This past week I had the misfortune of responding to Javad Zarif’s tweet “66 years ago today, a coup instigated by the US and the UK overthrew the democratically-elected Government of Iran. This atrocity followed years of “maximum pressure” on Iranians. Our people put an end to such interference in 1979. Time for some to deal with this reality.”
I said: “Let’s be very clear. We all know Khomeini flew into Tehran in an Air France 747 paid for by the government of France. The Shah was toppled by the US/UK/France/Germany (following a joint decision in Guadeloupe that prior winter). Western propaganda put Khomeini in, not the people. The ‘revolution’ was hijacked. The Mullahs have stayed in power by force, by dictate – not popular support. That is why elections are rigged in Iran, candidates are disqualified. Mr. Zarif do not pretend otherwise. We all know who is behind the regime.”
My inbox on reddit.com suddenly had close to 50 replies! Reddit.com caters to a more youthful demography. Online surveys report that 58 percent of adult Reddit users are aged 18 to 29 years, compared to 22 percent of the total U.S. adult population. I then realized that we have a new generation of hyphenated Iranians (Iranian Americans, Iranian-Europeans ….) who simply don’t know how the 1979 revolution went down.
So, for their benefit, I will try to summarize how the revolution came about, and who was behind the rise of Khomeini.
Background to the 1979 Revolution:
Yes, Javad Zarif is right in one sense that in 1953 the US and UK instigated the overthrow of a democratically elected Government of Iran. Mossadegh had nationalized Iranian oil. Winston Churchill who was then Prime Minister, and very close to President Eisenhower – a staunch supporter of British Petroleum. My grandfather, by the way, was Mossadegh’s chief of staff. When I sit by my father’s side, I have literally volumes of information (that is not published anywhere about how this happened). But, it is also true that the Ayatollah Kashani played a pivotal role in the US-UK instigation: https://www.baharmedia.net/2018/08/dont-forget-ayat-kashanis-alliance-with-cia-to-topple-mossadegh/
Kashani wasn’t just opposed to Mossadegh — he was also in close communication with the Americans throughout the period leading up to the coup, and he appears to have requested financial assistance from the United States. There is strong indication that he did in fact receive large sums of money from the CIA for an extended period. His organization was involved in public (political) assassinations in Tehran in the 1950s. In any event on this day in 1953, i.e. August 19th, “Kashani was critical,” to the coup says Abbas Milani. “On that day Kashani’s forces were out in full force to defeat Mossadegh.” According to one of our distant family members who was Ayatollah Kashani’s private servant, attests to visits by “Alam” in the middle of the night to coordinate demonstrations in favor of the Shah. There is ample evidence of Kashani’s collusion with the West. With financial backing (with cash handed to him by John Waller [a CIA operative]) Kashani employed other religious leaders with hard cash to topple Mossadegh. The Mullahs therefore had a central role in undermining democracy in Iran 66 years ago.
Kashani declared that if we must ‘compromise with Britain to topple Mossadegh then so be it’! There is now, no question, the clergy were involved in the coup.
There is now new evidence, with one of the documents donated by Ardeshir Zahedi – son of Major General Fazlullah Zahedi – to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University suggests that he was known to clergymen such as Abolghasem Kashani, Mohammad Behbahani and Mohammad Behbahani during the coup d’état. Philosophically a lot of money has been paid.
According to the document, which may be one of the coup bills, Abulqasim Kashani and Mohammad Behbahani received 3,000 riyals and “Sha’ban and his body” 3,000 riyals. The share of “different preachers” is recorded at 4,000 riyals. The margin of the document explains that Mohammad Taqi Philosophy, the famous khatib separately, “in the month of February received from the king four thousand toman”.
According to a document first discovered and released by the BBC Persian last year in the US National Archives, the US embassy in Tehran paid Mohammad Behbahani and several other large sums of money to people like Sha’ban Ja’fari and Tayeb Haj Bring a gift to the field. That document did not provide details on how the money could be distributed.
But the account found in the documents of Ardeshir Zahedi may be the first document to explicitly show the financial link between Pahlavi government and coup d’etat officials with the clergy, the press, and the Sha’ab al-Ja’fari within the last five years; The document, actually naming Mr. Kashani, Behbahani, Philosophical and “Spent Thousands of Thousand Tomans”, paints a new picture of the central role of the clergy network in the coup designed by US and British intelligence. They were.
After the coup, Khomeini himself was a disciple of Kashani. He would sit with Kashani and was considered part of his ‘gang’. By the 1960’s Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini had risen to become a lecturer at Najaf and Qom seminaries. He was among the leading scholar of Shia Islam, and taught political philosophy, Islamic history and ethics there.
