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Ever since oil was discovered in Iran in the first decade of the 20th century, the country had attracted great interest from the West. British corporations controlled the majority of Iran’s petroleum by the early 1950s, when newly elected Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh announced plans to nationalize the country’s oil industry. Worried that Mossadegh was moving Iran closer to the Soviet Union, the Cold War-era Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British intelligence conspired to overthrow Mossadegh and consolidate power under a leader who was more receptive to Western interests.
That leader, a member of Iran’s royal family named Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, was installed in power in 1953. Under the Shah’s pro-Western, secular anti-communist government, some 80 percent of the nation’s oil reserves returned to U.S. and British control. With a steady supply of American-made weapons, the Shah and SAVAK, his secret police, brutally repressed opposition to his rule, including an uprising in 1963 led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an elderly Islamic cleric.
Finally, in 1979, a popular revolution in Iran swept the Shah from power, replacing him with an Islamist government engineered by Khomeini, who returned triumphantly after 14 years of exile to take his place as Iran’s political and religious leader. U.S. President Jimmy Carter, against the advice of some of his advisers, declined to act in support of the Shah, but also failed to reach out to the opposition—a decision that would cost him dearly. That October, after it was announced that the Shah, now in exile in Mexico, was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer, Carter reluctantly decided to allow him entrance to the United States for treatment on humanitarian grounds.
The decision sparked a firestorm of anti-American sentiment in Iran, culminating in the students’ siege on the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4. The Iran hostage crisis would bring the United States to a state of near war with Iran and torpedo Carter’s presidency. After a short time, the students released 13 of the 66 hostages, who were mostly diplomats and employees at the embassy. Those released were mostly women, African Americans and non-U.S. citizens, whom (according to Khomeini) were already subject to the “oppression of American society.” Though another hostage was later released due to health problems, 52 men and women remained in captivity by mid-summer of 1980.
President Carter made freeing the hostages in Iran the top priority of his administration, but neither diplomatic overtures nor economic sanctions swayed the Ayatollah and his supporters. In April 1980, a military operation involving an elite rescue team failed after a helicopter crashed into a transport plane, killing eight servicemen. Amid constant media coverage, Carter’s failure to resolve the hostage crisis doomed his 1980 reelection campaign, as Republican challenger Ronald Reagan benefited greatly from Carter’s increasing weakness. (Rumors even circled that Reagan campaign staffers negotiated with the Iranians to ensure that the hostages were not released before election, but Reagan would vigorously deny these allegations.) In November 1980, Reagan won a landslide victory.
Meanwhile, the embassy hostages lived in deep uncertainty and fear, subjected to long periods of confinement, beatings, threats of bodily harm and execution. Among other privations, their captives deprived them of hot and cold running water until days before their release. After months of negotiations, the United States and Iran finally came to an agreement to free the hostages in December 1980, but the Iranians showed their enduring hatred of Carter by waiting to release them until minutes after Reagan delivered his inaugural address on January 20, 1981.
The Iran hostage crisis brought the United States directly into conflict with militant, political Islam for the first time. It also began the hostility that continues to characterize the U.S. relationship with Iran to this day. In Tehran, the former embassy building, which served as a prison for the hostages over those agonizing 444 days, is now an Islamic cultural center and museum. Known in Iran as “the den of spies,” it has become a symbol of the Iranian revolution.
How The Iran Hostage Rescue Was Supposed To Go Down If It Hadn't Ended Early In Disaster
USAF/USN/Estman via Wikimedia/ebay/Public Domain
At approximately 3:00 am local time on April 25, 1980, U.S. Marine Corps Major Jim Schaefer lifted off in Bluebeard 3, the Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter he was piloting. The helicopter’s massive rotors kicked up a dense cloud of sand at Desert One, a small patch of Iranian territory that had, in the last hour, been transformed into an American airbase of sorts.
Minutes earlier, their mission, rescuing the 52 Americans held hostage at the United States embassy in Tehran, had been aborted. Eight helicopters had launched for the task two aborted en route, leaving six that made it to the first waypoint, Desert One, where they would refuel before heading onto the forward staging area deeper inside the country.
Outside the Beltway
In his AIPAC speech yesterday, Mitt Romney declared, “I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called peace through strength. There’s a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn in. As president, I’ll offer that kind of clarity, strength and resolve.”
The PolitiFact gang rates this as a Pants on Fire untruth. Interviewing several historians, the find that the Iranian government decided to make a deal with the outgoing Carter administration for reasons having little or nothing to do with Reagan. Knowing what I know about international politics, that strikes me as not only plausible but likely.
Then again, PolitiFact quotes Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times reporter who now teaches at Boston University and authored the book, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future: ”My guess is that the hostages would have been released even if someone else had been inaugurated — anyone but Carter. The Iranians had come to hate Carter and didn’t want to give him a triumph. Giving it to someone else was fine with them.” That, too, seems not only plausible but matches my contemporaneous recollection. (Granted, I was 15 at the time. But the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Election of 1980 were seminal events in my political awakening.)
It’s rather silly, then, to treat Romney’s statement as if it were a lie. At worst, it’s a political fairy tale and an incredibly plausible one at that.
And let’s be clear, Romney’s version, while largely mythological, was received wisdom at the time. The banner headline in the January 21, 1981 edition of the New York Times was “Reagan Takes Oath as 40th President Promises an ‘Era of National Renewal’–Minutes Later, 52 U.S. Hostages In Iran Fly to Freedom After 444-Day Ordeal.” And here’s what Bernard Gwertzman reported in that story:
The 52 Americans were freed as part of a complex agreement that was not completed until early yesterday morning, when the last snags holding up their release were removed by Mr. Carter and his aides, in the final diplomatic action of their Administration.
Under the terms of the accord, as the Algerian plane left Iranian air space, nearly $3 billion of Iranian assets that had been frozen by the United States were returned to Iran, and many more billions of dollars were made available for Iranian repayment of debts.
The 52 Americans were freed only minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. The concurrence in timing held millions of Americans at their radios and television sets, following the pageantry of Inauguration Day and the news of the hostages’ release.
The negotiators, who had worked around the clock for five days in an effort to bring the crisis to an end before Mr. Carter left office, said that they had no idea whether the Iranians had deliberately dragged out the talks so as to insure that the hostages were not actually in the air until Mr. Reagan was President.
It’s rather unreasonable to expect our presidential candidates to consult with teams of historians to get their post hoc, studied reactions to events. Those who have studied the negotiations since–and presumably had the ability to talk to some on the Iranian side–have since concluded that there’s little to no evidence that the incoming president’s foreign policy was a significant factor. But there’s no reason on earth Romney should know that.
And it’s quite likely, indeed, that the timing of the release was chosen by the Iranians to give the least possible amount of satisfaction and credit to the hated Jimmy Carter, who had given sanction to the Shah during his dying days.
444 Days in Hell
Early on Nov. 4, 1979, hundreds of Iranian science and engineering students—furious that American President Jimmy Carter had granted asylum to the ailing and recently exiled Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi—descended on the chained gate and 8- to 12-foot-high brick walls of the chancery, the main building of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Although the diplomats, staff and military personnel within the compound had every reason to be alarmed, they should not have been surprised.
Nearly nine months earlier, on February 14—the same day Muslim extremists in Kabul, Afghanistan, kidnapped and murdered U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs—Islamic militants in Tehran had stormed the embassy. Although the invaders held the building for only a few hours, they wounded and kidnapped Marine security guard Sergeant Kenneth Krause, tortured him and threatened to execute him before officials secured his release a week later.
In the November attack the insurgents—members of a fundamentalist group calling itself the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line—had initially planned the incursion only as a symbolic show of force. “It was supposed to be a small, short-term affair,” Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the leaders of the takeover, told a GQ reporter in 2009. “We were just a bunch of students who wanted to show our dismay at the United States. After that it got out of control.”
Ordered not to shoot into the crowd, the embassy’s 13 Marine security guards (see P. 28) fired tear gas, which proved ineffectual as the insurgents scaled the walls and surged through the gates. As demonstrators arrived by the busload, the students held guns to the heads of two embassy personnel, threatening to shoot unless those inside opened the steel doors. When the inhabitants complied, the students surged into the chancery, rounding up those within. As Marine security guard Sergeant William Gallegos later remembered, “They tied us up, blindfolded us, dragged us outside.” The insurgents then paraded the 66 Americans before Iranian news cameras. For most of the hostages, it was the beginning of an odyssey that would not end for another year and 79 days.
“In retrospect,” writes author Mark Bowden in his 2006 book Guests of the Ayatollah, the embassy takeover “was all too predictable. An operating American embassy in the heart of revolutionary Iran’s capital was too much for Tehran’s aroused citizenry to bear.”
There was nothing new in America’s presence in Iran, although others had gotten there first. The two biggest players for control of its precious oil reserves were Britain and Russia. In 1907 the two nations “split” Persia (as the country was known) into three spheres of influence, each power claiming one section with a neutral zone separating them. By forcing the economic divide, they effectively squelched Persia’s efforts to establish its budding constitutional monarchy. The following year the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.—a government-funded private enterprise that would become British Petroleum, or BP—became the first company to take advantage of the region’s oil reserves.
The United States didn’t become actively involved in Iran until World War II, when control of Middle Eastern oil was vital to an Allied victory. In 1941 newly allied Britain and Russia installed a compliant 21-year-old Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as shah, and President Franklin Roosevelt sent thousands of American troops into Iran to help run and maintain the country’s Allied-built Trans-Iranian Railway. Although U.S. troops were withdrawn at war’s end, the United States, according to Middle East historian John P. Miglietta, “began to broaden its aims in the country and the region as a whole. These centered around acquiring control of Iranian oil, as well as maintaining Iran as a strategic bulwark against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.”
The extent of American involvement in Iran became clear in 1953. The shah had become embroiled in a power struggle with Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who, since his appointment in 1951, had nationalized the renamed Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., seized its assets and cut off diplomatic relations with Britain. In the wake of a failed August attempt to overthrow Mossadegh, the shah fled to Rome.
Later that month the new Eisenhower administration—committed to protecting Iran’s petroleum exports and concerned Mossadegh would lean on the Soviet Union for support—authorized a second joint U.S./British coup. While succeeding in restoring the shah to power, the coup claimed hundreds of Iranian lives, the popular Mossadegh was imprisoned for treason and a number of his devotees were executed. His followers never forgot or forgave America’s role in the affair. The shah continued to receive the unflagging support of each subsequent U.S. presidential administration as he continued to build a world-class arsenal for his army, at one time becoming America’s largest arms purchaser. Ultimately, the United States authorized him to buy nuclear reactors for power generation.
Ever fearful of internal dissension, the shah enlisted the CIA to help him create a secret police, domestic security and intelligence service, whose Iranian acronym was SAVAK. Described by historian David Farber as “internationally infamous for the brutality, cruelty and macabre creativity of its torturers,” the organization was widely feared, and with good reason thousands of political dissidents—many facing torture and death—soon found themselves in Iranian prisons without having been tried.
The year 1963 saw the emergence of an extraordinary fundamentalist leader in Iran. Although many Americans still regard him as a single-minded fanatic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a scholarly, charismatic individual who combined an appreciation of ancient Persian poetry with a thorough knowledge of, and devotion to, the Quran. A Shia Muslim cleric, he gained national recognition with what writer Eugene Solomon called “a captivating moral urgency and prophetic power.” Khomeini spoke publicly and vehemently against the United States, Israel and the shah, calling the latter a “wretched, miserable man.” In 1964 the shah drove the cleric into what would become a 15-year exile in Turkey, Iraq and France.
By the late 1970s a groundswell of anti-shah and anti-American anger and resentment, combined with a growing trend toward Islamic fundamentalism, had brought Iran to the brink of revolution. Ironically, the U.S. president who became the target of decades of anti-Western resentment was arguably the most committed human rights advocate to occupy the White House since Abraham Lincoln.
Few of even his most fervent political adversaries ques tioned Jimmy Carter’s good intentions. His ingrained sense of Christian morality and belief in the innate goodness of man formed the invisible plank in his surprisingly success ful 1976 presidential campaign. Virtually unknown just months before the election, he won the presidency with scarcely 50 percent of the popular vote.
Carter’s term began on a positive note. A newcomer to international affairs, he held 60 meetings with foreign heads of state in his first year. His record on human rights was stel lar, and he was not shy about flagging civil rights violations in other countries. “I feel very deeply,” he stated in a 1977 town meeting, “that when people are put in prison without trials and tortured and deprived of basic human rights that the president of the United States ought to have a right to express displeasure and to do something about it.” His apparently inflexible stance provided encouragement to resistance movements in such countries as Russia and Poland. As he wrote to Soviet dissident and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Andrei Sakharov in February 1977, “We shall use our good offices to seek the release of prisoners of conscience.”
