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THE TWILIGHT WAR
David Crist is currently a historian for the federal government and a frequent adviser to senior government and military officials on the Middle East. As a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Crist served in the first Gulf War, made two tours with elite special operations forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and was part of the first U.S. military forces inside Afghanistan who overthrew the Taliban. He received a BA from the University of Virginia and a master’s and doctorate in Middle Eastern history from Florida State University. He lives in Potomac, Maryland.
Praise for The Twilight War
“Crist’s painstakingly researched and elegantly written account of the United States–Iran cold war is an earnest chronicle of this shadowy history. . . . Deserves a spot on the short list of must-read books on United States–Iran relations.”
—Karim Sadjadpour, The New York Times
“Crist has written an important and timely book that should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding how the United States and Iran went from close allies to enduring adversaries. Although not the last word on this subject, The Twilight War will remain an important contribution to the literature on U.S.-Iran relations for some time to come.”
—The Washington Post
“A fascinating, detailed history of American-Iranian foreign relations. . . Crist is a natural-born writer, and the best parts of The Twilight War are not just engaging, but thrilling. His account of the 1988 naval mine strike on the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf reads almost like the script for an action movie, in large part because he’s careful to pay attention to the actual people behind the sailors’ uniforms. It’s that concern for humanity that also renders his narratives of the bombings of the Beirut barracks (in 1983) and the Khobar Towers (in 1996) so chilling, immediate, and heartbreaking.”
—Michael Shaub, NPR.com
“Crist deftly profiles the politicians, spies, and military leaders—both American and Iranian—who shaped the emerging ‘quasi-war’ between the superpower and the Iranian regime. . . . One need not agree with all of Mr. Crist’s political judgments to appreciate the service he has rendered.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Crist’s history is required reading.”
—The Daily Beast
“Completely in command of the competing interests and personalities at the highest levels of American policy making, Crist has an equally impressive grasp of the ebb and flow of diverse viewpoints in Iranian religious, political, and military councils. The battle scenes are edge-of-the-seat gripping, and the author is keenly insightful. . . . This is likely to be the authoritative history of the origins and progress of the Iranian policy morass for years to come.”
“With important insights into Middle Eastern affairs and American policy making, this is highly recommended for serious readers.”
“In this well-researched book, historian and former marine Crist makes the case that the United States is already enmeshed in a hidden war with Iran that has raged unacknowledged for decades. . . . Crist reveals many previously unreported details of recent maneuverings.”
“This is the foreign policy book of the year, perhaps of many years. And it could not be more timely. It is filled with facts and anecdotes that will startle even insiders, such as the CIA’s role in helping the ayatollahs destroy their opposition in 1983, and the fact that the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut the same year was first suggested by the Iranian ambassador to Syria. In many ways it is the secret history of the last three decades of American foreign policy in the Middle East.”
—Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco and The Generals
“David Crist has written an exceptional, timely, and important history of our conflict with Iran. The Twilight War is a well-written and thoroughly researched work that is a must-read for all those involved in the current decision making on Iran and for those interested in understanding the complex nature of this growing confrontation. Crist is a rare historian whose education, military experience, superb writing style, and regional knowledge clearly make this book the definitive work on this subject.”
—General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Retired)
The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran
Every day one fifth of the world’s oil exports flow through the twenty-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz that links the Persian Gulf with the outside world. Since 1949 the U.S. Navy has patrolled this waterway, projecting American power and ensuring the continuous flow of the lifeblood of the world’s economy. There are few areas regarding which the United States has more firmly committed its blood and treasure to safeguard its interests. In the past twenty-five years, the United States has fought three wars in the area: two in Iraq and one, the subject of this book, a still ongoing struggle against Iran.
This strategically vital body of water can be an uninviting place. When the wind kicks up, the blowing sand and dust create a haze that blurs the horizon and the muddy waters into one seamless brown tapestry. If you add in the tangled clusters of poisonous sea snakes and temperatures in excess of 120 degrees and humidity to match, there are few places that American servicemen and -women serve that are as inhospitable as the Persian Gulf.
The morning of April 4, 2003, broke better than many. A strong sea breeze and brilliant sunrise portended well for the day’s mission. The American invasion of Iraq was two weeks old. As a major in the marines corps, I sat off the entrance to the Shatt al-Arab—a wide river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which serves as the border between Iran and Iraq. I was embarked on board one of the strangest ships in the navy’s inventory: a giant catamaran. Built as a high-speed ferry, it had a cavernous interior of car ramps and was still replete with a bar and stadium seats for passengers to relax and enjoy cocktails. Sailors replaced the booze with cases of bottled water and juice, and a sophisticated command center occupied half of the lounge, with chairs and tables removed for banks of computers and a large screen that showed in blue, red, and green military symbols the real-time locations of every U.S., Iraqi, and Iranian ship and plane in the area. I happened to be one of the few marines assigned to the navy’s elite SEALs. As a reservist, I had been recalled to active duty by Special Operations Command to deploy with this group under an energetic captain named Robert Harward. I had served under him the year before when special operations forces led the way into Afghanistan after 9/11 and hunted the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which were hiding out in caves and farms across the rugged southeastern parts of that harsh land. This time, our mission was to drop off four small, heavily armed boats to transit the Shatt al-Arab all the way up to the second-largest city in Iraq, the important port city of Basra. The point of the operation was to assert American freedom of navigation and to search for possible suicide boats that the navy worried would spring out of the inlets and repeat the disaster of the USS Cole a few years earlier.
This was not my first war in the Middle East. I spent eight months baking under the desert sun during the first war against Saddam Hussein in 1991. Then I had been assigned to a marine armor reconnaissance battalion under the command of a future general named Keith Holcomb. He had been a United Nations observer in south Lebanon, knew Arabic, and engrossed me with stories of the guerrilla war being waged by a Shia group called Hezbollah, or Party of God, against the modern Israeli army. The entire experience spurred my interest in the Middle East. After the war, I went back to graduate school for a doctorate in modern Middle East history during the decade-long lull between the two Iraqi conflicts.
I had more of an awareness than many of my military contemporaries of the tortured relations between the United States and Iran. During the 1980s, my father, a four-star marine general named George Crist, commanded U.S. Central Command—CENTCOM, as it’s commonly abbreviated—with responsibility for all the American forces in the Middle East. At the time, the Soviet Union dominated Washington’s thinking and Europe, not the Middle East, was our army’s most important theater. But my father and CENTCOM had been involved in a strange conflict with Iran, best described as a guerrilla war at sea, a struggle waged by covert naval mining from dhows and hit and run attacks against American convoys by a mosquito fleet of fast boats manned by aggressive Revolutionary Guards. The United States and Iran engaged in this quasi-war for nearly two years, culminating in the U.S. Navy’s largest surface battle since the Second World War, all while the Pentagon worried more about fending off hordes of Soviet tanks on the plains of central Europe than Iran. However, over the past thirty years, the Persians and not the Russians proved to be the more enduring threat for the United States.
When I looked for a dissertation topic, I discovered this largely unknown secret war with Iran. I spent the next five years researching and writing the story of this first war with Iran and how it fit into the larger context of President Ronald Reagan’s policy for the Middle East.
Iran, however, was not on my mind as dawn broke over the blue Gulf waters on the morning of April 4, 2003. Inside the command center of the catamaran turned warship, I watched as our four gunboats puttered north, into the Shatt al-Arab, threading carefully the divide between Iran and Iraq. Harward was worried about provoking Iran. He took pains to avoid a confrontation, placing a Farsi-speaking SEAL in the lead boat and ordering the small flotilla well within Iraqi territorial waters, so much so that they ran aground several times. We even erected a makeshift Iranian flag on one of the boats, which Harward felt would display our peaceful intentions. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responded by sending four small boats toward us at high speed, the largest being a fast Swedish-built Boghammer, which resembles a cigarette boat, outfitted with a twin-barrel machine gun on its bow. It was this same boat that had been the bane of the U.S. Navy during my father’s time fifteen years earlier. With rooster tails of white water, the boats came barreling over to the Iraqi side of the waterway, surrounded us, and took the tarp off at least one multiple rocket launcher and pointed it directly at our lead boat. A major shootout with Iraq’s powerful Persian neighbor appeared imminent. Suddenly, my research on Iran no longer seemed so academic.
What I did not know until later, while researching this book, was how little CENTCOM or the civilians in the Pentagon had bothered to consider Iran when planning to remove Saddam Hussein. The incident with the Iranians off the Iraqi coast should have come as no surprise. This would not be the only oversight in what was one of the worst planned campaigns ever executed by the U.S. military. When the last U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011, nearly five hundred Americans had died at the hands of the Iranian-backed militias, and the nature of the democratically elected Iraqi government, achieved at the cost of so much American blood and treasure, had been brokered in Tehran.
The twilight hours hold special significance in warfare. Your eyes are not acclimated to the changing light, and normal body cycles make soldiers less alert. I had this drilled into me as an aspiring marine corps officer. As dusk approached following a day of trudging around the woods of Quantico, Virginia, the last hour spent struggling to dig a fighting hole through a maze of roots with a small folding shovel that was frustratingly inadequate for the task, a captain suddenly hollered, “Stand to!” As the setting sun cast long shadows across the forest, I dropped into my partially dug pit and pointed my rifle out into the brush and trees. “You are always most vulnerable to enemy attack during the periods of morning nautical twilight and evening nautical twilight,” the instructor said, as part of a well-rehearsed lesson on tactics. “Dusk and dawn are transition periods,” he continued, with matter-of-fact delivery.
In 1987, when I attended the Basic School, a six-month-long school mandatory for all newly minted marine second lieutenants, many officers and senior enlisted had served in Vietnam. The lessons of that conflict, where the Vietcong frequently struck during twilight hours, had been seared into the collective memory of the service. Although with current technology a modern military can attack even on moonless nights or at the peak of the midday sun, the idea remains a valid military tactic. In July 2008, one of the worst attacks inflicted on the U.S. Army occurred just as the first hint of light appeared in the eastern sky of Afghanistan, when the Taliban struck a remote outpost, killing and wounding thirty-six soldiers. While no one attacked us during the training exercise in Quantico, the point stuck with me.
Twilight is an accurate metaphor for the current state of affairs between the United States and Iran. With no diplomatic ties and only occasional meetings in dark corners of hotel bars and through shadowy intermediaries, neither side has an accurate view of the other. The United States lacks clarity about Iranian leaders and the complex structure of the Iranian government. Meanwhile, Iran grows increasingly isolated and ignorant about the United States. This gray zone is dangerous. The threat of miscalculation is great and the military consequences can be grave. For three decades, the two nations have been suspended between war and peace. At various times, relations have moved from the light of peace to the darkness of war. But in the end, 2012 still looks remarkably like 1979, with the two nations still at loggerheads.
Both countries bear some culpability for perpetuating this conflict. The Iranian Revolution was born from anti-Americanism. The leaders who spearheaded that movement thirty years ago remain in power and see little need to change their stance. Hard liners in Iran reject the status quo of American supremacy in the region. With each chant of “Death to America,” they hope to reinvigorate the same fervor that swept them into power and tossed out an unpopular dictator, the shah of Iran, who had been imposed by the United States in a coup in 1953. While in this conflict the United States remains largely the good guy, it has not always been the perfect guy. Both Bush administrations dismissed Iranian goodwill gestures and refused to accept any dialogue that addressed Iran’s legitimate security concerns. The United States supported Saddam Hussein and his Arab bankrollers in a bloody war against the Islamic Republic that killed several hundred thousand Iranian soldiers. The mantra of regime change remains a frequent slogan in many quarters in Washington. Unfortunately, Iran’s response to these trespasses has invariably been to use the tools of the terrorist: an exploding car bomb on a crowded street or a plot to kill a diplomat in a popular Washington restaurant.
The research for this book, which included more than four hundred interviews, started in 1994 when I first traveled to the Tampa headquarters of CENTCOM to speak with officers charged with running this Iranian cold war from a worn, mazelike building at MacDill Air Force Base. I traveled to the backstreets of south Lebanon Shia neighborhoods and to the posh capitals of the Persian Gulf states interviewing Iranians and Arabs involved in the story. I went through my father’s papers and then the first of many linear feet of other personal papers and official records.
While the focus of the book changed as time passed and history continued to unfold, the essence of the story has remained: the two countries have been engaged in a largely unknown quasi-war since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Six different American presidents have faced a seemingly intractable foe in Tehran. Each had a defining event that pushed the two countries like a pinball back and forth between rapprochement and war. What I found myself involved in on that April morning in the northern Gulf was the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of this shadowy conflict.
This story continues to unfold. As of this writing, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, and the two countries seem headed to the dark side of military conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. The saga is seemingly playing on an endless loop. After reading one recent memo outlining the Bush administration’s policies toward building an Arab coalition against Iran, as I relayed to the marine deputy commander at CENTCOM, John Allen, I could have interchanged the memo for one that had been written twenty-five years earlier as his predecessor grappled with the same enduring challenge of Iran. Iran’s quest for nuclear technology has heightened the stakes and the tension but it has not been a catalyst for the conflict.
I have tried to tell the most accurate and complete story I could of this three-decade-long conflict between Iran and the United States. The story begins with the seminal events of the Iranian Revolution that decisively turned the two countries from allies to adversaries and continues to the stories behind the headlines of today’s newspaper. The ideas presented in this book are my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
The experienced American diplomat Ryan Crocker said to me in an interview, “For Iran, there is no such thing as history; it is all still the present. We are the most ahistorical and they are the most historical” of nations. In telling this story, I hope to rectify this fact. It is a story in which I have been a participant, dispassionate scholar, and, most recently, an adviser to senior Defense Department officials. It is a war of the shadows, largely unknown, arguably the most important and least understood conflict in recent history. It is the twilight war.
“A LITTLE KING IN YOUR HEART”
At two a.m. on January 4, 1979, the loud ringing of the secure telephone jolted U.S. Air Force General Robert “Dutch” Huyser awake and out of his warm bed in Stuttgart, Germany. The early-hour call did not come as a surprise to the fifty-four-year-old Huyser. During a crisis, you worked Washington hours. As the workday ended on the East Coast, it was common to receive a flurry of last-minute inquiries from the Pentagon, depriving you of sound sleep even if you did wear four stars.
Slightly overweight and with a round, rugose face, Dutch Huyser was a product of the air force’s bomber community. During the Second World War, he flew four-engine B-29s over Japan, and in the early days of the Cold War, he piloted the same plane, only now loaded with an atomic bomb earmarked for the Soviet Union. As American aircraft technology advanced, so too did Huyser’s career. He flew B-52 missions over North Vietnam and assumed his current job as the deputy commander of American forces in Europe in September 1975.
The week prior to his early morning phone call, Huyser had exchanged numerous calls with his boss, General Alexander Haig, and the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a longtime acquaintance, General David Jones, about traveling to Iran on a secret mission. Over the previous three years, Huyser had developed a cordial acquaintance with the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, one of America’s most important allies in the Middle East. Now, with a popular revolution sweeping the country and the monarchy unraveling, Washington wanted a high-level military envoy to travel to Iran to work with the Iranian military, although to do exactly what remained unclear.
The modern American military has produced few generals as political as Al Haig. The onetime aide to the imperious General Douglas MacArthur had learned the battlefields of Washington as well as those of East Asia. Haig deplored the Carter administration’s feeble response to the Iranian Revolution and argued for a more resolute show of U.S. support for the shah. But more important, Haig did not want his career tarnished by the debacle of the collapse of Iran. He deliberately tried to distance himself from the unfolding drama in Tehran. When General Jones suggested to Haig that Huyser was ideal to convey a message to the Iranian leadership, Haig, the supreme commander of Allied Forces Europe and Huyser’s superior, vociferously opposed the idea.1
At two a.m., picking up the receiver, Dutch Huyser heard the brusque voice of his boss. “Dutch, we lost. You’re going to Iran.”2
When he took the oath of office on a cold, bright January 20, 1977, neither Iran nor the Persian Gulf was on President Jimmy Carter’s mind. He knew of the importance of Middle Eastern oil, but rather than focusing on securing American access to this oil, the president concentrated his policy initiatives on the root cause: America’s growing demand for imported fuel. The emerging energy crisis became an early mantra of his administration, and the president threw the entire weight of his office behind addressing the looming crisis, delivering his first salvo in a nationally televised address just two weeks after moving into the White House. Sitting in a wooden chair next to a roaring fire in the White House library, Carter wore a cardigan sweater and lectured his audience on the need for shared sacrifice regarding energy conservation.