In 1961, America had found a new President – John F. Kennedy Jr – from the Democratic party. The Shah who had been put in power by Dwight Eisenhower, felt insecure and worked hard to appease his new master (who had a basic distaste for dictators). So, to please Kennedy, on January 1963, the Shah announced the “White Revolution”, a six-point reform program calling for land reform, nationalization of the forests, the sale of state-owned enterprises to private interests, electoral changes to enfranchise women and allow non-Muslims to hold office, profit-sharing in industry, and a literacy campaign in the nation’s schools.
These initiatives were regarded as dangerous by the powerful and privileged Shi’a ulama (religious scholars) in Qom. These “Westernizing” trends were viewed skeptically by traditionalists (Khomeini viewed them as “an attack on Islam”). Ayatollah Khomeini summoned a meeting of the other senior marjas of Qom and persuaded them to decree a boycott of the referendum on the White Revolution. On 22 January 1963 Khomeini issued a strongly worded declaration denouncing the Shah and his plans. Two days later the Shah took an armored column to Qom, and delivered a speech harshly attacking the ulama as a class.
Khomeini continued his denunciation of the Shah’s programs, issuing a manifesto that bore the signatures of eight other senior Iranian Shia religious scholars. In it he listed the various ways in which the Shah had allegedly violated the constitution, condemned the spread of moral corruption in the country, and accused the Shah of submission to the United States and Israel. He also decreed that the Nowruz celebrations for the Iranian year 1342 (which fell on 21 March 1963) be canceled as a sign of protest.
On the afternoon of ‘Ashura (3 June 1963), Khomeini delivered a speech at the Feyziyeh madrasah drawing parallels between the Sunni Muslim caliph Yazid, who is perceived as a ‘tyrant’ by Shias, and the Shah, denouncing the Shah as a “wretched, miserable man,” and warning him that if he did not change his ways the day would come when the people would offer up thanks for his departure from the country.
On 5 June 1963 (15 of Khordad) at 3:00 am, two days after this public denunciation of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Khomeini was detained in Qom and transferred to Tehran. Following this action, there were three days of major riots throughout Iran and the deaths of some 400 people. That event is now referred to as the Movement of 15 Khordad. Khomeini was kept under house arrest and released in August.
On 26 October 1964, Khomeini denounced both the Shah and the United States. This time it was in response to the “capitulations” or diplomatic immunity granted by the Shah to American military personnel in Iran. The “capitulation” law (or “status-of-forces agreement”) allowed members of the U.S. armed forces in Iran to be tried in their own military courts. Khomeini was arrested in November 1964 and held for half a year. Upon his release, he was brought before Prime Minister Hasan Ali Mansur, who tried to convince Khomeini that he should apologize and drop his opposition to the government. When Khomeini refused, Mansur slapped Khomeini’s face in a fit of rage. Two months later, Mansur was assassinated on his way to parliament. Four members of the Fadayan-e Islam were later executed for the murder.
Khomeini spent more than 14 years in exile, mostly in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf. After Kennedy came to power, he was sent to Turkey on 4 November 1964 where he stayed in Bursa in the home of Colonel Ali Cetiner of the Turkish Military Intelligence. In October 1965, after less than a year, he could move to Najaf, Iraq, where he stayed until 1978, when he was expelled by then-Vice President Saddam Hussein. By this time discontent with the Shah was becoming intense and Khomeini visited Neauphle-le-Château, a suburb of Paris, France on a tourist visa on 6 October 1978.
By the late 1960s, Khomeini was a marja-e taqlid (model for imitation) for “hundreds of thousands” of Shia, one of six or so models in the Shia world. While in the 1940s Khomeini accepted the idea of a limited monarchy under the Iranian Constitution of 1906–07 – as evidenced by his book Kashf al-Asrar – by the 1970s he had rejected the idea. In early 1970, Khomeini gave a series of lectures in Najaf on Islamic government, later published as a book titled variously Islamic Government or Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist (Hokumat-e Islami: Velayat-e faqih).
Cassette copies of his lectures fiercely denouncing the Shah as (for example) “the Jewish agent, the American serpent whose head must be smashed with a stone”, became common items in the markets of Iran, helped to demythologize the power and dignity of the Shah and his reign. Aware of the importance of broadening his base, Khomeini reached out to Islamic reformist and secular enemies of the Shah, despite his long-term ideological incompatibility with them.
