Small World: World history and Mine

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

The national press has been stuffed of late with articles about the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution (Feb. 11, 1979) plus all the bad things that have happened over there in the past four decades. No doubt about it, that was a date of great significance on the world calendar. Before then there had been communists, socialists, and nationalists who overturned regimes; never a movement motivated mainly by a religious faith. While there had frequently been small cunning cadres of revolutionaries, never had virtually an entire population risen up — millions of people of all classes in the streets, chanting in unison. And, finally, there had rarely been an uprising where the plotters defeated the powerful United States of America. (Well, maybe China, Cuba, and a few others).

I was the middle-grade chief of the State Department’s Iran Desk on that fateful February night. Asleep in my bed outside Washington, I was awakened by the officer who was taking the night shift for me. Laurie, brand new, bright, serious, petite: “You better come in, Henry, all hell is breaking loose in Tehran. I got Ambassador Sullivan on one line; Secretary Vance on another, and the White House on a third. The Pentagon’s on hold.”

“I’ll be right there.” I hung up, but “right there” was the wrong phrase. There were two feet of snow blocking our unplowed street. I went out on Mass. Ave. and flagged down a sexton who was driving in to make sure his church pipes didn’t freeze. I still had to walk halfway before I could relieve Laurie and deal with my callers about what was going on in Iran. It was another day before we understood that the revolution had succeeded. A contingent of elite, technically trained Iranian troops had joined the Khomeini forces, defeated the regular army soldiers, and seized their weapons. The Shah’s generals had — if not captured — escaped over the Turkish border. In fact, that was the fate of nearly all of the Shah’s former establishment. Bereft of those usual guides to Iranian mysteries, we (the American establishment) set about trying to figure out what had happened and how to react to the new Iran.

One of the vexing questions was what to do about the Shah himself. He had left Iran and accepted our invitation to take a few weeks’ refuge on the Annenberg estate in California. For unknown reasons, he had stopped off to visit President Sadat in Egypt. (I speculated that he thought we might calm his country down and he could return to resume his reign, as the CIA did in 1953). No such luck. No chance he might return to Tehran and no prospect he might proceed to California. “If you bring the Shah to the U.S., you will bring the embassy staff home in boxes,” Ambassador Sullivan warned. Meanwhile, Tehran was in the grip of competing armed komitehs, bands of tough young men, and there was constant gunfire.

I was asleep at about three a.m. on Valentine’s Day when the telephone rang. Larry, the duty officer, an always-cautious diplomat, told me I should come in to the Department; I heard heavy shooting. “Nothing new, I have to sleep, there’s always gunfire,” I replied.

“Here, listen to George,” said Larry and he held the receiver up against the call from George in Tehran: “I’m lying on the floor in the ambassador’s office. You can hear the shots coming in the window.” Pow, pow, pow.

“I have to sleep some time,” I responded to Larry.

“The secretary is on his way in.”

“I’ll be right there,” I ended the conversation and was in the department in 20 minutes. It turned out that the Embassy had been occupied by a komiteh and the staff lined up and searched. The Iranians thought we were harboring men from the old regime. Fortunately, two Khomeini leaders came to the rescue and the staff was freed with only a Marine guard wounded. At the same time, unrelated to those events, there was fighting in Afghanistan and our ambassador in Kabul was shot down. I never got home that night.

And so the Islamic Republic was born. There were other birth pangs — the Iran-Iraq war, in which we quietly helped Baghdad, and the Hostage Crisis, where Iran came under the sway of radical America-haters and isolated itself internationally. It still suffers the consequences.

Can the old days of good but not too close relations between Washington and Tehran ever return?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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