by Dr. William J. Daugherty
The author brings unique qualifications to this study. Now a political science professor, in 1979 he was assigned to the U. S. embassy in Tehran and was taken captive when Iranian militants, reacting to the news that the shah had been admitted to the United States, overran the embassy. He and his colleagues then spent 444 days as a hostages.—Ed.
When the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, opened for business the morning of 22 October 1979, there was a cable waiting in the Central Intelligence Agency station from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The cable advised that President Carter had decided the previous day to admit the former Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, into the United States for life-saving medical treatment. From the perspective of the embassy staff, it was absolutely the worst thing that could happen, on two fronts: the decision would undo the progress, however slight, in improving United States-Iranian relations; and it would jeopardize the safety and security of all Americans in Iran. The embassy staff was utterly astonished, for not only had they warned Washington over the previous summer of the various dangers associated with such a decision, but some had even been told that by Washington seniors that the consequences of the shah’s admission to the United States were so obvious that no one would be “dumb enough” to allow it. Yet, with U.S.-Iranian relations still lacking real stability, and with an intense and growing distrust of the United States permeating the new Iranian “revolutionary” government, President Carter — unbelievably, from the embassy’s optic—had decided to allow the shah to enter the United States.
Was there no place else he could go? Was the United States the only country in the world with adequate medical facilities to treat the shah? Was the shah’s illness truly life-threatening at that point? Why did the president not insist on a second impartial medical opinion based on a physical examination and testing, rather than relying solely on the judgment of a physician engaged by a private citizen with a specific political agenda? Why did President Carter — seemingly against his own judgment — agree to the admission of the shah to the United States? Why did Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, and John McCloy so strongly urge the shah’s admission? Why did these three, who had no responsibility for policymaking or policy execution, press for a decision which had such awful consequences for the nation attached to it, consequences which were clearly apparent to all? Finally, if it was essential that the shah be permitted entry into the United States, why have not the reasons been clearly stated publicly? These issues require explanation, for this decision, founded as it was on “advice that was both flawed and incomplete” – is one of the most controversial decisions of post-World War Two foreign policy.
The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whose full title was “King of Kings and Light of the Aryans,” had been considered a staunch ally of the United States ever since he was returned to the Peacock Throne in 1953 by a coup initially planned by the British Secret Intelligence Service (BSIS, or MI-6 as it’s more popularly known). Ultimately responding to the British government’s request for assistance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the CIA to provided financial and other support to Iranians, mostly military officers, opposed to the regime of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. After three days of political turbulence in mid-August, Mossadegh was placed under house arrest by the army and the shah, who had fled to Italy, was flown to Tehran to resumed control of the government and country. In the following years the shah moved closer and closer to the United States in a deepening relationship vital both to American and world interests.
Particularly important in this alliance were the TACKSMAN signals intelligence listening posts in the Elbourz mountains north of Tehran that provided clear electronic line-of-sight coverage of the Soviet intercontinental missile test ranges. Intelligence from these sites not only allowed the United States and its Western allies to followed critical developments in the Soviet strategic missile forces, they later provided data essential to verify arms control agreements with Moscow. The shah also shared the West’s vision of a stable Middle East in which Iran would play the dominant role.
But serving as the policeman of the Middle East required a huge investment in modern military equipment and, more significantly, large numbers of American technicians and trainers to support the highly sophisticated equipment for a very unsophisticated and under-educated military. A clash of cultures began appearing and grating on the general Iranian population, while resentment over the amount of Iranian oil revenues flowing to the United States and European countries concurrently generated building resentment against the West. Simultaneously, the shah’s regime was becoming increasingly and egregiously corrupt. To counter rising discontent, the shah gave his security forces carte blanche to ferret out and halt the dissidents; serious human rights issues ensued, further alienating the Iranian regime from its own citizens.
Revolution ensued in 1978, fueled by the acidic sermons and lectures of an aged fundamentalist cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, one of the Grand Ayatollahs of Shi’ite Islam. The shah capitulated early in the new year and again fled into exile himself; a provisional government he left behind collapsed within two weeks and Khomeini made a triumphal return to Tehran, where he was greeted by millions of Iranians filling the streets.
When the shah left Iran on 16 January 1979, it was expected that he would quickly seek asylum in America, the nation that had been his strongest supporter and stalwart friend. Even Khomeini had “expressed no objections” to the shah’s exile in the United States at this time. To this end Sunnylands, the sprawling Palms Springs estate of Walter Annenberg, was offered and readied as a place of haven for his royal friend. But the shah “proved to be as indecisive in exile as he had been in power, and this presented a disagreeable problem for the United States government.” Without consulting with the Americans, the shah first made a quick one-week stopover in Cairo at the invitation of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and then flew on to the household of another monarch, King Hassan II of Morocco, for an indefinite stay. To Brzezinski, this “pause” in his peregrinations “proved to be disastrous,” and “generated an issue where none should have existed.” As February rolled along the shah’s invitation remained valid, but the shah preferred to remain as Hassan’s guest.
But just two weeks after his arrival in Rabat, circumstances reversed for the shah. If he had been loitering in the Near East region hoping that there would be a reversal of fortunes in Iran which would result in an opportunity (or call) to return to the Peacock Throne, he was destined for disappointment. Chances were dimming that the Provisional Government of Iran (PGOI) would collapse; nor had Khomeini’s support among the masses of Iranians waned. And, in a case of rather unfortunate timing, revolutionary militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran on 14 February, holding the mission personnel hostage for several hours and generating fear for the safety of the remaining Americans in Iran. The final blow for the former monarch landed when King Hassan decided he had had sufficient time with the depressed and dispirited shah; he asked his guest to leave. The shah now sent word to Washington that he was ready to accept the U.S. government’s invitation.