Khomeini’s Links with Western Intelligence
It has never been clear to what extent Khomeini himself had direct contacts with intelligence organizations outside Iran. But it is now a factual true, that many key members of his entourage that managed his affairs had significant and direct links with foreign intelligence groups; and that all along he was being protected by western intelligence.
While the Shah had been a ‘true’ ally of the west, many allies remained deeply suspicious of him. There was always a reason for the west to retain a government ‘in waiting’ – Khomeini was their government in exile.
This repeated itself again in 1979 (40 years ago)
Under the Shah, Iran had become a repressive state (although, clearly less repressive than today). His secret police the SAVAK monitored Iranians and either arrested or undermined anyone who opposed the Shah’s dictatorship. In 1979, there was a popular uprising for ‘democracy’ in Iran.
The uprising had evolved with the help of many different opposition factions fanning the flames. The emergence of Jimmy Carter as US president provided an opening. There was open gossip among Iranians that Carter would topple the Shahe. You see, the Shah had been close to his predecessor – Richard Nixon. Nixon had been vice-President to Dwight Eisenhower (who was President of the US in 1953, when the Shah was reinstated as a dictator after the US-UK coup). It is rumored that the Shah had ‘helped’ Nixon’s campaign financially. The Democrats wanted the Republicans capped at their knees, any friend or major donor of the Republican Party was their natural enemy.
Jimmy Carter had given priority to finding a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, early in his administration. One interesting aspect of his private conversations with Anwar Sadat (Egypt) was his disdain for the Shah who had provided Israel with critical supplies of oil during the Yom Kippur war. Israel, reluctantly, as the price of peace had agreed with Sadat that the Shah must go.
At the same time, by the mid-70’s Britain’s economy had crumbled. Its traditional reliance on captive markets in former colonial strong holds had been steadily undermined. Its colonials were now buying cars, and clothes from Japan and other competing economies. Faced with ruin, the Brits had approached the Shah for loans, to only find him arrogantly refuse. The Brits hatched a plan for national renewal by exploiting oil reserves in the North Sea. To summon global support for their plan, British Petroleum encouraged the US government to consider opening Alaska for oil exploitation. This required a very high price for oil, since extraction costs were significantly higher in these regions. OPEC, under the influence of the Shah of Iran, had become powerful force in global oil markets and pushed for price increases. The Shah had become a vilified Middle East leader who had pushed for high prices at gas stations. He was the perfect puppet to accomplish US-UK economic objectives, who could then be toppled at the right time.
The shah had become increasingly strident and self-assured. In 1979 Iran’s “Consortium” agreement with Western Oil companies signed in 1954 (which was hatched after the US-UK coup in 1953, to supplant BP’s exclusive rights to Iranian oil prior to the coup) was expiring. The Shah did not want to renew it. The four Aramco partners—Standard Oil of California (SoCal, later Chevron), Standard Oil of New Jersey (later Exxon), Standard Oil Co. of New York (later Mobil, then ExxonMobil), and Texaco—each held an 8% stake in the Consortium holding company. Also, British Petroleum (40%), Gulf Oil (8%), Royal Dutch Shell (14%), and Compagnie Française des Pétroles (later Total S.A., 6%) too had a stake.
Iran’s oil production remained roughly the same for three years after the agreement was signed, but then increased significantly to a point where although BP had a 40% share, its revenues from Iran had remained roughly similar in scale to before the 1953 coup.
The Shah’s non-renewal of the Consortium agreement therefore affected virtually every virtually every major western oil company. In Britain alone, revenues from Oil companies accounted for roughly 25% of Britain’s GDP. They were ‘up in arms’ and had a great deal of political influence. By 1979 both North Sea oil and Alaskan Oil had started to come on stream. Global oil overproduction had to be reduced to maintain high prices. At least 3 Million barrels of oil needed to be removed from global markets to make room and sustain prices.
The writing was on the wall. Iranians smelt blood and after 25 years of repression, they once again began to more ‘openly’ ask for reforms and changes that would lead to democracy. Mass demonstration were organized, some of which led to violence and hostility with security forces. The number of political prisoners in Iran had risen dramatically over the prior decade. The Shah also had distanced himself from the clergy and began to increasingly rely on minority sects inside Iran to lead change and provide governance. 21 of 30 cabinet members of the Shah’s last government were not Muslims per se. None of them had been elected to office. This alienated his administration and provided popular resentment.
His universal unpopularity (with Iranians, oil companies, politicians in the west [US, Britain, etc.]), even Israel’s leadership, along with the Shah’s closeness to Nixon, and dire economic need to take at least one major producer (and eventually two) off the market to support US and UK’s domestic production led to a general consensus that he needed to go. The Shah had no friends.