Carter followed that with another prime-time address three months later. On the evening of April 18, 1977, television viewers expecting to see the popular family drama about austere life on the frontier, Little House on the Prairie, instead saw a somber president dressed in a dark suit. “Tonight,” he began in a sharp tone, notwithstanding the lilt of his Southern inflection, “I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem that is unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime.” By the 1980s, the president warned, demand for crude oil would outstrip the world’s reserves. Carter foretold dire consequences: closed factories, lost jobs, rampant inflation, and fierce international competition for scarce energy resources. “If we fail to act soon we will face an economic, social, and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions.” The looming oil crisis, said Carter in one of the more memorable lines of his presidency, “is the moral equivalent of war.”3
President Carter inherited a Persian Gulf policy forged entirely on the anvil of the Cold War. One of the first crises between the United States and the Soviet Union had occurred in that region in March 1946, when the Soviets refused to leave northern Iran following the end of World War II and then moved tanks menacingly toward the Iranian capital of Tehran.4 When the United States forcefully objected, Moscow backed down, unwilling at that point to go to war.5 For the next three decades, while the United States focused its resources on confronting Moscow in Central Europe, the United Kingdom served as the major military power in the Middle East protecting it from Soviet expansion. The British had a large military presence in the area, and the Gulf sheikdoms were still colonial dependencies. But in January 1968 Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced his cash-strapped British government’s decision to withdraw all its armed forces and end 140 years of colonial occupation in the Persian Gulf. As the Union Jack lowered over the newly independent sheikdoms, the United States, bogged down in Vietnam, lacked the military resources to post to the Gulf.6
So in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon devised a new economy-of-force plan, unofficially known as the twin pillars strategy. America’s Persian Gulf security would rest on the two staunchly anticommunist powers in the region: Iran and Saudi Arabia. With Saudi oil money and its regional prestige as keeper of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, coupled with Iran’s military muscle, these two nations would serve as America’s proxies to contain the Soviet Union. “The vacuum left by British withdrawal,” Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs, “would be filled by a local power friendly to us.” American security in the Persian Gulf now rested largely with the growing might of the shah’s military.
The shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, enthusiastically stepped into this role. Since his reinstatement on the throne, with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), following a 1953 coup, the shah proved to be ambitious, expansionistic, and fervently anticommunist. He made it known throughout diplomatic circles that he sought Iran’s ascendancy as the new regional power. Deftly playing on American fears of communism and fueled by petrodollars, which increased twenty-four-fold in the seven years from 1968 to 1975, the shah expanded the Iranian military to become the largest force in the Middle East.7 The Ford and Nixon administrations sold some $12 billion in weapons to Iran, offering the Iranian despot the most advanced weapons, short of nuclear, in the American arsenal.
The shah was not shy about using his freshly acquired military might to encroach on his neighbors. In November 1971, following the final British pullout of forces from the Gulf and the scheduled independence of its former protectorates—the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain—the shah forcibly reasserted Iran’s control of the contested Tunb Islands and the island of Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf. While small (Abu Musa is only twelve square kilometers), the islands are strategically located. Abu Musa, for example, sits astride the deepwater route leading into the western approaches to the Strait of Hormuz. Any oil tanker exiting or entering the Gulf must pass close by the island. The shah also backed Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, as a result of which in 1975 then Iraqi vice president Saddam Hussein reluctantly signed the Algiers Accords, which established as the southern border between the two nations the midpoint—and not the Iranian bank—of the Shatt al-Arab, a strategic waterway between the two nations and an important entry for Iraq into the Persian Gulf.8
President Carter continued Nixon’s twin pillars policy, though with less enthusiasm. He initially hoped to demilitarize the Persian Gulf. Carter floated the idea to Moscow of reducing the quantity of weapons sold to the third world, a strategy that would include a drastic reduction of American weapons sold to both Saudi Arabia and Iran.9 The president then proposed a treaty to reduce naval forces in the Indian Ocean as the first step in what he hoped would lead to an accord on demilitarizing that body of water. Neither proposal went beyond perfunctory discussions. Moscow steadfastly refused to curtail arms shipments to buyers in the Middle East, all of whom happened to be among the Soviets’ largest weapons clients.10
A fundamental split divided Carter’s foreign policy team. The two principal antagonists were Carter’s national security adviser and longtime Democratic foreign policy expert, a forty-nine-year-old Polish-born Cold War hawk named Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his sixty-year-old secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, who had served as secretary of the army and deputy secretary of defense in the two previous Democratic administrations. While the two advisers generally agreed with Carter’s emphasis on human rights, they clashed on just about every other significant issue. The potential pitfalls associated with these two men and their rival philosophies in the same administration came as no surprise. Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s youthful campaign manager, quipped during the transition: “If, after the inauguration, you find Cy Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of national security, then I would say we failed. And I’d quit.” President Carter appointed both men, and Jordan remained as chief of staff.11
The two men also differed in their views of the Persian Gulf. Brzezinski advocated a more robust American military presence. He viewed Gulf oil as an Achilles’ heel of the West in relation to the Soviet Union and stressed the need to retain unfettered access to Middle East oil. If oil resources became scarce, the next battle of the Cold War would be not for Berlin, but for Riyadh or Tehran. Secretary Vance wanted to downplay the role of the U.S. military in the Gulf. The secretary advanced the prevailing view within the State Department that the presence of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf would be counterproductive. In an area with a long colonial legacy and deep suspicions of superpower motivations, better to keep U.S. forces beyond the horizon than to increase the military footprint in the region.12
The new secretary of defense’s view lay somewhere in between. The forty-nine-year-old Harold Brown had earned his doctorate in physics at Columbia University at the remarkable age of twenty-two. A self-described impersonal and analytical man, he was a brilliant scientist and had arrived at the Pentagon as a member of Kennedy defense secretary Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids.” Brown had spent most of the 1960s earning the deserved reputation as a moderate and a realist, but when it came to the Middle East, Secretary Brown generally agreed with Brzezinski’s more hawkish assessment of Soviet intentions. He shared Brzezinski’s concern about Soviet dominance of the Persian Gulf: “Soviet control of this area would make virtual vassals of much of both the industrialized and developing worlds.”13
Despite this discord, the stakes remained low for Washington, as the shah appeared to be firmly in power and in America’s pocket. In January 1977, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research produced an optimistic report that echoed the intelligence community’s views of the shah’s prospects for political survival: “Iran is likely to remain stable under the shah’s leadership over the next several years. The prospects are good that Iran will have relatively clear sailing until at least the mid-1980s.”14 On a stopover in Tehran in December 1977, at the end of his first year in office, Carter reemphasized his support for the shah during a lavish New Year’s Eve gala, noting that under the leadership of the shah, Iran “is an ‘island of stability’ in one of the more troubled areas.”
But all was not as rosy as the U.S. intelligence community believed for the Pahlavi dynasty. In the early 1960s, the shah actively encouraged modernization and secularization. He forced land redistribution, especially of the vast holdings of Shia clerics, which struck at the heart of their wealth and power. The shah ordered state-owned businesses sold; the enfranchisement of women, including their ability to hold political office; and the removal of Islamic dogma from schools. The shah largely dismissed Islam as a backward force that impeded the formation of a new, modern Iran. The by-products of his brand of modernization were rapid social change and increased instability.15 While Iran’s newfound oil wealth remained in the hands of a small elite, rural unemployment grew, and the population of Tehran multiplied fivefold as peasants poured into the city in search of work.16
In 1975, the shah canceled elections and abolished the two nominally independent political parties in favor of a single party dedicated to the Pahlavi regime. Any pretense of a constitutional monarchy vanished. The opposition movement grew, as did the murmur of discontent in the streets of Tehran, stoked by thousands of underemployed students freshly educated in Western universities.
From the beginning, one of the most vocal opponents of the shah’s designs was a religious scholar from Qom, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Alarmed by Khomeini’s unwavering vitriolic criticism of the secularization of society, the shah had ordered the sixty-year-old cleric imprisoned in 1963 and exiled the following year. Khomeini settled in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Iraq, where he continued his incessant monologues against the “corrupt” Pahlavi dynasty and its chief supporter, the United States. Khomeini remained revered by multitudes of Iranian people. He developed a mystical persona among both secularists and Islamists opposing the shah. Khomeini preferred to stay above the political fray, providing broad policy guidance and leaving the details to his key advisers. Many Western observers mistakenly viewed this leadership style as a sign that Khomeini intended to serve in the traditional role of a Shia imam: influential and powerful, but aloof from secular politics. Ayatollah Khomeini, however, had a clear view of where he wanted to take Iran, and it was not in the direction of either a Western democracy or a constitutional monarchy. He called for a purge of all corrupt influences and for the Islamization of Iranian society. Khomeini believed history had shown that the throne was not to be trusted; the monarchy needed to go. Ayatollah Khomeini intended to remake Iran into a new Islamic republic. The mosque would supplant the imperial throne.
The shah’s power began to unravel in late 1977. Khomeini’s eldest son died, likely of a heart attack, but Khomeini accused the shah and his secret police, Savak, of murdering him. A short time later, on January 7, 1978, an article published in a government newspaper ridiculed the ayatollah, questioning his religious credentials and even his sexual preference. Riots erupted in the religious city of Qom. In the resulting mayhem police shot several protesters; reports of the exact number killed varied from six to three hundred. The streets remained quiet for the next forty days in accordance with the Iranian custom of remembering the dead, but when the mourning period ended, on February 18, protests over the killings erupted in every major Iranian city. In Tabriz events turned violent, and the government sent in the army to quell the unrest, killing more than one hundred people. In a recurring pattern over the coming months, each of the events was followed by a period of mourning and then another clash between protesters and government security forces.
Attacks grew in intensity and violence, especially against targets seen as Western and decadent, such as liquor stores and movie theaters. In one of the most horrifying incidents, Khomeini supporters set fire to the Cinema Rex, a movie theater in a two-story commercial building in the port city of Abadan. Thick black smoke overwhelmed many patrons as fire spread quickly through the theater. More than four hundred people died, most of them incinerated while still sitting in their seats. In the Middle East, suspicions of conspiracy often supplant fact: despite the evidence against Khomeini’s supporters, rumor spread in the Iranian streets that the government actually had started the fire to discredit the religious opposition.17 The rumor turned many of those sitting on the fence decidedly against the shah and marked the beginning of the end of his quarter-century reign.18
The shah found himself in a difficult position. If he tried to crush the dissidents, he would face the wrath of the United States for his human rights abuses. If he allowed the protests to continue, it would encourage the opposition.19 The shah did neither. On July 22, he met with the head of Savak to discuss policy regarding the demonstrators. The meeting adjourned with the shah clearly directing that the demonstrations should be quelled by force and authorizing the army to open fire.20 But his directive was never implemented as the conscript army recoiled at opening fire on the populace. On August 19, less than a month later, the shah shifted course and released 711 political prisoners, most of whom immediately joined in the street protests.21 A memorandum from the director of the CIA’s office for the Near East, which was responsible for Iran, summed up the monarch’s difficulties: “The shah’s efforts to modernize Iran have unleashed unexpected if accurate strong forces of reaction that are not being contained by martial law or piecemeal concessions to the opposition.”22
At the Iranian government’s urging, and perhaps to forestall a similar uprising among its own majority Shia population, the Iraqi government ordered Khomeini out of the country in a forlorn attempt to isolate Khomeini from the Iranian populace.23 Khomeini initially sought refuge in Kuwait, but the emir turned him away at the border. This rejection turned out to be fortuitous. Khomeini’s close adviser Ebrahim Yazdi urged him to find refuge in a democratic country. Yazdi, who had lived in the United States, believed that a free press would facilitate the spread of Khomeini’s message. So Ayatollah Khomeini moved into a house at Neauphle-le-Château in the Paris suburbs. There, unshackled by the Iraqi Baath Party’s authoritarian restraints, he found a more free-flowing outlet in the sympathetic Western press for his revolutionary rhetoric. In the first few months, Ayatollah Khomeini conducted more than 450 interviews with the press as part of a sophisticated media campaign against the shah.24
The protests expanded. Supporters smuggled cassette tapes of Khomeini’s talks back inside Iran. Technocrats, democratic reformers, communists, and disgruntled merchants all joined in the growing protests. Oil workers went on strike, and the violence reached a crescendo in early December, when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets. Meanwhile, Khomeini approved sending small teams of supporters to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to begin training as guerrilla fighters for the long insurgency he expected to wage against his rival for control over Iran.25
The shah’s troubles took official Washington by surprise. Initially, the American government did not even consider the religious aspect of the opposition. “There had never been an Islamic revolution before,” observed the State Department desk officer for Iran at the time, Henry Precht.26 Despite the fact that the American embassy in Tehran was the fifth largest in the world, few American diplomats had any sense of the sentiments in the streets. The shah effectively controlled the information available to the diplomats, and the State Department did not encourage Foreign Service officers to get out and talk to dissenters, especially religious leaders. As one political officer recalled, “I doubt if anybody in the embassy ever knew a mullah.”27
The CIA devoted considerable resources to monitoring the Soviet Union and to tracking communists inside Iran. But the agency’s intelligence-gathering effort had not been focused on recruiting spies within Iran. “After all,” as one retired CIA operative sardonically observed, “we had the shah’s secret police, Savak, to tell us what was going on.”28 The two intelligence agencies did cooperate on tracking down the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), or People’s Mujahideen of Iran, a leftist-Islamist hybrid sect which had conducted a series of terrorist killings of Americans in Iran, including the serious wounding of U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Harold Price in one of the first uses of an improvised explosive device in the Middle East. The CIA had developed biographical studies on key Iranian military and civilian leaders.29 But for the most part, the CIA devoted its efforts to countering Soviet influence in the region.30 In a self-assessment of its efforts in 1976, the spy agency reported that “generally speaking, reporting from the mission on most topics is very satisfactory.”31
The American intelligence community committed one enormous oversight in not studying the shah himself. In 1974 Jean Bernard, a renowned French hematologist, secretly flew to Tehran to examine the Iranian monarch, who was suffering from an enlarged spleen. Dr. Bernard diagnosed the problem as a serious case of chronic lymphocytic leukemia and Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, a blood condition.32 However, fearing that news of his ailment would leak, the shah steadfastly refused either to undergo additional tests or to begin cancer treatment. His ailment remained unknown to Washington, though rumors of the shah’s ill health were commonplace in Tehran. The cancer left the shah increasingly listless and withdrawn. Meanwhile, Washington continued to support him, blissfully unaware that the man upon whom America relied to safeguard Persian Gulf oil was dying.
The troubles in Iran divided the Carter administration along familiar lines. Brzezinski wanted the shah to use force to crush the resistance. He believed the United States needed to express its unqualified support for the monarch, and he advocated dispatching an aircraft carrier to the Gulf of Oman as a show of support. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance cautioned, however, that the Iranians might interpret a movement of U.S. forces to the region as a precursor to invasion; the United States needed to assist Iran in a transition from autocracy to democracy.
The president himself remained torn, harboring private sympathy for the democratic reforms sought by the shah’s opponents, while recognizing the grave strategic blow to the United States should the shah be overthrown. The president remained bothered by the shah’s poor human rights record under which political dissidents were frequently imprisoned and tortured. But the Iranian leader had consistently supported both Israel and Carter’s Camp David Accords, signed in September 1978 between Israel and Egypt, and his offer to assure Israel’s fuel requirements had contributed to Israel’s agreement to withdraw from the Sinai and relinquish control of the Abu Rudeis oil fields in western Sinai.
Carter agreed to send an aircraft carrier off the Iranian coast to demonstrate American resolve, and he dispatched his dutiful but bland deputy secretary of defense, Warren Christopher, who would later serve as secretary of state (1993–1997) under Bill Clinton, to meet with the Iranian ambassador in Washington and inform him of President Carter’s unqualified support for the shah.33 A week later President Carter penned a handwritten note to the shah: “Again, let me extend my best wishes to you as you continue your successful effort for the beneficial social and political reforms in Iran.”34
The American ambassador in Tehran was an experienced Foreign Service officer named William Sullivan. Polished and well dressed, with a shock of white hair, Sullivan had served in two previous ambassadorial postings, including as ambassador to Laos at the height of the Vietnam War. He was no stranger to the dirty side of foreign policy and, while he was in Laos, had supported the CIA-led secret war against the North Vietnamese.
