Embassy Safety: Learning from Mistakes in Tehran and Benghazi

by Charles Naas

My dear friend and colleague, Henry Precht, in his discussion Wednesday about the sad path of US-Iran affairs in the last 30 years, did not mention that a day after his snowy trip to the State Department, the Embassy in Tehran was under heavy gunfire by a substantial cadre of leftists — 70-75 of them I was told later — = who at about 10:30 flowed over the compound walls. The possibility of any kind of relations was being challenged at the very birth of the post-Shah regime.

The attack was not totally unexpected because there was evidence of someone listening to our Marines’ communications and a small compound that we had considered retreating to in the event of attack was destroyed by bombing two days previously. Not much preparation, however, could realistically be done in the chaos of early revolutionary enthusiasm. The Iranian police guard force that had been with us for years had been removed. Cinema was useless guidance; there was no cavalry riding hard in our direction nor flight of additional marines landing with flags flying. As Ambassador William Sullivan said to me, we had to suck it up and pray.

The previous evening in his office, the Ambassador reviewed instructions to the small marine force that basically had the marines retreat slowly from guard posts without engaging in combat against the heavily armed invaders and to fall back into the chancery. We were aware that many years previously, when the Russian embassy was invaded, they had fought and perished.

Within the Embassy, the Ambassador and the Lieutenant General in charge of the assistance program very narrowly escaped being killed as bullets swept through the front office. Shock, fear and near panic. And then widespread telephoning to just about any person you might happen to have come to know in the five days of the new post-revolutionary government. In the meantime, we were letting onto the second floor staff and marines who went through clouds of tea gas as the invaders slipped into the basement and first floor. Documents that had not been destroyed and sensitive communications were being torn apart. Finally when the attackers, who were standing outside a 1/4 inch steel door that had been repeatedly penetrated by gunfire, threatened to set the chancery on fire, we opened the door and two Keffiyeh-clad young men entered with their kalashnikovs. Not long later, an informal rescue force was sent by Deputy Prime Minister Ibrahim Yazdi and after a bit of palaver the leftists departed.

We were extraordinarily lucky that the official from a five day-old government recognized the danger we were in, the possibility that any ties with the US were at stake and that he had the courage to send a force from his party element to save us — Americans, of all people.

Ten months later, when hundreds of students again invaded the chancery grounds, that same government was not in a political position to repeat their act of courage and the hostages endured their long imprisonment. This became known as the Iran hostage crisis.

These two examples of the seizure of the same embassy with a few of the same people and with the same government in power and other actual take-overs made me wonder whether the Senate had learned anything from past experiences and whether in the Benghazi hearings they even called upon those who have been unfortunate enough to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Senator McCain has been a man of true guts and perhaps the others close to him are as well, but quite obviously they were more interested in trying to make political points from the tragedy, which they hoped might affect the election. McCain at one point appeared indignant that we apparently were not certain about the identity of the group that was firing all sorts of weapons. Well, Senators, no one was going to go out into the street and enquire; keeping your head down and figuring how to survive and hoping some friendly force might arrive in time was, I imagine, the driving force.

The number of appalling questions on this tragedy was quite disturbing. It has not been a shining period by the Senate; perhaps their official background makes it all somewhat understandable. When they make their trips abroad, they are met at the plane, and hastened to town by armed convoy trying to avoid all dangerous and unpleasant spots in the itinerary.

Another more serious problem we face is the unwillingness of so many on the hill to realize that we are going through a period of great transformation of power and attitudes toward the United States. They can fight it all they want but that only adds to the difficulty of life abroad.

In recent decades, the destruction by bombing or the attacks by cadres of anti-American terroists have neared common-place; Pakistan, Beirut, East Africa, Kuwait, Bogota, Ankara the other day (check google, the list is too long to produce here.) Rather than spending time looking for some avoidance of responsibility and threatening to hold up the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State, the Senate Committee could have taken a serious look at the entire range of possible help that was available.

One thing remains clear and deserves repetition: if the government to which our envoys are accredited finds itself unable or not daring enough to risk sending counter forces, your embassy is as good as gone. There may be an example awaiting us of dispatching a well-armed rescue force, but that will be the unusual one. Bombing can only be avoided if the chancery is isolated and immune from daily traffic. Some governments are very reluctant to agree to special traffic arrangements since our embassies are frequently located in busy neighborhoods. When governments are dealing with major political disorder, our facilities are in danger and that seems to cover much of the Middle East and areas further east.

Two issues should predominate in our search for more safety. When we are aware of local insecurity and there is some history of anti-Americanism sentiment, do we try to continue to maintain normal relations, reduce staff, or in extremis close the facility? Budget questions may also intrude.

In pre-revolutionary Tehran I recommended a sort of half-staff that would permit much of the more important duties to be met, but one experienced political officer thought that three men and a vicious dog would suffice! In view of the course of events there, he may have been right.

What do you do when a government like Pakistan sits idly by until the embassy staff was in dire danger from fire. Should we continue any special programs with a country that does little to help? Should we take commensurate military action? There are many variations of these questions that deserve careful thought, but this will not occur if political maneuvering is the main ambition.

Photo: President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor the Benghazi victims at the Transfer of Remains Ceremony held at Andrews Air Force Base, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, September 14, 2012. An attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya claimed the lives of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and security personnel Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty on September 11, 2012. [State Department photo/ Public Domain] 

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.