At a meeting of the Special Coordinating Committee (SCC — the highest level policy and crisis management group in the Carter White House) on 23 February the decision was made to inform the shah that, while the invitation was still officially open, there were now serious complications. Specifically, the short-lived takeover of the American embassy the previous St. Valentine’s Day had some senior officials in Washington reconsidering the wisdom of hosting the shah. The shah’s entry into the United States was potentially an inflammatory act, and, with a deteriorating security situation in Tehran, there was still a very real threat to American interests and the remaining American officials and citizens. The risk to American lives at that time was serious, apparent, and exigent: U.S. intelligence personnel at one of the CIA’s TACKSMAN intelligence collection sites had been taken captive days before, and American Ambassador William Sullivan was at that moment in negotiations over their release (the TACKSMAN sites were a cooperative effort with the shah’s regime for monitoring the Soviet missile test ranges).
Manifestly, the entry of the shah would no doubt unleash severe and potentially uncontrollable repercussions against these and other Americans in Iran. A query from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Ambassador Sullivan requesting the latter’s opinion on the shah’s admission had brought a negative response, with the envoy advising that it was not a sound idea in terms either of embassy security or the improving political relationship between the two countries. Sullivan “supported [the] judgment that the [shah] should not now be permitted to enter the country.” At home, increasingly hostile demonstrations in U.S. cities staged by pro-Khomeini Iranians resident in America raised security issues for the shah and his supporters, should he be admitted. Further, as the shah would now be a private citizen, there was no way to insulate or immunize him from any possible legal or congressional action against him or his family.
In the end, whether one was for or against the shah’s admission in principle, prudence dictated a denial at this time. National Security Advisor Brzezinski concurred with reluctance while feeling a “personal repugnance.” Vance, despite his own belief that the decision was the only wise one, described his recommendation to deny entry as “one of the most distasteful I ever had to make….” The shah, his unhappiness with the official decision apparent, had little choice but to accept the news; he traveled to the Bahamas on 30 March.
During the ensuing months, the Carter administration worked to construct at least a stable, if not immediately productive, relationship with the new revolutionary regime in Iran. As a practical matter, for the health of this relationship the greater the American distance from the shah, the better, and vice versa. The shah’s evident desire to enter the United States threatened to unravel the little that had been achieved to date and would render impossible all that might be accomplished in the future. In April, as he grew increasingly discontent with life in the islands, the shah’s general state of unhappiness turned to bitterness as he began telling the world press that the Carter administration was responsible for his fall. When this became known in the United States, renewed pressures on President Carter to admit him were openly and unrelentingly applied by a handful of powerful people inside and outside of the government.
Particularly intense were National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, banking magnate David Rockefeller, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the esteemed elder statesman John J. McCloy, a coterie which Brzezinski labeled “influential friends of the shah.” In their collective opinion, the admission of the shah, whenever it was to occur, was “a matter of both principle and tactics.” Brzezinski personally “felt strongly that at stake were [America’s] traditional commitment to asylum and our loyalty to a friend. To compromise those principles would be to pay an extraordinarily high price not only in terms of self-esteem but also in our standing among our allies….” This was a position in which there was unquestionably much merit. But it was not the only consideration.
Following on the heels of the shah’s arrival in the Bahamas were phone calls to the president in early April by David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger urging the shah’s admission. Carter was not pleased. While understanding of and grateful for the past benefits to the United States which flowed from the shah’s friendship, senior administration foreign policy officials — the president, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and Undersecretary of State David Newsom, among others — balanced the shah’s wishes against the hope that relations with the new government of Iran would improve given sufficient time and came down on the side of the promoting the political ties to the PGOI. They continued to hold firm against the shah’s admission.
An official statement on 5 May by the Iranian foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi (a medical doctor who had trained in the United States and held permanent resident alien status), espousing a desire to better relations with America was seized upon as an important positive signal by the Carter administration. This added further weight to denying the shah. And the embassy in Tehran soon after had yet another opportunity to warn against admission; when queried about the PGOI’s position on allowing the shah’s children to enter the United States for schooling, Iran’s secular prime minister, Mehdi Barzargan, responded that such would not create any difficulties, but he “reiterated his warning about the dangers of admitting the shah himself.”
Decidedly unhappy in the Bahamas where he had evolved into a tourist attraction as he strolled the beaches, the shah again called upon his friend David Rockefeller to assist in obtaining safe haven in the United States. After a reassessment of the situation and American interest, Carter made it known to the shah through an emissary that this was not the time, an act which incensed Henry Kissinger. Rockefeller and Kissinger then smoothed the path for the shah to move on to Mexico, where he arrived on 10 June 1979. By late July. frustrated with the pressures being applied on the shah’s behalf, Carter wrote in his diary that he saw no particular benefit in letting the shah into the United States: “I don’t have any feelings that the shah or we would be better off with him playing tennis several hours a day in California instead of Acapulco, with Americans in Tehran being killed or kidnapped.”
Kissinger was hardly appeased by the relocation of the shah to anywhere other than the United States. One minor question from this time centers on whether or not Kissinger at least intimated, if not threatened, in July of 1979 to “blackmail” the Carter administration into admitting the shah. The energies of the Carter national security team, since before inauguration day, had focused on a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) with the Soviets. The recently signed treaty was not without controversy and was looked upon with great skepticism among conservatives as it approached ratification in the Senate. It was well known that Kissinger would be called to testify as to the viability and wisdom of the agreement, and that — for Carter — the former secretary of state’s support of the treaty before the Senate was crucial to its ratification. Defeat of the treaty would be a blow to the success and credibility of Carter’s tenure. Brzezinski has asserted that, during at least one of Kissinger’s contacts with the White House over the admission of the shah, Kissinger “linked his willingness” to support SALT II to the shah’s entry: unless the shah was allowed into the United States, Kissinger would condemn the treaty before the Senate.