Sullivan agitated to open a dialogue with Khomeini. When the shah once told him that Khomeini supporters were “crypto-communists,” Sullivan flatly rejected the notion. The influence of Shia Islam was stronger than any Western-imposed ideology, especially the secular communists, Sullivan countered.35 Khomeini supporters held the real power behind the opposition movement and would serve as a natural bulwark against the communist groups, Sullivan thought. Any post-shah government would require Khomeini’s support to facilitate an orderly transfer of power to a new democratic government, and the sooner Washington recognized this, Sullivan observed, the better for America’s standing in the future Iran.36
Brzezinski rejected Sullivan’s views of the situation in Tehran. It was not a choice between the shah and democracy, he told Sullivan: should the shah fall, Khomeini would inexorably move the new government toward theocracy. The national security adviser began backdoor conversations around Sullivan with hard-liners inside the Iranian government about a possible military takeover.37 In an October 28, 1978, meeting at the White House with CIA Director Stansfield Turner, Brzezinski asked the CIA to look into developing information that could be used to undermine the opposition and strengthen the shah. Turner agreed, but he cautioned Brzezinski that many members of Congress looked upon the shah as so undemocratic that they would not tolerate a covert program designed to keep him in power.38
Turner responded a few days later. He believed the CIA could help keep the shah in power for the short run and this might provide breathing space for the Iranian government. But for the strategy to succeed, the shah needed to use “maximum force.” And in the long run, CIA analysts cautioned, it would not solve the shah’s problems. He needed to move more swiftly to establish a democratically elected civilian government.39
Undeterred, Brzezinski asked Sullivan about prospects for a successful military takeover if the shah was willing to use maximum force to crush the opposition. In a tense series of secure telephone conversations, Sullivan countered that a military takeover might be feasible, but every day that passed reduced the chances of a successful outcome. More important, Sullivan said, the cost to long-term American interests would be exceedingly high. Loss of life would be great, and this would scuttle any possibility of moving the country in the direction of democracy. Sullivan again advanced the idea of opening contacts with the opposition, which the national security adviser flatly rejected. Over the coming days, exchanges between the two men grew heated on the issue. They frequently shouted at each other, their arguments clearly audible in adjacent rooms.40
On September 8, 1978, a massive throng of demonstrators—largely unaware that the shah had declared martial law the day before—gathered in Jaleh Square in Tehran. When the army moved in, the demonstration turned violent and jittery soldiers opened fire. While the true number of Iranian civilians killed was less than one hundred, news quickly spread through the streets that thousands of peaceful demonstrators—including many women—had been cut down in the streets. Today this day is known in Iran as Black Friday. The carnage horrified both the shah and the demonstrators, giving pause to the latter to rethink their actions. But as senior CIA Iran analyst and Iranian military historian Steven Ward noted, “The government then mishandled what possibly was one of its best opportunities to reassert control.”41 With the opposition reeling, the shah opted for reconciliation. He dismissed security officials, released imprisoned opponents and replaced them with some of his own Savak agents, and ordered the army to fire above the heads of the crowds. Rather than placating the revolutionaries, the shah’s actions only emboldened them as he now appeared weak and irresolute.
A few days after Black Friday, President Carter called the shah and stressed continued American support as well as the importance of liberalization. The shah had it posted verbatim in the newspapers as a sign of American support. It backfired. To the Iranian population, it read as though the United States stood behind a government that had just shot down tens of thousands of unarmed civilians in Jaleh Square, fueling hatred of the shah and his chief supporter in Washington.42
To gain a better idea of what was going on in the streets of Tehran in early November 1978, Stanley Escudero arrived in Tehran. Fluent in Farsi, the thirty-five-year-old diplomat of Mexican ancestry from Daytona, Florida, had recently served for four years in the embassy. With dark hair and a dusky complexion, he could pass as a local—perhaps not from Tehran, he admitted, but from an outlying area such as Azerbaijan. His previous assignment to Iran in the early 1970s had not been a particularly career-enhancing tour of duty. Escudero had annoyed his State Department superiors in Foggy Bottom by questioning the long-term viability of the Pahlavi dynasty. While he had not predicted the shah’s current difficulties, he openly questioned the viability of rule by the shah’s son. This assessment was not what Henry Kissinger and the State Department had wanted to hear. Compounding his impropriety of straying off the policy reservation, Escudero had met repeatedly with the shah’s opponents, especially religious leaders. “Iran was too important to the United States,” he later said. “I believed we would be better advised to have relations with whoever ran Iran, be it the shah or the opposition. This was not popular in Washington.”43 Escudero, relegated to working in the then less prestigious Bureau of International Organization Affairs at State, seemed destined for a lackluster career. But the shah’s troubles revived Escudero’s standing. In fall 1978, Harold Saunders, the deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, and Henry Precht, the country desk officer for Iran, each asked Escudero if he would be willing to go back to Tehran to assess the opposition and the shah’s likelihood of survival.
Reluctant, Escudero answered, “You want me to go out and meet with the same people that got me into trouble in the first place, and tell you things that you know are not going to suit current policy?”
Saunders and Precht acknowledged that Escudero had been correct in his predictions regarding the shah. They added, “We don’t have anyone else to send who stands a reasonable chance of survival.” Escudero decided to accept their offer. “I was young and stupid,” he said with a chuckle years later.44
Landing in Tehran, he set about going native and infiltrating the revolution. He donned Iranian clothes and cropped his beard close in a style common among Iranian men. To preserve his cover, he distanced himself from the embassy and traveled to its sprawling grounds only during darkness in order to provide updates to Ambassador Sullivan. He lived in apartments of trusted Iranian friends, moving frequently for his and their safety.
Escudero traveled to Qom and met with Ayatollah Sayed Shariat-Madari, an opponent of the shah, but less extreme than Khomeini and more favorably disposed to the United States. Posing as a journalist, Escudero met with religious leaders from Khomeini’s camp to glean their views of the revolt, which confirmed both Brzezinski’s views of Khomeini’s true intentions and Sullivan’s intuition about the importance of the ayatollah in the future of Iran.45 He discovered that the religious leadership played a prominent role in mounting antigovernment demonstrations. “The demonstrations were very organized,” he observed. Wardens with armbands kept the crowd orderly, orchestrating their chants and keeping the mob unified. While the crowds were composed of a mixture of all the shah’s detractors, the Islamic movement was the most organized and best funded. Khomeini supporters, such as a fluent English speaker named Mohammad Beheshti, the ayatollah’s representative in Hamburg, Germany, played a pivotal role in orchestrating the protests.46
Masquerading now as a student, Escudero infiltrated the mobs protesting against the shah, where he blended in with the thousands of others, shouting “Death to the shah! Death to the shah!” and raising a fist in defiance as he joined the throngs confronting the Imperial Army. It was hazardous duty. Had the students or clergy discovered an American Foreign Service officer in their midst, vengeance would have been swift and deadly.
It soon became apparent to Escudero that the shah’s days were numbered. His reports reinforced Sullivan’s opinion of the inevitability of the monarch’s overthrow. In numerous cables to both Vance and Brzezinski, the ambassador wrote that the only solution available was to push for a democratic government before the revolution spiraled out of control and it became impossible to save anything from the disaster looming before them.47
Supporting Escudero’s reports, on December 12, 1978, veteran American diplomat and Middle East hand George Ball delivered a report on Iran to the president. Ball had worked Middle East issues for both the Nixon and Carter administrations, and he was instrumental in helping Nixon develop the twin pillars strategy. Echoing Sullivan’s views, he stated bluntly that the shah needed to act immediately to effect the transition to a civil government and transfer all power, except that as commander of the armed forces. Otherwise, Ball predicted, “he will collapse.”48
Carter reluctantly approved his first covert operation for Iran in a final stab at saving the shah. The president had a strong distaste for these actions, but had finally been convinced to try a small effort. The CIA began a very limited psychological operations campaign to highlight awareness of the Iranian communist Tudeh Party’s support for Khomeini’s return in a forlorn hope to rally anticommunists to support the shah and undercut the opposition movement. It failed and the CIA terminated it little more than a month later.49 While Iranian protesters accused the American embassy of being a “den of spies,” a senior White House staffer wrote to Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: “It is supremely ironic that we should stand accused of so much espionage out of our embassy in Tehran when we have done so little.”50
As Christmas 1978 approached, pessimism reigned in both capitals—Washington and Tehran. Emblematically, President Carter ordered the lights turned off the national Christmas tree behind the White House on the Ellipse to save electricity. The only caroling heard at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Sullivan wrote, came from “a rather scruffy crowd of teenagers marching by the embassy and chanting ‘Yankee Go Home.’”51
On January 4, 1979, General Dutch Huyser arrived in the Iranian capital. As he drove through Tehran, he was shocked at the sight of the once vibrant city, now with stores shuttered and the streets empty of the usual bustling, chaotic traffic.
In view of Alexander Haig’s vocal objections to his mission, an uneasy Huyser insisted that Defense Secretary Brown provide him with written instructions. When the message arrived just before his departure for Tehran, the directives were as ambiguous and muddled as was U.S. policy toward the crisis. Huyser was told to convey to the shah the president’s continued support to the Iranian military as the critical link in the transition to a new stable government: “It is extremely important for the Iranian military to do all it can to remain strong and intact in order to help a responsible civilian government function effectively,” the instructions said. “As the Iranian military move through this time of change, they should know that the U.S. military and the U.S. government, from the President down, remain strongly behind them.”52 Precisely what this message conveyed to the Iranian military remained a mystery to Huyser. Vance had intended it to inform the Iranian generals that the United States backed the transition to a democratic government. Brzezinski, however, intended for Huyser to give the green light to the Iranian military to stage a coup, declare martial law, and take over the government. The muddled language of Huyser’s instructions represented a compromise between the two competing positions, but it left both the messenger and its intended audience utterly confused.
Huyser arrived at the embassy to meet with Ambassador Sullivan, the first of many such meetings over the ensuing month. “The shah is finished,” the ambassador abruptly told Huyser. “The military has already decayed to the point they are incapable of doing anything.” Ayatollah Khomeini and an Islamic government would be better than a military coup, and the sooner the United States began mending relations with the powerful clerical force, the better in the long term. But Carter had prohibited any discussions with Khomeini on the grounds that they might undermine the shah’s tenuous authority. In response, Sullivan sent a combative message to Vance urging direct talks with Khomeini. “You should know that the president had made a gross and perhaps irretrievable mistake by failing to send an emissary to Paris to see Khomeini. I cannot understand the rationale for this unfortunate decision. I urge you immediately to join Harold Brown in this plea for sanity!”53
The next morning, January 11, both Huyser and Sullivan traveled across the city from the embassy to the shah’s expansive palace to deliver the president’s message of support and to discuss the Iranian leader’s prospects. They found the shah looking haggard, dressed uncharacteristically in a dark suit rather than the military uniform he had worn exclusively since the crisis began. Clearly ill, he showed no vitality or strength to inspire confidence in his long-term political survival.
After a bit of small talk, the shah raised the prospect of leaving Iran on an “extended vacation.” He hoped it would help calm the streets, apparently still dreaming that he might yet return to his throne after things calmed down. “When should I go?” he asked.
Sullivan immediately responded, “As soon as possible would probably be the best for all concerned.” The shah agreed.
As the meeting concluded, General Huyser reminded the shah of a conversation the two men had had just five months earlier, at the outset of the shah’s troubles. The shah had emphatically told the air force general that he would not lose control of power. “What happened, Your Majesty?” Huyser asked.
Mohammad Reza thought quietly for some time, glaring at Sullivan through his thick glasses. “Your commander-in-chief is different from me. I am a commander-in-chief who is actually in uniform and, as such, for me to give the orders that would have been necessary. . . .” He paused. “Could you as commander-in-chief give the order to kill your own people?”54
On January 16, 1979, the shah left Iran for Egypt on his “extended vacation.” He never returned. Hundreds of thousands of jubilant Iranians celebrated until nightfall. As Huyser walked across the darkened embassy to the secure room for his evening talk with Washington, it was extraordinarily quiet, but, Huyser sensed, “there was a different feeling in the air.”
Over the next month, General Huyser met repeatedly with Iranian military leaders. Huyser helped develop a series of military options to maintain order and ensure a smooth transition. The most extreme was Option C—a military coup designed to break any strikes and resistance, and to regain control over the country. When Huyser back-briefed this military option in a secure conference call with Brzezinski and Brown, the national security adviser latched onto it in congruence with his long-standing support of a military takeover to preserve a pro-American government. “The coup option needed to remain on the table,” Brzezinski stressed. “Could the army execute it?”
“Yes,” General Huyser responded, “as long as the army continued to hold together.”
Whether they would open fire on the opposition remained an open question, however, as the conscripted soldiers had shown no stomach for killing fellow Iranians. Furthermore, the shah had maintained tight control over the military leadership and did not reward generals who showed much initiative.
On February 1, Ayatollah Khomeini returned by jet to Tehran. Some five million people poured into the streets to welcome him. At Huyser’s urging, the Iranian military provided Khomeini with protection, escorts, and even a helicopter to travel about the city. It was a strange spectacle, as the shah’s military leadership ordered honor guards and protection for the man they all despised.
On the night of February 9, Iranian television broadcast a rerun of Khomeini’s return, inciting a group of low-ranking technical officers called Homafaran (the equivalent of warrant officers in the U.S. military) to protest openly against the shah at an air base in eastern Tehran that housed the Iranian air force’s headquarters. The Homafaran clashed with a detachment of the shah’s elite “Immortals” unit. The next morning, the Homafaran forced their way into an armory and began distributing weapons to other military defectors and leftist sympathizers. Pitched clashes between the rebels and the Iranian army soon broke out all over the city. Events culminated in a series of dramatic attacks on February 11, a day still celebrated in Iran as a national holiday called Islamic Revolution’s Victory Day. A mob stormed the Supreme Staff headquarters—the Iranian version of the Pentagon—and soldiers mutinied and shot dead the army chief of staff outside his own headquarters building. By the end of the day, the remnants of the old regime had been swept away and nearly all Iran’s senior military leadership were in jail.55
A week later, back in Stuttgart, Huyser casually spoke to Haig about the latter’s retirement plans. An aide interrupted with an important phone call from Washington. Both Haig and Huyser picked up phones; on the other end of the line were the deputy secretary of defense, Charles Duncan, Brzezinski, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Jones. The men had just left a meeting at the White House in which the decision had been finally made to have European Command plan for military intervention in Iran. While the president had made no decision about executing such an operation, the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg had been placed on alert. Would General Huyser, Jones asked, be willing to return to Tehran and conduct a military takeover?
Incredulous, Huyser privately wondered, “Why didn’t they ask that question while I was in Tehran and the Iranian military was still intact?”
“Sir, I’ll consider doing it,” Huyser said, suppressing his growing anger, “but there would need to be unlimited funds. I would need to handpick ten to twelve U.S. generals and I’ll need ten thousand of the best U.S. troops, because at this point, I have no idea how many Iranian troops I could count on. And finally, I must have undivided national support.” There was silence on the other end of the phone.
After a long pause, Huyser resumed. “I don’t think the people I am talking to are ready for that type of action, nor do I believe the American people would give their support. The answer is obvious—it’s not feasible.”
Brzezinski asked a few perfunctory questions, and Jones asked Haig if he had any comment. “Nope,” Haig replied tersely. The conversation ended and so did any further talk of a coup or American military intervention.
While the new Islamic Republic wanted to retain the skilled officers to run the military, the government moved quickly to purge the Iranian armed forces of unreconstructed royalists. One of these was Commander Said Zanganeh. Of average height and balding but with a distinguished persona and strong bearing, Zanganeh had joined the Imperial Iranian Navy in 1964.56 In 1977, less than two years before the revolution, Zanganeh became the first commanding officer of Iran’s new flotilla of French-built missile boats, each armed with advanced American-made Harpoon antiship missiles, capable of striking a target ship sixty nautical miles away.57
After the revolution, Zanganeh was ordered to attend a mandatory assembly with a senior cleric. “You all have a little king in your heart, and we have to eliminate it,” the cleric told the audience of officers. While this was not said in a menacing tone, his intent was clear.
A secular Muslim, Zanganeh had strongly supported the shah. He simply could not bring himself to work for a government he viewed as dominated by backward, uneducated clerics. After the shah’s departure, he walked into the now empty office of the chief of naval operations and penned his resignation letter.
A few days later a cleric, recently appointed as a senior admiral, called Zanganeh into his office. “Why are you resigning? I’ve looked over your file and you have no political association with the shah or his crimes.”
Zanganeh replied with a religious analogy he knew the cleric would understand. “I don’t know Islam as well as you do, but I know that Ali was a great man. Nevertheless, if I were a married woman and Ali wanted to take me to bed, I still wouldn’t let him.”