There were also intelligence reports that he had fallen very sick without an apparent heir (ready to take over). And other reports that the Soviet Union had infiltrated groups opposing the Shah and was preparing to take advantage of Iran’s instability.
At the same time, there was a visible shift in his media coverage in the West. Nasty articles were being written in popular press. I remember reading an unprecedented article in the UK in 1978 titled “The Shit of Iran”. And major networks were producing new programs about repression inside Iran. BBC Persian openly pushed for change in Iran’s government.
Finally, on January 4th, 1979, Jimmy Carter convened a meeting in Guadeloupe in the Caribbean with 3 other western leaders: James Callaghan (Britain’s Prime Minister), Valery Giscard D’Estaing (President of France) and Helmut Schmidt (German Chancellor). One of the main issues discussed was the political crisis in Iran which had led to an uprising against the Pahlavi dynasty. The assembled leaders concluded that there was no way to save Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s position as the Shah of Iran, and that if he remained as leader this could further aggravate the civil war and might result in direct Soviet intervention. The leaders at the Guadeloupe Conference suggested that Shah leave Iran as early as possible. After the meeting, domestic protests and opposition to the Pahlavi dynasty increased dramatically. And not long after the meeting the West withdrew its support for the Shah’s regime, and it soon collapsed. The Shah left Iran for exile on 16 January 1979.
America’s Secret Engagement with Khomeini’s
On 27 January 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, the man who called the United States “the Great Satan” – sent a secret message to Washington.
From his home in exile outside Paris, the defiant leader of the Iranian revolution effectively offered the Carter administration a deal: Iranian military leaders listen to you, he said, but the Iranian people follow my orders.
In a first-person message, Khomeini told the White House not to panic at the prospect of losing a strategic ally of 37 years and assured them that he, too, would be a friend.
“You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans,” said Khomeini, pledging his Islamic Republic will be “a humanitarian one, which will benefit the cause of peace and tranquility for all mankind”.
Khomeini’s message is part of a trove of newly declassified US government documents – diplomatic cables, policy memos, meeting records – that tell the largely unknown story of America’s secret engagement with Khomeini, an enigmatic cleric who would soon inspire Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Americanism worldwide.
This story is a detailed account of how Khomeini brokered his return to Iran using a tone of deference and amenability towards the US that has never been revealed.
The ayatollah’s message was, in fact, the culmination of two weeks of direct talks between his de facto chief of staff and a representative of the US government in France – a quiet process that helped pave the way for Khomeini’s safe return to Iran and rapid rise to power – and decades of high-stakes tension between Iran and America.
In the official Iranian narrative of the revolution, Khomeini bravely defied the United States and defeated “the Great Satan” in its desperate efforts to keep the Shah in power.
But the documents reveal that Khomeini was far more engaged with the US than either government has ever admitted. Far from defying America, the ayatollah courted the Carter administration, sending quiet signals that he wanted a dialogue and then portraying a potential Islamic Republic as amenable to US interests.
To this day, former Carter administration officials maintain that Washington – despite being sharply divided over the course of action – stood firm behind the Shah and his government.
But the documents show more nuanced US behavior behind the scenes. Only two days after the Shah departed Tehran, the US told a Khomeini envoy that they were – in principle – open to the idea of changing the Iranian constitution, effectively abolishing the monarchy. And they gave the ayatollah a key piece of information – Iranian military leaders were flexible about their political future.
What transpired four decades ago between America and Khomeini is not just diplomatic history. The US desire to make deals with what it considers pragmatic elements within the Islamic Republic continues to this day. So does the staunchly anti-American legacy that Khomeini left for Iran.
Message to Kennedy
It wasn’t the first time Khomeini had reached out to Washington.
In 1963, the ayatollah was just emerging as a vocal critic of the Shah. In June, he gave a blistering speech, furious that the Shah, pressed hard by the Kennedy administration, had launched a “White Revolution” – a major land reform program and granted women the vote.
Khomeini was arrested. Immediately, three days of violent protests broke out, which the military put down swiftly.
A recently declassified CIA document reveals that, in November 1963, Khomeini sent a rare message of support to the Kennedy administration while being held under house arrest in Tehran.
It was a few days after a military firing squad executed two alleged organizers of the protests and ahead of a landmark visit by the Soviet head of state to Iran, which played into US fears of Iran tilting towards a friendlier relationship with the USSR.
Khomeini wanted the Shah’s chief benefactor to understand that he had no quarrel with America.
“Khomeini explained he was not opposed to American interests in Iran,” according to a 1980 CIA analysis titled Islam in Iran, partially released to the public in 2008.