Kissinger has denied this. Lloyd Cutler, the president’s lawyer, argued that the White House’s official position (which he placed in writing on 27 November 1979) should be that Kissinger neither contacted the White House after the shah’s illness became known (on 28 October) nor that he ever threatened to withdraw his support for SALT II. Kissinger in fact testified in support of the SALT agreement on 31 July 1979, but the question remains whether there was a quid pro quo at least subtly implied (or inferred) in any of his contacts with the White House.
As summer neared its end, the shah’s residence in exile more or less faded to a background issue, although he did gain one more supporter. Vice-President Walter Mondale, upon reflection, drafted a memo for the president in favor of the shah’s entry. Still concerned about the situation in Tehran, on 25 July Vance cabled the recently arrived chargé d’affaires in Tehran, career diplomat L. Bruce Laingen, for another assessment of the PGOI’s reaction to the shah’s entry. Specifically, Laingen was to query the PGOI about its willingness to accept the shah’s admission into the United States if the shah (a) formally renounced any and all claims to the Peacock Throne, and (b) agreed to eschew any political activity in the United States. Laingen’s reply tracked his earlier comments on the same issue, citing again potential harm to American interests and peril to the embassy staff. In noting a burgeoning struggle for power between secularist moderates and religious fundamentalists for control of the Iranian government, Laingen did hold out the possibility of resolving favorably the issue of the shah if or when the power contest was decided. Laingen did suggest that the shah’s abdication — which the fallen monarch had so far refused to even consider — would “lessen risks to our own interests.” But then everything fell apart in October.
TWO LINGERING CONTROVERSIES
There are two continuing controversies of major import over the decision to admit the former shah that still require exploration. The first revolves around the true state of the shah’s health in October 1979 and what exactly the president was told about the shah’s condition. On this point, there are not only significant differences among the accounts of the principals, but also the key participant, former President Jimmy Carter, has contradicted his own earlier account of the event. And a second important figure, the State Department’s senior physician at the time, has yet to present any public account, thus depriving scholars of a defining perspective.The second unresolved controversy lies within attempts to determine precisely why the president made the ultimate decision that he did. Here, again, there are significant contradictions. Most intriguing is an apparent — and perhaps decisive — reliance by Carter and his senior advisors on a positive security assessment supposedly contained in a cable from Tehran, but which is in fact completely absent from the content of this consequential document. Until all of the materials which pertain to this event — cables, White House phone logs, sensitive memoranda — are released to the public and thoroughly scrutinized, a definitive understanding of the decision permitting the shah to enter the United States will remain elusive.
THE SHAH’S ILLNESS
Early fall of 1979 found the shah in Mexico suffering from an undiagnosed abdominal ailment. It was Friday, 28 September, when Undersecretary of State David Newsom was advised by two associates of David Rockefeller — Robert Armao, a public relations consultant and former Nelson Rockefeller employee now in the employ of the shah and his twin sister at the suggestion of Rockefeller, and Joseph Reed — that “the shah was seriously ill,” possibly with malaria, and might require medical attention in the United States on a temporary basis. This news arrived just after Chargé Laingen had departed Washington, where he had been for routine consultations. During his discussions, Laingen advised State officials strongly that the shah not be permitted into the United States until the relationship was more stable and the risk to the embassy staff reduced. Laingen, now back in Tehran, was queried by State about possible Iranian reaction to a visit by the shah to America. The response from Tehran asserted that there remained an “atmosphere of hostility towards the shah,” the reaction of the Iranians could be even “worse than would have been the case a few months ago,” and that “with the power of the mullahs growing, admission of the shah, even on humanitarian grounds, might provoke a severe disturbance.”
President Carter has related that he first received word of the shah’s distress in a note from Secretary Vance the evening of Monday, 1 October, or approximately thirty-six hours, give or take, after Newsom learned of it; the president was also informed that David Rockefeller’s “personal physician” was on his way to Mexico to examine the shah. Vance’s note opined that if the shah’s illness was determined to be sufficiently serious, there might come a request for his admission to the United States for medical treatment. In point of fact the physician, Dr. Benjamin H. Kean, chief of tropical medicine at New York Hospital (a long-time close friend of the banker’s but not necessarily his personal physician) had already flown to Cuernavaca the day prior. Kean was chosen in part at least because of the shah’s Mexican medical advisor believed that the shah might have contracted malaria. Dr. Kean found that the shah did not have malaria but was suffering from jaundice, the origin of which was unknown. The physician returned to New York either the same day or the next morning.
Unable to make a firm diagnosis, Kean suspected that shah might have some form of cancer, and sent word back to Rockefeller’s staff that the best option would be for the shah to be treated at an American hospital where a full range of diagnostic tests could be performed and appropriate treatment provided. Very shortly after his return, Kean was informed by Armao that the shah’s condition had worsened. Armao also disclosed — a bit belatedly, no doubt — that the shah had a history of cancer, the airing of a secret that, had it been known several years earlier, would have literally changed the course of history. In 1974 the shah had been diagnosed with mild form of lymphoma (cancer of the lymph glands) by French doctors, but, regarding the illness as a state secret, the shah informed no one, not even his twin sister, Ashraf. The French doctors continued to treat him, first in Iran and then later in Mexico. The physicians did not betray their patient’s confidence, even to their own government. In later years, former director of central intelligence and ambassador to Iran during the Nixon administration, Richard M. Helms, made numerous inquiries among his former contacts in French intelligence, friends who served at the very highest levels, and, without exception, they confirmed to Helms that French intelligence had never learned of the shah’s condition.
