Secret Talks With Ayatollah Khomeini
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 remains one of the most dramatic events in modern times—when the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was replaced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This transformed an ally of the United States into a volcano of anti-Americanism. It turned Iran into an Islamic Republic—one of the most radical, violent regimes in the modern world—the source of tremendous unrest and terrorism throughout the Middle East and beyond. The revolution produced a belligerent foe that’s now on the cusp of getting nuclear weapons.
A trove of newly declassified U.S. government documents sheds some valuable light on the machinations and the forces behind that revolution.
This history has particular relevance today and is especially chilling to read in light of the recently concluded nuclear negotiations with Iran. It teaches valuable, painfully learned lessons that America has since forgotten.
The Roots of Terrorism
Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry has often pointed to Iran as “the head of the terrorist snake.” In the January 2008 Trumpet magazine, he wrote:
We must go back in history to see terrorism’s deadly roots and then deal with the cause of the problem. It’s not enough to destroy the branches of a vast network of world terrorism. We must pull up the terrorist tree by its roots. It’s the only way to win this war.
When Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi led Iran, he was a strong ally of America. But our liberal press and politicians thought he was too undemocratic, so they helped to drive him from power. As he was falling, America gave him little or no support. Then, in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the shah. Khomeini established Iran as the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism.
In that article, Mr. Flurry said it was only later, when that international network of terrorism intensified, that some observers began to see what a terrible mistake liberals had made in assisting the shah’s downfall.
The United States—specifically the administration of Jimmy Carter—has always insisted that it was firm in its support for the shah and his government. The story from Iran has always been that Khomeini courageously defied the United States, which he called “the Great Satan”—and that he conquered and vanquished Washington as it tried to keep the shah in power.
These newly declassified documents tell a much different story.
It’s true that the U.S. gave the shah “little or no support,” as Mr. Flurry wrote. In fact, as these documents reveal, the Carter administration was more hostile than it was merely negligent. Declassified diplomatic cables, policy memos and meeting records now show that the U.S. officials encouraged the shah to get out of Iran—while they were having secret discussions with Khomeini that helped usher him into power!
In report titled “Two Weeks in January: America’s Secret Engagement With Khomeini,” the bbc Persian Service wrote on June 3:
[T]he documents reveal that Khomeini was far more engaged with the U.S. 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 U.S. interests.
Khomeini fed U.S. officials a banquet of lies, and they ate it up!
Iran in Turmoil
Back in 1977, Iran was in disarray. There were frequent protests against the shah, and in the latter part of 1978, massive strikes and demonstrations were paralyzing Iran. The bbc report continued:
On Nov. 9, 1978, in a now-famous cable, “Thinking the Unthinkable,” the U.S. 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.
President Carter didn’t agree at the time, “but by early January , the reluctant president concluded that the shah’s departure was necessary to calm the opposition.”
But “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,” wrote the bbc.
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 shah]; the die-hard followers of the imam [Khomeini’s supporters] were ready for armed struggle and martyrdom.
The White House feared an Iranian civil war that would have major implications for U.S. strategic interests. At stake were the lives of thousands of U.S. military advisers; 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 [emphasis added throughout].
What a terrible miscalculation.
U.S. officials were strongly backing Prime Minister Bakhtiar in public—but these documents show that they didn’t have any real confidence in him and were exploring the possibility of his being ousted in a coup.
On Jan. 9, 1979, the deputy national security adviser, David Aaron, wrote this to his boss, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser: “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.”
Just two days later, President Carter pressed the shah to “leave promptly.” That is worse than just giving him “little or no support”—the U.S. actively pushed for him to flee his country in order to create a power vacancy there.
The report said, “By then, a broad consensus had emerged within the U.S. national security bureaucracy that they could do business with the ayatollah and his inner circle after all.”