To the contrary, an American presence was necessary to counter the Soviet and British influence, Khomeini told the US.
The embassy cable containing the full text of Khomeini’s message remains classified.
It’s not clear if President Kennedy ever saw the message. Two weeks later, he would be assassinated in Texas.
A year later, Khomeini was expelled from Iran. He had launched a new attack on the Shah, this time overextending judicial immunity to US military personnel in Iran.
“The American president should know that he is the most hated person among our nation,” Khomeini declared, shortly before going into exile.
Fifteen years later, Khomeini would end up in Paris. He was now the leader of a movement on the verge of ridding Iran of its monarchy. So close to victory, the ayatollah still needed America.
By January 1979, Khomeini had the momentum, but he also deeply feared a last-minute American intervention – a repetition of the 1953 coup, when the CIA had helped put the Shah back in power.
The situation became explosive after the Shah’s new prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, deployed troops and tanks to close the airport, disrupting Khomeini’s planned return in late January.
It seemed Iran was on the brink of a civil war: the elite Imperial Guard divisions were ready to fight to the death for their king; the die-hard followers of the Imam were ready for armed struggle and martyrdom.
The White House feared an Iranian civil war that would have major implications for US strategic interests. At stake were the lives of thousands of US military advisors; the security of sophisticated American weapons systems in Iran, such as F-14 jets; a vital flow of oil; and the future of the most important institution of power in Iran, the military.
It was less alarmed by the rise of Khomeini, and the downfall of the Shah.
But President Carter had previously rejected a proposal to cut a deal between Khomeini and the military.
On 9 November 1978, in a now-famous cable, “Thinking the Unthinkable,” the US ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, warned that the Shah was doomed. He argued that Washington should get the Shah and his top generals out of Iran, and then make a deal between junior commanders and Khomeini.
Sullivan’s bold proposal caught President Carter off-guard and caused their relationship to go sour.
But by early January, the reluctant president concluded that the Shah’s departure was necessary to calm the opposition.
Amid reports of an impending military coup, the president summoned his top advisors on 3 January. After a brief discussion, they decided to subtly encourage the Shah to leave, ostensibly for a vacation in California.
“A genuinely non-aligned Iran need not be viewed as a US setback,” the president said, according to minutes of the meeting.
Sullivan’s (right) attempt to get the US to consider removing support from the Shah in November 1978 soured his relationship with Carter
That day, Carter dispatched General Robert E Huyser, Deputy Commander of US Forces in Europe, to Tehran to tell the Shah’s generals to sit tight and “not jump into a coup” against Prime Minister Bakhtiar.
But Bakhtiar had no real support among the opposition, who called him the Shah’s agent.
Sullivan praised Bakhtiar’s courage to his face, but behind his back, told Washington that the man was “quixotic”, playing for high stakes, and would not take “guidance” from the US.
The state department saw his government as “not viable”. The White House strongly backed him in public, but in private, explored ousting him in a coup.
“The best that can result, in my view, is a military coup against Bakhtiar and then a deal struck between the military and Khomeini that finally pushes the Shah out of power,” wrote Deputy National Security Advisor David Aaron to his boss Zbigniew Brzezinski on 9 January 1979.
“Conceivably this deal could be struck without the military acting against Bakhtiar first,” he added.
Two days later, President Carter finally told the depressed and cancer-stricken Shah to “leave promptly”.
By then, a broad consensus had emerged within the US national security bureaucracy that they could do business with the ayatollah and his inner circle after all.
Khomeini had sent his own signals to Washington.
“There should be no fear about oil. It is not true that we wouldn’t sell to the US,” Khomeini told an American visitor in France on 5 January, urging him to convey his message to Washington. The visitor did, sharing the notes of the conversation with the US embassy.
In a key meeting at the White House Situation Room on 11 January, the CIA predicted that Khomeini would sit back and let his moderate, Western-educated followers and his second-in-command, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, run the government.
Beheshti was considered by US officials to be a rare bird: a pragmatic, English-speaking cleric with a university education, experience of living in the West, and close ties to Khomeini. In short, he was someone with whom the Americans could reason.
“We would do a disservice to Khomeini to consider him simply as a symbol of segregated education and an opponent to women’s rights,” said the then-head of the State Department Intelligence Bureau, Philip Stoddard.
President Carter was relieved that General Huyser had now arrived in Tehran. Huyser was good at following orders and had the confidence of the Iranian military leaders.
Once there, Huyser was tasked with taking the temperature of the military’s top brass and convincing them to “swallow their prestige” and go to a meeting with Beheshti. The US believed such a meeting would lead to a military “accommodation” with Khomeini.
