From beatings to mock executions – inside the horror 444-day Iran hostage crisis

On November 4, 1979, 66 US diplomats and citizens were taken hostage inside the American embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

The Iranian Revolution which began in January 1978 and ended 13 months later in February 1979, saw the overthrow of the Shah and the monarchy, with the Middle Eastern country becoming an Islamic Republic.

The revolutionaries were angry with the American government due to its support for the Shah and tried to take over the US embassy twice before succeeding in November 1979.

In recent months the US had reduced the size of the embassy's staff from a high of nearly 1,000 earlier in the 1970s, to just over 60 by the time of the take over.

Not all of them were captured straight away, but those that were, including Marines and embassy staff, were blindfolded by the occupiers and then paraded in front of assembled photographers.

Over the next couple of days, many of the embassy workers who had sneaked out of the compound or had not been there at the time of the takeover were rounded up by Islamists and returned as hostages.

Six American diplomats managed to avoid capture and took refuge in the British embassy before being transferred to the Canadian embassy.

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In a joint covert operation known as the Canadian caper, the Canadian government and the CIA managed to smuggle them out of Iran on January 28, 1980, using Canadian passports and a cover story that identified them as a film crew – with the movie, Argo, which won Best Picture at the Oscars, based on these events.

52 of the 66 captured Americans would then spend the next 14 months (444 days to be precise) in captivity, before finally being freed on January 20, 1981.

One of these was Barry Rosen, 75, who worked as the embassy's press attaché.

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Talking to Columbia Magazine, he described his terrifying ordeal, which included beatings, mock executions and isolated confinement.

“There are no words for it," he exclaimed.

The captors held guns to his head and ordered him to sign a confession that he was a spy.

Rosen had 10 seconds to do it or else be shot, resisting until the last two seconds before caving.

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He said that after that, he felt utterly broken: “I was distraught. I didn’t want to live after that.”

Each night, he tried to stay awake, telling himself: "If you’re up they can’t kill you. Stay alert, stay alert".

He added: “They’d point guns and then pull the trigger and there was nothing. It was a psychological game.”

Some hostages attempted suicide – one man banged his head repeatedly against a wall, while another tried to cut his wrists with glass.

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Rosen was not immune, claiming that every day he wanted to die.

The captors controlled when the hostages ate and when they were allowed to use the bathroom, and as the days of hunger, humiliation, and terror dragged on and the unheated embassy got colder and colder, Rosen lapsed into a depression.

In April 1980, the US staged a rescue mission but that failed, leading the captors to divide the hostages and send them to different locations throughout the country.

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Rosen landed in a windowless cell in what he believes was the city of Isfahan, 250 miles south of Tehran.

One day, without notice, the hostages were moved again, this time to the notorious Evin Prison in the capital.

The site of torture and executions of dissidents, was actually an improvement, as it was warmer and the hostages were four to a cell, so Rosen had people to talk to.

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For exercise, he and the others would walk in a line around the tiny cell for miles and miles.

Finally after 444 days, on January 20, 1981, the day of President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, guards told Rosen, “You’re going home.”

His reaction? “I didn’t believe them", he said.

The hostages boarded buses to the airport and were released, but not before the captors spat in their faces.

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Although they were given champagne upon their exit from Iranian airspace on their flight home, Rosen was still suspicious: “It didn’t sink in for a long time that we were free.”

And reuniting with his family after 14 months was not straightforward, claiming that “it took a long time to get into a rhythm of life.”

Rosen met one of his captors, Abbas Abdi, nearly two decades later in 1998, and said the man apologised.

The 75-year-old said: “It’s too long ago to carry all that. There will never be closure… I internalise a lot of things, a lot of fear. It might be better to scream, but I don’t.”

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