With Iran back in the news, I found this old file of mine from 1981. Thanks to The Washington Post, in 1976 I spent eight or nine weeks in Iran gathering notes for six front-page articles. The discoveries I made were eye-opening. I had married an Iranian who was raised in England and had who had never gone back to Iran.
But I grew very close to her father who worked for the Shah, He taught me to love Iranian music, to learn passable Farsi, history and to love the Persian poets. My favorite was the poet Saadiq, from Shiraz, his was Hafez. I spent hours up in the Elborz Mountains.
We never discussed what I was up to, but I learned quickly by walking the streets.
I learned that the Israelis were running the torture chambers of the Shah’s secret police, the Savak. I found that arms sales in country were being done by Bell Helicopter and other corporations who had moved into Iran from Vietnam. (Bell people were known for riding their motorcycles through the big mosque in Isfahan. I got tons of death threats after my articles appeared.
I flew down to Shiraz to interview U.S. helicopter pilots who were flying secret military missions. Outside Shiraz, you come across the ruins of Persepolis. Shiraz was noted for its beauty, for its reflecting canals and cypress trees. One night I went out late to mix with the people there. I walked for three hours. I had an eight o’clock meeting with a SAVAK official at breakfast. I told him how I spent my evening, and he just stared for a moment then said, “I know.”
The Shah had publicly stated that there were only 400 Islamic clergy in the country, but while driving with a Savak driver, I saw 1200 mullahs and ayatollahs penned up in a very evil-looking prison. In an interview, I bushwhacked the Deputy Director of SAVAK with those figures, and he allowed me to visit the infamous Evin prison. The Savak official who took me there was executed after the revolution. He was a thug.
I soon learned that the Shah was moving Iran’s peasants off their ancestral sands, constructing cheap apartment complexes. I immediately knew he was doomed.
I kept developing sources on Iran, and in Feb. 1981, I wrote the following story. I am presenting it to you because on a military channel they had a program on the Iranian Hostage Crisis, but didn’t mention the following. With greetings to all.
"U.S. Policy in Iran: “What the Traffic Would Bear”
Iranians Killed by U.S. Marines during the First Embassy Takeover
It was the worst attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission since the Vietcong assault on the American Embassy in Saigon during the TET offensive of January 1968, and what happened in Tehran on cold, bright morning of February 14, 1979,and the facts have been carefully suppressed ever since.
It was at 10:30 a.m. that heavily armed Iranian guerillas appeared atop the brick walls of the 27 acre U.S. Embassy compound and opened fire. Two hours later it was over and the invaders had captured 102 U.S. diplomats, staffers, secretaries, and Marine security guards. Wearing battle fatigues and blindfolds, the Marines were led stumbling down the Embassy steps while being "kicked and thumped by their captors, a ragtag army of mostly youthful men and women, some barely in their teens," according to UPI photographer Tom Kharges.
The Marines were instructed not to talk and the State Dept. planted stories with the U.S. press in an effort to placate the new regime. State claimed that the Embassy had been attacked, not by followers of Khomeini, but by a group of renegade communists called "The People's Sacrifice Guerillas." The renegades had then been attacked and routed by Khomeini's people, led by then Iran foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi. State also claimed that no Iranians had been injured by Marines in the attack since the Marines had simply fired light charges of No. 9 bird shot into the air.
In fact, it was Khomeini's followers, not communists, who had mounted the attack, and the Defense Department now admits that the Marines were more heavily armed and that they had shot to kill.
The Strange DOD Memo
A memo prepared in February 1980 for DOD's Office of Public Affairs admits that Marine guards fired No. 4 shot and/or No. 4 slugs which "brought down 4 Iranian attackers." The memo insists, however, that there is no evidence of fatalities. "We have no death certificates, no bodies; we simply don't know what happened."
This was another lie.
The DOD memo, prepared by Commander Gordon Peterson, purports to be authoritative, compiled from materials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Dept.'s Office of Security, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the CIA and others. Although Commander Peterson declined comment, other officials allege that throughout the memo's preparation the State Dept. was "totally uncooperative", denying access to State Dept. reports of what happened on February 14 and instructing DOD to use State Dept. public statements as its guideline. No primary State Dept. reports were in fact ever seen by the DOD's Office of Public Affairs. The State Dept.'s security officer, James Birmingham, even admitted to DOD officials that he had not "personally debriefed" any of the Marine participants.
So what did happen that day? From extensive interviews I found the following facts.
'We were dealing with reports of 25-30 Iranian dead," said one DOD analyst. Marines, Embassy staffers, and intelligence sources all agree that the number of Iranians killed on February 14, 1979, is as high as 11 or as low as 4. The latter is probably accurate estimate. An eyewitness told me that he saw a broad swathe of blood on the kitchen floor of the Embassy where an Iranian had died.
One Unlucky Marine
One Marine, 19 year old Sgt. Kenneth Kraus of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, told the Embassy's political officer that he had killed 4 Iranians himself. Said a sensitively placed source, "Kraus was covering the Caravansary, the Embassy restaurant. He killed one or two for certain." Another Marine told a U.S. intelligence agent that he had killed 3, according to the agent who interviewed the Marine at the scene. A former Embassy staffer said, 'Two guys told me that they had killed a few and they weren't even Marines." He acknowledged that there were Iranian dead but said, "they simply disappeared." Another staffer told me that funeral services were held the next day for the dead "right next door—we heard it coming over the loud speakers."
