1979 hostage crisis raised tensions in US

Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
November 4, 2004 Thursday, Home Final Edition



Twenty-five years ago today, people who looked Middle Eastern had
reason for concern in central Ohio.

A Middle Eastern student was stabbed in the Ohio State University
area after being taunted. Another’s apartment was firebombed. An
Oriental-rug dealer displayed a sign in the front window of his
store: “We are Americans and we are proud of our country.”

In some ways, these and other incidents were a precursor of what
would come after Sept. 11, 2001. But this was what followed Nov. 4,
1979, after militant Islamic students had seized the U.S. Embassy in
Tehran, Iran. For 444 days, the students held 52 Americans hostage,
including Bert C. Moore of Mount Vernon, who died in 2000.

Middle Easterners, particularly Iranians, living in the United States
saw for the first time how their U.S. neighbors could see them as the
enemy, even if they deplored what was happening in their homeland.

“It was a very stressful time,” said Behzad Bavarian, an Iranian who
attended OSU from 1978 to ’84 and is now an engineering professor at
California State University in Northridge.

A month after the embassy takeover, Jolah Bomjon Schuck, then a
24-year-old Ohio Wesleyan student, was walking with her brother near
OSU when they were confronted by a gang of young men, according to a
Dispatch story. The men asked if they were Iranian. When they nodded
yes, one man brandished a knife and stabbed Schuck in the leg as she
tried to flee.

Loyalties were complicated, said Nozar Alaolmolki, an Iranian who is
a political science professor at Hiram College in northeastern Ohio.
At the time of the hostage crisis, he was a young professor traveling
between Iran and Ohio.

“The problem here was the tendency to feel Iranians were all alike,”
he said.

Some Iranians in the United States, especially students, supported
the hostage-takers, he said. They felt the United States had
installed Iran’s shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, whom they viewed as
corrupt. A revolution just before the hostage crisis sent the shah
into exile and put the Ayatollah Khomeini in de facto power.

The shah came to the United States in October 1979 for medical
treatment. That angered Khomeini’s followers and fueled the embassy

Dozens of Iranians, including many students, demonstrated Downtown in
support of the hostage-takers and against U.S. imperialism. They felt
that Khomeini’s rise was good for their country, Alaolmolki said.

Some workers in Downtown office buildings spit on them.

“(The students) wanted to establish a republic,” Alaolmolki said of
those celebrating the embassy takeover. But in his estimation, the
students were proved wrong in supporting Khomeini’s oppressive

Iranian students who objected to the embassy takeover were painted
with the same broad brush as those who supported it. All Iranian
students in the United States had their visas examined to make sure
they were in compliance. At least 14 “deportable aliens” were found
at OSU.

In September 1980, an officer of the an Iranian student association
at OSU said that someone tossed a Molotov cocktail at his apartment
building, The Dispatch reported.

The unease spread to people Americans thought looked Iranian.

Walter Menendian, 64, who is of Armenian heritage but was born in the
United States, said that Iranian rugs made up about 15 percent of
sales at his family store, K.A. Menendian Oriental Rugs on W. 5th
Avenue in Columbus. He and his relatives could feel opinion turning
against anything that even seemed Iranian, including their business.
So they put the patriotic sign in the store window.

“We thought it couldn’t hurt,” said Menendian, now retired.

Still, the tension caused by the hostage crisis did not rise to the
level of suspicion and “us-against-them” feeling that arose after
Sept. 11.

“The hostage crisis was remote,” Alaolmolki said. “On 9/11, the
visual evidence here was vivid.”