On Thursday, 18 October, Dr. Kean returned to Cuernavaca, where he was given more information on the shah’s lymphoma by Dr. Georges Flandrin, one of the shah’s French physicians. Flandrin saw no need for treatment in New York City and decided to withdraw from the case. Kean discussed with the shah at least nine countries, including Mexico, which had the facilities to diagnose and treat him. None was acceptable to the former monarch. There followed consultations between State’s chief medical officer, Dr. Eban H. Dustin, and Dr. Kean, details of which neither State nor the participants have ever made public. However, according to a New York Times investigation in 1981, Kean told Dustin (in a telephonic exchange, apparently, for there is no written record that Kean and Dustin actually met) merely that it was “preferable” for the shah to be treated at an American hospital, that Mexican hospitals were adequately equipped to administer the same diagnostic tests, and that the tests needed to be done only “within a few weeks.” (Armao told Newsom, however, that the shah refused to be treated by Mexicans.)
It is probable that Dustin was also told of the cancer at this time, at least in general terms. Kean invited the State physician to fly to Cuernavaca to examine the shah, but Dustin declined. The Times investigation found no proof that a second medical opinion to Kean’s was sought, but another researcher has written that something akin to a second opinion was received by Dustin from an unnamed specialist through a “telephonic consultation.” (Vance has written that Dustin did go to Cuernavaca and conducted an examination of the shah, but this seems to be erroneous). Thus, Kean was the only American physician to have personally examined the shah before he arrived in New York.
Dustin next reported the substance of his discussions with Kean, whatever they were, in a memo to Secretary Vance. Despite other remaining questions, however, it is readily apparent that the shah was ultimately admitted into the United States on the basis of a limited examination by a doctor who had been engaged by one of the shah’s strongest advocates. It is likewise obvious that, somewhere in the information channel, accurate information on the true state of the shah’s condition and the adequacy of Mexican facilities became, accidentally or otherwise, distorted in a manner that ultimately appeared to leave the president no choice give his consent.
Serious discrepancies in the accounts of the principals appear just at the time Dr. Dustin’s memo was on its way to, or just arriving at, Secretary Vance’s office, discrepancies in critical dates and over the actual state of the shah’s medical condition. According to White House senior advisor Hamilton Jordan, the State Department was told on Tuesday the 16th that the shah had suffered from cancer for a decade and was now in “critical condition.” The former president has written that his next word of the shah’s health (following the vague 1 October report) arrived on the 17th, informing him that the shah was seriously ill with an undiagnosed malady that might be cancer, and that the next day he read a memo from Secretary Vance confirming the news of the cancer. In contrast, Vance has written that he learned on the 18th that the shah’s health was deteriorating, that the shah’s ailment could be neither “diagnosed nor treated” in Mexico, and that “cancer could not be ruled out” – and that it was “two days later,” on 20 October, that he was first informed of the lymphoma. Three journalists who separately looked into the event have claimed that Reed told Newsom of the cancer on either the 16th or the 18th; a fourth journalist, the medical correspondent for the Times during that period, wrote that Kean flew again to Cuernavaca on the 18th, returned to New York on the 19th, and told Dustin that the shah was suffering either from gallstones or cancer of the pancreas. Thus, there is no definitive time-line for this critical stage, nor is there any concurrence on what the White House was being told about the shah’s condition.
Regardless of the correct date that the president and others learned of the cancer, Vance’s note to the president had suggested that if the shah were to be allowed into the United States for medical treatment, the Iranians should be told it was for humanitarian purposes only and to “leave open the question of future residence.” Carter scribbled an “OK” in the margin. At this point Vance’s undersecretary broke ranks: David Newsom’s position all along was that the United States should only assist in locating “alternate havens” for the shah and under no circumstances admit him to the United States; while others changed their positions, Newsom remained adamant to the end.
On 19 October Carter presided over his usual Friday morning “foreign policy” breakfast with his principal advisors; the shah’s admission was predominant on the agenda – thus Vance must have known of the shah’s cancer prior to the 20th, despite what was written in his memoirs. At the meeting Vance acknowledged that he could not now, in a medical emergency, stand in the way; he switched his vote and agreed with Brzezinski that the shah should be allowed to come to New York for medical treatment. Vice-President Mondale and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown also supported the admission of the shah. Only Carter argued against it.
Two points stand out at this meeting: First, the director of central intelligence was absent, represented instead by the deputy director, Frank Carlucci. As the discussion progressed, no one requested any intelligence assessment of the possible repercussions in Iran from Carlucci and no one asked Carlucci for his own opinion. Apparently, the only information proffered on this subject was Bruce Laingen’s cable from July. A frank analysis by the individual closest to and most knowledgeable about the probable Iranian reaction, Laingen’s cable nonetheless held no sway. The second key point is that the president now seemingly stood alone. He queried the group as to what actions they would advise if Americans in Iran were taken hostage. There was no response; no one offered a “Plan B.”
Vance recommended that they obtain another assessment from Laingen before making the final decision. This seemed a sensible suggestion and was initially agreeable to the president. The president then reversed himself on this suggestion the next day, although it should probably not be too surprising, as he had commented as far back as February that he would be willing to admit the shah if it was a case of medical necessity. Now Carter conceded that the shah was “welcome, as long as the medical treatment is needed,” although such was contradictory to his earlier reluctance borne of concern for the danger it posed to the embassy staff.