The cleric signed his approval without ever taking his eyes off Zanganeh. The commander hastened out of the office, fully expecting a bullet in his head for his insolence. Fortunately, he left the building alive and left for the United States the following year.
The Carter administration wanted to continue normal diplomatic relations with the new Iranian government. The provisional Iranian government’s first prime minister was handpicked by Ayatollah Khomeini: seventy-two-year-old Mehdi Bazargan. A devoted Muslim but also a secular democrat, he favored continued ties with the United States. While scaling back consular services, the American embassy in Tehran remained open, even after a six-hour takeover of the embassy grounds in February by leftist students overcome with revolutionary fervor. Ayatollah Khomeini immediately ordered the students out of the embassy, not wishing to hand such a propaganda victory to the Marxists, his growing rivals for power. But that takeover was a precursor of things to come.
When Sullivan stepped down as ambassador in March 1979, Carter nominated another experienced diplomat, Walter Cutler, as his replacement. But after the execution of a prominent Iranian-Jewish businessman who had close ties to the shah, and with a growing perception of an anti-Semitic attitude on the part of the new regime, New York senator Jacob Javits pushed through a resolution critical of the new Iranian government. This action sparked violent protests outside the twenty-seven-acre U.S. embassy compound, with the U.S. flag torn down and anti-American graffiti painted on the embassy walls. The State Department withdrew Cutler’s name and, in June 1979, dispatched fifty-eight-year-old Bruce Laingen as the new chargé d’affaires and senior American diplomat in Iran. A naval officer in the Pacific during the Second World War, Laingen had been posted to Tehran once before, in 1953, arriving just after the United States engineered the coup that reinstalled the shah to power.
Laingen continued meeting with Iranian officials to try to normalize relations. One of his major headaches involved sorting the status of billions of dollars, worth of military hardware and spare parts in transit or sitting in American warehouses—weapons destined for Iran. Not surprisingly, Iran wanted the matériel, while Washington showed trepidation, weighing the merits of sending military supplies to a potential adversary against the prospects that this new Iran might still serve as an ally against the Soviets.
In a meeting with Laingen on August 11, Prime Minister Bazargan expressed the desirability of close cooperation between the two nations, but he stated that the U.S. government’s support for the shah remained a strong impediment to friendship. Laingen replied that his government had no intention of trying to reinstall the shah on the throne. Bazargan greeted this assertion with skepticism.58
In June 1979 the Iranian deputy prime minister had traveled to Sweden and met with American officials. The U.S. delegation included one of the CIA’s best Iranian specialists, fifty-year-old George Cave. Tall, thin, and with a quiet, reflective demeanor, Cave was fluent in Farsi and had served two tours in Iran, his first in 1958. The group met to discuss normalizing relations between the two countries. Over the next two months, these talks set a framework for more substantive talks in Tehran. The CIA dispatched Robert Ames, the national intelligence officer for the Near East, to Tehran, where he joined Laingen and other senior State Department officials in discussions about improving relations. Here they met repeatedly with a tough but cordial cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti. Second only to Khomeini as the most powerful cleric in Iran and one of the main authors of the new constitution for the Islamic Republic in Iran, Beheshti was an important leader in the newly formed, shadowy Revolutionary Council. Established by Khomeini, the council was composed of mullahs and dedicated Islamists and served as the power behind the Bazargan mask. Beheshti had little love for the United States, but he supported the talks on normalization.
Throughout the autumn of 1979, U.S. negotiators continued their secret meetings, making slow headway toward patching up their differences. The last meeting occurred in Algiers on November 1, 1979, between U.S. national security adviser Brzezinski and Iranian prime minister Bazargan. Brzezinski told the Iranian delegation that the United States recognized the revolution and had no intention of trying to reinstall the shah. The talks ended abruptly, however. News of the meeting leaked, infuriating student radicals as no one in the Iranian leadership wanted to be seen negotiating with the Great Satan.
On October 23, 1979, Bruce Laingen was sitting at the breakfast table in the embassy residence when a marine guard brought him an urgent message. The cable stated that the U.S. government had decided to allow the shah into the country for cancer treatment and instructed Laingen to inform the Iranian government that the shah would be allowed in strictly for humanitarian purposes. The shah was deathly ill and his supporters in Congress lobbied President Carter to admit him. The president had reluctantly agreed.
Laingen knew that no one in the new Iranian government would believe this statement, and he raised strong objections back to headquarters. The situation in Iran remained precarious, and that country’s population would greet with open hostility anything that smacked of renewed cooperation between the United States and the shah. This was a major blunder and neither Laingen nor the others at the State Department knowledgeable about Iran had any illusions about the likely Iranian response: they would overrun the embassy.
George Cave was in Paris when he received a cable asking him to return to Tehran to help Laingen explain to the Iranian government why the shah would be allowed to enter the United States. He phoned Laingen. “Bruce, I don’t think there is much I can do to help you.”
“Yeah,” Laingen replied. “You’d just be one more body taken in the embassy.”
“No one in Iran believed that the shah had gone to the United States for humanistic reasons,” observed Mohsen Sazegara, a Western-educated engineer and early supporter of the revolution. “The United States backed the shah and would bring him back to power and overthrow the revolution. Everyone believed this in Iran.” Rumor of the shah’s cancer had circulated through the streets of Tehran for years. To the men in the new revolutionary government, Washington and its omnipresent intelligence apparatus had to know of the shah’s illness. The sudden admittance of the shah to the United States appeared all the more nefarious, and Laingen’s explanation sounded ludicrous.
Laingen and Cave’s predictions became reality. The first massive demonstration against the United States took place on November 1. Some rocks were thrown, but little more transpired. On the night of November 3, Laingen attended a movie premier at Iran’s foreign office for a new documentary on the revolution. Although its theme was anti-American, Laingen found the film interesting, chiefly due to its footage of mobs storming the U.S. embassy back in February. The next day Laingen was attending a meeting at the foreign office when reports came in about students trying to scale the walls of the U.S. embassy. He tried to drive back to the compound, but the embassy staff warned him to stay away; the situation was becoming too dangerous. Back at the Iranian foreign office, Laingen located a civilian phone and notified Washington of the deteriorating situation at the embassy.59
When news of a disturbance at the U.S. embassy in Tehran arrived at Alexander Haig’s European Command headquarters in Patch Barracks, Germany, newly promoted Marine Corps Brigadier General George Crist hastened down to the operations center. As the deputy J-3, or operations officer, it was Crist’s responsibility to track current events. He picked up an unsecured phone and called the embassy to find out what was going on. The phone rang a few times before it was answered by a man on the other end speaking Farsi. Crist asked him a question, only to discover that the man did not understand English.
“I need a Farsi speaker!” Crist hollered, sending officers at European Command headquarters scrambling to find someone in the building who could converse with the Iranian on the other end of the phone line. Of the hundreds of people in the headquarters, including the intelligence section, not one person could speak Farsi. After a few more minutes of incoherent discussion, the bemused Iranian student lost interest and hung up the telephone.60
A group of students representing Iran’s universities had conspired to launch a coordinated takeover of the American embassy. Calling themselves Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, they were inspired by recent statements by Khomeini railing against the United States. They decided to strike a blow against the Great Satan. While the shah’s admittance into the United States served as the catalyst, planning for the move had been under way since September. Marine security guards failed to halt the mob with a prodigious use of tear gas. Laingen pleaded with Iranian security forces to send personnel to expel the students, but none materialized. In short order, embassy staff had been rounded up and paraded, bound and blindfolded, before a stunned world media.
Initially, the students had intended to hold the embassy for just a few hours. In some ways, it was the Iranian version of American student protests of the 1960s, in which protesters would occupy the president’s office, smoke his cigars, make a few statements, and leave with self-congratulatory remarks about having stood up to the establishment.
But the embassy takeover acquired a life of its own. Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi called Khomeini and received permission to go to the embassy and order the students out. But the ayatollah quickly reversed himself. He had no advance knowledge of the students’ action, but the embassy takeover afforded him the chance to consolidate power and rally the public behind the Islamists at the expense of liberals and nationalists within the revolutionary movement, who Khomeini regarded as the chief rivals to his vision of an Islamic state. When Ayatollah Khomeini publicly endorsed the action, Bazargan, Yazdi, and other moderates resigned in protest the next day. This left the Revolutionary Council and the Islamists in sole power, and over the next year Khomeini supporters moved to expunge the remaining moderates and secularists from positions of authority.
For the next 444 days, fifty-two Americans, including Laingen, languished as hostages, held by Iranian student radicals. President Jimmy Carter froze Iranian financial assets, severed diplomatic relations, and tried through a variety of means to end the crisis peacefully. Carter took military action off the table as divisions emerged within the administration on how to handle the crisis. The national security adviser advocated the use of force, while Cyrus Vance worried about the consequences of such an action on the hostages. For six months, Carter sided with Vance.
The strain of these challenges took a toll on President Carter. He reveled in policy details. He impressed the White House staff with his sheer capacity to read and retain the information in towering piles of paperwork. He returned lengthy memos with his handwritten comments on the last page, often replete with grammatical corrections. But this attention to minutia, especially the demands of attending to the hostage crisis, consumed Carter. He averaged five hours of sleep a night, arriving at the Oval Office at five thirty a.m. and regularly not leaving until midnight. He scaled back his daily jogging from five miles to three, frequently running around the White House grounds late at night. He grew increasingly and uncharacteristically testy and often snapped at his staff for no reason.
The United States tried repeatedly to negotiate with the Iranians, but to no avail. A State Department report summed up the challenges of negotiating with the Islamic Republic:
It is clear that we are dealing with an outlook that differs fundamentally from our own, and a chaotic internal situation. Our character, our society are based on optimism—a long history of strength and success, the possibility of equality, the protection of institutions, enshrined in a constitution, the belief in our ability to control our own destiny. Iran, on the other hand, has a long and painful history of foreign invasions, occupations, and domination. Their outlook is a function of this history and the solace most Iranians have found in Shi’a Islam. They place a premium on survival. They are manipulative, fatalistic, suspicious, and xenophobic.
The U.S. military developed a series of plans, including imposing a naval blockade of Iran. A combative naval officer in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations named James “Ace” Lyons, who was destined to play a significant role regarding Iran over the coming decade, formulated a plan to use marines backed by carrier air to seize the key Iranian island of Kharg, through which 95 percent of all Iranian oil flowed to awaiting tankers. The island was unguarded and relatively easily accessible by American amphibious forces. “You take Kharg,” Lyons said, “and Iran can’t export a single drop of oil.”61
On March 20, 1980, following a meeting with Carter’s principal foreign policy advisers at the White House, Deputy National Security Adviser David Aaron and Joint Chiefs chairman David Jones cleared the room of everyone but the small handful of individuals involved with military strategy. Aaron then asked about the blockade plan: “Would you just halt oil exports, or would you need to blockade all their ports as well? If the U.S. took such action, what would be Iran’s response?”62
CIA Director Stansfield Turner answered Aaron’s question. “To be effective, it would have to be a complete cutoff of all imports, including food. It would have a significant impact on Iran’s economy within two weeks.” But Japan would be hit hard, because that nation imported 10 percent of all its fuel from Iran. Turner added that the loss of oil on the world market and the ensuing crisis would drive oil prices up 15 to 30 percent.
In response to Aaron’s second question, State Department representative David Newsom cautioned that a blockade would lead to a strong reaction in both Iran and the Islamic world, “which, in the worst case,” he warned, “could lead the militants to start killing the hostages.”
Turner rejected that dire prediction, however, believing that such action could strengthen the hand of the Iranian moderates. The meeting ended with no decision. In the end, President Carter rejected the blockade option unless the hostages were put on trial.
The only military plan Carter ever seriously considered was the rescue mission code-named Eagle Claw, using the newly formed elite Delta Force. General David Jones formed a new, compartmented planning cell within the Joint Staff’s J-3 directorate to be known as Special Operations Directorate. Months of planning and training in the United States, Egypt, and Oman followed. In spring 1980 Carter authorized the operation.
On April 24, 1980, U.S. helicopters took off from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier with a cargo of elite U.S. forces intent on an eventual rendezvous with a network of supporters near Tehran, organized by the CIA, who would truck them into Tehran. Upon the rescue of the hostages, the entire group would gather at a stadium near the embassy, where helicopters would arrive and fly them all to freedom.
Following a series of helicopter mechanical failures, however, U.S. forces decided to abort the risky rescue mission. One helicopter had crashed into a four-engine C-130 during a refueling operation at a remote Iranian desert airstrip known as Desert One. Eight Americans died. After the failed hostage rescue mission, eleven CIA officers who had infiltrated Iran fled, escaping via Tehran’s airport disguised as businessmen or through the rugged province of Baluchistan, on Iran’s eastern border, with the help of friendly Iranians. With them went Carter’s presidency and any realistic hopes for rapprochement with Iran.
A NEW GRAND STRATEGY
On a cold, crisp January evening in 1980, a caravan of black limousines and their police escorts pulled out of the south grounds of the White House. Following a six-minute drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, the presidential motorcade arrived at the U.S. Capitol, its brilliant white dome illuminated in the night sky. Within the hour, President Jimmy Carter would give his last State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress and a worldwide television audience.
Carter knew this would be an important speech. The day before, his close confidant and youthful chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, had echoed this sentiment in a lengthy “eyes only” memo for the president: “In the next several months, you will shape, define, and execute a new American foreign policy that will not only set the tone for U.S.-Soviet relations for the next twenty years, but will largely determine whether or not our country will play an effective role as the leader of the Free World.”1
Jordan’s intent was to outline a strategy to salvage the president’s political fortunes. American presidential elections occur every four years, regardless of national or international crises, and the calendar is not always convenient for the incumbent. This was an election year, and on that night, January 23, 1980, Carter faced mounting political problems. Iran still held captive fifty-two American hostages, and the U.S. economy was in recession. The preceding month, still another foreign policy imbroglio had landed on Carter’s desk: the Soviet Union had rolled three mechanized divisions into the remote Central Asian country of Afghanistan to prop up the mountainous nation’s fledgling communist government. This new crisis portended a grave Cold War confrontation between the superpowers. Domestically too Carter found himself challenged not only within his own party, by Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy, but also by the likelihood of an even more formidable Republican opponent: either the former governor of California Ronald Reagan or the seasoned foreign policy hand George H. W. Bush.
President Carter took the podium shortly after nine p.m. It was one of the most truculent speeches ever given by the Georgian. “The 1980s have been born in turmoil, strife, and change,” he began. “The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil. . . . The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position; therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.”2
In the most important line of his terse thirty-minute speech, the president drew a line in the sand in the Persian Gulf: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An assault by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”3
After months of vacillation and indecision in dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis, the American public and the press welcomed presidential resolve.4 A Time magazine headline declared, “Carter Takes Charge.” In Carter’s first address on energy in the spring of 1977, he’d never mentioned the Persian Gulf. Now he was committing the United States to go to war to protect this foreign source of oil should the need arise. For a president who had come to power in the aftermath of Vietnam and prided himself on the fact that no American servicemen or -women had died in combat on his watch, it was a remarkable transformation. In what would become known as the Carter Doctrine, the president had established for the first time that the United States regarded Persian Gulf oil as vital to the nation’s interests, worth spending American treasure and spilling blood to defend.5
Since the early days of the Carter administration, ideas for a new military strategy to defend Persian Gulf oil from the Soviet Union had flowed in and out of the minds of the president’s foreign policy team. Shortly after taking office, Carter had called for a major across-the-board reassessment of American strategy in the Cold War. Noted Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington had headed the review at the National Security Council, and he’d singled out the Persian Gulf as an area ripe for Soviet expansion, due chiefly to the tenuous character of the regimes governing in the region and the difficulty of projecting American power there. As a result of this review, on August 24, 1977, President Carter approved Presidential Directive 18, which directed the formation of a “deployable force of light divisions,” a military organization that could be deployed quickly, on short notice, to any global hot spot, be it Korea or, in the minds of Brzezinski and Huntington, the Middle East.6
This concept was not new. It had become something of a policy mainstay with the Democratic Party’s defense intelligentsia since the Kennedy administration. Faced with a similar concern and responding to Soviet-“inspired” wars in the third world, in 1961 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had directed the formation of a highly mobile force based within the United States capable of quickly reacting to any global crisis. To command this force, the Pentagon established U.S. Strike Command, headquartered in a new white-and-black-striped square building at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida.7 However, opposition by the navy and marine corps limited the command’s effectiveness. The marine corps viewed itself as the nation’s rapid reaction force, especially for military adventures short of major war, and parochially guarded this mission. The navy simply did not want any joint non-navy headquarters to control its ships.8 President Nixon scrapped the idea and ordered Strike Command disestablished.9
Initially, Carter’s idea for a rapid deployment force fared no better. Despite the president’s proclamation, the idea languished in the bureaucratic netherworld, a victim of endless staff studies and overall disinterest within the halls of the Pentagon. Until the shah’s overthrow, Pentagon planners continued to recommend relying on “regional coalitions,” chiefly with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and selling more weapons to both nations to strengthen their military abilities.10 With the nation still suffering from the post-Vietnam hangover, no one in Washington had much stomach for military adventurism in the developing world or for a command solely dedicated to that purpose.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General David Jones, like Dutch Huyser, came from the strategic bomber community. The now fifty-seven-year-old South Dakota native and former B-29 pilot had once served as an aide to the controversial architect of the firebombing of Japanese cities, Curtis LeMay. As chief of staff of the air force, Jones had impressed President Carter, who’d selected Jones for the top military job in 1978. Jones and Carter shared a similar managerial style—a penchant for micromanagement.