In September 1978 Carter achieved the seemingly impossible. Over a contentious two-week stay at the presidential retreat Camp David, Md., he brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the peace table, alternately reasoning with, cajoling, begging and bullying them into signing the “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel.” It was world-class diplomacy on Carter’s part, for which the two co-signers shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.
From the beginning of his administration, however, Carter had confronted problems that, although perhaps not of his making, would prove his undoing. For one thing he had inherited a post–Vietnam War economy that was bad and rapidly growing worse. During his administration the stock market hit a 28-year low, unemployment rose, the nation’s trade deficit grew and the country experienced an energy crisis that saw gas and oil costs soar and gas station lines grow progressively longer. Carter beseeched Americans to tighten their belts and asked industry leaders to hold the line on prices and wages until the crises passed. Unfortunately for Carter, his “voluntary control” solution was not the message people wanted to hear, and his approval rating plummeted.
To exacerbate matters the president proved ineffectual in dealing with Congress. Carter could be resistant to the point of stubbornness, his strong sense of “Christian humbleness,” as historian Douglas Brinkley called it, often coming across as self-righteousness bordering on arrogance and hubris. And he often got bogged down in the details. According to James Fallows, Carter’s former chief speechwriter, “[The president] often seemed more concerned with taking the correct position than with learning how to turn that position into results.” Although serving in a government in which politicians made deals and passed bills on a give-and-take basis, Carter often refused to compromise and staunchly resisted action based on political expediency. As veteran congressman and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill observed, “He never understood how the system worked.”
During his run for the presidency Jimmy Carter had stated, “Never again should our country become militarily involved in the internal affairs of another country unless there is a direct and obvious threat to the security of the United States or its people.” Ironically, the one arena in which that stance was seemingly absent was in his dealings with Iran.
Carter saw the U.S. relationship with the shah as a time-honored, successful and necessary one. In consideration of Iran’s proximity to the Soviet border, its position as a secure source of oil and its growing military strength in the region, Carter was willing to close his eyes to the shah’s notorious human rights violations, opting instead for a policy of what one might call “situational morality”—or to put it bluntly, lying to oneself.
During a 1977 New Year’s Eve toast at a state dinner in Tehran, Carter said, “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Yet within a week of Carter’s televised toast, anti-shah demonstrations rocked the streets of the Iranian capital. Student protesters burned and trampled American flags and effigies of the president, and police opened fire on the protesters, killing several. Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later commented, “We knew there was some resentment, we knew somewhat of the history of the country, but we were not conscious, nor were we informed, of the intensity of the feelings.” As State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III observed: “Our information out of Iran was crappy to non existent. We had nobody who spoke Farsi, and what passed for our intelligence was what was given to us by SAVAK, since the shah, paranoid as he was, had gotten an agreement from us that we would not infiltrate Iran with our own intelligence people. The shah himself had been our chief source of information about internal dissent!”
Just over a year later, on Feb. 1, 1979, Khomeini responded to the upsurge in popular support by ending his exile and returning to Iran. Two weeks earlier the shah—weakened by cancer and faced with an army mutiny and rioting in the streets—had abdicated, leaving Khomeini the self-declared supreme leader of an Iran in tumultuous tran sition. Although Iranians would soon elect economist and politician Abolhassan Banisadr as the first post-revolution president, no one questioned who ran the country. On his arrival Khomeini called for the expulsion of all foreigners, and the U.S. State Department immediately evacuated some 1,350 Americans.
Student protesters in Tehran had not consulted Khomeini prior to their Nov. 4, 1979, attack on the U.S. Embassy, and when he first heard they had taken the compound, he responded with irritation and ordered them “kicked out.” On reflection he reversed himself, seeing in the takeover a perfect opportunity to challenge the “Great Satan,” as he called the United States. It would serve to focus international attention on America’s decades-long involvement in Iran. The hostages themselves would serve as pawns, to be exchanged only when the exiled shah himself was returned for trial and, presumably, execution. Most important, it would solidify Khomeini’s power base.
From the outset of the crisis the return of the shah was a non-negotiable condition for the Iranians. When Carter had graciously allowed the shah to enter the United States that October to undergo and recover from surgery, Iranian revolutionaries suspected another coup was in the works. “The United States made a mistake taking in the shah,” hostage taker Saeed Hajjarian told GQ. “People in Iran were very sensitive to this issue. If they had not admitted him, nothing would have happened.” Carter himself appreciated the potential fallout for providing the shah refuge. After making the difficult decision, he had turned to national security adviser Gary Sick and asked, “I just wonder what advice you’re going to give me when they take our people hostage.”
Meanwhile, the hostages were getting a sense of what life would be like under their captors. “Eventually, they put us into rooms with 24-hour guards,” recalled embassy press attaché Barry Rosen. “We were tied up, hand and foot. You felt like a piece of meat.” Rosen noted the disturbing Iranian tendency to compartmentalize: “They’d beat the freakin’ hell out of you, and then they’d ask, ‘When this is all over, can I get a visa?’”
The captors jammed some captives into closets or locked them in dark rooms. “It was like living in a tomb,” recalled Vice Consul Richard Queen. They subjected others to mock executions, seemingly for amusement.
Less than two weeks after the attack the Iranians released 13 of the 66 hostages. Eight were black, with whom the insurgents claimed kinship as an oppressed minority the other five were female, freed, claimed Khomeini, because Islam respects women. The remaining 53 captives were forbidden to speak with one another, although some devised clever methods of communicating through notes and secret gestures.
With each passing day, hearing no news except what their captors fed them, the hostages grew less certain their situation was a priority back home. That Christmas the Iranians allowed four clergymen to visit the captives in a room laden with food and festive decorations. But when the holiday ended, they returned the hostages to their prisonlike conditions. “In the States,” said Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, one of the clerics, “the hostages were on the news every day, but they had no sense of that. They felt like they’d been abandoned.”
In late January the captors finally allowed the hostages to converse. For many of the captives time had ceased to hold meaning. “It just kept dragging on,” recalled political officer Michael Metrinko. “It wasn’t something they announced at 9 in the morning, ‘Oh, we’ve decided to hold you for 14 months.’ It just sort of drifted into it.”
Cloistered as they were, the hostages were unaware that a team of negotiators led by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher was working for their release. The issues were complex, with far-reaching military, political, social and economic ramifications, and the negotiating pro cess was difficult at best. “Carter and many of his key advisers seemed to really believe that Khomeini was crazy and irrational,” noted historian Farber. “They kept hoping that wiser, saner and more rationally self-interested men would take over Iran.” Forced to deal with a regime in perpetual turmoil, and frustrated in their efforts to attain an honorable settlement, the U.S. negotiators found neither clarity nor a reliable Iranian spokesperson. Deputy National Security Adviser David Aaron recalled the confusion: “Somebody would step forward and say, ‘I have the power,’ and they’d start negotiations. Then the Khomeinists would immediately say, ‘You’re pro-American, you’re selling out the revolution,’ and that person would lose their job and sometimes their life.”
The American people were in no mood to be patient. Chafing under the problems plaguing the country, many saw the drawn-out negotiating process as a further indica tion of Carter’s weakness. America’s reputation abroad also took a beating, as the world witnessed a small and fractious Middle Eastern state stonewall history’s strongest nation. Journalist Roger Wilkins summed up the impression: “The whole world saw these images of these people burning American flags, stomping on images of Carter, and the most rancid sort of disrespect and hatred of the United States, on television, around the world, all the time.”
By the spring of 1979 Americans had festooned trees and lampposts nationwide with yellow ribbons in remembrance of the hostages and were demanding the president bring them home. Even Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, pressured him to be more proactive. “I would say, ‘Why don’t you do some thing?’ And he said, ‘What would you want me to do?’ I said, ‘Mine the harbors.’ He said, ‘OK, suppose I mine the harbors, and they decide to take one hostage out every day and kill him. What am I going to do then?’”
Initially, Carter was adamant in his refusal to consider the use of force. “The problem,” he reasoned, “is that we could feel good for a few hours—until we found that they had killed our people.” Finally, however, after months of failure at the negotiating table, he concluded, “We could no longer afford to depend on diplomacy.” Against the fervid advice of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, the president authorized a military rescue operation designated Eagle Claw and comprising a 132-man force drawn from the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (aka Delta Force) and 75th Ranger Regiment 15 translators three Air Force MC-130 Combat Talon transports three Air Force EC-130E Commando Solo tankers two Air Force C-141 Starlifter transports eight Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters based aboard the carrier Nimitz in the Arabian Sea and various other supporting Navy and Air Force strike and electronic warfare aircraft.
The rescue mission was intended as a two-part operation. The first task was to establish a staging area, dubbed Desert One, at a remote location in central Iran. The MC-130s would fly in the Delta troops from an island of Oman. The soldiers would then board the RH-53D helicopters and stage forward to an assault base, Desert Two, some 50 miles outside Tehran. On the second night of the operation the Delta operators would drive overland to Tehran and assault the embassy compound. Having eliminated enemy forces and secured the hostages, the team would rendezvous with the helicopters at a Tehran stadium, airlift to the waiting transports and leave Iran and the hostage crisis behind.
Launched on April 24, 1980, the raid was an abject failure. One inbound RH-53D ex perienced a malfunction and put down in the desert. The remaining helicopters flew into a dust storm, which forced one to turn back and damaged the hydraulics on another. Left with just five operational helicopters, the ground element commander, Colonel Charles Beckwith, reluctantly opted to abort. As one of the RH-53Ds maneuvered to make room for a departing EC-130, it clipped the tanker’s tail and crashed into its wing root. The resultant explosion killed eight servicemen. Leaving behind the wreckage and charred remains of their comrades, the team returned home. “We left eight guys on this pyre in the middle of the desert,” recalled Delta Force operations officer Major Bucky Burruss. “That’s something you live with forever.”
Carter took full responsibility for the failed rescue attempt, his reputation suffering a blow from which it never recovered. A Time cover story titled “Debacle in the Desert” observed, “His image as inept has been renewed.” The Washington Post simply declared Carter “unfit to be president at a time of crisis.” There would be no further rescue attempts the Iranians relocated the hostages. “They panicked and spread us all over the country in 48 hours,” recalled embassy military attaché Joseph Hall. “I think I was moved 17 times during the next two months.”
On July 11, the 250th day of the crisis, Vice Consul Queen joined the 13 other released hostages after a doctor discovered he was suffering from multiple sclerosis. That left 52 in captivity. With the threat of military action off the table, their only hope for release was successful diplomacy.
Sixteen days later the shah died in an Egyptian hospital. Since his return was the primary condition for release of the hostages, many in Washington hoped his death would end the ordeal. But there was no change in the Iranian stance.
Election Day that year fell on November 4, the anniversary of the embassy takeover, a coincidence that further highlighted Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory. Carter then faced a tight deadline if he was to affect a release of the hostages in what remained of his single term in office. In early January 1981, in accords brokered by Algerian mediators, the parties reached a satisfactory, if not mutually agreeable, resolution. Among other humiliating concessions, Ameri can negotiators pledged the United States “would not intervene politically or militarily in Iranian internal affairs” and agreed to release nearly $8 billion in Iranian assets frozen by Carter at the outset of the crisis. Christopher signed the accords on Jan. 19, 1981, Carter’s last day in office. All that remained was for Iran to honor its part of the deal.
In those final hours in the White House, Carter and his senior advisers stayed up all night in the Oval Office, waiting for the call announcing the release of the hostages. Morning would see the swearing-in of Reagan as 40th president of the United States, and Carter wanted the satisfaction of knowing the 52 long-suffering American hostages had been released on his watch.
It was not to be. Only after Reagan had taken the oath of office and completed his inaugural address did an airliner carrying the hostages leave Tehran bound for West Germany. It was the ultimate slap in the face to the man who had labored tactfully—and ultimately, successfully— for 14 months for the release of his countrymen.
It then fell to Reagan to announce the release of the hos tages and to bask in the resultant patriotic glow. To many observers the hostage crisis marked Carter’s last failure as president, and Reagan’s first success, albeit unearned. Neither he nor any of his transition team had participated in negotiations, nor did Reagan initially credit the outgoing president for the hostages’ release. The American people, however, could finally untie their yellow ribbons and breathe a collective sigh of relief. After a harrowing, humiliating and seemingly endless wait, the hostages were home.
What neither Carter, nor his advisers nor the American people realized was that the Iran hostage crisis was not simply a one-off event engineered by a religious fanatic. History is nothing if not a continuum, and students of history might well trace a direct line from the street revo lutions of the late 1970s to the Arab Spring of the 2010s and ultimately to the terrorist organizations currently rampaging throughout the world. Although the United States hadn’t met all their conditions, the ayatollah and his followers considered the hostage crisis and resulting accords a success. After all, they had demonstrated that a small group of unswervingly committed believers with limited resources could hold the world’s most powerful nation hostage for an extended period of time, and they had done so on a global stage. It is a lesson the United States seemingly has yet to learn.
