Negotiating with Terrorists: The U.S.-Iran Hostage Crisis

30 Pages Posted: 19 May 2005

See all articles by Karen Feste

Karen Feste

University of Denver - International Studies

Date Written: 2005


The practice of hostage-taking constitutes a form of instrumental terrorism. Terrorists seek to negotiate with authorities using hostages as bargaining chips to achieve their demands. Although many countries have firm policies against making deals with terrorists under the premise that negotiation - understood as a process of concession and compromise - will reward groups for bad behavior, to save lives, negotiation often proceeds. In 1979, Iranians opposed to the Shah's rule, invaded the American embassy in Tehran and held a group of 52 American diplomats and other hostages for 444 days. To secure their freedom, outgoing President Jimmy Carter agreed to unleash $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets. What strategies were used by each side to resolve the conflict? How did particular initiatives influence recipient response? Which strategies were more effective in achieving desired results?

In the study, five negotiating strategies are examined: hard and soft bargaining, rights and interest based approaches, and appeal to principles, in the fourteen month chronology of multiple negotiation plans and encounters between the United States and Iran to solve the crisis and reach the terms of agreement specified in the January, 1981 accord. The analysis compares negotiation theory and research findings with outcomes in this case, concluding that neither principled, nor soft, nor rights-based bargaining seemed to work, while power and interest focused approaches had a positive effect on the negotiated outcome. The case yields insight into negotiation contexts where parties of vastly different strength in absolute terms have reversed power positions in bargaining leverage; shows which side tends to follow particular negotiation paths; and how the use of various strategies help or hinder conflict resolution.

Keywords: Negotiation strategy, hostage-taking, terrorism

Suggested Citation

Feste, Karen, Negotiating with Terrorists: The U.S.-Iran Hostage Crisis (2005). IACM 18th Annual Conference, Available at SSRN: or

Karen Feste (Contact Author)

University of Denver - International Studies ( email )

Denver, CO 80208
United States

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