Jones believed it was a mistake to divert military forces from the main Cold War game in Europe to the Middle East. “Unless Moscow invaded Iran,” Jones told Defense Secretary Harold Brown after a formal briefing on the Middle East in September 1978, “the U.S. military combatant forces should not become involved in the minor contingencies.”11 In the absence of a crisis, there was no urgency to create the rapid deployment force, and the military dawdled. “It took a crisis to get a good idea the needed attention,” Secretary Brown dryly observed. “The takeover by Khomeini had that effect.”12
On December 2, 1978, Brzezinski sent a classified memo to President Carter laying out his concern that the Middle East was rapidly becoming an “arch of crisis.” “There is no question in my mind that we are confronting the beginning of a major crisis, in some ways similar to the one in Europe in the later 40s,” he wrote. If so, this would open up the region for the Soviets to exploit and posed a grave challenge to American security.13
Brzezinski’s strategic view was clear and crisp. He excelled at distilling meetings down to the salient points, cutting off extraneous discussions, and moving recommendations quickly up to President Carter.14 The national security adviser believed that the Middle East was now inexorably linked to the larger Cold War. He argued that fixating on Europe missed the real dynamic: Persian Gulf oil had become the Achilles’ heel of the West. The Soviet Union could bring Europe to its knees simply by cutting off Middle East oil and turning off the tap that drove the economic engines of Western Europe and Japan. With the United States perched on the precipice of political calamity as the Iranian Revolution unfolded on the streets of Tehran, Brzezinski proposed that the United States forge a new security framework for the Persian Gulf.
Brown backed Brzezinski’s vision. He ordered Robert Komer, undersecretary of defense for policy and the third most senior civilian in the Pentagon, to conduct a complete review of the military plans for Iran and the Persian Gulf. A seasoned hand in Washington, Komer had nearly four decades of foreign policy experience. During the 1960s, simpatico with President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies, Komer had headed the political side of the South Vietnamese pacification effort. The bespectacled Komer had a booming voice and a personality to match. During the Vietnam War, Komer had earned the apt nickname “Blowtorch Bob,” bestowed by an exasperated Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who said that “arguing with Mr. Komer was like having a flamethrower aimed at the seat of one’s pants.” Komer reported back to the secretary that the Joint Chiefs’ planning was less than satisfactory; in fact, he told Brown privately, “it was very poor.”15
It was not that the generals and admiral failed to grasp the importance of the Persian Gulf. However, the military was not eager to commit resources to the Middle East, and each service had its own rationale. As far as the army was concerned, the region diverted badly needed reserves from the Cold War’s main game against the Soviets in Central Europe. In the aftermath of Vietnam, the U.S. Army had committed itself intellectually and fiscally to building conventional forces poised for a massive clash of tanks and artillery in Germany. With the large disparity in numbers between the U.S. and Soviet forces in Europe, the army’s leadership deemed it imprudent to pull troops away from the Cold War’s principal front. “U.S. forces engaged in defense of the Persian Gulf area will not be available for Europe, thus adding to the considerable risks entailed,” the Joint Chiefs collectively wrote to Brown.16 While the admirals shared some of their army brethren’s concerns about diverting ships away from the main effort against the Soviets—in their case, in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—the Persian Gulf presented considerable challenges for the U.S. Navy. Although since 1949 the United States had maintained a small show-the-flag flotilla based in Bahrain called Middle East Force, the navy had little experience operating in this remote, torrid region. The Persian Gulf lay three thousand miles from the nearest naval base. The United States had no port facilities or logistical infrastructure to support large-scale naval operations in the area.17 Additionally, and not to be underestimated, the Islamic prohibition on alcohol and its tenet to separate the sexes made most ports of call in the region rather uninviting to American sailors.18
On January 9, 1979, Secretary Brown met with the five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the chairman plus the head of each of the four services—in the “Tank,” their conference room in the Pentagon’s outer E ring. The room was just down the hall from the chairman’s executive suite, along a long corridor lined with offices occupied by senior military leadership and the chairman’s dining room. The name of the room dates back to the early days of the Joint Chiefs during World War II, when the newly formed body met in a basement room of the Public Health Service’s building on Constitution Avenue. Participants entered the Tank by stepping down a set of stairs and then passing through a narrow archway, giving the impression that one was descending into a steel-hulled tank, rather than a government conference room.
Pressured by their political masters, the Joint Chiefs presented the defense secretary with a plan developed hastily by Alexander Haig’s European Command. The idea was to dispatch U.S. troops to protect Saudi oil fields in the event of a Soviet move toward the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of the upheavals in Iran. Called Operational Plan 4230, it consisted of moving up to seven thousand men from the United States, with the first airborne troops arriving in as little as three days from their base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The plan was rudimentary at best. It required twenty days of preparation before they could even fly the first troops to Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon lacked both the aircraft and the ships to move quickly to the Gulf, and Washington had failed to lay the diplomatic groundwork with Arab countries that would be necessary to deploy American soldiers, even if Washington wanted to send them.
Brown traveled to the Middle East to assess the situation for himself. He found governments in the region on edge, nervous about the events transpiring in Iran and uncertain about the American commitment to their security. To try to assuage their fears, the Pentagon had recently deployed a squadron of F-15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia, in response to a Saudi request.19 Nevertheless, an anxious Saudi government privately pressed Brown for more concrete defense assurances.20
Brown ordered the military to take some immediate steps to strengthen the U.S. military in the Gulf.21 The Joint Chiefs answered with an imaginative scheme to conduct fifty-four separate military exercises. While many of these amounted to little more than sending a squadron of aircraft to Saudi Arabia or Oman to fly with their air forces for a week, or training on search and rescue techniques, or increasing routine naval deployments to the Gulf, it represented a significant increase in the U.S. military presence in the Gulf states. When staggered over the course of a year, these exercises were tantamount to a permanent presence of U.S. military forces within the Gulf’s Arab countries, under the guise of exercises.22
As the administration struggled to develop a new strategy, once again serious fissures developed within Carter’s foreign policy team. On March 1, 1979, the secretaries of defense and state met with the national security adviser for their weekly lunch date. The topic of the day was the Persian Gulf. Both Brzezinski and Brown favored an expansion of American bases in the area, which would serve to support a military force that could deploy rapidly to the Persian Gulf in the event of a Soviet move on Iran. But Secretary of State Cyrus Vance rejected this view. A more visible American military presence, he argued, would simply fuel anti-American sentiment, not just in Iran, but also throughout the Arab nations. The United States needed to demonstrate an interest in the welfare of the Gulf states, while at the same time keeping a low profile to avoid the perception of neocolonialism.
Two days later and one month to the day after Ayatollah Khomeini’s return, Brzezinski tried to force a decision in a top secret paper to the president. The crisis in Iran presented the West with a grave challenge, one that could spin “dangerously out of control.” When combined with the Soviet forces in Afghanistan that seemed poised to invade Pakistan or Iran, Brzezinski wrote, pro-Western Gulf Arabs lacked confidence in Washington’s ability and willingness to protect them. Brzezinski proposed a complete strategic reorientation toward the Middle East. He called for a massive expansion of military bases in the region, with forces dedicated to intervene to counter Soviet aggression, and a permanent naval presence in the Persian Gulf.23
By the end of June 1979, the chief architects of Carter’s foreign policy had sketched the outline of a new defense scheme for the Persian Gulf, called the Persian Gulf Security Framework. The strategy struck a balance between Brzezinski’s and Vance’s positions. The United States would strengthen its ties by means of bilateral agreements with pro-Western Gulf states. The agreements would provide the United States with access to military bases in and around the Gulf, and the United States would sell more weapons to Gulf Arabs to enable them to shoulder a larger burden of the defense of their oil fields. The U.S. military would position itself around the periphery of the Persian Gulf, poised to intercede directly into either the Gulf or Iran in the event of a Soviet attack. This approach respected the sensitivities of the Arabs, who wanted to work with the United States but did not necessarily want large numbers of infidels in the midst of the Arab heartland. The United States agreed to keep this strategy “low-key” and squarely out of the press while working quietly with the Gulf states to build closer military ties.24 The Defense Department focused on Oman, Somalia, Kenya, and Diego Garcia to establish their first bases. Saudi Arabia refused to allow any U.S. bases on its territory, but with a nod and a wink it secretly agreed to overbuild its airfields and military infrastructure with the tacit understanding that in the event of a real threat to the kingdom from Iran or the Soviets, the American military could use these facilities. After three years of haggling, the Pentagon would forge ahead to establish a rapid deployment force to serve as the principal intervention force for the Middle East.25
Great Britain gave permission for the use of its airfield on the tiny Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The Pentagon spent nearly $600 million over the next four years to upgrade the airfield. The State Department reached an agreement with Oman for the use of four airfields and over the next three years spent well over $200 million to upgrade these bases for the U.S. Air Force and Navy.26 One on the island of Masirah—a British Royal Air Force base since the 1930s—was particularly well situated for American requirements. The isolated island lay fifteen miles off the Omani coast in the Gulf of Oman, but sat near the Strait of Hormuz. Following the signing of a ten-year lease agreement between Washington and Muscat in 1979, the United States expanded the small runway and built a second one to accommodate combat aircraft. In addition, the Americans upgraded facilities and buildings, pre-positioning sites to accommodate twenty-six thousand troops. This base would serve as a staging base for the failed rescue operation in Iran in April 1980, and would remain a key American facility for the next two decades, including providing a base for yet another group of American special operations forces, those that went into Afghanistan in October 2001.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat quietly consented to allow U.S. forces to use his military bases. Egypt would serve as the logistics rear for U.S. forces defending the Persian Gulf and would be an important transit point in deploying troops to the Persian Gulf. Komer dispatched his deputy undersecretary of defense for policy planning, Walter Slocombe, to look at the Egyptian facilities. At age forty, Slocombe already was an experienced hand in the Democratic defense establishment, and in the coming years he would go on to serve as the number three man in President Bill Clinton’s Pentagon and would play a key role in the decision to disband the Iraqi army in May 2003 following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
After touring an airfield near Cairo, Slocombe headed down to a large, abandoned Egyptian military cantonment at Ras Banas, a peninsula jutting out into the Red Sea about three-quarters of the way down the Egyptian coast. Built before the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Israel, the facility included both a large runway and a port.27 The base was perfect, Slocombe thought. It sat astride the Saudi Red Sea ports of Jeddah and Yanbu, and would easily serve as another means to get U.S. forces into Saudi Arabia should the Soviets seize the Strait of Hormuz. It sat out of range of Soviet aircraft, and it provided an excellent base for massive U.S. B-52 bombers as well as a mustering area for a U.S. Army headed to Iran. With improvements, it could serve as a staging base for an entire American division. More important, it lay nearly two hundred miles from the nearest city, permitting the base to be built in secret. Both Secretary Brown and General Jones liked Slocombe’s idea. With congressional approval, the United States pumped more than $200 million over the next few years to upgrade the facilities, turning Ras Banas into a major hub for the U.S. military.28
The decision to establish a rapid deployment force touched off a contentious interservice squabble inside the Pentagon. No senior officer really wanted the new command, but if it was going to exist, every general or admiral wanted to control it as well as the money inevitably linked to the new mission. The army and air force proposed a three-star army general to command the rapid deployment force under the Tampa-based Readiness Command, the successor to Strike Command, whose responsibilities encompassed wartime deployment planning for army and air force units based in the United States. The army further added that it should be only a wartime headquarters, with the army-dominated European Command controlling operations in the Middle East during peacetime. Not surprisingly, the chief of naval operations, Admiral Thomas Hayward, took a different view. The rapid deployment force should be an independent force, he said, perhaps under the nominal control of Readiness Command, but with direct access to the Joint Chiefs, who would oversee military planning for the Middle East. This, the naval services hoped, would take the rapid deployment force out from under the army’s thumb and position it under the Pentagon, where the navy would have greater say in running the command. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs David Jones came down somewhere in the middle, generally supporting the air force and army, but with his penchant for micromanagement, he liked the idea of greater control over the rapid deployment force by him and the Joint Chiefs.
As the summer of 1979 waned and with the military still at loggerheads, President Carter grew exacerbated at the impasse. “Who is in charge? PACOM [Pacific Command]? EUCOM [European Command]? Or who?” the president asked Brown. The defense secretary tried to assure the president that they had made progress, but Carter would have none of it. The president scribbled in the margins of one of Brown’s memos, “I don’t see that any progress has actually been made.”29 Brown too grew weary of the endless haggling between the generals and admirals. “The rapid deployment force was to be an extension of military power,” Brown wrote to Jones, “not an excuse to justify more forces or larger budgets.”30
After months of debate, the Joint Chiefs forged a convoluted compromise. The new rapid deployment force would be a separate joint, or all-service, organization, under the command of a three-star general. The force would report to the Readiness Command and be colocated with it in Tampa. However, the command would maintain a separate liaison office in Washington to allow direct access for the command to the Joint Staff and the senior leadership at the Pentagon. While not perfect, this was good enough for Secretary Brown. Two weeks before the embassy takeover in Iran, he issued a memo to General Jones ordering the new command’s founding by March 1, 1980. While primarily intended for the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, the new rapid deployment force would be called upon for “contingencies threatening American interests anywhere in the world.”31
Tall, broad shouldered, and square jawed, Paul Xavier Kelley looked like a marine. His demeanor exuded an intense confidence. Born on Armistice Day in 1928, the fair-skinned redhead was both proud and defensive about his Irish heritage. Critics and supporters both agreed that P.X. could be emotional, and he frequently took professional criticism personally, especially if it implicated his beloved marine corps. He was a devoted family man; the only priority in his life higher than the marine corps was his wife and children. After a command in Vietnam, he served as military liaison to the Paris peace talks that ended American participation in the Vietnam War. This assignment gave Kelley his first strong dose of Washington politics and American diplomacy. The latter, at least, left him less than impressed, as he observed the shenanigans of President Nixon’s secretary of state and national security adviser Henry Kissinger.32
On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 1979, P. X. Kelley received a phone call from General Jones’s secretary asking if Kelley would meet with the chairman the next day at ten a.m. to interview as the first commander of the rapid deployment force.33 The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps had been lobbying hard to give the command to his service, and while Jones viewed this as a purely parochial move, the marine’s argument resonated throughout the defense secretary’s office.34 On Saturday morning, as Kelley prepared to drive over to the Pentagon, the chairman’s secretary called again to relay that Jones had been called to a meeting at the White House. She was not sure how long that meeting would last, but could Kelley please just stand by, and she would notify him when Jones returned?
“Well,” Kelley answered, “that all depends. You see, I’ve promised my granddaughter that I would take her to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs this afternoon, and that is one appointment I can’t miss.”
Fortunately for both the granddaughter and Kelley’s career, General Jones returned to his office at the Pentagon, and P.X. arrived around noon for an informal and affable meeting with the air force chairman. Dressed in his dark green service uniform with a panoply of ribbons on his left breast, Kelley looked as if he had come from central casting, and Jones quickly discovered that his mind matched his appearance. The chairman liked what he saw and offered command of the new rapid deployment force to the marine. As Kelley left the office, Jones said slyly, “General, enjoy Snow White.” The chairman’s secretary just grinned.