The next day, 20 October, the president was in Boston when he received another report on the shah, this time from Warren Christopher (on behalf of the Secretary Vance who had left that morning for Latin America), stating that that shah had “malignant lymphoma” and “severe jaundice. Christopher’s communication was apparently based on the memo penned by Dr. Dustin, which further advised that the shah had been started on chemotherapy six months previously by his French physicians. The shah, asserted Christopher’s memo, needed additional diagnostic tests and chemotherapy and added that it was Dr. Kean’ s opinion that Mexico lacked any facility capable providing the “highly technical studies” to diagnose the illness. As the Times investigation found that Kean in fact believed that Mexican medical facilities were more than adequate, it is unknown how or why Christopher’s note maintained the opposite.
Also on either this day or the next (20 or 21 October), the medical advisor to the American embassy in Mexico City met with Dr. Dustin in Washington. In response to questions from Dustin, the Mexico City physician detailed the diagnostic and treatment equipment available in the Mexican hospitals, facilities that apparently were perfectly satisfactory for the shah’s needs; this was later confirmed by the director of Mexico’s National Cancer Institute. But Armao concurrently told the New York Times that only New York City had the requisite facilities, an assertion to which Kean reportedly responded, “nonsense.” Armao would eventually become so angered at State, and at Dave Newsom in particular over his efforts to “deflect the shah,” that Armao arranged for the hospital in New York to admit the shah under Newsom’s name, without State’s or Newsom’s permission, just “out of spite.”
In Christopher’s 20 October message to the president, though, it was either stated or implied that Dr. Dustin concurred with the diagnosis and the need for immediate treatment in the United States. Christopher, following Vance’s lead, recommended to the president that Prime Minister Barzargan be notified and that the shah be granted leave to enter the United States — but only if there were no “strongly negative responses from the Iranian government.” Reversing the agreement seemingly made with Vance the day before (and ignoring the same request from Christopher), Carter instead directed Zbigniew Brzezinski to do the needful to bring the shah into United States forthwith. Brzezinski was told merely to “inform our embassy in Tehran that this would occur.” Apparently the presidential directive was either wrongly quoted to Vance or else Vance misunderstood, for he later wrote that the president’s decision to admit the shah was only “tentative” and that the final decision would be made only after “satisfactory” word was received from the embassy. But this is not what eventuated. At this point Vance was operating on two premises, both erroneous. The secretary thought that Dr. Dustin had traveled to Mexico City and physically examined the shah, and he believed that the decision to admit the shah was contingent upon receipt of an affirmative response from the Iranians regarding protection of the embassy.
THE SECURITY ASSURANCES THAT NEVER WERE
A NIACT (Night Action, immediate precedence) cable was sent to Tehran on 20 October (but dated the 21st due to the Department’s practice of using Greenwich Mean Time on cable traffic) directing Chargé Bruce Laingen to advise the Iranian government that “the shah was in the process of being admitted to the United States for urgent medical treatment,” and to seek the regime’s understanding and its assurances of security for the embassy. Henry Precht, State’s director of the Office of Iranian Affairs, was in Tehran visiting the embassy at that time and he was to accompany Laingen to the meeting with Prime Minister Barzargan and Foreign Minister Yazdi. The White House cable made no mention of any “tentative” decision, to admit the shah, nor did it say that a final decision was contingent upon a “satisfactory” assessment. In fact, it requested no security assessment at all.
Why, then, did the president not proceed with Vance and Christopher’s recommendation to test the reaction of the Iranians before making the final decision? There was time available to do so, and the secretary of state certainly seems to have thought that it was being (or had been) done. So far, a definitive answer to this mystery is elusive. But it also raises the question, did it really matter? It is at least theoretically possible that a statement from Barzargan along the lines of “I’m sorry but we can not protect your diplomats from the terrible danger you are creating” would have convinced the president not to admit the shah — or, to be precise, would have caused him to reverse the decision already made — but it seems unlikely. Most probably, even with such a clear expression of the threat, the president would still have admitted the shah, but perhaps with one significant difference, the evacuation of the embassy staff prior to the shah’s arrival in New York.
Undeniably, the president and his advisors were already well aware of the probable Iranian reaction, so the most reasonable explanation for neither requesting Barzargan to provide security nor for awaiting reassurances, is that it just wasn’t worth the additional time. For one thing, the decision to admit the shah was firm. In Brzezinski’s mind, it made no sense to “consult” with the Iranian government or to “bring them into the decision making process.” As he saw it, the United States was a sovereign nation and no other nation had the right to exercise a veto over any person whom the United States wished to admit, for whatever reason. And, too, underlying the whole idea of keeping Americans in the embassy was the belief, reinforced by the events of the previous February, that the Iranians would protect the embassy, come what may. Still, Vance and Christopher had made a reasonable recommendation, but somewhere along the way, for whatever reason, the president decided an additional security assessment was superfluous.
In Tehran on the Sunday, 21 October, the White House cable, a decidedly “unwelcome” missive, was received by Bruce Laingen over breakfast. It directed Laingen and Precht to inform Barzargan and the PGOI that the shah was being admitted to the United States on “humanitarian grounds” and the U.S. government expected the PGOI to “provide the necessary level of security for Americans in Iran. To both Laingen and Precht, it was clear from the language of the cable that the decision to admit had already been made and that the shah was even then possibly on the way to New York. Laingen was especially dismayed as he recalled the two previous cables in which he had recommended that the shah be admitted only after the institutions of the new provisional Iranian government had stabilized and the appointment of a permanent American ambassador, a step that would serve as a living sign that the U.S. government truly accepted the new Iranian regime.