To help break the stalemate, President Carter swallowed his own prestige. On the evening of 14 January, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance sent a cable to US embassies in Paris and Tehran: “We have decided that it is desirable to establish a direct American channel to Khomeini’s entourage.”
Around noon on 15 January, political counsellor Warren Zimmermann of the US embassy in France arrived at a quiet inn at the small town of Neauphle-le-Château, outside Paris, where Khomeini lived. Zimmermann had borrowed his boss’s private Peugeot, which didn’t have diplomatic plates, to avoid being tracked.
“I go in and there was this large dining room empty except for this one guy sitting at a table, and that was Yazdi,” recalled Zimmermann years later in his oral history.
This was Khomeini’s de facto chief of staff, Ebrahim Yazdi, an Iranian American physician.
A resident of Houston, Texas, Yazdi had already established ties with US officials in Washington through a former CIA operative who had turned into a liberal, anti-Shah scholar, Richard Cottam.
Establishing a direct link with Khomeini was a highly sensitive matter; if revealed, it would be interpreted as a shift in US policy, a clear signal to the entire world that Washington was dumping its old friend, the Shah.
Earlier in the day, Secretary Vance informed the French government that Washington urgently needed to be in direct contact with Khomeini’s group. The reason: to obtain Khomeini’s support for secret talks in Tehran between Beheshti, and the Shah’s military and intelligence chiefs.
Beheshti had met Sullivan, but out of security concerns, refused to meet with the Iranian generals. So, Washington finally appealed to Khomeini to tell his deputy to show some flexibility “in working out a site for the meeting”, wrote Vance.
A second meeting was quickly scheduled, and Zimmermann was told to pass along that the military had seriously discussed a coup plan upon the Shah’s departure, but General Huyser talked them out of it. The army would “remain calm during that period, provided troops are not provoked,” a cable from the US embassy in Tehran said.
On 17 January, President Carter wrote in his diary that he was pushing hard to keep Khomeini out of Iran. But the next day, his administration told Khomeini that it had no problem with his “orderly” homecoming.
The Carter administration began secret talks with Khomeini with the primary objective of making an elusive deal between the ayatollah and the military. It’s also possible that they wanted to slow down Khomeini’s momentum or read his intentions. But they ended up achieving none of those goals.
Khomeini wanted a decisive victory, not a deal. But a tactical engagement with Washington suited him well. Khomeini, in fact, had a set of key questions to determine Carter’s commitment to the Shah’s regime and the orientation of the Iranian military.
The ayatollah didn’t have to try very hard. America would easily reveal its hand.
By the third time Zimmermann and Yazdi met, they had good news for each other. It was the morning of 18 January 1979. The venue: the same quiet inn near Khomeini’s compound outside Paris.
Khomeini had authorized Beheshti to meet with the generals, Yazdi confirmed. And Zimmermann had an important clarification for the ayatollah.
During their second meeting, Washington had warned Khomeini that his “sudden return” would lead to a disaster, as the Iranian military might react “to protect the constitution” which stated in no uncertain terms that the constitutional monarchy was “unchangeable for eternity”.
But what did “to protect the constitution” mean? Did it mean preserving the institution of monarchy? Or saving the integrity of the military? Khomeini wanted a straight answer.
Put frankly, did the US think the Iranian military had given up on the Pahlavi regime and was “willing to work within the framework of a new democratic republic”?
It took two days for Washington to clarify. The answer, which was kept secret for 35 years, made clear to Khomeini that America was “flexible” about the Iranian political system.
Like most official statements, it began with generalities. The main point was put at the end.
“We do not say that the constitution cannot be changed, but we do believe that the established, orderly procedures for making changes should be followed.
“If the integrity of the army can be preserved, we believe there is every prospect the leadership will support whatever political form is selected for Iran in the future.”
In other words, Washington, in principle, was open to the idea of abolishing the monarchy, and the Shah’s military, whose top brass met daily with General Huyser, would be willing to accept such an outcome provided the process was gradual and controlled.
Khomeini’s biggest fear was that the all-powerful America was on the verge of staging a last-minute coup to save the Shah. Instead, he had just received a clear signal that the US considered the Shah finished, and in fact was looking for a face-saving way to protect the military and avoid a communist takeover.
As usual, Khomeini’s chief of staff “took copious notes” in Persian to be delivered to the ayatollah.
The American diplomat wanted to make sure that the Iranian envoy understood what exactly the message entailed.
“While Zimmermann did cite the points on the constitution in the paragraph, he called Yazdi’s primary attention to the last two sentences of it, which hopefully conveyed to Yazdi a sense of US flexibility on the constitution,” said the US ambassador in France to Washington in a separate cable.
The US had effectively told Khomeini that the military had lost its nerve. “These officers fear the unknown; they fear an uncharted future,” Zimmermann told Yazdi during the same meeting.
To Washington’s relief, the ayatollah pledged not to destroy the military. His emissary urged America not to pull its sophisticated weapons systems out of Iran.
Yazdi also clarified an Islamic Republic would make a distinction between Israel and its own Jewish residents – which had begun fleeing Iran in droves.
“You can tell the American Jews not to worry about the Jewish future in Iran,” he said.
Khomeini and Carter both wished to avoid a violent clash between the military and the opposition. But their aims were fundamentally different.
Carter wanted to preserve the military – which Sullivan once described as an unpredictable “wounded animal” – in order to use it as powerful leverage in the future.
But Khomeini wanted to trap the beast and finish it. The military was a long-term threat to his regime. Its decapitation and destruction were a top priority.
Washington had answered Khomeini’s questions about the future of the monarchy and the orientation of the military. Now, it was the ayatollah’s turn. The Carter administration wanted to know about the future of US core interests in Iran: American investments, oil flow, political-military relations, and views on the Soviet Union.
Khomeini answered the questions in writing the next day – sent back with Yazdi.
It was an artfully-crafted portrait of an Islamic Republic, mirroring what Carter had sketched at a conference of world leaders on Guadeloupe Island earlier that month: an Iran free of Soviet domination, neutral, if not friendly to America, one that would not export revolution, or cut oil flow to the West.
“We will sell our oil to whoever purchases it at a just price,” Khomeini wrote.
“The oil flow will continue after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, except for two countries: South Africa and Israel,” he added.
To develop the country, Iran needed the assistance of others, “in particular the Americans”, Khomeini wrote.
As for foreign investments, the US was likely to have a role. He implied that the Islamic Republic would be interested in buying tractors, not tanks, making it also clear that he had no “particular affinity” for the Russians.
“The Russian government is atheistic and anti-religion. We will definitely find it more difficult to have a deep understanding with the Russians,” Yazdi added to Zimmermann as he delivered the answers.
“You are Christians and believe in God and they don’t. We feel it easier to be closer to you than to Russians,” Yazdi said.
Khomeini also vowed not to destabilize the region.
“Non-interference in other people’s affairs”, he wrote, would be the policy of the future government.
The Islamic Republic, unlike the Shah’s regime, would not act as the policeman of the Gulf, but it would not get into the business of exporting the revolution either.
“We will not ask the people of Saudi, Kuwait, or Iraq to kick the foreigners out,” Khomeini wrote.
The chaos in Iran had alarmed most of Iran’s Arab neighbors, who feared that after the Shah’s downfall armed Marxist groups would take over. A CIA assessment concluded Arab conservatives found it hard to believe Khomeini or a regime associated with his ideas could be a lasting government in Iran.
But the ayatollah would soon eliminate all the Marxist groups that had supported his struggle. Before liquidating the left, Khomeini and his radical followers would push out the moderates, including Yazdi, on the grounds that they were pro-American and not real revolutionaries.
On 24 January, key members of the secret Islamic Revolutionary Council, including a cleric by the name of Ayatollah Mousavi Ardebili – the future Chief Justice of the Islamic Republic who would play a major role in the executions of thousands of political opponents – met with the US ambassador, William Sullivan.
The cleric seemed reasonable. He was a more forceful type, reported Sullivan to Washington, but “no fanatic”.
Three days later, Khomeini himself made a direct appeal to the White House.
“It is advisable that you recommend to the army not to follow Bakhtiar,” wrote Khomeini in his “first first-person” message on 27 January.
Khomeini, in effect, had three requests: smooth the way for his return, press the constitutional government to resign, and force the military to capitulate.
The ayatollah also included a subtle warning that if the army cracked down, his followers would direct their violence against US citizens in Iran.
Still, he made sure to end on a positive note, emphasizing the urgent need for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
Cabled from the US embassy in France after being delivered by Yazdi, the message reached the highest levels of the US government. US documents show that the cable was in fact on Vice President Walter Mondale’s desk on 27 January 1979 – the same day that Khomeini’s first-person message reached the White House.
In a phone conversation on 27 January, Defense Secretary Harold Brown told General Huyser about Khomeini’s secret message and his discussion with President Carter about it. Brown made it clear to Huyser that Khomeini’s return was a “tactical” matter that had to be left to the Iranian authorities.