'The Iranians chose not to make an issue of it themselves," he said of the killings.
Except for Sgt. Kraus. Wounded by his own shotgun as he was captured, Kraus was abducted from his bed at Amir Alaam Hospital near the Embassy, and taken to an Islamic Revolutionary Prison. There he was starved, spat on, interrogated, had empty guns put to his head and the triggers pulled, and the soles of his feet beaten until he lost consciousness. Six days later he was tried and found guilty of espionage and murder. He was sentenced to be shot, according to a $60 million damage suit filed by Kraus in early 1980 in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The suit also confirmed that it was Khomeini supporters who led the attack on the Embassy. Kraus alleges that his captors wore arm bands identifying them as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Council.
According to 'Top Secret" State Dept. documents acquired by my investigation, it was only because of a personal friend of Khomeini, Mehdi Rowghani, whose father had sheltered Khomeini on his release from prison in 1963, that Kraus was at last released to U.S. diplomats.
Policy or Appeasement?
The whole episode raises questions of what happens when a government hostile to the United States comes to power by revolution. How are decisions made? What strategy governs the formation of U.S. policy?
The February 14th attack proved to be a turning point in U.S.-Iran relations. A top level U.S. official, involved with Iran at the time says, "The U.S. never had proper diplomatic relations after that attack." The source cites the fact the American flag was not allowed to be flown at the U.S. Embassy and that U.S. Embassy employees were barred by the Islamic Guard from their offices at the Air Force Section at Tehran's Doshan Tapi air base and the Air Section at the Supreme Commander's Staff Building (SCS) in northwest Tehran, even though those offices contained classified U.S. materials.
Former NSC staffer, William Quandt, notes that it was the NSC's view early in 1979 that Khomeini's return meant trouble for America, a view disputed by the Dept. of State, which believed ".. . the ayatollahs were the authentic representatives of Iran's national aspirations and there was a great deal of potential for dealing with the new government— that we had a chance to work within it for a positive change if We didn't burn all our bridges by fighting it."
This was a huge miscalculation.
Even after the February 14th debacle, the State Dept. still held to its plan of working from within for positive change. The Islamic Guard remained inside the Embassy, even though as early as January, a DOD official saw one Iranian soldier jam a G-3 rifle into a staffer's stomach and tell him, "Yankee, go home." On April 6, 1979, Ambassador Sullivan left Iran for good, "or at least for better," as he put it, leaving Charles Naas as charge d'affaires. Those with access to Naas' reports claim they contain accounts of "continuing problems among the Islamic Guards at the Embassy", who constantly fought among themselves and harassed U.S. personnel.
On a Friday in May, the Embassy was again fired at, and a "large portion" of the Embassy staff, including many of its military, was marched at gun point up former Pahlavi Avenue to their quarters in the Hilton Hotel. There are those who argue that U.S. restraint had, by this point, degenerated into mere appeasement. They claim stronger measures, a hardening attitude, perhaps even a display of our own hostility, was merited. Others say the range of tactics for America was narrow.
"Government means picking the least disastrous from a lot of bad choices," said a present policy-maker. Explaining what appears to be the State Dept.'s extraordinary obstinacy, he points out that the U.S. still had enormous commercial and military interests in Iran. "For example, we had billions worth of pipeline equipment," he says, "and there were other huge contracts outstanding at that time. We couldn't just write those off and walk away."
Back in Washington, in an effort to save what could be saved, Henry Precht and Bruce Laingen, a State Dept. official who was shortly to become a hostage in Iran, worked perseveringly to have the United States appoint a full ambassador to Iran, in spite of evidence that the situation was in full erosion. In Tehran itself, the U.S. chief military in Iran, General Philip Gast, worked hard trying to set up meetings with the Iranian Ministry of Defense.
Some Pentagon experts now claim these efforts were a mistake. 'We should have given the thing a rest," said one senior official in DOD's foreign military sales. Said another, "Some of us felt we should withdraw and let the Iranians sort out their political problems, but it was a big market, they felt we'd had enough slaps in the face, so we stayed."
A third DOD expert said, "Our efforts backfired. We hardened the clerics until they felt they had to 'cut off the hand of the foreigner' once and for all, He claimed the U.S. had provoked the hostage-taking.
By July of '79, Laingen, now head of the Embassy, had begun to grow worried. As backstairs discussions got underway in Washington about admitting the shah to America for medical treatment, Laingen sent a cable out over the top secret CIA "Cherokee" channel which said, " … the clerics here are in the ascendancy and this, I fear, worsens the public atmosphere as regards any gesture on our part towards the shah … It is of utmost importance that we talk quietly with the government of Iran in advance if we intend to admit him."
As the fall drew near the outlook darkened. One top State diplomat tells of trying to persuade a State Dept. officer from accepting an assignment in Tehran. The woman went and immediately became a hostage. In another incident, the wife of a man assigned to Tehran found a freshly made will in his desk just after he left, according to an inside source. At the end of October, a tired General Gast finally left Iran, having done all he could. On November 4, the hostages were taken.
A White House source admits "There was an enormous amount of wishful thinking going on." 'We were always dealing with what we thought was possible, what the traffic would bear," said an NSC staffer. 'We wanted the Iranian government to help us achieve a joint solution to our differences but a revolution releases forces so powerful, so biased, so blind, that even Khomeini proved to be as much a captive of those forces as the leader of them.
"I mean, it took us a long time to find that Iran's revolution really meant clerical rule."" Sale