Small World: A holiday of hearts, flowers and suspicions

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

I write these words on Valentine’s Day. Almost everybody has in mind on this date flowery cards, rich chocolates, and bunches of roses. I have a dear wife well deserving of such tributes, but my thoughts inevitably turn back to this date — a grim one — in 1979.

I was in charge of the State Department’s Iran Desk and, although the revolution had toppled the Shah’s regime a few days previous, Iran was still unsettled and dangerous. We had an officer on duty in the Department’s Operation Center 24/7. Around 3 a.m. on Valentine Day’s Eve the duty officer woke me with a call. He was a mild-mannered officer, but he could reliably handle phone calls and messages.

“The embassy’s under attack!” He shouted. “Do you think you’d better come in?”

“What can I do at 6,000 miles distance?” I replied. “I’ve got to sleep some time!”

“Here, I’ll put the phone next to the call from Tehran, George is on the line.”

Pow, pow, pow! “Those are shots coming in the window above my head. I’m lying on the floor in the ambassador’s office.” It was the voice of George L., political counselor.

“Don’t you think you better come in?” the duty officer asked again.

“The embassy doesn’t need my advice; they’re used to being attacked,” I tried to end the conversation.

“Secretary Vance is on his way in.”

“I’ll be right there.” I beat the secretary by only a few minutes. In fact, everyone in the hierarchy between Vance and me (four men) came to the Op Center. We found that, coincidentally at the same hour, our ambassador to Afghanistan, Spike Dubs, had just been assassinated by militants linked to the Soviet-imposed regime. Then, a few minutes later, the crisis in Tehran ended. The ambassador and embassy staff had surrendered and were taken out of the building — some thought for execution — and the premises searched by the militants. Two men close to Khomeini — Ayatollah Behesti and Ibrahim Yazdi — then arrived and sent the attackers away. They were guerrillas searching for people from the Shah’s regime who they thought might be hiding in the embassy compound.

Meanwhile back in the department, Secretary Vance was supposed to leave for a meeting in Mexico. “I’m not leaving until we know all our people are safe,” he insisted. After learning that the embassy personnel had been rescued, I declared that to be true. (It wasn’t exactly so, however. One of the Marine guards had exchanged fire with an attacker and been wounded and was missing. It was only later that we learned he had been taken to the military hospital and was in good shape.)

Later that year in November the embassy was again attacked by students who believed the United States intended to restore the Shah to his throne. Initially, we hoped that Behesti and Yazdi would again come to the rescue. They didn’t show up, however, and the staff remained held as hostages for 444 days. Worse, for almost 40 years since then, both sides have viewed the other with the dark suspicion of treachery.

It need not be so. Like Hitler and World War II, the Shah and the hostage crisis are long forgotten — or should be. The persisting problem is the hard-liners on both sides, people who hold on to their power by acting tough toward the historic enemy. In truth, however, the main body of opinion outside Tehran and Washington would look favorably on the other side if given positive leadership. Both countries have interests in common with the other — in a peaceful and prospering Middle East and in cooperation with like-minded states.

An elephantine-size problem is, of course, Israel. Iran’s moderates have said they would accept any agreement with Israel that the Palestinians would sign. A fair and just end to that conflict ought again become a serious objective for Washington.

We don’t have to send cards, chocolates, or roses to this former friend and ex-enemy, but we can learn to be accepting and civil towards each other. It may be like blowing kisses in a stiff wind, however.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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