An Anniversary Not to be Celebrated

by Henry Precht

Thirty-five years ago this week, my wife and I were driving on a highway in Pennsylvania, coming from Parents’ Weekend at Colgate. I was in charge of Iranian affairs at the State Department and was passing the time trying to imagine new approaches that might help us normalize relations with Tehran’s distrustful revolutionary regime of clerics. I had just spent two weeks in the Iranian capital trying to find ways to ease tensions.

I turned on the radio at noon and heard that a group of students had seized our embassy, demanding that the Shah–then in the US for medical treatment–be returned to Iran for trial. “Now we’re in the soup,” I thought, knowing that only Ayatollah Khomeini could chase the students off the premises. Although no American official had ever met with him, we knew the ayatollah to be a bold, inflexible cleric, determined to construct an Islamic regime in Iran. Would he risk everything by confronting the US?

In fact, we learned later, his initial reaction was to “Get those kids out of there. Who do they think they are?” Then the students’ cause was adopted by radical clerics who persuaded them to stay indefinitely–rather than only through the weekend as they had planned. The radicals whipped up the usual “Death to America” mob who marched to Khomeini’s office. They changed his mind: he praised the students’ audacity, piety and courage. That wasn’t hard to understand: It was the students and clerics on one scale; the Shah and the US on the other. No contest!

The ordeal that was to last 444 days began with President Jimmy Carter’s sending Ramsey Clark on Air Force One to meet with Khomeini and present him with a presidential letter demanding the release of the hostages. I was sent along to explain the background to Clark. We were over the Atlantic when word reached us that Clark’s secret mission was reported on the evening TV news. The Iranians hadn’t granted him permission to come, however.

That permission came when we were flying over Spain but we were told that we could not land in a large plane; only a two-engine plane would do. (Were the Iranians fearful that a company of Marines would hop out and seize the capital?) Later, over Greece, clerical fears mounted and we were told that we might enter only on a commercial flight. Finally, when we reached Istanbul, the word was that we could not enter and no Iranian official could speak to an American. Clark moved into the American Consul General’s house and began his efforts to persuade Yasser Arafat to help. Deeply frustrating work, given the primitive state of the Turkish telephone system.

That episode was typical of events for over a year of bitter frustration: The Iranian prime minister and his group—practically the only officials we could talk to–resigned. The students opened Embassy files, read or misread documents and called us spies (some few were). We froze their bank holdings. They refused directives or pleas from the UN, the World Court, most other governments and many private organizations.

It’s past time to extract a few lessons from that crisis:

  1. The leadership on both sides was ignorant of realities on the other side–plenty of ideology, few facts.
  2. Know your enemies. We had missed chances to meet with Khomeini. Thus, he didn’t really know us and we didn’t understand him–we had no possibility of reaching and trying to influence him.
  3. There’s an adage in the Middle East that when two enemies can’t talk to each other, they should seek an intermediary. I suggested Syria and Algeria as radical regimes acceptable to Tehran. Mr. Cyrus Vance rejected Syria; Algeria would not help us until almost a year had passed. Then, emboldened, they truly made a difference to the success of negotiations.
  4. If you let a crisis drag on, you open the door to unforeseen dangers. Thus, sensing Iran weak, isolated and poorly led and equipped, Iraq invaded in September 1980. The two Iraq wars were a direct consequence.
  5. This crisis happened 35 years ago; it is high time to put it behind us and move on. Iran is a different country now. The Economist writes, “one reason why the relationship is so poisonous is that popular Western views of Iran are out of date to the point of caricature.” If Washington plays its cards wisely, over time Iran might be helpful to us in a crisis-ridden region we don’t fully comprehend.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. Well said, it’s about time again, of which I point out the ignorance of the policy makers who seem to be running the show in Washington today. They are still using the old cold war mentality that should have died along with the end of that period in time. I wonder, have they ever really known what the other side was about, aside from the bunker mentality of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”, or how come you don’t like us when we bury you in “dollars”?

  2. Thank you for this informative piece, enabling us to see the issue from the American point of view at that time. A great deal has been written by Iranians who were involved in the hostage taking, some of whom have become reformists and have denounced their action.

    In brief, Khomeini put his regime’s interests ahead of national interests. People often forget how shaky Khomeini’s grip had become in Iran with a major battle raging between the clerical regime and the leftist forces, mainly the Mojahedin-e Khalq, who had been the foot-soldiers of the revolution. In fact, some members of the Mojahedin-e Khalq had briefly occupied the US Embassy but were persuaded by Mehdi Bazargan’s government to leave.

    However, when some radical Islamic groups (calling themselves Students Following the Imam’s Line) occupied the embassy in order to neutralize the influence of the leftist groups their action mobilized large groups in support of the regime and therefore, after two days of silence, Khomeini supported the hostage taking and called it a greater revolution than the first one. It consolidated his position and sidelined the leftist elements but imposed – and still imposes – a huge cost on Iran and Iranian interests. However, it is time to leave that horrible episode behind us after 35 years and move forward to a more collaborative relationship.

  3. The lessons provided are prized. Even Prophet Mohamad made peace with his foes. The US also made peace with cold war adversaries.

  4. I have just been reminded that the British first bombed Iran in the 1920s in order to persuade the people to comply with their view of how they should behave. It is no great surprise that they respond unfavorably to military threats. It is also interesting to note that Iran gave citizenship to many Jews in WW2, thus saving them from extermination by the Nazis. We have short memories, especially for facts that don’t fit well with our political posture.

  5. Thank you for the brief note on the hostage crisis Mr.precht.
    Your first point was that you didn’t know much about what was happening in Iran. Is it really so ? What were all the speciaists, researchers,”watchers” and think tanks doing in your universities, foreign office, CIA etc.? Didn’t they do their job properly? Were they influenced to play down what was going on in Iran ? Were you too reliant on foreign intellegence, speciall Israel and MI6? Were you too arrogant and thought you can do anything any time you decide ? The president without variose specialists cannot make any important decisions,thus,Carter connot be blamed.
    Or may be your rivals were better informed, had better connections, knew what they wanted from the situation, and were busy and working hard using their “connections ” to achieve their objectives ?
    I think a bit of the former points but overwhelmingly the later point created a debacle in which you felt stalemated and did not know what to do.Do you think occupation of the embassy happened spontaneously and without pre-planning ? Your rivals had their men firmly in good places and they began preparing the situation for their plans.Your halfhearted casual treatment of the situation in Iran was no match for well thoughtout ,manned plans of action of your rivals.your rivals found a golden opportunity to drive the US out of Iran and even possibly the area. Their success was remarkable and your failure was miserable.
    The Supreme Leader of Iran did not plan occupation of the embassy. It was Iran’s northern neighbour’s long time wish which suddenly found the opportunity to realise, with, of course, careful planning. The northern neighbour’s lackeys were well known by ordinary Iranian , did you not know them ? In addition “the lackeys” assumed a position of “moral” protectors and guide to all the young inexperienced radical groups(including religious and non-religious groups) and made use of them whenever they wanted , including in occupation of the embassy.
    The “lackys” had their seemingly religious revolutionary men planted in sensitive places who helped them change the Supreme Leader’s mind within hours of the leader’s oposition to the occupation with the logic of getting the Shah back for trail and execution, which souded very attractive to the supreme leader. Meanwhile the background was prepared for the fall of the democat-religious prime minister and…
    Carter administeration’s clamsy, haphazard reaction to the embassy crisis in Tehran was an assuring green light to the Russians who slipped into Afghanestan without any trouble ,74 days later.
    You are still being played in the hands of your allies&lackeys. A country with the military and economic power of the USA, which is unprecedented in human history , and occupies an unchangeable leadership of the world cannot carelessly. You have the moral responsibility for economic wellbeing and security of billions of people. Look at the tragic comedy of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The UN is completely useless. It is just a prestigious employment organisation for some privileged people. your gullibility,your offhandish treatment of serious matters,your arms and money superiority, and your arrogance make you ideal friend for leaches and a good enemy for your foes ,with disastrous consequences for millions of innocent unarmed women,children and poor honourable people.Look at Iraq,Syria,afghanistan, Syria,Libya,Palestine,Treatment of Iran,etc. All these criminal unspeakable conditions for the benefit of some corporations and making israel and its friends happy ? Is that not ridiculous? You are making hatered among people who once loved America and American. That way you will lose your place in the heart of the people of the world.That way you cannot claim world leadership and expect peoples of the world to love America. Lobbying is outright corruption. Taking big sums of money from corporations and people like koch for election campaign by presidential and houses of representatives candidate is outright corruption. You need a serious reform and reorganisation.

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