Absent these two measures, Laingen argued, the risk of capture of the embassy and its personnel was high. Obviously, his warnings had fallen on deaf ears, as neither of these two desiderata had been met. Carter himself had earlier made it known to the shah, through the personal emissary sent to the Bahamas in April of 1979, that he would not be welcome in the United States until the revolutionary regime in Tehran had established a measure of permanence and stability. Now the president was ignoring not only the informed professional opinion of his ambassador, he was ignoring his own judgment as expressed to the shah. Laingen collected Precht and left to see the prime minister.
Because of the eight-hour time difference between Tehran and Washington, the response from Laingen and Precht arrived in Washington following their meeting with Barzargan, Yazdi, and Abbas. Amir Entezam, a senior MFA official, arrived at the White House also on 21 October. Laingen and Precht first laid out the decision of the administration to admit the shah to medical facilities “soonest,” quickly following up with assurances that the president still wished “to work together in any way possible to build a new relationship with Iran.” The American diplomats “stressed hope and confidence that the PGOI would take whatever steps are necessary to assure the security of our community in Iran.”
The Iranian officials’ reaction was “mixed but generally subdued.” Barzargan was “quiet but concerned,” indicating an “acceptance of the reality.” It was the foreign minister, the American – trained Yazdi, who “dominated the discussion with an explanation of the problems this [the shah’s admittance] would create for the US in Iran.” Yazdi made four salient points: (a) the shah “should receive treatment anywhere but the United States;” (b) if the United States absolutely had to allow the shah in, then he should not be treated in New York City — “anywhere else would be marginally better” — as New York City was the “center of Rockefeller and Zionist influence;” (c) to prove that the shah’s illness was not a “ruse,” the officials “hoped that Iranian doctors would be allowed to confirm the validity of the medical findings;” (d) the PGOI expected the U.S. government to obtain prior assurances from the shah that he would not engage in political activities while in America and that he give no “press interviews to further his political interests.” Laingen summed up the meeting by noting that, “throughout the discussions [the Iranians], particularly Yazdi, never accepted the shah’s illness as serious.” Missing from the memo was an additional Yazdi comment: The Iranian people would not believe the story about the shah’s illness and would import a far more sinister meaning to the event.
Of critical importance to the decision to admit the shah, also missing from the memo was any response whatsoever, explicit or implicit, from the Iranians to Laingen’s request for protection for American citizens in Iran, including those in the embassy. Simply put, the cable reported absolutely nothing to Washington of Iranian comments with respect to the provision of protection to the embassy. Yet, for some reason, Carter and his senior White House advisors have almost all written that Barzargan had “promised” or “guaranteed” or “assured” or otherwise gave a “positive official response” for protection for the embassy. But there was just nothing anywhere in the cable addressing that point!
How Washington came to find such assurances in the cable is, to say the least, baffling. One possible explanation is that the absence of a clear warning was sufficient for policymakers merely to assume the Iranian government would take appropriate measures. A second possibility, again, is that there was already in the minds of senior officials the belief that, since the Iranians — and Yazdi personally — had intervened back in February to protect the embassy, they and he would obviously do so again. And there is a third possibility: whatever Laingen said simply didn’t matter. Both diplomats realized that the decision to admit the shah had already been made and that, no matter what they reported back, it would not affect the president’s approval. The cable could have relayed nothing but risqué Irish limericks transliterated to an obscure Mongolian dialect and the effect would have no doubt have been the same.
On Monday, 22 October, the shah arrived in New York on Rockefeller’s private Gulfstream jet. His immediate medical problem was gall stones blocking the bile duct and an enlarged spleen. Regarding the lymphoma, a specialist treating him believed that the deposed monarch had a “50-50 chance for long-term survival.” And then three days later, also for reasons that yet remain obscure, in another memo to the secretary of state, the Department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Dustin, wrote again that the “treatment and further care” required for the shah could not be carried out in Mexico. But this, to be sure, was not true.
The nature of what, exactly, the president was really told about the shah’s health was called into question less than eighteen months after the shah arrived in New York. In his 1982 memoirs, Carter claims that he was advised that the shah was “seriously ill” or “quite ill with a disease difficult to diagnose” and which “could be cancer.” But in an interview given to the New York Times in May of 1981, Carter had a different explanation. The former president related that he had been told by Vance in a phone call (at some unspecified point after receipt of the first note) that “the shah was desperately ill, at the point of death…that New York was the only medical facility that was capable of possibly saving his life and that he was reminded [by Vance] that the Iranian officials had promised to protect our people in Iran.” Yet, “at the point of death” is neither the verbiage nor the implication Vance used. Nor did Dr. Kean use these or synonymous terms. So when, how, and why did the president come to the conclusion that the shah was at death’s door? And again, no one in Iran had told the White House anything about any “promise” to protect the embassy staff.
An even more salient issue is whether the shah’s illness was in fact life-threatening. All evidence now indicates that this was not the case. More to the point, there was sufficient information at the time (in the fall of 1979) that the shah was neither in critical condition, nor at “death’s door”; it was further known that there were suitable and appropriate medical facilities in Mexico that could have diagnosed and treated the shah. So where did the train leave the track, and why?