How dangerously wrong a “broad consensus” can be! These officials completely misread the situation, and they talked themselves into thinking the ayatollah could be trusted. They placed real confidence in their relationship with Khomeini’s second-in-command, Mohammad Beheshti, an English-speaking cleric who had lived in the West, whom they considered a pragmatic man who could be reasoned with.
We have seen a similar disastrous scenario play out in recent years with the current Iranian ayatollah and the “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
The report continued:
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.
The same script could be written for the nuclear negotiations. Confident Americans enter these discussions with many lofty goals, basing the entire effort on false assumptions and misplaced faith—and come away empty-handed. Canny Iranians find that “tactical engagement with Washington” suits them well, especially considering how easy it is to deceive them!
Ultimately, the ayatollah wanted to know whether the Iranian military leaders—who were allied with America and met with them daily—were willing to turn their back on the shah’s regime. He wanted to make sure they wouldn’t interfere when he came to power, and that the U.S. wouldn’t step in at the last minute to undermine him.
The Americans allayed Khomeini’s concerns completely. America’s official statement was: “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.”
This was all the assurance Ayatollah Khomeini needed. It was a green light to proceed with the revolution.
Khomeini responded to American officials with a beautifully crafted package of lies.
He pledged to preserve the Iranian military. He promised that Iran would be friendly to America at best or neutral at worst. He said Iranian oil would continue flowing to the West. He spoke of future expanded economic engagement with the U.S., implying that Iran would be more interested in buying tractors than tanks. He said he would respect his neighbors, following a policy of “non-interference in other people’s affairs.” He said that Soviet influence in Iran was dead: “The Russian government is atheistic and anti-religion,” a spokesman for Khomeini explained to American officials. “We will definitely find it more difficult to have a deep understanding with the Russians. … You are Christians and believe in God, and they don’t. We feel it easier to be closer to you than to Russians.”
The bbc wrote:
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.”
Clearly, Khomeini read the Americans well. He knew just what they wanted to hear, to the detail. He gave it to them like a skilled con artist, lying through the smile on his face.
Reading that list of promises and assurances in light of the nightmares brought on by the Iranian Revolution makes you shake your head that anyone would have ever believed it. The fact of its being rank deceit would start to become plain within just a few weeks, and one of the ayatollah’s first actions after returning to Iran was to begin executing top military officials. Within a year, the American Embassy in Tehran was besieged, and the anti-American fangs of the revolution were fully bared.
The bbc report concluded:
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 real danger was overlooked, Khomeini’s ambitions were underestimated, and his moves were misread. Unlike Carter, Khomeini pursued a consistent strategy and played his hand masterfully. Guided by a clear vision of establishing an Islamic republic, the ayatollah engaged America with empty promises, understood its intentions, and marched toward victory.
This history teaches a bitter moral truth about just how catastrophically wrong human judgment can be. The role America played in bringing one of its most virulent enemies to power is stunning to contemplate. As is so often the case, however, these lessons of history are being ignored—and to our shame and peril. The current American administration has no interest in the stinging wisdom of these past events, and—judging by its recent actions—likely wouldn’t even consider Carter’s secret dialogue with Khomeini a mistake.
But a disastrous mistake it was. The effects of that appalling misjudgment in 1979, that naive stupidity, helped to reshape the Middle East into a deadlier, more radical place, and caused untold suffering. The effects of the Islamic Revolution continue to shake the world to this day.
An appreciation of these facts would lead prudent leaders to look askance at any promises from the radicals in Tehran today and to vow, “Never again.”
But America’s leaders today are not prudent. They are heedlessly taking the same course, and the consequences are certain to prove even more dangerous when the day dawns on a nuclear-armed Iran.
In his January 2008 article, Mr. Flurry explained: “Here is the brutal truth: There would be no state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East if America had the will to use its power! But America’s problem is even worse than a weak will. We even help push our allies into the hands of radical Islam. That is a dangerous kind of ignorance. … America has a much deeper problem than any of our leaders really see. The root of our problem is spiritual.”
If you would like to know why this is all happening, request our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy.