Internationaal recht – Tehran hostages

  • Datum: 24 mei 1980

  • Rechtbankniveau: ICJ

  • Rechtsgebied: Internationaal recht

  • Wetsartikelen: 1955 Treaty and the Vienna Conventions


On 4 November 1979, a militant group of Iranian students entered the United States Embassy and overtook it, taking its 65 occupants hostage. 13 women and blacks were released, leaving 52 hostages. Although Iran had promised protection to the U.S. Embassy, the guards disappeared during the takeover and the government did not attempt to stop it or rescue the hostages. The U.S. arranged to meet with Iranian authorities to discuss the release of the hostages; however, Ayatollah Khomeini forbade officials to meet them. The U.S. subsequently ceased relations with Iran, stopped U.S. exports, oil imports, and Iranian assets were blocked. Although the militants were not acting on behalf of the State, neither did the State uphold their agreement to protect U.S. nationals. The militants said they would hold the hostages until the Shah, who was receiving medical treatment in the U.S., was returned to Iran.

The United States argued that Iran violated the Vienna Convention of 1961 which stated the Embassy would be protected, as well as the Vienna Convention of 1963 which stated the nationals would be protected while in their country.
Furthermore, the 1955 Treaty was in effect, which promoted good relations between the U.S. and Iran and promised protection to its territory and nationals.

Legal question

Did Iran act in violation of its international obligations in tolerating, encouraging and failing to prevent and punish the conduct by the militans?


The Court found that the Vienna Conventions and the Treaty were violated, as the Government of Iran knew of the militants’ actions and made no attempt to help the United States’ hostages. Iran had stepped in on other militant attacks of embassies, but did not do so in this case. Therefore, the Court determined that the Government knowingly decided to not intervene in this case. In first essence is Iran not responsible because only actions from state organs can be charged to the State. Iran did approve and support the actions of the militants’ actions and therefore Iran could be held accountable.

Iran, through its 1955 Treaty and the Vienna Conventions, must ensure the protection of the United States’ citizens while they are in Iran. Therefore, Iran is responsible for releasing the hostages even though they themselves did not contain them. Iran was under obligation to ensure that the people as well as the property were protected, and therefore should remedy this.

The Court determined that Iran was more than negligent in these circumstances. They had, on 1 March 1979, claimed to be making arrangements to prevent the United States from any takeovers or attacks. Many Iranian authorities approved of the takeover and the Foreign Minister claimed that America was responsible for the incident. Iran deliberately ignored requests for the hostages to be released and should, for these reasons, help to make reparation for the actions (art. 22 ILC).


This case stressed the importance of the Vienna Convention’s rules as well as Treaties. Additionally, it emphasized that a Government is responsible for what goes on within its boundaries even if the actions are not specifically Government-related. The Government should be held to the Vienna Conventions and Treaties, no matter the circumstances. Furthermore, the case heavily impacted the relations between the United States and Iran even still today as this was a pivotal moment in the relationship between the two States. So Iran should pay the US for their injuries. The relevant paragraphs are 56 – 94 and 28.