THE SHAH’S “INFLUENTIAL” FRIENDS
And what of David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, and John McCloy? To what extent did their unrelenting efforts to persuade the president to bring the shah to America influence the final outcome? All three had long ties to the shah personally and professionally. Rockefeller and McCloy had known the shah and had had business interests and contacts in Iran for almost two decades. Kissinger had, of course, been secretary of state and at this time was, among other enterprises, in the employ of David Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank as chairman of its International Advisory Committee. Kissinger especially was incensed over what he perceived to be shameful treatment of a loyal friend of America. He had, with anger and righteous indignation, refused in April to serve as the president’s envoy to inform the shah that the administration preferred the shah remain outside the United States until the situation approved in U.S.-Iranian relations, a policy he found “appalling” and “dishonorable.” Rockefeller also refused the request.After intervening with the Mexican president to resettle the shah in Cuernavaca, Rockefeller and Kissinger continued to phone or otherwise lobby (or pressure, depending upon one’s perspective) the president to reverse his position. Both proclaimed, as did McCloy and Brzezinski, as well, that such a long-time loyal ally deserved asylum in the nation that he supported. They also argued that admitting the shah was a humanitarian act which should have been above politics. It is noteworthy that, in contradiction of this apparently strongly felt personal principle, Kissinger urged in 1999 that the United States avoid the commitment of its military forces to stop the genocide in Kosovo, in part because he thought humanitarian deeds should not be permitted to override the national interest — which of course is exactly what was involved in his advocacy of the shah’s admission to the United States.
Rockefeller, Kissinger, and McCloy each contacted the White House a number of times on this issue, as well using public occasions to proclaim that it was a serious wrong by the administration to stand in the way of the shah’s entry. Vance later commented that his “morning mail often contained something from [McCloy] about the shah,” and noted that McCloy was a “very prolific letter writer.” President Carter was phoned by Kissinger on 8 April 1979, who pled the shah’s case; when the president turned him down, Kissinger went public in a rather spectacular manner. That night, at Harvard Business School, Kissinger levied a charge, later repeated frequently, that the shah “should not be treated like a Flying Dutchman who cannot find a port of call.” The very next day David Rockefeller visited the Oval Office attempting to “induce” the president to admit the shah, with the president observing that it seemed to be a “joint project” with Kissinger, Brzezinski, and Rockefeller. In turn, Rockefeller thought the president to be “stiff and formal,” leaving the impression that the president “didn’t want to hear about it.”
Throughout the summer Carter was besieged “weekly” by the shah’s friends and supporters on his behalf while he “adamantly resisted” the importuning. Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan was frustrated with “numerous phone calls” from Kissinger and Rockefeller, as well as an “occasional note” from McCloy, and complained that because of these calls the issue appeared “periodically” on the Friday morning agenda. There is no record, though, that in any of these contacts did the security of Americans in Iran seem to concern the shah’s supporters, although both the president (“time and again”) and Vance attempted to make the point. It reached the point where Jordan, at the 19 October Friday meeting, felt compelled to advise the president that “if the shah dies in Mexico, can you imagine the field day Kissinger will have…[h]e’ll say that first you caused the shah’s downfall and now you’ve killed him.” Carter, according to his chief of staff, replied in anger, “To hell with Henry Kissinger, I am president of this country.”
After the embassy takeover on 4 November 1979, Kissinger expressed his support for the admission of the shah but denied to reporters placing any pressure on the administration! Later, though, he finally admitted to making “five private approaches” to the White House on the shah’s behalf, but only through July of 1979. He did, of course, continue to speak out in public on the issue attempting to pose indirect influence. Twice in November of 1979, Rockefeller “conceded he had played a primary role” in the admission of the shah, but in an interview in spring of 1981 he proclaimed that the press had “monstrously distorted” his role — particularly, but apparently not entirely, with respect to financial relationships between Chase Manhattan and the shah.
In mid-November 1979 former Undersecretary of State George Ball, responding to earlier denials by Kissinger that he had “pressured US officials,” termed the degree of duress exerted by the three as “obnoxious” and charged that, but for this intense lobbying, the shah would not have been admitted. This latter allegation is probably incorrect, however, as both the president, who “deeply resented” the influence attempts, and his chief of staff have written that, if anything, the calls were counter-productive. But there is little question that the pressure was applied unrelentingly.
THE DECISION NOT TO EVACUATE THE EMBASSY
There is also, of course, the obvious question of why the embassy wasn’t evacuated before the shah was allowed to land in New York. Notably and frustratingly, Carter and Vance are silent on this issue in their memoirs. Ham Jordan, in an interview with the Times, recounted that the White House “felt it was important to have representation on the ground in Iran…[w]e knew it was a risk but we thought it was a reasonable risk. Obviously, in hindsight, we were wrong.” Gary Sick identifies three reasons which, collectively, offer the best, most accurate explanation. First, the administration expected the embassy security measures, including the hardening of the chancery, to provide sufficient protection in case of an attack until assistance could arrive. What no one foresaw nor could have been reasonably expected to have foresee, was that a sovereign government would support, abet, and condone the capture of an embassy belonging to another sovereign nation and its diplomatically protected staff.
Second, a “fundamental mistake was to place an unrealistic degree of confidence in the ‘moderates’ who were nominally in charge” of the PGOI. The relative strengths and weaknesses of the secular government under Barzargan had been the subject of debates in Washington during the summer of 1979, with the optimists essentially winning out, not through deliberate policy decision by the president, but rather by default and simple bureaucratic inertia. There was a concomitant sense of security, too, in recalling the actions of Yazdi and the PGOI during the February takeover, and it was taken for granted that they both could and would do the same, again.
Sick’s third point is an acknowledgment that the topic of evacuating the embassy staff was in fact “scarcely discussed at all” either in Washington or in Tehran. This was apparently because of the stock placed in the purely mythical assurances of protection, the “overwhelming importance of Iran in the politics of the region…[with its] vital US interests,” and the “dedication and professionalism” of the embassy staff.