Freelance writer Ron Soodalter is the author of Hanging Captain Gordon. For further reading he recommends Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam, by Mark Bowden American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis, by Warren Christopher, et. al and Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam, by David Farber.
First published in Military History Magazine’s March, 2017 issue.
Halting a Slow Fade to History
WASHINGTON — Thirty-three years after the event, Hollywood has turned its attention to an episode that traumatized the United States for months: the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. But it has focused on what one participant called “a footnote”: the escape of 6 embassy personnel, not the 52 Americans who spent 14 months in captivity.
The off-center focus of the movie “Argo,” which opened on Friday, turns out to be fine with many of the former hostages, because their day in the limelight (or more properly, their 444 days) is on the edge of memory now, or, for younger Americans, too long ago to be part of any memory at all. And they are mostly happy to be remembered, even as the backdrop for someone else’s story.
The sense of time passing hit David M. Roeder, a retired Air Force colonel, a few years ago when he and some fellow former hostages were testifying about their experience before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. A representative from Iowa, he recalled, “said there is no one he respects more than us, and he still remembers it because he was still in grade school when it happened.”
The former hostages consider it a trifle odd that “Argo” is based on the tale of six embassy staff members who eluded Iranians, posing as students, who took over the embassy on Nov. 4, 1979. The six spent weeks in hiding, sheltered by Canadian diplomats, until they slipped out of the country, 3 months into the 14-month crisis.
The six were greeted at the White House by President Jimmy Carter, and their return was a rare bright spot during a grim time when the nation worried that the hostages would be tried as spies and executed. The larger episode is still a sore point in American history, perhaps not something many people would pay money to see recreated.
“Our little story is a footnote,” said Robert Anders, the informal leader of the six, whom the movie calls “houseguests.” (They were not held hostage.) “But it had more adventure,” he added. Perhaps not quite as much adventure as in the Hollywood version, but adventure nonetheless, he and others said.
Mr. Anders, played in the movie by Tate Donovan, reflected on this as he sat on a bench near the candy stand at a special screening at a Regal Cinemas multiplex here last week. Out on the red carpet Ben Affleck, the director and star, and John Goodman and others conducted interviews.
“It made me feel a little guilty,” said Mr. Anders, now 87. “The real hostages were the real heroes.”
But the houseguests needn’t feel guilty, several of the hostages said. Alan B. Golacinski, the embassy’s security officer, was invited to the Los Angeles premiere and the Washington screening but decided not to go because, he said, it was their moment in the spotlight.
“Let’s let these people have their time,” he said. And a movie about the 444 days, he said, would not supply Hollywood-type excitement. “It would be the National Geographic channel,” he said.
Barry Rosen, another former hostage, had a different perspective. He said the crisis, from November 1979 to January 1981, was no more than “a point of departure” for the movie, which he called a version of “Mission: Impossible.” Mr. Rosen, who has begun work on a documentary himself, added, “If people use this to understand the hostage crisis, then they know nothing about the hostage crisis.”
In any case, Mr. Affleck said the escape made a good story, and so did the C.I.A.’s ruse, that the six were Canadians scouting locations for a movie. As retold in “Argo,” the C.I.A. set up a fake movie company as part of the cover story given to Iranian officials. And a movie about a movie, or even a fake movie, is an easy sell, Mr. Affleck said.
Join Times theater reporter Michael Paulson in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, catch a performance from Shakespeare in the Park and more as we explore signs of hope in a changed city. For a year, the “Offstage” series has followed theater through a shutdown. Now we’re looking at its rebound.
“Maybe it speaks to the narcissism of Hollywood,” he said.
Rodney V. Sickmann, who was a Marine sergeant guard at the embassy, found out by happenstance that “Argo” was in production and was invited to visit the Los Angeles set. Mr. Sickmann said he had some trepidation about how his story as a hostage would be told, but was pleased that Ryan Ahern, who plays him in the opening scenes, as the embassy is stormed, is better-looking than he is. On the set Mr. Sickmann received a standing ovation from the cast, Mr. Affleck said, and Mr. Sickmann’s 21-year-old son, Spencer, an aspiring actor, was given a bit part. (He plays a messenger inside the C.I.A. office.)
“They got him all dressed up in 1979 clothes,” Mr. Sickmann said. “It was kind of eerie to be brought back into that timeline.”
The movie captures a lot of the small details of the period: the sideburns, the cigarettes, the aviator glasses, the black-and-white TV screens, the cigarettes, Ted Koppel and David Brinkley as youthful-looking news stars and, of course, the cigarettes.
It also has lots of gritty detail about things that did not actually happen, like a trip by a solo C.I.A. officer (he had accomplices), assignments as movie crew members as cover identities (the C.I.A. offered a variety of covers) and brave but passive Canadian Embassy workers. (They turned out to provide lots of help, according to the participants.) But almost no one seems to mind, mostly because the film tells the story at all.
The hostages want to stay in the news, because for two decades they have been trying to collect damages from Iran, to be paid from money frozen in American bank accounts by President Carter in 1979, and their options are narrowing. They won a civil case by default, but then a judge ruled in 2002 that they could not collect damages, and this year the Supreme Court turned down their last appeal.
Museum of the Moving Image
The Living Room Candidate
"Reagan's Record," Reagan, 1980
MALE NARRATOR: This is a man whose time has come. A strong leader with a proven record. In 1966, answering the call of his party, Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California - next to President, the biggest job in the nation. What the new Governor inherited was a state of crisis. California was faced with a $194 million deficit and was spending a million dollars a day more than it was taking in. The state was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Governor Reagan became the greatest tax reformer in the state's history. When Governor Reagan left office, the $194 million deficit had been transformed into a $550 million dollar surplus. The San Francisco Chronicle said Governor Reagon has saved the state from bankruptcy.
[TEXT: "We exaggerate very little when we say that [Reagan] has saved the state from bankruptcy." -San Francisco Chronicle]
The time is now for strong leadership. [with TEXT] Reagan for President.
"Reagan's Record," Reagan Bush Committee, 1980
Video courtesy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
From Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2012.
www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1980/reagans-record (accessed June 26, 2021).
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On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran. Protesting the entry of the deposed Shah into the United States, they held 53 Americans hostage. For the next twelve months, the hostage situation was an ongoing American nightmare magnified by constant media attention. Confidence in President Carter eroded as a result of the Iran crisis, an oil shortage and resultant increase in gas prices, and 18 percent inflation. Carter’s chances were further damaged by a tough primary battle against Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy.
While Carter had been the fresh face of 1976, this year the role of Washington outsider was played by the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. A former Hollywood actor who became governor of California in 1966, Reagan made a brief run for the presidency in 1968, and nearly beat Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. Reagan’s landslide victory was due not only to Carter’s problems, but also to a demographic shift toward an aging population that was growing more conservative. Carter became the first Democratic incumbent to lose the presidency since Grover Cleveland in 1888. In a further indignity, the Iranians waited until the moment of Reagan’s inauguration to release the hostages.
"The Time Is Now for Strong Leadership"
The rest of Reagan’s ads were simple but effective variations on the central question he put to voters: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" A variety of attack ads reiterated the main problems of the Carter administration: high inflation and the hostage crisis. One spot ,credited to "Democrats for Reagan," included a clip of Ted Kennedy shouting, "No more Jimmy Carter!" during the primary campaign. An unusual negative spot featured Nancy Reagan lambasting Carter for his "vacillating" foreign policy. Though it is common for advertising to feature a candidate’s family members, spouses rarely appear in attack ads.
Reagan’s campaign took advantage of a loophole in federal financing laws designed to limit overall campaign spending. These laws placed a ceiling on the amount of money that could be contributed directly to a campaign, but they also permitted the creation of political action committees, independent groups whose expenditures in support of candidates were not counted against the spending limit. PACs spent a total of $12 million on Reagan’s behalf, compared to less than $50,000 on Carter’s.
"Re-Elect President Carter on November 4"
Carter’s television commercials represented a futile attempt to cast his presidency in the best possible light, and to raise concerns about his opponent. Stressing his main achievement, the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, they portrayed him as a peacemaker and emphasized his military background. As in 1976, the ads focused less on issues and accomplishments than on Carter’s personal qualities, calling him "a solid man in a sensitive job." By describing the presidency as arduous and difficult, the ads asked the public to overlook some of Carter’s setbacks, and implied that Reagan, who would be the first president to begin his term past the age of seventy, might not be up to the job.
In negative ads reminiscent of Johnson’s attacks on Goldwater in 1964, Carter attempted to raise fears that Reagan would be a warmonger. But Johnson’s ads were effective because they were given credence by Goldwater’s defiant style and by statements he made during the campaign. Reagan’s cool and confident manner, exemplified by his nonchalant "there you go again" response to Carter during their televised debate, effectively eased voters' fears.
Illinois congressman John Anderson ran third in the Republican primaries, but gained attention for his intelligence and independent views, which were fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Anderson’s commercials featured a toll-free number in order to encourage small individual contributions, a technique that has since been used by such candidates as Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Jerry Brown, and Bill Clinton.
Not understanding the fear the Soviets had of the Iranian Islamic revolution spreading to their own territory would be one of the great miscalculations of the Carter presidency.
Throughout the first half of 1979, the White House watched as Moscow ramped up support for the communist government in Kabul. When Saudi Arabia informed the CIA that the anti-Soviet Muslim rebel force it was financing was gaining strength, the CIA drafted a proposal for secret US backing of the anti-communist Afghan Muslim guerrillas soon to become widely known as the mujahedin. Such an effort, the agency reasoned, might not only slow down Soviet progress in Afghanistan but also help deflect some of the energy of Middle Eastern Muslims, inspired by the Iranian revolution, away from the United States and toward the Russians. But there were also risks. Any evidence of US interference in Afghanistan would surely lead to Soviet retaliation. The United States would have to operate through a “cutout,” a proxy through which money and weapons could be secretly supplied to the mujahedin. And the CIA had just the candidate: Pakistan’s ruthless secret service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Pakistanis, in fact, had already approached the agency about providing assistance to the Afghan rebels, but indicated that without a solid commitment from the US they “could not risk Soviet wrath.”
The CIA’s proposal found a sponsor in Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish émigré and fierce anticommunist hawk. Brzezinski, an academic who had done work for the CIA, believed the Afghan situation offered the United States a rare opportunity to frustrate the Soviet’s expansionist goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He recommended covert assistance to the Islamic fighters. On July 3, 1979, President Carter signed a directive authorizing nonlethal support. On that same day, Brzezinski said he sent a note the president saying his actions would result in direct military intervention by the Soviets.
On November 20, 1979, as the Carter administration struggled in vain to help the more than four dozen American citizens held captive in the US embassy in Tehran, hundreds of armed Muslim fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in all of Islam.
The militants, intent on overthrowing the Saudi royal family, engaged in a bloody, two-week battle with security forces. The fighting left hundreds dead, many hundreds injured, and the American-allied House of Saud grappling to maintain its hold on power.
|An exclusive interview with Joe Trento about western knowledge of Pakistani nuclear proliferation|
As the Mecca crisis began, a rumor flew from continent to continent that the United States and Israel were behind the Grand Mosque seizure. In Washington, the State Department, still reeling from the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran only a little more than two weeks before, sent out urgent cables to US diplomatic outposts worldwide, warning of possible attacks. Anti-American protests soon erupted across the Muslim world. The most violent by far was in Islamabad. There, the CIA station had learned weeks earlier that radical students at the city’s Quaid-i-Azam University might stage demonstrations at the American embassy in support of the hostage takers in Iran. The intelligence was correct. The Pakistani students were members of the youth wing of the fundamentalist Islamic political organization Jamaat-e-Islami, with which Pakistani strongman General Zia had aligned himself in the course of his Islamization campaign. Throughout the 1970s, Jamaat, like many other conservative Muslim groups, had received generous support from oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Now the Jamaat students, inspired by the embassy takeover in Tehran and inflamed by the mosque seizure in Mecca, were ready to show what they could do.
At noon on November 21, the day after the Grand Mosque takeover began, several hundred angry Jamaat students from Quaid-i-Azam arrived by bus at the gated American embassy in Islamabad and began a demonstration. After speaking with embassy officials, the protesters got back on their buses and drove off, seemingly having made their point. Just a few minutes later, however, the students returned, accompanied by many more busloads of demonstrators. Thousands of people now surrounded the embassy compound. The mood grew ugly — then violent. The crowd pushed past police and swarmed through the gates. The demonstration, orchestrated by Pakistani intelligence, became a riot. Embassy officials called for help. One hundred thirty seven people took shelter inside the steel-reinforced code room on the building’s second floor. Others fled to the nearby British embassy compound. The mob ran wild, rampaging through the grounds, wrecking everything it could, burning cars, and setting fire to the embassy itself. As smoke and flames filled the building, armed rioters climbed to the roof and began shooting down into the code-room vault, killing a young Marine corporal.