On March 1, 1980, the new command became a reality, now formally called the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) and located at MacDill Air Force Base, a sprawling air base in Tampa, Florida. The base sits on a wide peninsula about five miles south from the tall buildings that dominate downtown Tampa. The sprawling air base of pine trees and palmettos is typical U.S. Air Force, replete with an eighteen-hole golf course, a marina, and a small but quaint beach, which looks out onto the placid Tampa Bay and affords a pleasant view of the cruise ships and merchants going in and out of Tampa. Established during World War II to train new bomber pilots, the base was featured in the 1955 film Strategic Air Command, an overt piece of air force propaganda starring Jimmy Stewart.
P. X. Kelley established his headquarters in a large, square, half-buried structure next to the runway on a remote corner of the base. Numbered Building 5201, it was better known as the “molehole.” Accessible by a single mile-long road, the molehole had been built in the 1950s to serve as a ready room and command center for nuclear-armed bombers waiting for Armageddon. As of this writing, it houses the Special Operations Command that runs the secret wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
The new command took shape, despite the lethargy with the four services in filling its 250-man staff. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan fostered a crisis atmosphere in the molehole, with officers routinely working sixteen-hour days. Less than two months after the command’s formal commissioning, Kelley held the unit’s first full-scale exercise in the mountains of Idaho. A modest effort compared to those that would follow, it involved flying in a single army battalion in a simulated defense of Pakistan against a Soviet invasion. This was the first of a demanding schedule of exercises across the Middle East, the largest of which would be Bright Star in November 1980, which involved sending some sixty-five hundred American troops for twenty days to the Egyptian desert in a biennial exercise that continues to this day.35
Kelley’s staff quickly began planning for World War III in Iran. They saw two possible Russian invasion plans. One would be a quick incursion designed to seize Iranian Azerbaijan, either to support a communist coup in Tehran or to forestall the Islamic Revolution from spreading to Moscow’s own Muslim population. The second, more serious threat involved a full-scale invasion of Iran by fifteen to twenty-four divisions, with the objective of quickly seizing the Khuzestan oil fields in southwestern Iran as well as the vital choke point, the Strait of Hormuz, to cut off the oil flow to the West.36 With Iran subjugated, as one U.S. war planner surmised, “The Soviets could undertake a subsequent offense operation against the Arab nations in the region.” Soviet aircraft could destroy Saudi Arabian oil facilities and cut the flow of crude to the West. Red Army tanks would be poised to threaten Turkey and the southern flank of NATO. U.S. military planners worried that the Soviets might try a lightning attack, using airborne troops to seize the Strait of Hormuz, perhaps even parachuting down on the Saudi oil fields and conquering the kingdom in a coup de main.
These American fears had an air of absurdity. Even if Moscow committed all its army coupled with extensive support from regional surrogates such as Iraq and Syria, Moscow would face a monumental task in conquering Iran, let alone the entire Middle East. The idea that the Red Army could sustain hundreds of thousands of soldiers with bullets, beans, and benzene over a thousand-mile-long supply route that ran over Iran’s formidable Zagros Mountains seems ridiculous in hindsight, especially in light of its military’s poor performance in Afghanistan. But in the panic that gripped Washington following the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, no one in either political party questioned the reality of their anxiety, especially in an election year and in an administration already lambasted for being soft on defense.
Kelley’s war plans for Iran hinged on support from the Gulf Arabs.37 American troops and airplanes would muster in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain, both to safeguard their oil facilities and to serve as a staging base for a subsequent move directly into Iran. The U.S. Marines, backed up by naval carrier airplanes, would storm the beaches around Bandar Abbas, seizing the port and airfield and securing the Strait of Hormuz and Kharg Island, the latter location from which 96 percent of Iran’s oil exports flowed.38 Once the sea-lanes into the Persian Gulf were secure, three U.S. Army divisions would seize the northern Gulf port of Bushehr and then move inland to take the strategically positioned Iranian city of Shiraz at the foothills of the Zagros, and block Soviet forces moving south through the mountains, safeguarding both the Khuzestan oil fields and the Persian Gulf.39 Depending on what happened in Europe at the same time, as many as two hundred thousand servicemen and -women were allocated to the Iran invasion.40
Time became the critical watchword for American planners. The Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, estimated that it could provide only seven days’ advance notice of a limited incursion, and perhaps three weeks’ warning for a full-scale invasion. But the United States could muster only about thirty-five thousand army airborne soldiers and marines to the Gulf within the first three weeks, and planners both in Tampa and at the Pentagon predicted it would take thirty days to move any sizable number of combat forces to the Gulf. Under the best of conditions, time was not on Kelley’s side in the race for Iran.41
However, Kelley had an ace in his deck of cards to buy time and halt the Soviet advance into Iran: nuclear weapons. The United States never shied away from planning to use nuclear weapons to defend Persian Gulf oil. Washington did hesitate to nuke the Soviet Union proper out of concern that such a move would lead to a full-scale nuclear war, one U.S. planners in 1982 surmised would kill 50 to 75 percent of the U.S. population. But Soviet troops inside Iran were seen as fair game. If the Red Army were poised to win the race for the Strait of Hormuz, tactical nuclear weapons would be the force of choice to stop them.42
The United States started from a distinct disadvantage in the nuclear balance in the Middle East. The Soviets arrayed a massive arsenal of strategic weapons toward the Persian Gulf, capable of devastating the area’s military bases, ports, and refineries and oil fields. Embedded within their armor and mechanized divisions were 152 tactical mobile rockets designed to carry nuclear warheads, as well as nearly 300 nuclear artillery shells. Larger ballistic missiles based in the southern Soviet Caucasus could easily reach any corner of the Middle East. Backing this arsenal were 283 aircraft capable of dropping nuclear bombs with a destructive power that dwarfed Hiroshima. U.S. intelligence detected nuclear storage bunkers at four Soviet airfields alone just to support an invasion of Iran.
In December 1980, Undersecretary Komer released a study on the potential use of nuclear weapons to defend the Persian Gulf. The first objective remained, Komer said, to deter Soviet aggression in Iran. But if deterrence failed, the use of nuclear weapons would signal to Moscow the American resolve to defend the Gulf. Komer approved three options for employing nuclear weapons against the Soviets in Iran. The first two options used nuclear weapons only within Iran, with the objective to block Soviet forces by destroying the mountain passes on the Iran-Soviet border and the Zagros Mountains, which would impede Moscow’s movements southward toward the Gulf. If Soviet troops were already in Iran, American bombers would hit Soviet rear echelon units entering Iran, while the U.S. Army’s tactical artillery nukes would devastate frontline ground forces attacking U.S. forces. The third option expanded American nuclear attacks to bases and nuclear missile sites in the southern Soviet Union, striking Soviet nuclear headquarters, logistics bases, and conventional forces. The goal, a Pentagon plan summarized, would be to destroy Moscow’s ability to “sustain military operations in Iran.”
Komer’s preference for nuclear weapons in Iran was, in the best Dr. Strangeloveian speak, known as the “passive option.” U.S. Special Forces would detonate nuclear devices in key mountain passes, tunnels, and roads into western Iran from the Soviet Union. The resulting nuclear detonation would collapse mountains and spawn avalanches, and thus prevent Soviet tanks from moving into Iran. Because time was the Achilles’ heel of the U.S. rapid deployment force, Komer’s study noted, “Closing the passes in front of the initial invasion would significantly impede a Red Army advance, and, if the Soviets did not respond in kind, could provide additional time for the U.S. to deploy forces.” Furthermore, it had the added advantage of not directly targeting Soviet troops, which otherwise might lead to rapid escalation in a nuclear war. The Pentagon allocated over twenty atomic demolition munitions for this task in Iran. Popularly referred to as “manpack nukes,” they had been in the U.S. inventory since the 1950s. Each device weighed less than 163 pounds and easily could be parachuted or clandestinely smuggled in by a small special forces team. The small nukes were to be buried and set with a variable yield, which could create either a relatively small explosion to destroy a large tunnel or a massive detonation to collapse an entire mountain pass.43
The one downside, Komer noted, was that this strategy necessitated the first use of nuclear weapons. This preemptive use of nuclear weapons “bears the risk of uncontrolled escalation,” he wrote. Even with the “passive option,” the Soviets might respond in kind and obliterate the ports of Bushehr and Bandar Abbas to deny them to arriving American forces. But neither the Joint Chiefs nor Komer viewed this response as particularly bad. In the harsh calculations of the Cold War, Komer wrote, “the net effect could be, at least in the short-term, to produce a militarily neutral situation with respect to U.S.-USSR ground forces.” If neither side could get into Iran, the United States would still achieve its goal of safeguarding the oil fields. No one reflected on how the Iranians might view such a scenario.
The political winds did not blow in President Jimmy Carter’s favor in November 1980. The voters tossed the Democrats out in a hurricane that came in the form of Ronald Reagan, who won forty-four of the fifty states in an electoral landslide. Implementing the Carter Doctrine would fall to his successor. But Carter’s State of the Union speech on that cold January night had put into motion an important new American strategy for the Middle East. After floundering through one Middle East crisis after another, in his final year in office President Carter’s fractured foreign policy team finally coalesced around a new plan to defend Middle East oil.
In his last month in office, Carter continued to modify his Middle East strategy. On January 7, the president signed a secret directive staking out the American policy of freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. Specifically, Carter authorized the Pentagon to use force to prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz to oil exports. Just five days before leaving office, Carter signed his last directive laying out Brzezinski’s Persian Gulf security framework. Written largely for the new administration, it encapsulated the decisions hashed out over the previous year. Carter had set down a marker: the United States would use force to prevent Iran from hindering the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.44 The U.S. government moved to develop closer military ties with the pro-Western Arab states ringing Iran and reached tacit agreements to facilitate the operations of America’s new military limb designed specifically to intervene in the Middle East. The first military plans had been refined to combat the Soviets. While Reagan’s supporters touted the dawn of a new, firmer stance against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, in fact it had been Jimmy Carter who laid the foundation for American grand strategy for the next decade.45
On January 20, 1981, the day Ronald Wilson Reagan became the fortieth president of the United States, Jimmy Carter spent much of his last morning in office finalizing the release of the American hostages in Iran. It was a bittersweet day for Carter; the new president had already taken the oath by the time the hostages departed Tehran airport for their flight to Algeria and freedom.
At sixty-nine, Reagan was the oldest man ever elected president. Despite the creases of age showing in his long face, he was as energetic and vernal as his jet-black hair indicated. Perennially upbeat, he rarely displayed anger. The new commander in chief had a strong sense of right and wrong. Reagan famously avoided the intricacies of policy particulars. Instead, he provided an unwavering broad world vision: the moral righteousness of the free world’s confrontation with an expansionistic evil Soviet empire.
Reagan hated personal confrontations, sought to avoid face-to-face disagreements, and tended to defer unpleasant decisions, especially if they involved his longtime acquaintances serving in the administration. While this made for genial staff meetings, it also resulted in important national security sessions adjourning without anyone having the foggiest idea of what the president had actually decided.
At first appearance, the new president stood in stark contrast to his predecessor. Carter came across as a scolding headmaster; Reagan appeared winsome. Where Carter delved into the nuances of policy, Reagan remained a generalist, aloof from the sausage making. Carter had a clear view of the way forward in the Middle East with the Arab-Israeli peace process and the rapid deployment force; Reagan came to office with no firm convictions. Carter had been slow to recognize the threat posed by Soviet adventurism in the Middle East; Reagan came to the Oval Office determined to confront Soviet expansion.
U.S. Marine Corps commandant General Robert Barrow liked the new president. A tall, courtly Southern gentleman from Louisiana, Barrow had won the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest military medal, as a company commander during the epic retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Although he had considerable respect for the intellect of Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Barrow harbored misgivings about many of Carter’s defense policies, which he thought had left America weak and vulnerable to the Soviet Union. The yearlong trauma of the hostage crisis and the debacle of the failed rescue mission only added to Barrow’s melancholy. Reagan’s campaign promise to increase defense spending came as a welcome balm, soothing the anxieties of Barrow and many of his fellow generals.
During the marine commandant’s first meeting with Reagan on the reviewing stand during the inaugural parade, a military formation carrying the American flag passed by. The president turned to Barrow and asked if it would be okay if he returned their salute even though he was a civilian.1
“Yes, sir. You’re the commander in chief, Mr. President,” Barrow answered in his Louisiana drawl. Reagan did so, establishing a precedent that continues to this day.
The political appointees who comprised the new Republican administration arrived distrustful of any holdover from the Carter years. During the transition, they showed little interest in being briefed on Carter’s defense initiatives and displayed open disdain for anyone who had gone along with Carter’s perceived weak-kneed policies against Iran and the Soviet Union. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General David Jones, bore the brunt of the new civilian team’s disrespect. The Republicans believed he had been too willing to go along with Carter’s policies, such as giving up American control over the Panama Canal and cuts in defense programs such as the B-1 bomber. President Reagan considered firing Jones, who still had a year left in his term as chairman. But the president decided against it, concerned that it would set a bad precedent. Reagan’s solution was simply to cut the chairman out of any serious deliberations until he could appoint a general more to his liking. For the first year of his presidency, Reagan refused to go to the Pentagon and meet with the Joint Chiefs. It was an exceptional snub, and one that left no illusions in Washington about what the new administration thought of those in uniform who had worked for Carter’s Defense Department. It had no less a political impact on the military than if Reagan had replaced Jones.2
In June 1982, David Jones retired on schedule, and Reagan appointed Army General John “Jack” Vessey as the new senior military adviser. Unpretentious, Vessey was a muddy-boots soldier. He had risen through the ranks, having received a battlefield commission at the bloody battle of Anzio in Italy during the Second World War. Lean with graying hair, the new chairman was a religious man. Contemporaries never viewed Vessey as an intellect, but he was respected within the military and had the deserved reputation as being both honest and apolitical, both traits that appealed to President Reagan. For Vessey, war was not an academic exercise. Having experienced combat up close in three wars, he remained reticent about risking young men’s lives. Military force, Vessey believed, should be the option of last resort.
While they were loath to admit it, the Reagan foreign policy team continued many of Carter’s Persian Gulf defense policies. Early in the administration, the Joint Staff produced a new study on additional construction for U.S. forces from Morocco to Somalia that reflected Carter’s conclusions. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger liked it, and the Reagan administration pushed through an additional $700 million for base construction in the Middle East to support the rapid deployment force.3
On September 30, 1981, Reagan’s national security team met in the Cabinet Room, next to the Oval Office, to finalize a decision directive for the president’s signature outlining the administration’s approach toward Iran. The release of the hostages had not led to improved relations between Tehran and Washington. That would depend, National Security Adviser Richard Allen wrote to the secretary of defense, on “Iran’s willingness to demonstrate by specific action its restored respect for international law and civilized usage.”4 This new policy document reiterated the importance of preventing Soviet domination of Iran’s oil and laid out steps to increase intelligence gathering inside Iran, prevent the expansion of the Islamic Revolution, and cultivate pro-Western moderates within the Iranian government.5 These remained the cornerstones of American policy toward Iran for the next eight years of Reagan’s presidency.
Caspar Weinberger, the new secretary of defense, was a slight, impeccably dressed, affable bulldog. The California native was a close political and personal friend of Reagan’s as well as a Republican stalwart, having served as President Nixon’s budget director and secretary of health, education, and welfare. Unlike his immediate predecessors as defense secretary, “Cap,” as most within the Reagan White House called him, had seen war. He’d served in the Pacific during the Second World War as an infantry officer and later as an intelligence officer on MacArthur’s staff. Weinberger’s brief military service affected his outlook in his new role.
When Weinberger arrived in his Pentagon office on the third-floor outer E ring, he immediately removed a large formal portrait of dour-looking James Forrestal, the first secretary of defense, who’d suffered from depression and committed suicide by throwing himself out a top window in the imposing tower at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Weinberger replaced it with a more uplifting four-hundred-year-old Titian painting of a Catholic cardinal bestowing his beneficence upon an abbot, a colorful piece that the new secretary found soothing. Two bronze busts adorned his expansive office, one of Weinberger’s wartime boss Douglas MacArthur, and the other of an infantryman. “I also wanted to make it clear that our administration was not worried about being too militaristic,” Weinberger later wrote.6
In policy, Weinberger was a cautious man. He viewed military force as a last resort and not a first. “He liked to have the power, but did not really want to use it,” remarked noted military historian Steven Rearden. Weinberger’s philosophy was best summed up in a speech he gave at a luncheon held November 28, 1984, at the National Press Club, just down the street from the White House. In what became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, the defense secretary outlined a series of criteria for committing the U.S. military to combat: only for vital national interests, with clearly defined goals for victory, and only if supported by the American people.