This last point is precisely why it was Washington’s responsibility to order the evacuation, rather than expecting the embassy staff to make that decision themselves. While those in Tehran could have, at any time between 30 October and 4 November 1979, on their own left Iran for a safe location, it was unrealistic to expect them willingly to desert their posts and unfair to put that burden on them. They were all volunteers, and volunteers are logically the last to concede that their place is elsewhere. And too, most volunteered at least in part because of a belief in the mission and that their presence mattered. It was Washington’s ultimate responsibility to recognize this and to decide when their presence in a danger zone would or could become counter-productive. But it is also understandable, perhaps, that Washington would place the same faith in them that they had in themselves.
Whether to admit the shah was a dilemma that presented Carter with no good options, and no chance of emerging unscathed regardless of his decision. He was well aware of the dangers involved, both for the nation and for the Americans in Tehran, yet he could not have refused at this point without enduring vociferous political and personal criticism from Rockefeller, Kissinger, and the Republican party. And this was just not acceptable in an election year. The president’s query at that Friday morning meeting about what his advisors would say when Americans were taken hostage in Iran was purely rhetorical.
But that does not mean that the public record on this decision should be permitted to remain unclear on key points. What was the president told, and when, regarding the shah’s illness? How and when did Dr. Kean’s appraisal that the shah’s illness was not life threatening and that Mexican medical facilities were satisfactory become translated into a belief that the shah’s demise was imminent and that, of all the countries in the world, only the United States had the resources and knowledge to save him? How or why did Bruce Laingen’s cable from Tehran, screamingly silent on the issue of Iranian assistance with the safety of the embassy, come to be read as offering promises or guarantees or assurances of the same? And what was the true extent of the pressures applied by the shah’s “influential” friends; was it just a “modest” effort or was it more pervasive — and effective — than has been acknowledged?
The full truth may never be known, particularly with respect to the efforts of Rockefeller and friends. But there is no reason why the State Department should not now release any and all memoranda and other documents written by its medical officer relating to the shah’s illness, as well as the notes drafted for the president’s information by Secretary Vance and Deputy Secretary Christopher. Likewise, it is time for Dr. Kean and Dr. Dustin to speak on the record. Without this information the record will remain incomplete and Americans will remain unenlightened about one of the most controversial and detrimental decisions any president has made since the end of World War Two.
INTERVIEWS AND CORRESPONDENCE
Richard M. Helms
L. Bruce Laingen
Charles W. Naas
Henry M. Precht
National Security Archives: “The Making of US Policy: “Documents from the Den of Espionage,” published in Tehran, Iran. [cited as NSA/Iran]
Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principal: Memoirs of the National Security Advisor, 1977-1981, (rev. ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985.
Carter, James Earl. Keeping Faith. Memoirs of a President (3rd ed.) Fayetteville: Uni- versity of Arkansas Press, 1985.
Christopher, Warren et al. American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Gates, Robert M. From The Shadows. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Jordan, Hamilton. Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency. New York: Put- nam’s, 1982.
Kissinger, Henry. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.
———————- Years of Upheaval. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.
Laingen, L. Bruce. Yellow Ribbon. New York: Brassey’s, 1992.
Sick, Gary. All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran. New York: Random House, 1985.
Bloom, Mark. “The Pahlavi Problem: A Superficial Diagnosis Brought the Shah into the United States.” Science, vol. 207, 18 January 1980.
Altman, Lawrence. “The Shah’ s Health: A Political Gamble.” New York Times, 17 May 1981, Section 6-48.
Armstrong, Scott. “The Fall of the Shah.” Washington Post, 26 October 1980.
Branigin, William. “Iran Set to Scrap $34 Billion Worth of Civilian Projects,” Washington Post, 30 May 1979, A-22.
Crittenden, Ann. “David Rockefeller Says Aim in Aid to Shah was Solely
Humanitarian,” New York Times, 17 November 1979, A-7.
Editorial, “Scapegoating.” Washington Post, 2 December 1979, D-6.
Gwertzman, Bernard. “Carter Emissary Dissuaded Shah From US Exile.” Washington Post, 20 April 1979, A-I;
———————– , “US Decision to Admit the Shah; Key Events in 8 Months of Debate., ” Washington Post, 18 November 1979, A-I
Kissinger, Henry. “Kissinger On the Controversy Over the Shah,” New York Times, November 1979, A-19.
——————— “No Ground Forces for Kosovo.” Washington Post, 22 February, 1999, A-20.
Morgan, Dan. “Chase Manhattan’s Ties to the Shah: Rockefeller and His Bank Been Active in Iran for Years,” WashingtonPost, 16 November 1979.
National Desk (no by-line), “Shah’s Admission to the US Linked to Misinformation on His Sickness.” New York Times, 13 May 1981, A-I.
Nossiter, Bernard D. “Shah of Iran Welcome in US But He’s Told Later Would
Be Better.” Washington Post, 21 April 1979, A-16.
Oberdorfer, Dan. “The Making of a Crisis: US Agonizes Over an Exile’s Entry.”
Washington Post, 11 November 1979, A-1.
Richards, Bill. “Ball Asserts Kissinger’s ‘Obnoxious’ Pressure Preceded Entry of
Shah.” Washington Post, 26 November 1979, A-8.
Simmons, Marlise. “Shah, Entourage in Mexico with Aid of Kissinger; Kissinger A in Shift by Shah.” Washington Post, 11 June 1979, A-1.
Smith, T. “Why Carter Admitted the Shah,” New York Times, 7 May 1981, 6-36.
Dr. William J. Daugherty, who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, teaches political science at Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, Georgia, USA. He is a former Marine officer and Vietnam War veteran who has served with the National Security Council Staff. He is the author of In the Shadow of the Ayatollah: A CIA Hostage in Iran (2001). His Ph.D. is in government, from the Claremont Graduate School in California.