Throughout the afternoon, US officials pleaded with the Pakistani government to intervene. President Carter even put in an “impassioned” call for help to General Zia. And yet it would be nearly four hours from the time the rioting began until the Pakistani military responded. At 5:30 in the afternoon, a single Pakistani army unit arrived at the embassy. The rioters slowly dispersed. In the meantime, US installations in Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Karachi had also been attacked. In the end, one American Marine had been killed and the embassy compound had suffered twenty-three million dollars in damage.
That night, Zia went on television to address the nation. Realizing that he could not afford to alienate the Islamic fundamentalists on whom his political life depended, the general offered only a mild reproach to the rioters. While saying that he understood the “anger and grief” over the seizure of the Mecca mosque that had sparked the attack on the Islamabad embassy, he went on to suggest that the rioters’ actions had not been in keeping with “the lofty Islamic traditions of discipline and forbearance.”
In Washington, the response was quite different. American officials fumed at the failure of Zia’s troops to respond more quickly to the attack. The CIA later determined that Zia, believing those inside the embassy had perished in the flames, decided to let the riot run its course. The diplomatic relationship between the two countries was about to dramatically change.
A little more than four weeks after the Islamabad embassy attack, on Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet army marched across the border into Afghanistan. The Russians had taken the bait and invaded, just as Zbigniew Brzezinski claims to have predicted. The Soviet action sent shock waves around the world. All hopes for a thaw in Cold War relations evaporated.
In its newly rehabilitated guise, Pakistan would play a central role in Brzezinski’s plan for countering the Soviet invasion. Brzezinski, the eager Cold Warrior, hoped to punish the Russians for their action. The invasion, as he saw it, offered an opportunity “to finally sow shit in [the Soviets’] backyard.” It would, however, have to be done covertly. The United States and its allies would pay for the shit, the Pakistanis would deliver it, and the Afghanis would do the actual sowing.
Brzezinski laid out his scheme in a secret memo to Carter the day after Christmas, just two days after Soviet tanks first rolled into Afghanistan. The national security advisor cast the issue as a “regional crisis.” “If the Soviets succeed in Afghanistan,” Brzezinski wrote, “and if Pakistan acquiesces, the age-long dream of Moscow to have direct access to the Indian Ocean will have been fulfilled.” As such, the situation posed “an extremely grave challenge” for the United States. Unless the US somehow managed to “project both confidence and power into the region,” Pakistan would likely be intimidated and might eventually succumb to “some form of external Soviet domination.” With Iran already “destabilized,” there would no longer be a “firm bulwark” in the region against a “Soviet drive to the Indian Ocean.”
On the other hand, Brzezinski argued, if the United States could project power into the region, there was a chance that Afghanistan would become “a Soviet Vietnam,” a quagmire from which the Soviet Union could not extract itself. As to what might be done to bring that about, Brzezinski offered some “preliminary thoughts.” The plan he outlined was, in essence, a beefed-up version of the strategy he had promoted earlier in the year that had helped lure the Soviets into Afghanistan in the first place. “It is essential,” Brzezinski wrote, “that the Afghanistani resistance continues. This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and some technical advice.” Toward that end, he added, the United States should “concert with Islamic countries both in a propaganda campaign and in a covert action campaign to help the rebels.” It should also “encourage the Chinese” to assist. But most important, for the plan to work, the administration would have to “both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels.” That, Brzezinski wrote, “will require a review of our policy toward Pakistan, more guarantees to it, more arms aid, and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy.” In other words, the administration would have to put aside its concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
With that, Brzezinski had laid out the strategy that would guide American action in South Asia for the next decade. The United States and its allies would covertly enable a proxy Islamic holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. To do so, it would turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Carter had no way of knowing that hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid to Pakistan for the anti-Soviet effort would be diverted to AQ Khan, the head of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Nor could Carter anticipate that Pakistan would sell the Pakistan bomb technology to all customers – including Libya and the new Islamic regime in Tehran.
Instead, President Carter quickly got behind Brzezinski’s plan. The president viewed the invasion of Afghanistan as a major shift in Kremlin policy and an “extremely serious” threat to world peace. He declared the move “the greatest foreign policy crisis confronting the United States since World War II.” Already under attack in some quarters for his seemingly
timid response to the Iran hostage crisis, Carter believed strong, forceful action was needed to counter the Soviet move. In the days ahead, Carter would embargo wheat sales to Russia, order a boycott of the Olympic games scheduled to be held in Moscow in the summer of 1980, and withdraw from Senate consideration the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), painstakingly worked out with Moscow. But those public gestures were just for show. The real action would be covert.
At an NSC meeting on December 28, two days after receiving Brzezinski’s memo, Carter, in line with Brzezinski’s proposal, instructed the CIA to provide the mujahedin with weapons and ammunition as well as nonlethal supplies and support. Much of the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid through Pakistan would be diverted into the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. Almost immediately Pakistan sought to raise additional funds by offering designs and components for nuclear weapons to North Korea, Libya and Iran.
Next: Part IV How three Iranian mullahs influenced the outcome of the 1980 US presidential election.
US-Iran relations – WW2 to Hostage Crisis
By Rachel Segal
With WWII tearing Europe apart, British and Soviet forces invade Iran, desperate to secure Iran’s oil fields for Allied supply lines to help the USSR fight the Axis powers on the Eastern Front. Though Iran is supposedly neutral, the Brits and Soviets don’t trust its leader, Reza Shah, who’s too friendly with Nazi Germany to be trusted. Trying to save the world, they depose him and replace him with his Western-backed 21-year-old son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
After decades of being treated like a colony by both the British and Soviets, Iranians are tired of feeling controlled. It’s humiliating that Reza Shah, a modernizing and nationalizing force since 1925, has failed to build a government strong enough to fight back against foreign domination. Many resent the West’s puppet, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who they suspect will enrich foreign powers with Iran’s oil while they continue to live in poverty.
The 1951 democratic election of Mohammed Mossadegh as Iranian prime minister is worrying given his nationalistic tendencies. His provocative decision to suddenly nationalize Iran’s oil industry and threaten the flow of oil to the free world is unacceptable. Under British control since the 1920s, Britain has no choice but to withdraw its oil technicians, blockade the export port and turn to the United Nations to try to deescalate tensions. America, which supports the democratic election of Mossadegh, doesn’t appreciate his defying international law.
Iranians, the majority of whom live in poverty, are growing indignant at watching its oil industry enrich the British economy and its navy. Incensed at this inequality, Iran’s parliament democratically elects as prime minister the European-educated nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh. As leader of the government, he proceeds to nationalize Iran’s oil industry for which he’s celebrated as a hero for standing up to the West and rightly taking back Iran’s greatest resource from the British.
After failing to get Mossadegh to denationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which has a major negative impact on the world’s energy supply, Prime Minister Winston Churchill is forced to order a coup to overthrow him. Unfortunately, Mossadegh learns of the plot, closes the British Embassy in Tehran and expels all British diplomats, including the agents planning his overthrow. A desperate Churchill asks US President Harry Truman to have the CIA oust Mossadegh, but he refuses as the newly formed CIA is focused on intelligence gathering and not on overthrowing governments.
After displaying impressive courage by not giving in to international pressure to abandon his nationalization plan of the oil industry, and daring to challenge and flout British power, Mossadegh’s popularity and power at home skyrockets. He further overshadows the Shah (king), who is seen now as a powerless figurehead monarch. Finally, the world recognizes that Iran is a country to respect and not just to exploit. Persian and Iranian nationalism flourish. With America refusing to help Britain undermine the Iranian government, hope is growing among Iranians that America will continue to be their ally.
America has greater sympathy with Britain’s Iran problem after the 1952 election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose first priority is to combat the spread of Soviet communism into the Middle East. Eisenhower agrees to a joint CIA, MI6 plan (Operation TP-Ajax) that convinces the Shah to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh from office. He is replaced with CIA-backed General Fazlollah Zahedi. This coup is a strategic success: In exchange for much-needed foreign aid, the Shah instates a pro-Western, anti-communist government and returns 80% of the Iran’s oil reserves to the British.
Iranians watch with growing resentment as America joins forces with Britain to depose the one elected leader who represents true Iranian interests. Any prior hopes of finding an ally in America are crushed. They no longer have tolerance for Western patrons who only endorse democracy when it aligns with their own interests. Even more infuriating is watching America help the sidelined Shah amass control and turn into a brutal dictator who suppresses dissidence and independent institutions.
The Shah of Iran’s support of Western ideals and ways of living is a relief to America at a time when communism is threatening to the engulf the world. His White Revolution, introduces a national policy in foreign relations that supports the United Nations and peaceful coexistence with Iran’s neighbors. America and Britain see this as proof that their intervention in Iran was the right strategy to pursue and that Mossadegh’s overthrow was in everyone’s best interests.
While many Iranians welcome the Shah’s White Revolution, which brings about land reform, voting rights for women, infrastructure development, and improved literacy, not everyone embraces it. The more conservative Iranians, especially its Islamic leaders, specifically Shiite cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, are unhappy with his American-backed unilateral efforts to secularize the country. Betraying Islam and Iran’s glorious Persian legacy and identity for western values never would have happened under Mossadegh, and the US gloating about causing his overthrow is antagonizing, adding fuel to the fire.
With nationalist forces out of the way, and the Shah’s power growing because of America and Britain, further efforts are made to reach regional stability. America, sensing that unrest still grips many Iranians, pushes the Shah to enact liberal and progressive policies, hoping they will win over the masses and boost his popularity. Creating and training the SAVAK police force is imperative to help contain any discord, especially outspoken critics like Ruhollah Khomeini, whose banishment to Iraq is the best insurance policy against dissent.
Iranians’ anger mounts at both the Shah and at America for allowing him to retain and abuse his power. Iranians increasingly seek refuge in mosques, the only safe places to voice opposition to the Shah without facing arrests, torture and murder. Religious clerics like Ruhollah Khomeini, who publicly criticize the White Revolution, embrace the growing ties between the opposition movement and religion. After calling for the Shah’s overthrow and for the establishment of an Islamic state, Khomeini is exiled to Iraq, which sparks outrage among his support base, who listen to his radio messages from Iraq.
With Iran’s army and air force increasingly dependent on US foreign aid, military supplies, equipment and training, America secures an important regional ally. Iran and America’s increasing closeness protects against any USSR advancement in the Middle East. This is vital given the losses occurring in Vietnam to fight communism. America and the CIA therefore help the Shah maintain his grip on Iran, which provides a win-win for America: He forces legislation through a US-approved parliament that simultaneously modernizes the country and complies with Washington’s interests.
Most Iranians resent that American financial aid is going toward strengthening Iran’s military instead of helping the masses out of poverty. They also feel bitter watching the Shah enjoy immense wealth from American and British oil deals while they live in hunger and fear of his repressive rule. Plus, his elitist and insensitive decisions to throw an elaborate 2,500th anniversary celebration of the pre-Islamic Persian monarchy and to formally replace the Islamic calendar with a Persian calendar alienate religious and secular Iranians alike, who are increasingly looking toward Khomeini to save them.
America is baffled and disappointed to see the Iranian people turning against their modernizing monarch. The only explanation could be that the Shah, with America’s generous backing, attempted to modernize the country too quickly. It’s a slap in the face that Iranians are paralyzing their country with protests and blaming the US for their troubles. Iranians’ perception of America being in control of their country is misguided and baseless, especially as the US government has been sympathetic toward their dreams of independence
Upset by living under the Shah’s continued policies of torture as he secularizes their country and gives preference to American priorities, like granting American expats living in Iran diplomatic immunity, and inspired by Khomeini’s declarations from afar to liberate Iran, millions of Iranians justifiably take to the streets in Iran’s major cities to protest peacefully. However, the Shah’s violent security force fires on demonstrators in September, killing hundreds and wounding thousands, leading to more anti-Shah and anti-West street demonstrations.
Watching the Iranian protests culminate with the shocking overthrow of the Shah, Americans realize they’ve underestimated just how unpopular the Shah is and how popular Khomeini has become among Iranians. It is surprising and even disconcerting to see much influence he exerts over the nation, despite his vision for a darker, more extreme and backward Iran. It’s also very worrying to see the depth of Iranians’ hatred for America, even if it is misplaced.
From exile, Khomeini calls for the Shah’s immediate overthrow. Angry Iranians across the political and class spectrums unite in their loyal support of Khomeini and his call to unseat the traitorous Shah. A group of soldiers, tired of answering to the Shah whom they despise, comply to Khomeini’s call to arms and bravely engage in heroic mutiny by attacking the Shah’s security officers. This act of courage immediately leads to regime collapse and the Shah fleeing the country.