This view reflected the beliefs of those the secretary surrounded himself with, especially his two most important confidants, his senior military assistant, Major General Colin Powell, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage.7
Powell had impressed Weinberger from when he’d briefly served under him as a White House Fellow during the Ford administration. Powell was easy to like. He displayed many of the best traits of an army leader: smart, precise in his verbiage, with an infectious smile and a good sense of humor. Powell inspired loyalty and respect from superiors and subordinates alike. But Colin Powell could never be described as a muddy-boots soldier. The consummate political general and Beltway insider, he stood in sharp contrast to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Vessey. Powell had first arrived in Washington as a midgrade officer in September 1969, and with the exception of obligatory short command tours needed to check the box for promotion, he’d never left. By the time he took the job as Weinberger’s senior military assistant, he’d already had nearly a decade under his belt of working the corridors of the Pentagon, including the same billet as military assistant for the number two man in the Defense Department during the Carter administration.
In many ways Richard Armitage was an anomaly in Washington. In a city of smooth politicians, lobbyists, and lawyers, Armitage had been formed from a different mold. A former navy officer, he’d served multiple tours in Vietnam. An avid weight lifter, he trekked every day down to the Pentagon Officers Athletic Club, or POAC, a dingy maze that sufficed as the Pentagon’s gym. Here Armitage, then in his forties, routinely bench-pressed more weight than most of the far younger servicemen. Direct, blunt, and unpretentious in manner, balding and barrel-chested, he resembled Uncle Fester on the TV show The Addams Family, with the exception of his bright blue eyes that revealed a quick mind and an unlimited reservoir of energy. He was a close confidant of Weinberger’s and arguably the most influential man in the Pentagon. “If you wanted something done,” said one four-star general at the time, “you went through Rich.”
On his first day as the new defense secretary, Weinberger found a letter on his desk from General Volney Warner. The army general had drafted a series of recommendations intended to pull under Warner’s command both Paul X. Kelley’s rapid deployment headquarters and the elite counterterrorism headquarters known as Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.8 Weinberger had followed the contorted history of the rapid deployment force. He found the idea of a major land war in Iran unrealistic and sided with those who believed that what the military needed was not an interventionist force for the Middle East, but a deterrent capability. However, he faced the same dilemma as Secretary Brown: the military remained hopelessly divided on how to deal with Iran and the Middle East.
Weinberger’s brief military experience had taught him about the dangers of unit boundaries, the problems presented where two friendly units came together. “I had seen some of the difficulties where boundaries of command came together,” Weinberger said. “The enemy tried to exploit these seams between our units.” In the Middle East, Weinberger noted, you had just such a boundary between two massive four-star commands—European Command and Pacific Command—running through the most volatile region in the world. In Weinberger’s mind, the rapid deployment force only compounded the problem about who was really in charge in the event of a war in the Middle East. “We need one man in charge over the whole area,” Weinberger thought. The letter from Warner spurred him to action.
In early April 1981, Weinberger met in the Tank with the Joint Chiefs to discuss the future of the rapid deployment force. Not one of the five flag officers present supported retaining the organization. “Operations in the Persian Gulf would extend the two fleets enormously,” Weinberger recalled of the chief of naval operations’ views.9 Caspar Weinberger brushed aside the opinions of both the Joint Chiefs and Volney Warner and sided with P. X. Kelley. The secretary ordered the rapid deployment force into a new four-star headquarters. This would be a new unified command, as the Pentagon termed it, and would control all U.S. military forces, regardless of service, throughout the Middle East.
The defense secretary’s decision only added to the polemical discussions by the five gray-haired gentlemen in the Tank. They wrangled over what units to assign to the command and which countries should be included (Egypt and Israel being the major bones of contention). Even the name of the new four-star headquarters occupied a staggering amount of mental energy on the part of the Pentagon’s leadership. One suggestion was Crescent Command. Someone else proposed Commander in Chief, Middle East, Africa, Southwest Asia, shorted to the acronym CINCMEAFSWA. Kelley’s replacement at the rapid deployment force, Lieutenant General Robert Kingston, recommended the name United States Central Command, as it had a ring of significance. However, the Joint Chiefs did not like this name, as it was unclear to them what the command was central in relation to. They countered with Southwest Asia Command. But others within the bureaucracy objected to this on the grounds that it sounded too much like an interventionist force, which of course was the command’s raison d’être. At one point, one of Weinberger’s military assistants wrote to the secretary, “I did hear someone mention WEINLUCCICOM but I don’t understand what the letters stand for.”10 And so it continued, month after month.
Gentle prodding by the president finally broke the gridlock. Ronald Reagan understood the havoc Iran wreaked upon his predecessor, and the president took an unusually keen interest in the formation of a military command for the Middle East. “I endorse it with enthusiasm,” Reagan wrote to Weinberger upon hearing of his decision to form a four-star Middle East headquarters: “I have long felt that the importance of this region is such that we need the optimal command arrangements possible, and this means a separate command. I approve your decision and I look forward to the specifics of your implementation plan.” When a year had passed with no new command established, the president sent a polite yet firm reminder to Weinberger to update him on the specifics of the new command. The president put the Pentagon on notice to get on with business.11 It worked.
The Pentagon quickly finalized the details of the new Middle East command in spite of a last-minute effort by the navy to kill the initiative backed by the head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Alaska senator Ted Stevens.12 Weinberger approved standing up U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, as the military abbreviated it. CENTCOM’s area of responsibility spanned nineteen countries, from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east to Kenya in the south. Most of the forces assigned came from those already under the rapid deployment force, with both the army and air force establishing subordinate headquarters to support CENTCOM. The army reactivated the famed Third Army to command its divisions for the Middle East, which General George Patton had commanded in Western Europe as the spearhead of American armored forces in Europe during the Second World War.13 In order to smooth the concerns by General Barrow over control of CENTCOM, General Vessey implemented a tacit agreement that CENTCOM’s commander would alternate between the army and the marines. The understanding held for the next twenty years, until 2003, when pressures related to the troubled U.S. occupation in Iraq led to successive army commanders.
Weinberger’s decision ended General Volney Warner’s career. He turned down another major command in Europe and wrote to Weinberger that since “I no longer enjoy the support and confidence of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, request that I be relieved of my duties.” Weinberger concurred. An embittered Volney Warner penned a five-page letter to President Reagan blasting Weinberger’s decision and the parochial and ineffectual Joint Chiefs.14 Warner refused a retirement parade. Instead, he and some close comrades parachuted from a plane at Fort Bragg, where a keg of beer awaited the skydivers in the landing zone. “It was the way I wanted to go, with a few friends and a few beers.”15
The decision to form CENTCOM received a warm reception from the pro-Western Arabs. Just after sunset on the afternoon of December 16, 1982, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the affable and shrewd Saudi ambassador to Washington, arrived in Weinberger’s office to relay a message from the Saudi monarch. “King Fahd was one hundred percent in support of the newly created U.S. Central Command and saw it as a good move, one that sent the right signal to the Soviets,” the prince said. CENTCOM made Moscow very uneasy, Bandar added, mentioning that the Soviets had tried to convince Saudi Arabia that this was merely an American vehicle to take over the region. The king rejected this argument and stood firmly behind American goals in the Persian Gulf, Bandar told the secretary.
In typical Saudi style, however, Bandar ended the meeting with a straightforward pronouncement that his government would have to makepublic statements distancing itself from CENTCOM, but Weinberger should not pay any attention to those statements. Weinberger understood and nodded in agreement, and the meeting adjourned with a hearty laugh as the two men reflected on the duplicity that permeated the Middle East.16
The one notable Middle East country unhappy with America’s new defense scheme was Washington’s most stalwart ally in the region, Israel. The Jewish state worried about the ramifications of an American military command dedicated solely to the support of the Arabs, and hoped that closer military ties would strengthen the relationship between the two countries. Israel pushed forcefully for inclusion in the American defense plans for the Middle East. Knowing full well the hawkish Cold War views of the new civilian leaders in Washington, the Israeli government emphasized the Soviet hand in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Just a month after the inauguration, the Israeli foreign minister showed up in a Pentagon conference room to meet with Secretary Weinberger. Yitzhak Shamir repeatedly stressed to Weinberger that the Soviet Union created most of the region’s instability. “The PLO is a terrorist organization that works directly for the Soviet Union,” Shamir said forcefully, if not entirely truthfully, to Weinberger during one of their first meetings. Prime Minister Menachem Begin would repeat this mantra in his first meeting with Reagan in the Oval Office. He saw little difference between Soviet client states in the Middle East and those of the Warsaw Pact in Europe. He offered the use of Israeli air bases and ports, even going so far as to commit the Israeli air force to fly for the U.S. military over the Persian Gulf. In return, he wanted the United States to essentially scrap its recent agreements with Arabs supporting the rapid deployment force. Begin singled out Iraq as the key enemy for Israel, and by inference the United States, due to its large conventional military and budding nuclear program. That Israel’s anxiety over the military might of Iraq had little to do with the Cold War was omitted from the talking points, but the prime minister’s forceful advocacy for Israel as a Cold War asset to Washington affected American officials.17
Alexander Haig, now secretary of state in the Reagan administration, never needed convincing; he already viewed the Middle East through a Cold War lens and was an ardent supporter of Israel. Both he and Reagan believed that Israel should be included in CENTCOM, an opinion initially shared by Weinberger too.
However, both the Joint Chiefs and the civilians in the Defense Department swayed Weinberger to recommend against it. The Joint Chiefs believed that Israel lay too far from the Persian Gulf and that including Israel would jeopardize the important basing agreements with the Arab nations.18 The senior civilian responsible for military issues apart from the Soviet Union was a marine Vietnam veteran, Bing West. He warned Weinberger that Reagan was under the undue influence of a pro-Israeli staffer on the National Security Council, or NSC, and that this was why he wanted the Jewish state included in CENTCOM.
This insinuation greatly irritated Weinberger. “He’s the president,” the secretary responded to West. “Whose advice he consulted before making a decision is irrelevant.”
After meeting with the Joint Chiefs in the Tank on May 25, 1982, however, Weinberger reversed his position and wrote to Reagan recommending excluding Israel, Lebanon, and Syria from the new Middle East command out of deference to Arab sensibilities. “I do not entirely share this view, but we can always change it if need be,” Weinberger wrote.19
The replacement for P. X. Kelley and the first commander of CENTCOM was Robert “Barbed-Wire Bob” Kingston. Tall and thin, with a stern demeanor and explosive temper, Kingston was all about the business of war. “He had a gaze that said, ‘Don’t fuck with me,’” remarked Jay Hines, the longtime civilian historian at CENTCOM. He’d earned his moniker when he strung concertina wire around his command post to keep soldiers from walking on the grass. While no great strategic thinker, Kingston was a warrior, gifted with the natural ability to lead men in combat. As a young lieutenant during the Korean War, he’d led a hundred-man force up to the frozen bank of the Yalu River on the Chinese border and had repeatedly distinguished himself during the American army’s chaotic flight south following the Chinese intervention in November 1950.
Kingston had a long association with the CIA. After his first tour in Korea, he moved over to a joint military-CIA paramilitary organization that infiltrated South Korean agents into the north and conducted raids from submarines, blowing up trains and bridges deep behind North Korean lines. Kingston was one of the few Americans to go ashore with the Korean operatives on sabotage missions. “At the time, I thought it was great fun,” Kingston later said.20 After Korea, Kingston became one of the few military officers to be run through the CIA’s case officers’ course, which trained CIA officers to handle foreign agents. In the spring of 1967 Kingston took command of OP-34, a highly sensitive mission that sent teams of South Vietnamese agents into North Vietnam to try to organize an insurgency against the communist government. Begun by the CIA in the early 1960s, the military took over responsibility in 1964.
Shortly after his arrival, Kingston suspected the entire operation had been compromised. Of the five hundred agents dropped into the north, all had been killed or turned out to be double agents working for the communists. Kingston gave the bad news to his boss, Colonel John Singlaub—himself a legendary former Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agent who had parachuted into France before D-Day—in his usual blunt manner: “What do you want to tell Ho Chi Minh? Your teams are double agents and I can send Ho the message through them.”21
Kingston maintained his CIA contacts after arriving in Tampa as the new commander. He became a frequent visitor to its headquarters in Langley, Virginia.22 Kingston had a knack for obtaining raw CIA intelligence outside of the normal channels. This provided Kingston with unique information not normally available to a four-star general, and it eventually caught the attention of Deputy CIA Director Robert Gates, who ordered this back channel closed. Gates directed that only approved intelligence documents be given to CENTCOM, through the conventional channel of the Defense Intelligence Agency.23
The plan Kingston inherited from Kelley to defend Iran from the Soviets rested on the Zagros Mountains strategy. Now labeled Operations Plan (OPLAN) 1004, this rested on long-standing Cold War fears of a Soviet invasion of Iran that would threaten Western access to Middle East oil. It called for the deployment of four U.S. divisions and three aircraft carriers, first to secure the sea-lanes out of the Persian Gulf, and then to land troops at Bandar Abbas at the Strait of Hormuz as well as at the northern end of the Gulf near Abadan. From there, the Americans would advance northeast into the Persian interior, intent on establishing a defense line along the Zagros, a massive, jagged mountain range with many peaks in excess of ten thousand feet stretching from northeastern Iraq near Kurdistan then southeast and ending near the Strait of Hormuz.
As Kingston looked at revising the Iran plan, the one glaring weakness was how the Islamic Republic would react to a crisis between the superpowers. If the Soviet Union unilaterally invaded Iran, perhaps to support a pro-Soviet coup, Kingston concluded that Khomeini might set aside his hatred for the United States and cooperate with the U.S. military. A cooperative or at least passive Iran would immensely improve the U.S. military’s chances of success. CENTCOM hoped to work with the Iranian military and use it to defend the Khuzestan oil fields in southwestern Iran, which might alleviate Iranian concerns that the United States just wanted to seize the country’s oil.24
In August 1983, however, the intelligence agencies reassessed their assumptions about Iran’s placidity should the U.S. military arrive ostensibly to protect them against the communists. Iran, DIA analysts concluded, disliked the Americans as much as it did the Soviets and would be likely to resist both with equal vigor. A CIA assessment came to the same conclusion, noting that the Iranian government worried about a secret desire by the superpowers to repeat World War II and divide Iran: “Fear of superpower collusion to divide Iran into separate spheres of influence has been infused in the Iranian people by Khomeini and his clerical infrastructure.” If the Soviets staged a coup and installed a puppet government, as they had in Afghanistan, CENTCOM’s intervention would encounter stiff resistance. Iran would be convinced that Washington and Moscow were colluding to overthrow the Islamic Republic. CENTCOM would have to fight its way into Iran even before locking horns with the Red Army.25
Kingston revised his plans to reflect this reality. The U.S. military would now wait until after the Soviets first crossed the border into Iran. With the bulk of the Iranian army moving north to meet the Red Army, this would allow the marines and soldiers to seize the ports of Bushehr and Bandar Abbas without much opposition. More important, by waiting until Moscow struck first, CENTCOM planners surmised, the Iranians would be far more willing to cooperate with the U.S. military to counter an invasion by the communists.26
Kingston’s extensive background in covert operations was reflected in his belief that CENTCOM needed to develop an underground organization in Iran. If the proper arrangements could be made with the Iranian military, Kingston hoped to grease the skids for arrival of American troops and help organize Iranian resistance to the Soviets. Kingston looked to NATO plans as the model. In the event of war in Central Europe, the Pentagon intended to insert small teams of special forces behind the Soviet lines in Eastern Europe to execute direct action missions, blowing up bridges and attacking important targets deep in the enemy rear, and to conduct unconventional warfare operations, which entailed working with anti-Soviet guerrilla forces to foment a revolution within these less than enthusiastic members of the Warsaw Pact.27 To support this plan, the U.S. Army had secretly hidden caches of weapons and explosives throughout Eastern Europe.
Kingston developed an aggressive special operations forces plan for Iran. He formed a new, close-hold headquarters in Tampa called the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force, commanded by an army brigadier general. It would control the large contingent of several thousand Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and air force planes and helicopters that would conduct clandestine operations in Iran. The U.S. Army’s 5th Special Forces Group, specially trained for the Middle East with linguists in Farsi and Arabic, would fly in and establish its headquarters at Seeb, Oman. Its three battalions would then be dispatched to Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.28 Even before hostilities began, they would secretly fly into Iran and deploy near the mountain passes in its northwestern regions along the likely avenues of invasion for Soviet troops. There they would destroy select roads, bridges, and rail lines to hinder the Soviet advance. Meanwhile, other soldiers would make contact with Iranian resistance forces and begin to organize a guerrilla army behind the Russian lines.
