or grammar errors that make the memo difficult to follow, a detailed and clear explanation why their response is better than each of the alternatives, and citations from at least four of the primary sources that support the students' argument. Individual student participation will be considered as well. As a follow up, students will individually write a reflection on how the hostage crisis has effected relations between the United States and Iran. They should also address whether their proposed response to the crisis would have improved relations between the two countries and why.