New American ambassador to Tehran, William Sullivan, blames embassy workers and the CIA of being detached from Tehran, which explains their failure to foresee the Shah’s downfall. Desperate to stem Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist and anti-American fervor, Sullivan pushes President Carter to meet with Khomeini in Paris to discuss a new democratic, moderate Iran. His administration rejects the idea, confident that a pro-American military coup will squash Khomeini supporters. They are dismayed when Khomeini returns to Iran, crushes moderates and installs a fundamentalist regime.
After 15 years in political exile for daring to speak out against the corrupt Shah, the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini triumphantly returns to Iran on February 1. He is welcomed back as a national hero by millions of jubilant supporters who revere him as the true leader of an overdue Iranian Revolution. A testament to his popularity, by February 11, Khomeini has earned the air force’s support, and the provisional government has fled, allowing him and his loyal revolutionaries to establish an Islamic government. He has ushered in a new, much-awaited Islamic era free of Western influence.
Though America invites the Shah immediately after he flees Iran, to which Ayotollah Khomeini initially has no objections, he frustratingly decides to visit other countries. When he subsequently begs President Jimmy Carter for asylum, Carter feels torn between US allegiance to a former ally and not stoking the growing religious, anti-America sentiment in Iran. The Shah’s entry into the US will now be seen as inflammatory. But Carter caves in to pressure and allows the Shah entry for cancer treatments despite risking the lives of Americans still working in Tehran.
The fact that the exiled Shah first went to countries like Egypt and Morocco, staying close to home, signaled his interest in returning to Iran and quashing the revolution. And now that America is welcoming its puppet with open arms, Iranian Islamic revolutionaries have evidence that the Carter administration is plotting to place him back in power. Had the Shah immediately fled to America, his intentions of abdication would have been clear. But for him to travel there after checking his options is evidence that he and America are rallying forces for his comeback, which won’t be allowed to happen.
In a shocking and blatant act of terrorism, Iranian Islamic militants seize the American embassy in Tehran and take nearly seventy U.S. citizens captive. While the radical revolutionaries say their hostage-taking is in response to President Jimmy Carter admitting the Shah into the U.S. for cancer treatment, it is nothing more than an outrageous display of oversized ego on the part of the hypocritical Khomeini, who is abusing his power, just as he accused the Shah of doing. America rightly refuses to negotiate with such terrorists.
In an act of national assertiveness, brave Islamic justice seekers respond to America’s compassion for the murderous Shah by storming the U.S. embassy and taking its staff hostage. After being trampled on by America for so long, especially its supplanting of Mossedeq for the Shah and allowing his decades-long misuse of power, Iranians are finally taking control of their own destiny. Khomeini’s approval gives strength to the soldiers, who rightfully demand that America return the Shah to Iran to stand trial for his crimes.
After a tormenting 444 days, the Iranian militants finally free 52 American hostages, just hours after President Ronald Reagan delivers his inaugural address. That the nightmare lasted so long is the sole fault of Khomeini, who selfishly wanted the hostage situation to hamper any potential amends between Iran and America. The mistreatment of the hostages is indefensible. Despite decades of financial aid and enabling the introduction of women’s rights and literacy, Iranians choose fundamentalism over modernization and dash any hopes of earning American trust in the future
Though the American hostages were released, Iran proved its strength by showing independence and long-overdue opposition to American power. By maintaining the upper hand and refusing President Carter’s attempts at reconciliation, the righteous Khomeini showed the world just how exploitative America was of Iran and that its citizens’ lives were less important than foreign interests. Iran successfully cemented an impasse between itself and America, ensuring no more Western intervention in its choice of an Islamic regime.
“America in 1981 needed heroes, and these folks as a group were presented as heroes. Heroes, you give medals to. You don’t compensate them.”—Tom Lankford, attorney for the ex-hostages and their families
Militants supportive of the new revolutionary government first overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Feb. 14, 1979, and personnel there, led by Holland, were told to give the militants some ground and then talk them into leaving. Miraculously, it worked. But then came a cascade of missteps and misjudgments that still evoke anger and frustration among those Americans seized in the Nov. 4 attack.
After the Valentine’s Day breach, some officials in Washington believed the militants would move on to other targets or activities, says Daugherty, who was stationed in D.C. at the time. He and others, including embassy personnel in Tehran, assumed the opposite: The militants would be back with more force. The message from the embassy to Foggy Bottom for months after that first breach, says John Holland, Leland’s son, was, “Get us out of here.” They knew Iran was in such disarray that the government could not ensure the Americans’ physical security.
But the embassy continued to operate. Nine months later, Carter allowed the deposed shah of Iran to travel to the United States for medical treatment, ratcheting up the unrest in Tehran that culminated in the hostage crisis. In a 2003 article in the journal American Diplomacy, Daugherty wrote the State Department knew at the time that the shah was not at death’s door and could have been treated where he was, in Mexico, rather than in the U.S. “I don’t know how that story changed,” he says now about the factors that led to Carter’s decision.
The shah was about to arrive in the United States when U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Bruce Laingen went to the Iranian foreign ministry to notify his counterpart and to ask for protection for the embassy. Although Carter and others later asserted that assurances had been given, Daugherty wrote in his 2003 article that Laingen did not report any response at all to his request. Daugherty still is incredulous that the president did not evacuate the embassy the minute he decided to let the shah into the U.S., about two weeks before the militants attacked. The way it played out, he says, “we never had a chance.”
The grim history that began to unfold at the moment of capture was nothing like Argo, with its focus on can-do American (and Canadian) nerve and creativity. The hostages were taken just a few years after the hasty, ignominious U.S. exit from Vietnam, and, overnight, it seemed as if Iran had brought America to its knees.
That perception was fueled, perhaps even created, by a nightly ABC News program that later became Nightline. Initially called America Held Hostage, it launched four days after the embassy takeover and included a countdown that underscored the country’s helplessness: Day 11, Day 49, Day 266, Day 365, and on, and on, and on. The national feeling of impotence intensified after a tragic April 1980 rescue attempt resulted in the deaths of eight American troops and the loss of U.S. helicopters and classified material to Iran.
That sense of American powerlessness pervaded the household of every hostage. Weeks after the failed rescue, just before Father’s Day, Bruce German’s teenage daughter wrote a seven-page letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, pleading for German’s release. “Dear Ayatollah,” it began, in round, girlish script. “I wish you could convince your people to let my dad come home to his family.… It is very difficult for me not having my dad around.”
German, a State Department budget officer, had arrived in Tehran just five weeks before the embassy takeover. His family learned of his abduction from a church member who saw news of it on TV.
In censored letters every couple of weeks, he urged his daughter and two sons to keep sending him mail, keep praying, and keep doing their schoolwork. Once he wrote he was “staying at the lovely resort of Lorton,” obliquely referring to a detention facility near Washington, recalls the daughter, Deborah Firestone. “So we knew he was in a prison.” When he did come home, he didn’t talk to his children about what he’d been through, but “I heard things,” Firestone says, including that his Iranian captors had played Russian roulette with her dad.
German, now 76, describes “constant threat” from the day he was taken captive. “We didn’t know from day to day if it was our last day, because they kept threatening us with guns,” he says. He recalls the hostages being forced awake at 3 a.m., blindfolded, and “paraded in our underwear into a cold hallway,” where they would hear the “unmistakable” sound of guns being cocked and wonder if they were about to be executed. Outside his cell at the notorious Evin Prison, German heard “moaning and screaming and carrying on” as Iranians were tortured. Prayer and mental toughness got him through, he says.
Firestone says German had flashbacks and nightmares after his release, but he says he chose not to the see “the shrinks” the government offered. “I didn’t need that,” German says. He did make what he calls changes “for the better” after conversations with friends. “I just took their advice and decided to get on with my life, move ahead, and . try not to look back. So I don’t dwell on that at all anymore,” he says. “I just put the hostage crisis behind me.”
German’s life is divided into distinct pre-Iran and post-Iran chapters. Within a year of his return, he moved away from his family. Within a few years, he had divorced his wife and left the State Department. He moved to rural northeastern Pennsylvania and reconnected with a woman he knew from high school. He has little contact with his children and grandchildren, a subject he declines to discuss.
Before the Iran crisis, says Firestone, an elementary-school teacher, her parents’ marriage was “rock solid” and she was a “daddy’s girl.” But following a few months of family closeness when he returned, she says, her contact with her father increasingly ebbed. He missed her college graduation, her 1993 wedding, and her brother’s wedding last summer. She hasn’t seen him for eight years. He last saw her youngest child, almost 12, when she was 3.
While it’s impossible to gauge the role of German’s captivity on his choices, Firestone has no doubts. “He’s pretty much fallen off the face of the earth as far as his family is concerned,” she says. “Our lives have been irreparably damaged because of what happened.”
How Much Better Off Would America Be if 6 Republican Presidents Hadn’t Stolen the White House?
Trump’s impeachment trial is coming up in the Senate, and already his allies are trying to throw up procedural roadblocks to exhaust the effort to hold him accountable. Should America “move beyond” Trump? No friggin’ way!
America must stop giving criminal Republican presidents a pass. Every GOP president since Dwight Eisenhower used treason or deception to come to office (or inherited office from one who did), and it needs to end. It’s a truly astonishing and horrifying story.
It started in 1968, wh e n President Lyndon Johnson was desperately trying to end the Vietnam war. It had turned into both a personal and political nightmare for him, and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was running for President in the election that year against a “reinvented” Richard Nixon.
Johnson spent most of late 1967 and early 1968 working back-channels to North and South Vietnam, and by the summer of 1968 had a tentative agreement from both for what promised to be a lasting peace deal they’d both sign that fall.
But Richard Nixon knew that if he could block that peace deal, it would kill Humphrey’s chances of winning the 1968 election. So Nixon sent envoys from his campaign to talk to South Vietnamese leaders to encourage them not to attend an upcoming peace talks in Paris.
Nixon promised South Vietnam’s corrupt politicians that he’d give them a richer deal when he was President than LBJ could give them then.
The CIA had been wiretapping Nixon’s people and told LBJ about his effort to prolong the Vietnam War. Thus, just three days before the 1968 election, Johnson phoned the Republican Senate leader, Everett Dirksen, (you can listen to the entire conversation here):
Some of our folks, including some of the old China lobby, are going to the Vietnamese embassy and saying please notify the [South Vietnamese] president that if he’ll hold out ’til November the second they could get a better deal. Now, I’m reading their hand. I don’t want to get this in the campaign. And they oughtn’t to be doin’ this, Everett. This is treason.
Sen. Dirksen:I know.
Those tapes were only released by the LBJ library in the past decade, and that’s Richard Nixon who Lyndon Johnson was accusing of treason.
At that point, for President Johnson, it was no longer about getting Humphrey elected. By then Nixon’s plan had already worked.
Instead, Johnson was desperately trying to salvage the peace talks to stop the death and carnage as soon as possible. He literally couldn’t sleep.
But South Vietnam had taken Nixon’s deal and boycotted the peace talks, the war continued, and Nixon won the White House thanks to it.
Additional tens of thousands of American soldiers, and over an additional million Vietnamese, died because of Nixon’s 1968 treason, and he left it to Jerry Ford to end the war and evacuate the American soldiers.
And Nixon was never held to account for it, and when the LBJ library released the tapes and documentation it was barely noticed by the American press.
Gerald Ford, who succeeded Nixon, was never elected to the White House (he was appointed to replace VP Spiro Agnew, after Agnew was indicted for decades of taking bribes), and thus would never have been President had it not been for Richard Nixon’s treason. He pardoned Nixon.
Next up was Ronald Reagan.
During the Carter/Reagan election battle of 1980, then-President Carter had reached a deal with newly-elected Iranian President Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr to release the fifty-two hostages held by radical students at the American Embassy in Tehran.
Bani-Sadr was a moderate and, as he explained in an editorial for The Christian Science Monitor, successfully ran for President on the popular position of releasing the hostages:
“I openly opposed the hostage-taking throughout the election campaign…. I won the election with over 76 percent of the vote…. Other candidates also were openly against hostage-taking, and overall, 96 percent of votes in that election were given to candidates who were against it [hostage-taking].”
Carter was confident that with Bani-Sadr’s help, he could end the embarrassing hostage crisis that had been a thorn in his political side ever since it began in November of 1979.
But behind Carter’s back, the Reagan campaign worked out a deal with the leader of Iran’s radical faction — Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini — to keep the hostages in captivity until after the 1980 Presidential election. Khomeini needed spare parts for American weapons systems the Shah had purchased for Iran, and Reagan was happy to promise them.
This was the second act of treason by a Republican wanting to become president.