The administration was pleased that the ayatollah had agreed to direct methods of communication and wished to continue the talks, according to the newly declassified version of Washington’s draft response to Khomeini.
The proposed response warned Khomeini against setting up his own government, stressing the crisis should be resolved through dialogue with the Iranian authorities.
The text was sent to the US embassy in Tehran for feedback, where it ended up on the shelf, never making it to Khomeini in France.
But it didn’t matter. Soon, the ayatollah would be on his way back to Iran.
Washington had already tacitly agreed to a key part of Khomeini’s requests by telling the military leaders to stay put. General Huyser had told the military that Khomeini’s return alone did not itself constitute a enough cause for implementing “Option C”, a direct reference to the coup option.
On 29 January, Prime Minister Bakhtiar, under enormous domestic pressure, opened the Iranian airspace to Khomeini. Bakhtiar had fallen back to his plan B: Khomeini “should be drowned in mullahs” in the religious city of Qom near Tehran.
“This might make him more reasonable or at least less involved in political affairs,” he told the American ambassador, two weeks before being swept away by the Khomeini wave.
Two days before the ayatollah’s arrival, the Shah’s top commander had given specific assurances to Khomeini representatives that the military in principle was no longer opposed to political changes, including in “the cabinet”.
“Even changes in the constitution would be acceptable if done in accordance with constitutional law,” the US embassy was told by a reliable source in the Khomeini camp, according to a cable declassified in November 2013.
The American ambassador was pleased. “Sounds like military have come around to accepting Khomeini arrival and are prepared to cooperate with Islamic movement as long as constitutional norms be respected,” reported Sullivan to Washington.
Khomeini arrived at Tehran airport on the morning of 1 February, mobbed by thousands of supporters. In a few days, he had appointed a rival prime minister.
By then, the military had no fundamental problems with a change in the form of government, so long as change was done “legally and gradually”, a CIA report, only declassified in 2016, concluded on 5 February 1979.
At this point, the army’s cohesion had significantly eroded. Many junior officers and conscript soldiers were now with Khomeini.
Soon a mutiny occurred in the air force. The opposition armed itself, and led by radical Marxist groups, attacked army bases and police stations across the capital.
The military leadership had no stomach for an all-out civil war. Behind the back of Bakhtiar, they convened an emergency meeting and declared neutrality. In effect, they surrendered. The Shah’s prime minister ran for his life.
The day Khomeini won his first revolution, President Carter wasn’t in Washington. Over the weekend, he had hit the slopes around Camp David. In the morning of Sunday, 11 February, Mr Carter and his Secretary of State were at a church, temporarily out of reach.
In their absence, the President’s National Security Advisor convened an emergency meeting at the White House Situation Room.
The once-powerful Iranian armed forces had disintegrated, but Brzezinski, who had been among the most pro-Shah voices in the Carter administration, was thinking of Option C, but he was told it wouldn’t be possible, given the state of the military.
Soon, General Huyser was connected to the Situation Room via a secure phone line from Europe. The general would soon face a barrage of public accusations that he went to Tehran to help neutralise the Shah’s military and pave the way for Khomeini’s victory, a charge that he strongly rejected. Most of his reports back to Washington remain classified.
But on 11 February, Huyser’s tone was slightly different, expressing no surprise that the military had taken themselves out of the equation.
“We have always urged the military to make deals,” said Huyser, according to the record of the phone conversation.
“They must have gone to [Mehdi] Bazargan directly,” he said, a moderate Islamist who had already been named Khomeini’s PM.
But all the concessions made by the military weren’t enough for Khomeini. On 15 February four senior military generals were summarily executed on the rooftop of a high school. It was just the beginning of a slew of executions.
Many have come to believe that that the Carter administration – plagued by intelligence failures and internal division – was by and large a passive observer to the rapid demise of the Shah.
But it’s now clear that, in the final stages of the crisis, America had in effect hedged its bet by keeping a firm foot in both camps in the hopes of a soft landing after the fall of the Shah’s regime.
But Carter’s gambit proved to be a massive blunder. The decision to topple the Shah and support Khomeini’s rise. Khomeini was his bitch.
As a prologue to this article, I should mention that it did not take long for Jimmy Carter to regret his decisions and association with Khomeini. Khomeini figure this out and opened a secret link with Ronal Reagan’s camp. He then coordinated the “Embassy Hostage Taking” to publicly humiliate Carter and support Reagan’s campaign.
Here we are 40 years later, and the Mullahs in Iran are among the ‘longest’ standing regime in the Middle East.