The Reagan campaign’s secret negotiations with Khomeini — the so-called “October Surprise” — sabotaged President Carter’s and President Bani-Sadr’s attempts to free the hostages. As Bani-Sadr told The Christian Science Monitor in March of 2013:
“After arriving in France [in 1981], I told a BBC reporter that I had left Iran to expose the symbiotic relationship between Khomeinism and Reaganism.
“Ayatollah Khomeini and Ronald Reagan had organized a clandestine negotiation, later known as the ‘October Surprise,’ which prevented the attempts by myself and then-US President Jimmy Carter to free the hostages before the 1980 US presidential election took place. The fact that they were not released tipped the results of the election in favor of Reagan.
And Reagan’s treason — just like Nixon’s treason — worked perfectly.
The Iran hostage crisis continued and torpedoed Jimmy Carter’s re-election hopes. And the same day Reagan took the oath of office — to the minute, as Reagan put his hand on the bible, by way of Iran’s acknowledging the deal — the American hostages in Iran were released.
Reagan began selling the Iranians weapons and spare parts in 1981, and continued until he was busted for it in 1986, producing the so-called “Iran Contra” scandal.
But, like Nixon, Reagan was never held to account for the criminal and treasonous actions that brought him to office.
After Reagan — Bush senior was elected — but like Jerry Ford — Bush was really only President because he served as Vice President under Reagan.
If the October Surprise hadn’t hoodwinked voters in 1980, you can bet Bush senior would never have been elected in 1988. That’s four illegitimate Republican presidents.
Which brings us to George W. Bush, the man who was given the White House by five right-wing justices on the Supreme Court.
In the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision in 2000 that stopped the Florida recount — and thus handed George W. Bush the presidency — Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his opinion:
“The counting of votes … does in my view threaten irreparable harm to petitioner [George W. Bush], and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he [Bush] claims to be the legitimacy of his election.”
Apparently, denying the presidency to Al Gore, the guy who actually won the most votes in Florida, did not constitute “irreparable harm” to Scalia or the media.
And apparently it wasn’t important that Scalia’s son worked for the law firm that was defending George W. Bush before the high court (with no Scalia recusal).
Just like it wasn’t important to mention that Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife worked on the Bush transition team — before the Supreme Court shut down the count in Florida — and was busy accepting resumes from people who would serve in the Bush White House if her husband stopped the recount in Florida…which he did. (No Thomas recusal, either.)
More than a year after the election a consortium of newspapers including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today did their own recount of the vote in Florida — manually counting every vote in a process that took almost a year — and concluded that Al Gore did indeed win the presidency in 2000.
As the November 12th, 2001 article in The New York Times read:
“If all the ballots had been reviewed under any of seven single standards and combined with the results of an examination of overvotes, Mr. Gore would have won.”
That little bit of info was slipped into the seventeenth paragraph of the Times story so that it would attract as little attention as possible because the 9/11 attacks had happened just weeks earlier and journalists feared that burdening Americans with the plain truth that George W. Bush actually lost the election would further hurt a nation already in crisis.
To compound the crime, Bush could only have gotten as close to Gore in the election as he did because his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, had ordered his Secretary of State, Kathrine Harris, to purge at least 57,000 mostly-Black voters from the state’s rolls just before the election.
So, for the third time in 4 decades, Republicans took the White House under illegitimate electoral circumstances. Even President Carter was shocked by the brazenness of that one. And Jeb Bush and the GOP were never held to account for that crime against democracy.
Most recently, in 2016, Kris Kobach and Republican Secretaries of State across the nation used Interstate Crosscheck to purge millions of legitimate voters — most people of color — from the voting rolls just in time for the Clinton/Trump election. Meanwhile, Russian oligarchs or the Russian state, and possibly other pro-Trump actors in the Middle East, funded a widespread program to flood social media with pro-Trump, anti-Clinton messages from accounts posing as Americans.
Donald Trump still lost the national vote by nearly 3 million votes, but came to power through an electoral college designed to keep slavery safe in colonial America.
You can only wonder how much better off America would be if 6 Republican Presidents hadn’t stolen or inherited a stolen White House.
Now, finally, there may be some accountability for another criminal Republican president. It’s about time.
Thom Hartmann: America’s #1 progressive talk show host and NY Times bestselling author
How the U.S. and Iran Got to This Tense MomentAn Iranian volunteer child on the front line of the Iran-Iraq War, which started in 1980 after Iraq invaded Iran and ended in 1988. (Wikimedia)
Editor’s note: Veteran social justice advocate Medea Benjamin examines the history and politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran in her new book, “Inside Iran,” published by OR Books. To get 20 percent off, use the discount code INSIDE at purchase on the OR Books website. In the following excerpt from Chapter 8, Benjamin details the complex relationship between the United States and Iran.
Iran has a long history of interacting with the rest of the world—initially as the various empires discussed in earlier chapters, and now as the Islamic Republic. The resentment and suspicion of foreign interference found in the Iranian political culture are a direct result of historic deals with foreigners that took power away from the local elites, including bazaaris and the clerics.
Through the 1800s to the early half of the 1900s, Russia and Britain were the main foreign interventionist forces and therefore became the focus of the public’s vitriol. As the 20th century evolved, the United States began playing a larger role in Iran, due primarily to Cold War dynamics. As American policy in Iran came to resemble the earlier Russian and British imperial policies, anger towards the United States grew. That resentment boiled over and was a key factor in the 1979 revolution.
How and When Did the U.S. Become the Focal Point for Iran’s Interactions With the West?
Starting in the 1830s, American missionaries began arriving in Iran, but it would take another 20 years before there would be any official diplomatic recognition between the two nations. That came in 1856 with the signing of a Treaty of Commerce and Navigation. Even then, the U.S. role remained minimal.
Iran really became important to the United States after World War II, in the context of the burgeoning Cold War with the Soviets. During World War II, the Allies had agreed to leave Iran six months after the war ended. Yet after victory was finally sealed in September 1945, U.S. and British forces left Iran within the agreed timeframe, but Soviet forces remained, expanding their areas of control and supporting local Kurdish and Azeri separatists.
The Shah secured U.S. support to push the Soviets out by painting the crisis in Cold War colors. U.S. diplomatic pressure and Iranian negotiations were successful in demanding a Soviet withdrawal. In 1947, Iran was included in the Truman Doctrine, the policy established by President Truman that said the United States would use its economic, political, and military power to contain Soviet threats anywhere in the world. As Iran became increasingly critical to blocking Soviet expansion, American support for Iran’s monarchy increased.
The U.S. alliance with Iran came crashing down in 1953, however, when the recently inaugurated American President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved CIA plans to overthrow the government of elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had incurred the wrath of both British and American oil companies and governments by nationalized oil fields. Once Mossadegh was deposed, the U.S. became the main ally of the new Shah and helped to develop the Iranian military and infamous secret police.
For many Iranians, this was the moment that the U.S. went from friend to foe. Originally thought to be a supporter of Iran’s movement towards democracy, the U.S. had instead orchestrated a coup. This resentment would be one of the major driving forces, 25 years later, when a popular protest movement ultimately overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah. It also lies at the very foundation of the current government’s anti-Americanism.
As the CIA’s first successful covert operation to overthrow a government that refused to bend to U.S. economic and political interests, the overthrow of Mossadegh also became a model for similar operations around the globe, such as the overthrow of Guatemalan President Arbenz in 1954, Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumuba in 1960, and the failed intervention in Cuba in 1961.
How Did the Revolution Affect the U.S. Relationship?
America’s role in ousting Mossadegh vaulted it to the top of Iran’s most-hated list, a position once held by the Russians and the British. The United States became the focus for the anti-imperialists within Iran.
Tensions ran high in 1963 when the U.S. and Iran signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that gave Americans immunity from punishment under the law. This meant that all American personnel accused of wrongdoing in Iran, including the large number of U.S. military personnel who were training the Shah’s military forces, would be free from prosecution by Iranian authorities.
A relatively minor cleric at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, used this agreement to speak out against the Shah and the United States. He gave a famous speech decrying that in the eyes of the Shah and his American allies, Iranians were worth less than American dogs. The Shah responded by forcing Khomeini into exile in 1964.
Over the years, anti-Shah and anti-U.S. tensions continued to mount. Both the U.S. State Department and intelligence services missed the writing on the wall, underestimating the breadth and depth of the opposition. In one evaluation, six months prior to the 1979 revolution, the CIA reported that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation.”
U.S. President Jimmy Carter seemed oblivious to the changing landscape. After pressuring the Shah to improve his human rights record, President Carter visited Iran in late December 1977. During a New Year’s toast, Carter described Iran as “an island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions in the world.” In the same speech, he talked about how popular the Shah was among Iranians. In a little over a year, the Shah was ousted from power.
Shortly after the Shah fled, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been the main face of the growing opposition movement, returned from exile in France. Despite Khomeini’s anti-American rhetoric, some U.S. officials felt it was necessary to meet with the new revolutionary government. As 1979 progressed, however, anti-American sentiment grew, especially when President Carter allowed the Shah to enter the U.S. as a “private citizen” to receive cancer treatment. The Shah’s presence in the United States was seen by many Iranians as a disgrace and an insult that ignored the enormous pain and suffering they had endured under his rule, with the approval of the U.S. government.
For Iran’s revolutionaries, many of whom blamed the US for the 1953 coup, Carter’s decision was a clear signal that the Shah was planning a counter-revolution with America’s help. They wanted the Shah extradited, tried, and executed for his crimes against the Iranian population. The revolutionaries did not get their wish, but they did find a new target—the U.S. Embassy.
How and Why Did the Takeover of the U.S. Embassy Happen?
Originally planned as a sit in, on November 4, 1979, students climbed the fences and stormed the U.S. Embassy compound. Ransacking offices and detaining embassy personnel, their radical actions surprised both the U.S. government and Iran’s provisional government. Khomeini originally backed a plan to forcibly remove the protesters from the embassy, but then endorsed their actions once he realized he could use the seizure to solidify power. The revolution had risked spiraling out of control as the various factions were openly clashing in the streets. The embassy seizure was a symbolic way to synergize around a cause while also showing that Iran could stand up for itself. The provisional government resigned due to its disapproval of the takeover.
Fifty-two American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days. This act marked a breaking point in relations between Iran and the United States. Diplomatic relations were severed and have officially been frozen ever since. Americans saw the takeover as a breach of the one inviolable law governing relations between countries—the sanctity of embassies. The revolutionaries viewed it as a way to prevent a counter-coup and to hit back at decades of foreign interference in Iran’s internal affairs.
Attempts at negotiating for the release of the hostages were stymied by Ayatollah Khomeini’s prohibition on speaking to American officials and a lack of overall stability within Iran. With Khomeini’s goals of crushing other factions and solidifying power, settling with the U.S. was not in the cards. If he had negotiated, he would have gone against his own narrative. Meanwhile, the U.S. could not adopt a policy of patience, since Carter was in the middle of a re-election campaign. And what country is patient when their diplomats are being held hostage?
As the domestic pressure on President Carter mounted, in April 1980 he approved an ill-fated rescue attempt called Operation Eagle Claw. It failed in large part because a severe desert sandstorm caused several helicopters to collide as they were taking off for Tehran. Eight American servicemen were killed, and the operation was aborted.
Just a few months later, the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, died of cancer. Khomeini responded by tasking his subordinates with finding a solution to the hostage crisis.
In the middle of negotiations to release the hostages, Iraq invaded Iran, delaying talks until November 1980. By the time an agreement was signed, Carter had already lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan. In a slap in the face to President Carter, Khomeini delayed the release of the hostages until the day Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.
For many older Americans, the lens through which they view Iran is still tinted by the hostage crisis. Each night, from the very beginning of the crisis, the U.S. press updated the public on the status of the hostages and efforts to get them released. Every night for 444 days, Ted Koppel’s ABC News special America Held Hostage: The Iran Crisis (which later became Nightline) reminded Americans that Iranians had kidnapped their diplomats. But for many Iranians, the U.S. history of violating their sovereignty outweighs their responsibility for the hostage crisis.
What Position Did the U.S. Take During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War?
Officially, the United States remained neutral during the war that broke out in 1980 after Iraq invaded Iran, but, in reality, it was arming both sides. Shortly after taking office in 1981, the Reagan administration secretly worked with Israel to ship several billion dollars of American weapons to Iran, despite the U.S. embargo against such sales. Then in 1982, when the CIA warned Reagan that Iraq was on the verge of being beaten on the battlefield by Iran, the U.S. government secretly provided Iraq with highly classified intelligence, including on Iranian troop movements, and covertly shipped American weapons to Iraq. Basically, the United States was arming both sides so that neither side would dominate this key oil region. By 1983, however, the U.S. began to favor Iraq, turning a blind eye while U.S. arms dealers sold sophisticated Soviet arms to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
Even worse, the Reagan administration sold Iraq biological agents, including anthrax, and vital ingredients for chemical weapons—all the while knowing that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was regularly using these horrific weapons against the Iranian people and against his own Iraqi citizens. The 1983 photo of Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein is chilling. Years later, in 2003, the U.S. government used the very biological weapons it sold Hussein as a pretext to invade Iraq. A morbid joke at that time had George W. Bush saying, “We know Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons—we have the receipts.”
Why Did the U.S. Shoot Down an Iranian Airbus in 1988?
During the brutal eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq and then Iran used air attacks to target foreign tankers transporting each other’s oil exports through the Persian Gulf. This led the U.S. and other nations to deploy warships to protect their tankers in international waters.
On July 3, 1988, a terrible tragedy occurred: U.S. personnel on the warship USS Vincennes shot down a commercial passenger airline, Iran Air Flight 655, which was flying along its official route from Tehran to Dubai. All 290 people on board—274 passengers and 16 crew—were killed.
According to the U.S. government, this was a regrettable accident. The crew incorrectly identified the Iranian Airbus A300 as an attacking F-14 Tomcat fighter.
Most Iranians, however, believed it was a deliberate war crime. This belief was reinforced when the U.S. government tried to mislead the world about the details of the incident. It made a series of false claims that the plane was not on a normal flight path but was diving toward the ship rather than climbing after taking off from Bandar Abbas airport in southern Iran that its identification transponder was not working or had been altered and that the Vincennes was either rushing to the aid of a merchant ship or pursuing hostile Iranian patrol boats.
Months before the plane was shot down, air traffic controllers and the crews of other warships in the Persian Gulf had been warning that poorly trained U.S. crews, especially the gung-ho captain and crew of the Vincennes (or “Robocruiser,” as other crews had nicknamed it), were constantly misidentifying civilian aircrafts over the Persian Gulf, making this horrific massacre entirely predictable.
Adding insult to injury when, two years later, the U.S. Navy awarded combat medals to the warship’s captain and crew. The town of Vincennes, Indiana, for which the ship was named, even launched a fundraising campaign for a monument. The monument was not to remember the tragedy or the Iranians killed, but to honor the ship and its crew.
In 1996, in response to an Iranian lawsuit at the International Court of Justice, the U.S. agreed to a settlement, granting $213,000 per passenger to the victim’s families. But the U.S. government still refused to formally apologize or acknowledge wrongdoing.
While most Americans have no memory of this incident, in Iran the date of the deaths of 290 Iranian citizens at the hands of the U.S. military is marked every year just as the 9/11 attack is remembered every year in the United States. To some Iranians, it is just one more example of the callousness of U.S. policy.
Was Iran Involved in 1983 Marine Bombing?
Another incident that has impacted U.S.-Iranian relations was the bombing in 1983 of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. service personnel. The explosion came from a truck bomb at the compound. There were 1,800 Marines stationed in Beirut at the time as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. The bombing was traced to the Iranian-affiliated militia group, Hezbollah, and the U.S. accused Iran of being behind the attack. In April 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that frozen Iranian bank assets could be used to pay $1.75 billion to the survivors and family members of those killed. As of early 2018, however, those funds have still not been disbursed to the families.
What Was the Iran-Contra Arrair? How Did That Affect the Relationship?
Even though the U.S. and Iran did not have official relations after 1979, there were still points of engagement. In most cases, these have been one-off affairs and limited in scope.
One of the earliest such cases was the issue known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Starting in 1985, only a few years after the U.S. Embassy hostages were released and ties officially severed, Iran, the U.S., and Israel found themselves entangled in an illegal, secret web of confusion, misaligned interests, and shady middlemen.
Enmeshed in a brutal war with Iraq, Iran was in dire need of spare parts for its military, but there was a U.S. embargo on selling arms to Iran. At the same time, the Reagan administration was anxious to bring home seven Americans being held hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a paramilitary group with ties to Iran. Despite the American position that it would never negotiate with hostage takers, the Reagan administration decided to sell weapons to Iran in exchange for Iran’s help in freeing the U.S. hostages.
Given the illegality of selling weapons to Iran, however, the Israelis were brought in as go-betweens. Their job was to ship weapons to Iran, and then the U.S. would resupply Israel.
This scheme became even more complicated when U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council became involved in late 1985. He modified the plan so that a portion of the proceeds from the weapon sales to Iran would be diverted to fund the “Contras,” an armed rebel group in Nicaragua that was trying to overthrow the leftist Sandinistas. There was a congressional prohibition on arming the Contras, so this was an attempt to subvert the prohibition.
This sordid affair now involved violating one congressional order against arms sales to Iran, then using the proceeds from that illegal operation to fund a project violating another congressional order banning the provision of arms to the Contras. Both acts breached the constitution.
The scheme was doomed from the start. When the first weapons shipment arrived in Iran, only one of the seven American hostages in Lebanon was released. The Iranians realized that it was in their best interest to slow walk their obligations so they could maintain the flow of weapons and spare parts. With two subsequent shipments, two more hostages were released, but two more hostages were taken. The U.S., for its part, sent old weapons and never agreed to send enough to alter the outcome of the Iran-Iraq war. Both sides were playing each other and had arrived at an impasse.
U.S. officials covertly traveled to Iran to work out a new deal but were blindsided when reports of the meeting were leaked to the media and made worldwide headlines. “Arms for Hostages” did not make good PR for either side, and all negotiations ceased. America’s PR nightmare became even worse when it was revealed that proceeds from the weapons sales were used to purchase arms for the Nicaraguan Contras in flagrant violation of U.S. law. Fourteen of Reagan’s aides were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and two national security advisors, and 11 were convicted. Reagan’s presidency was tarnished by the sordid affair, and it was a further setback for U.S.-Iranian relations. None of the 14 went to jail, and President George H.W. Bush, who was vice president under Reagan, pardoned all of them in his final days in office.
What Shifts Took Place in the 1990s?
In the waning days of the 1980s, Iran and Iraq agreed to a ceasefire, and Ayatollah Khomeini passed away. There was hope that the subsequent increase in trade between Iran and the U.S., coupled with the new Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would lead to improved relations. U.S. hostages were still being held in Lebanon, but Iran seemed more amenable to working for their release. Additionally, Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 lent more credibility to Iran’s assertion that he was the aggressor during their eight-year war.
When President Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected to succeed him, Bush seemed like a candidate who could help lead the détente. In his inaugural address, he promised to “reciprocate goodwill with goodwill.” Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani saw this as a positive sign that the Americans were willing to take concrete steps to improve their relationship. To test their resolve, Rafsanjani pulled the necessary strings to have the Americans held hostage in Lebanon released. But the Bush administration reneged on its offer to meet goodwill with goodwill, damaging the potential for rapprochement.
Cooperation with Iran did occur during the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm pushed Iraq out of Kuwait. While not directly joining the fight against Iraq, the Iranians allowed coalition airplanes overflight rights. After the war, Iran tried to build a Gulf-based security coalition that could provide regional stability.
The Bush administration, however, had its own plans. It organized a conference to discuss the future of the region, but did not invite Iran. Naturally, the Iranians saw this as yet another example of U.S. double dealing.
The decision to leave Iran out of the conference was largely due to Israeli pressure. The Israelis had been worried about rapprochement between Iran and the United States. Israel considered Iran a threat not because it was militarily dangerous, but because economically it provided a bigger potential market for U.S. goods and businesses than Israel. The Israelis worried that U.S.-Iran détente would mean Israel would lose its special relationship with the U.S.
Leaving the Iranians out of the regional security apparatus also meant that Iran was free to be the spoiler. Tehran did just that, embarking on a policy to make the U.S. decision to isolate Iran as costly as possible. Many of the problems in the region today stem from the Bush White House’s decision to isolate Iran.
After Bush lost his re-election bid and Bill Clinton moved into the Oval Office, not much changed in the adversarial relationship between the two nations. The Israeli government continued to play a large role in preventing the U.S. from reaching out to Iran, convincing the Clinton administration of the need to contain both Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Iran’s Islamic government. This policy, known as dual containment, was a shift from previous strategies that sought to balance one with the other.
The Clinton administration had also become preoccupied with the peace process between Israel and Palestine. In an effort to move that forward, the Clinton White House caved to Israeli pressure aimed at targeting Iran. Initially this was in language only, utilizing the now commonplace phrases of “state sponsor of terrorism” and “ardent opponent of the peace process” to describe the Iranian government. But more importantly, Israel pushed for tougher sanctions on Iran.
The Iranians had offered Conoco, an American oil company, a lucrative oil field concession in 1995. It was a significant move, heavy with symbolism. The Clinton administration was aware of the ongoing negotiations between Conoco and the Iranian government. Within a month of the deal being announced, however, the pro-Israel lobby was out in full force in Washington working to squash it. Pressured by this powerful lobby and its allies in Congress, Clinton once again caved to Israeli demands. By issuing two executive orders prohibiting trade with Iran, he essentially snuffed out Conoco’s hard-earned deal. Congress, not to be outdone in their anti-Iran efforts, went one step further and codified those executive orders by passing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996. The sanctions effectively blocked any effort to improve relations with Iran.
The Iranians were incensed and responded by attacking the Israeli peace process. Tehran began building relationships with Palestinian militant organizations. Since the revolution, Iran had only verbally attacked Israel, never actually following through with their threats. But as Israel spearheaded efforts to isolate Iran, Iranian rhetoric turned to action, further jeopardizing U.S.-Iranian détente.
The 1990s saw hopes of rapprochement dashed by both the Bush and Clinton administrations. Under heavy pro-Israel lobbying and still nursing old wounds from the hostage crisis, both Democrats and Republicans joined the anti-Iran bandwagon. But it was also in the 1990s that the U.S. and European stances toward Iran began to diverge, with the Europeans favoring détente and economic cooperation. After Congress passed the 1996 Sanctions Act, countries in the European Union protested and continued to do business with Iran.
How Did 9/11 Affect Iran’s Relations With the West?
The George W. Bush administration had been in office less than eight months in 2001 when the 9/11 terror attacks occurred, attacks that fundamentally changed the region and its relationship with the United States. One might think that 9/11 would have shifted the U.S. alliance from Saudi Arabia to Iran, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis and that the attacks were perpetrated by Al Qaeda, a Sunni-based extremist group whose fundamentalist ideology is based on the Saudi’s Wahhabist version of Islam. Iran, on the other hand, is a Shia country that had no ties to Al Qaeda.
Moreover, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda leadership lived under the protection of the Taliban. Since the mid-1990s, the Iranians had been fighting the Taliban, primarily by assisting their adversaries, the Northern Alliance.
Iranians, both the government and the public, were also very sympathetic towards the United States after the attack. Unlike the celebrations in some Arab nations, where people saw the attacks on the U.S. as a well-deserved blow to Israel’s main supporter, Iranians poured into the streets to hold candlelight vigils. Iran’s political leaders expressed their condolences and thought the attack might result in a warming of U.S.-Iranians relations. When the Bush administration declared war on the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan that had not only harbored Al Qaeda but had murdered Iranian diplomats, the Iranian government offered assistance. As before, however, the U.S. was reluctant to accept Iran’s help, in large part due to continued Israeli pressure.
The U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban from power and pushed Al Qaeda’s networks into Pakistan. President Bush then needed a plan to rebuild Afghanistan, and it was here that the Iranians offered assistance. Iran’s extensive knowledge of Afghanistan and the connections it had made by backing the anti-Taliban alliance was of enormous help in getting all sides together in Bonn, Germany to try to work out an agreement for an interim government.
James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, described the tense gathering in Bonn, where the disparate factions had reached an impasse. Everything was about to fall apart until the intervention by the Iranian representative Javad Zarif, the same person who 14 years later negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. Zarif talked privately to the Northern Alliance delegate, who then compromised and saved the day. “It was indicative that Iran was collaborating quite constructively with the United States and with the rest of the international community to assure a positive outcome of the conference,” Dobbins said.
At the international donors’ conference to help rebuild Afghanistan, Iran also played a positive role, pledging a staggering $500 million in assistance—the same amount as the United States. Iran was so eager to continue helping that it even offered to pay to rebuild the Afghan Army, an offer the U.S. refused. Iranian officials were also helpful in extraditing Al Qaeda fighters who had fled Afghanistan and were living in Iran.
Inside the George W. Bush White House, debates were raging about whether to continue collaborating with Iran. The discussions came to a crashing halt when President Bush, in his fateful January 29, 2002 State of the Union address, called Iran part of the “axis of evil.”
Bush’s speech undercut any movement for positive relations with Iran. Iranian reformists who had lobbied to engage the United States felt betrayed and were throttled by both Bush’s rebuke and condemnation from hardliners inside Iran. The opportunity to improve U.S.-Iranian relations in the wake of the 9/11 attacks had been torpedoed by conservative, pro-Israel U.S. politicians.
How Did the 2003 U.S. Invasion of Iraq Affect Relations?
Then came the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Iranian government was delighted to see Saddam Hussein’s regime attacked after all, the Iraqi leader had invaded Iran in 1980 and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iranians. Iraq was also a majority Shia country where the Shia had been brutally persecuted under Saddam Hussein, and Iran had a long history of supporting its Shia brethren. But the speed with which the U.S. military overthrew Saddam Hussein, doing in three weeks what Iran could not do in eight years of war with Iraq, worried Iran’s political leadership. They wanted to make sure that any new Iraqi government would not be a threat to Iran’s security.
Initially, Iran held off from sowing seeds of discord. In fact, via Swiss intermediaries, the Iranians sent a proposal to the U.S. State Department laying out the terms of a “grand bargain.” It was, in essence, a bold peace treaty that put everything on the table. It offered to negotiate nearly every issue the U.S. had been concerned with—Iran’s nuclear program, support for Palestinian militant groups, policy in Iraq, and accepting Israel’s right to exist. In return, the U.S. would have to give up hostile behavior towards Iran, end economic sanctions, allow access to peaceful nuclear technology, clampdown on the terrorist group MEK, and acknowledge Iran’s security interests.
The Bush administration, elated by its quick victory in defeating Saddam Hussein and believing that regime change in Iran could come next, saw no need to negotiate, and even rebuked the Swiss for playing the role of intermediary. Iran’s offer never even received a reply.
The hubris of the Bush officials made them believe their quick success in toppling Saddam Hussein signaled the long-term viability of their agenda to create a new, pro-Western, stable government in Iraq. Instead, their refusal to negotiate with Iran hurt U.S. chances of controlling events on the ground in Iraq. It also sent a message to the hardliners in Iran that the only way to force the United States to treat Iran as a sovereign nation was to be a thorn in its side. That’s when Iran began funding, training, and equipping Shia militias inside Iraq.
The first Iraqi election, which took place one year after the U.S. government’s pro-consul Paul Bremer had been running the country, put Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in office. Maliki had spent much time in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and his first trip as prime minister was to Tehran. From 2005 onward, successive Iraqi governments have had expensive ties with Iran, much to the consternation of U.S. officials.
How Did the Europeans Affect U.S.-Iranian Negotiations?
In June 2003, just months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.K., Germany, and France launched a diplomatic effort to address their growing concern about Iran’s nuclear policy. The U.S. refused to join the talks. A few months later, the parties reached an agreement known as the Tehran Declaration, where Iran agreed to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to suspend all uranium enrichment. For the Iranians, they felt the negotiations with the Europeans were a prelude to deeper talks that would include the U.S., but the U.S. was not interested. The buzz phrase in the Bush White House was “we don’t talk to evil.”
By 2005, the situation had changed. Iraq was a mess, and the Bush administration finally decided that engaging Iran was worth a shot. Rather than recognize that Iran had already suspended uranian enrichment, however, the White House demanded that Iran give up fuel production altogether as a precondition for talks. The Iranians refused.
In the meantime, presidential elections in Iran were looming. Western governments were hopeful that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a reformist, would win. They did not bank on the conservative former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad edging out Rafsanjani. Reformists had stuck their necks out on multiple occasions to build a more positive relationship with the United States. In return, the U.S. had shut the door or ignored their overtures. With Ahmadinejad in office, whatever political capital the reformists still had soon evaporated. Now the hardliners had the green light.
Almost immediately after Ahmadinejad took office, Iran restarted its suspended nuclear program. By mid-2006, after a failed attempt at restarting negotiations, the Germans stepped in and persuaded the Bush administration to try again. The Germans realized there would not be any long-term solution without U.S. involvement, but Bush’s team once again insisted that the suspension of uranium enrichment was a precondition. For the Iranians, this was a non-starter. They had already suspended their program once and received nothing in return.
The Bush administration was surprised Iran said “no,” but it should not have been. In the waning days of the second Bush White House, Iran’s nuclear program was gaining ground, and it was clear Iran would also gain from the chaos in Iraq. Bush had, through his own hubris, neutered America’s ability to build a consensus around Iran. It took the election of a new U.S. president for that to be rebuilt.
What Did Obama’s ‘Unclenched Fist’ Diplomatic Initiative Do to Improve Relations?
In November 2008, the United States elected Barack Obama, who had promised to improve America’s relations with the rest of the world, especially the Middle East. His approach extended to Iran as well. After 12 years of American failure to recognize openings, Obama’s election was a breath of fresh air and a time of hope.
Almost immediately after taking office in late January 2009, President Obama sent clear signals that he sought to engage the Iranians, both private citizens and the government. Just a few weeks after taking office, President Obama sent a video message to the Iranian people for the Persian New Year, Nowruz. It was intended to show the Iranians that Obama appreciated their culture and understood the importance of hospitality and respect. The Iranians were appreciative of his message.
Progress on any diplomatic initiative was muted, though, because of the pending Iranian presidential elections in June 2009, in which conservative President Ahmadinejad was vying for another term. The Obama administration had hoped that someone more amenable to diplomatic efforts would be elected. They almost got their wish with challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. On election day, the two were neck and neck, but the official results gave Ahmadinejad a landslide victory. The public cried foul.
In the ensuing days and weeks, protests raged across the country. The movement for a recount and for more transparency became known as the Green Movement. International media outlets endlessly covered the unfolding events, but as time progressed the Iranian government was determined to move forward with Ahmadinejad as president. Instead of letting the protests die out, they decided to violently crack down on citizens who had taken to the streets.
The Obama administration had hoped to jumpstart diplomatic efforts after the election was over. Now they were scrambling to figure out how to respond to the protests. Obama wanted to support the Green Movement but did not want to eliminate the possibility of future engagement with the government. Conservatives in the U.S. Congress called for more sanctions and more public support for the Green Movement. Ironically, the movement did not want open support from the U.S. government, as such support would jeopardize the legitimacy of the opposition.
Several months later, however, Obama sought to engage the Iranian government regarding their nuclear program. Over a series of meetings, diplomats from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany (P5+1) met with Iranian officials to deal with Iran’s low enriched uranium stockpile. If Iran could enrich it further, the stockpile would be enough to reach the highly enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon. A complex proposal involving shipments between Russia, France, and Iran had traction, but a deal was never reached.
Frustrated, the Obama administration set a different course. Rather than trying to engage Iran, the White House doggedly pursued building a consensus among the P5+1 to impose even tougher sanctions. The Chinese and Russians were initially reluctant, but after months of negotiations and Iran’s intransigence, they agreed to support new UN Security Council sanctions.
Just as the UN Security Council was debating new sanctions, two upstart countries, Turkey and Brazil, tried to give diplomacy another chance. After getting tepid approval from the Obama administration, Turkish and Brazilian diplomats went to Iran to re-engage on the nuclear issue. To everyone’s surprise, they were successful in getting an agreement that essentially mirrored what had been discussed six months earlier. Iran would exchange a portion of its low enriched uranium for fuel pads. Only this time, the deal was too little too late. The Obama administration scuttled the new deal, because Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile had nearly doubled, and international consensus had already been built around a new set of sanctions. That little glimmer of hope created by Turkey and Brazil was snuffed out by the United States.
Sanctions on Iran passed the UN Security Council, and for the next two years, as the U.S. turned up the pressure on Iran, the two countries were locked in a stalemate over the nuclear issue. Iran accelerated its program, increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium and increasing the number of centrifuges. Both countries engaged in tit-for-tat cyberattacks on each other’s infrastructure. And in early 2012, the U.S. Congress passed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, which essentially cut Iran off from participating in global commerce.
Around the same time as the banking sanctions, new rounds of talks were starting with a secret back channel via the government of Oman. Over the course of the next year, the secret talks would continue building trust, but no agreement.
When Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s new president in June 2013, new life was breathed into the back channel. President Obama had been forced to reconsider his position on zero enrichment. There was pressure from the Omanis and Europeans, as well as recognition that the sanctions were having a diminishing impact. All the while, Iran’s nuclear program was advancing.
As the back channel continued to hammer out a framework for enrichment, inspections, and removal of sanctions, the P5+1 renewed its meetings as well. In November 2013 they reached an interim agreement and tried to hash out the final sticking points, including the future of a heavy water reactor at Natanz, the release of Iranian frozen assets held in U.S. banks, and limitations on enrichment and research bans.
The global public watched with bated breath, as deadlines kept getting extended. At several moments it seemed that the entire deal would collapse, as each side threatened to walk away. Finally, after a 12-year-standoff, 20 months of on-and-off talks, and a final 17-day marathon round of uninterrupted negotiations, an historic deal was reached on July 14, 2015.
Then came the next step: a Herculean effort by both the Obama administration and the grassroots organizations to get the necessary congressional approval. Despite heavy lobbying by the pro-Israel organization AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and other lobby groups created specifically to quash the deal, Congress failed to block the agreement, giving victory to a hard-fought diplomatic battle.
Negotiations were also taking place regarding a different issue: a prisoner swap. Several Iranian-American dual nationals were being held in Iranian prisons, most notably Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian. In exchange for their release, the U.S. agreed to release several Iranians held in American jails. Adding to the complexity was the fact that several U.S. sailors, after a series of mistakes and navigation equipment malfunctions, had drifted into Iranian waters and were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Navy. Leaning on the already good rapport between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the sailors were released after 16 hours.
The U.S. and Iran had figured out a diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse and the trust they had built allowed them to hammer out other agreements. But the two countries remained at odds over many issues, including Iran’s role in the unrest in Iraq and Syria. Another concern was Iran’s continued testing of missiles, even though this was not directly prohibited under the nuclear accords.
As the Obama administration prepared to leave office, hopes were high that the next president would build on his efforts. Both countries had gone a long way to establish trust and institutionalize their interactions. What they did not anticipate, however, was Donald Trump becoming the next president.
Will Trump’s “Make America Great Again” Lead Us to a Familiar Path?
Riding a wave of right-wing populism, Donald Trump was elected to replace Barack Obama. He promised to bring jobs back, renegotiate trade deals that hurt Americans, and—notably—tear up the Iran nuclear deal that he called the “worst deal ever negotiated.”
Despite Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement, President Trump insisted on the contrary. On October 13, 2017, Trump dealt a blow to the pact by refusing to certify that Iran was in compliance with the accord, despite all evidence by U.S. and international specialists that Iran had compiled. If the U.S. abandons the nuclear accord, the other P5+1 countries have said they would remain committed to it. What Trump is risking, however, is that Iran will say the deal has been violated and restart its enrichment program. We could be in for a long road of increased instability and conflict in an already tumultuous region.
Why Have U.S. Policymakers Been So Supportive of the MEK?
In 1997, the MEK (People’s Mujahedeen of Iran) was listed by the United States as a terrorist group. Indeed, it has a sordid history of violent attacks, first against the Shah and U.S. businessmen in Iran, and later against the Islamic Republic once it fell out of favor with Ayatollah Khomeini. MEK members were early examples of suicide bombers, strapping themselves with explosives and blowing up civilians in Iran. Israel used the MEK to penetrate Iran and assassinate nuclear scientists. The MEK also took their attacks overseas, targeting Iranian diplomatic missions in 13 countries.
The MEK is a cult-like organization run by Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam. A 1994 State Department report documented how Massoud Rajavi “fostered a cult of personality around himself that had alienated most Iranian expatriates, who assert they do not want to replace one objectionable regime for another.” A 2009 Rand study described the group as having “cultic practices,” including mandatory divorce and celibacy, because “love for the Rajavis was to replace love for spouses and family.” In 2013, a George Mason University study found that only five percent of Iranians showed any support for the MEK.
In the United States, however, the group launched a hard-core lobbying campaign to get itself off the terrorist list and rehabilitate itself as a legitimate opposition to the Iranian regime. It has large sums of money for the campaign, reportedly coming from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of wealthy Iranian-Americans.
The book cover of “Inside Iran.” (OR Books)
Their campaign became a classic case in how to buy influence in Washington DC. The MEK used its funds to secure the backing of an astounding array of U.S. politicians across the political spectrum—from liberal Democrat Howard Dean to conservative Republican Newt Gingrich. It gathered support from pro-Israel figures, including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
Many of its high-profile advocates—including members of Congress, Washington lobby groups, and influential former officials— received large contributions for their support. The funds were disbursed as speaker and lobby fees, campaign contributions, and expensive travel reimbursements. The MEK paid up to $100,000 for people to make public appearances at their events.
As the New York Times noted, “Rarely in the annals of lobbying in the capital has so obscure a cause attracted so stellar a group of supporters: former directors of the CIA and the FBI, retired generals and famous politicians of both parties.”
Their campaign worked. In 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the MEK had been removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.