Should Iran resist the Americans, Navy SEALs would quickly seize the important ports of Bandar Abbas and Bushehr and kill the defenders before they had time to organize any coherent defense. U.S. Marines or elite Army Rangers would then be hastily flown in to secure the port, a critical link in the support of the larger follow-on force of tank divisions.
Located in an unobtrusive compound outside of Washington, D.C., was one of the most closely guarded “black” units in the U.S. Army: the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA). Established in March 1981, ISA owed its creation to the Iranian hostage crisis and the subsequent failed rescue mission. The new organization would serve as a fusion group for tactical human, signals, and electronic intelligence to support special forces units. ISA’s first years were marked by some highly questionable actions. It provided financial and intelligence support for former Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel, and later fringe presidential candidate, James “Bo” Gritz in his fantastical schemes to rescue American prisoners of war supposedly left in Laos after the Vietnam War. In response, in 1982 Deputy Secretary Frank Carlucci temporarily suspended all ISA operations, noting in a memo for the undersecretary of defense for policy, Fred Iklé, that he found the organization’s excesses “disturbing in the extreme.” The next year Weinberger issued a new charter for ISA, placing it under tight reins under a command in Fort Bragg, and the organization soon put its past behind it, developing into one of the premier units in the U.S. military. By 1987, ISA, under the command of Colonel John Lackey III, swelled to nearly four hundred people, with distinct clandestine operations, signal collection, and communications squadrons.29
In 1983 Lieutenant General William Odom, the senior army intelligence officer, or G-2, tasked ISA with developing conduits and recruiting agents in Iran to support CENTCOM. Thin and with horn-rimmed glasses, Odom was a scholar-soldier. An expert on the Soviet Union with master’s and doctorate degrees from Columbia University, he’d risen to prominence as the military assistant to Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Odom thought that what Kingston needed were Iranian agents at a lower level who could actually help get U.S. troops into Iran—agents with detailed knowledge of roads who could tell you, for example, how much weight a specific bridge could hold.
“I’d like to have taxicab companies, trucking companies, hotel managers,” Odom said later, “recruits at a lower level but someone who could meet you at the airport and get forces quickly into the country.” With the support of the chief of staff of the army, General Shy Meyer, Odom elevated the priority level for human intelligence in Iran for ISA so it was second in priority only to spying against the Soviets in Europe.30
Working closely with the small group of officers under Kingston in Tampa, ISA formed two special detachments focused on Iran. Detachment E operated undercover out of the nine-story I.G. Farben building in Frankfurt, West Germany. The 1930s structure housed the U.S. Army’s V Corps headquarters as well as the military’s counterintelligence and clandestine operations for Europe and the Middle East. That detachment targeted exile and resistance groups within Iran, and soon expanded to establish another office in Pakistan from which it controlled operations and agents inside Iran proper.31 Detachment L, in the United States, worked out in the open to cultivate former Iranian military officers who would contact old friends and colleagues still in Iran who could obtain firsthand information on the state of the Iranian military.
ISA was less successful in cultivating the disparate ethnic and separatist groups within Iran, especially the Kurds in the northwestern regions. Odom believed they would be a natural ally for the United States and might even provide an alternative safe haven for U.S. Special Operations Forces. “We had access to the Kurds,” one U.S. Army intelligence officer later said, “but neither the Turks nor the Iraqis wanted the U.S. to stir up any separatist movements with the Kurds—unless they controlled it—for fear it might spread to their own countries.”
Odom’s staff dusted off an old defense plan, code-named Armish-Maag, that the 10th Special Forces Group had developed for the shah to defend Iran from a Soviet invasion. It contained detailed targeting data on the tunnels and the mountain passes leading into northern Iran from Soviet Azerbaijan. The shah’s army had used this information to pre-position materials to destroy bridges and tunnels. One of the Iranians now working for ISA confirmed that the explosives had been removed, but the predrilled holes along bridge pilings and tunnel entrances remained. Armed with this information, Army Special Forces would only have to replace the explosives so as to quickly close many of the important roads needed by the Soviet Union to invade Iran. It saved years in research, an army analyst later acknowledged.
However, ISA drew the ire of the CIA. The CIA had legal responsibility for all recruitment of agents during peacetime and viewed the ISA officers as amateurs. Howard Hart, an experienced CIA operative who’d organized the initial effort to arm the mujahideen in Afghanistan and later ran the CIA’s Special Activities Division, which controlled all the paramilitary forces, believed that the military lacked the subtlety for sensitive operations. “The military men are patriots, but in general when it comes to paramilitary operations and spying, they are well-intentioned amateurs. When the military sends someone undercover into Iran disguised as a Middle East businessman, they seem to look like a guy pretending to be a businessman. When CIA sends one in, he is a Middle Eastern businessman.”32 At the time, the U.S. military’s view of the CIA was just as jaded. A senior U.S. military officer who spent two decades working with the CIA used a common military acronym related to commanders or headquarters, C2, which stands for “command and control,” when he noted that in the CIA, C2 stands for “control and credit.”
Even though ISA had to coordinate all its operations with Langley, the CIA viewed the military unit as a liability that was intruding on its turf. Odom knew that Langley wanted ISA shut down, and some of his officers accused CIA of distorting ISA’s problems and of leaking the damaging information to Congress in 1982 that had nearly led to the organization’s disbandment. According to Odom, the CIA undermined the Pentagon’s Iranian operation. The CIA station chief in Pakistan invited the ISA army officer in charge of Iranian operations to a diplomatic cocktail party in Islamabad. He made a point of staying close to the officer and loudly proclaimed that the two men worked together. As the station chief operated out in the open, the officer’s public association with him destroyed his cover and forced him to leave the country. His departure halted the army’s recruitment in Pakistan. This petty move by the CIA infuriated senior officials within the Pentagon, Weinberger included.33
The Reagan administration came to office convinced that the machinations of Soviet adventurism caused most of America’s national security problems.34 The Arab-Israeli confrontation was seen largely through the prism of the Cold War: the American-backed Israelis were pitted against the Soviet client states of Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Kingston and ISA had developed a clandestine spy organization in Iran whose mission focused solely on confronting the Soviet Union and not the Islamic Republic. This unitarian view downplayed both historical and regional causes behind the steady stream of conflicts that had dominated the region since the Second World War. The Iranian Revolution did not fit neatly into ISA’s worldview, to put it mildly. Only slowly did Washington replace this myopic view and begin to realize that Iran itself, and not the Soviet Union, represented the real challenge to American control over the Persian Gulf.
A DEN OF SPIES
William Casey was sixty-eight when Ronald Reagan appointed him to run America’s principal spy organization. The new director of central intelligence did not radiate a James Bond aura; in fact, he resembled a superannuated college professor. He shuffled more than walked; bald, with pronounced jowls, the once tall New Yorker was now stooped with age. He mumbled, at times to the point of incoherence, a trait that seemed to worsen when he testified before Congress, an institution he generally disdained. His clothes were rumpled and flecks of food stained his jacket and tie, complementing a heavy coat of white dandruff. Eating across from William Casey, contemporaries noted, was not for the fainthearted.
Despite his visible aging, Casey retained a keen mind. A voracious reader and astute student of history, he roamed Washington’s bookstores for material, especially on the Soviet Union, often buying stacks of books in a single outing. During briefings, he often appeared comatose, slumped back in his stuffed chair with only a sliver of his eyes visible through his drooping eyelids. Then, suddenly, Casey would spring to life, firing off a rapid series of probing questions.
Casey had a distinguished career both in and out of government. He had served as the intelligence chief for Europe with the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) during World War II, as a corporate lawyer after the war, then as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Nixon. A staunch Republican, he was Reagan’s campaign manager for the 1980 election and aspired to become secretary of state. When that post went to Alexander Haig, Casey eagerly accepted the job as CIA director, determined to reinvigorate the clandestine wing of the agency, which he believed had been gutted by congressional investigations and poor leadership during the 1970s.
Casey, who displayed a gift for organization and planning, seemed an ideal choice to head the CIA. “The man had a natural bent for what the Germans call fingerspitzengefühl, a feel for the clandestine,” recalled Richard Helms, Casey’s roommate in London during the war and later CIA director.1 In 1944, Casey had been sent to Paris to reinvigorate efforts to insert agents into Germany. “The place had gone slack. There was no sense of purpose,” said fellow OSS officer Walter Lord, who worked for Casey and later wrote the acclaimed book about the Titanic A Night to Remember. Casey soon gained the admiration of Lord and other subordinates. “He was blunt and impatient,” observed Lord, “but he knew exactly what to ask.”2 Casey energized the headquarters and initiated some of the riskiest missions of the war. Disguised as foreign laborers, more than one hundred agents were air-dropped into Germany, both to spy and to determine the location of key industrial sites for Allied bombers. Remarkably, sixty-two of the agents ended up reporting information back to Casey, and only 5 percent were lost.3
As director, Casey had little interest or inclination in running the CIA bureaucracy. “He was going to run the clandestine service,” said Robert Gates, who ran the Directorate of Intelligence—the analysis wing of the CIA—for nearly four years under Casey and later served as CIA director himself, as well as secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “I don’t think he would have recognized the CIA organization chart in the first several years he was there, if his life depended on it.”4
Casey viewed the world’s crises through the lens of the Cold War. An avowed anticommunist and unrelenting opponent of the Soviet Union, he became an important advocate within the administration for paramilitary actions in Central America and for the arming of the mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan to fight the Red Army. To the CIA director, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan fit into a long-standing desire of the Russian empire to have a warm-water port, only now this dovetailed into controlling Middle East oil. He cared little about the regional conflicts or their long-term consequences, except in terms of how they affected the balance of power in the East-West rivalry.
One senior CIA officer who worked the Middle East recalled having dinner with the director in 1986. The conversation turned to the long-term American strategy for Afghanistan after the Soviets had been driven out of the country. “What are we going to do after we win?” the officer asked Casey.
“We’re not going to do a goddamn thing! Once we get the Russians out, we’re finished,” Casey responded, smacking his hands together to emphasize the point. That focus on the Soviets would blind the United States to other perils.
Casey did not see Iran as an intrinsic threat. The Iranian Revolution had been significant, he believed, chiefly because it eliminated America’s defender of Persian Gulf oil against Soviet expansion. Casey downplayed the importance of the Islamist movement behind Khomeini. Instead, he worried about Moscow exploiting the shah’s overthrow and turning Iran into another Soviet proxy. He understood the danger posed by Iranian terrorism, and the 1985 seizure of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Lebanon, by Iranian surrogates would weigh heavily on him. But Casey believed the long-term solution was to bring Iran back into the anti-Soviet fold. In his mind, the CIA needed to cultivate political moderates and pro-Western reformers in Tehran. Agents were needed inside the Iranian government to favorably influence and counter its anti-American stance.
Casey saw the hidden hand of Moscow behind Iran’s leftist opposition. The pro-Moscow Tudeh Party openly challenged Khomeini’s rule, waging an urban insurgency against the Islamic Republic. In July 1981, Marxist members of the MEK bombed the Iranian parliament, killing the prime minister and seriously injuring future supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who lost partial use of his right arm when a bomb concealed in a tape recorder exploded beside him. Casey attributed this act again to Moscow. He worried that if the “mullahs” were overthrown, it could lead to Iran’s becoming a Soviet client state like Cuba.
In 1983 a Soviet defector presented William Casey the means to strike a fatal blow to the communist movement in Iran. In the fall of 1982, a senior KGB officer who had been stationed in Tehran, Vladimir Kuzichkin, had defected to Great Britain, reportedly carrying with him a treasure trove of documents on Soviet spy operations. London’s overseas intelligence organ, MI6, shared this information with its CIA colleagues, who put together a long list of dozens of Soviet spies and pro-Moscow Tudeh Party members in Iran. Casey ordered this roster surreptitiously passed on to Tehran through Iranian exiles. Iranian security forces promptly rounded up and executed scores of suspected communists and socialists. And so, with a little help from the CIA, the Islamic Republic eviscerated its domestic opposition.5
Within the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, intelligence officers had differing opinions about their director’s views of Iran and the prospects of influencing the regime. The Soviet analysts at Langley tended to share Casey’s alarmist view, but those in the Near East Division remained skeptical. In August and September 1983, the CIA’s Near East Division produced two intelligence assessments on Soviet-Iranian relations, concluding that the Soviet efforts to court the Islamic Republic had failed, aggravated by Iran’s support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Subsequent CIA reports came to the same conclusion, adding that the Tudeh Party had ceased to exist. But Casey remained unconvinced, grasping at a 1985 draft report that concluded that the Soviets could gain influence through arms sales to an Iran desperate for weapons in its war with Iraq.6
“No one doubted the importance of Iran,” observed George Cave, one of the agency’s principal experts on Iran. “If you want stability in the Middle East, you need to have some sort of meaningful relationship with Iran.” However, neither Cave nor the other CIA officers working in Langley believed the Islamic regime would be wooed by Moscow. Khomeini’s hatred of the United States was eclipsed only by his contempt for atheism and communism. The Iranian cleric’s vitriolic Friday sermons were aimed as much at Moscow as at Washington.
“There were reformers in Tehran,” noted retired CIA official Jack Devine, who had worked the Iran desk during the mid-1980s, “but they were all by-products of the revolution. Their arguments were about economic reform and not political.”7
When Casey assumed the CIA directorship, the American espionage effort in Iran was in shambles. The CIA station in Tehran had been one of the agency’s largest in the world during the shah’s reign. What remained of the CIA’s spy operation had evaporated with the students’ takeover of the American embassy, with the CIA station chief among its hostages. Casey was determined to revive human spying within Iran. It was one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East, yet the CIA knew next to nothing about what was happening there. Even such mundane matters as annual crop yields eluded U.S. intelligence officials. If the Iranian government was leaning toward Moscow, Casey wanted to know about it and position American agents there in hopes of drawing Iran back to the United States’ side of the Cold War.
The CIA’s mission in Iran became an early subject of discussion within the Reagan administration. Expanding the number of human spies there was an obvious requirement. Shortly after taking office, Reagan signed a presidential finding—an authorization of a covert operation required by law—approving a renewed effort to build a spy network in Iran.
The administration had less certainty about the wisdom of actually trying to overthrow the regime. On March 9, 1981, the NSC principals, with no aides or note takers, met in the White House Situation Room for a closely held deliberation on possible covert actions against Iran. The select assemblage agreed to search for a group that “we can support [in] destabilizing Iran,” according to a handwritten note kept by one of the attendees. Exactly which group to throw America’s weight behind, however, eluded the attendees. They contemplated aiding the Kurds, but quickly rejected that out of fear of angering an important NATO ally, Turkey. Casey recommended looking at exile groups headed by former Iranian military officers and other separatist movements, such as the one in Baluchistan.
On September 30, Reagan’s foreign policy doyens met for another meeting on Iran in the White House Cabinet Room. Chaired by the national security adviser, Richard Allen, they finalized a National Security Decision Directive on Iran for Reagan’s signature. The men agreed on two key policy goals: preventing Soviet domination of Iran, and keeping the Iranian Revolution from spreading across the Middle East. The key, they believed, was pulling Iran back into the American Cold War camp. This would not be easy. The United States’ ability to subvert the Iranian government was negligible; a CIA coup à la 1953 had little chance of success and would only fuel more anti-Americanism, to the advantage of Moscow. Nevertheless, they believed there were actions the U.S. government could take to influence the Islamic Republic: expanding Voice of America broadcasts, working with allies who had more influence within the Iranian government, and seeking out moderates within the Iranian government. The goal would be to cultivate pro-American military personnel and civilians who could steer the Iranian policies away from the Soviet Union and moderate the regime’s anti-American opinions. Casey’s officers would try to reach out to “forces in Iran favoring a more moderate government,” as one memo described it.8
A day or two later, President Reagan signed an executive order directing the CIA to begin an important wide-ranging operation called the Iranian Covert Action Program. Its objective was to moderate Iranian behavior toward the United States and to undercut the expansion of the Iranian Revolution. Intelligence officers began looking for Iranians inside and outside the country who favored better relations with the United States and who were positioned to influence key government officials. The CIA launched a broad influence campaign. The Voice of America stepped up its Farsi broadcasts to blunt anti-American propaganda in the Iranian media. Working through Pakistan, the CIA promoted greater ties between Iran and the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan, with the goal of highlighting the Soviet threat and the shared objectives between Washington and Tehran in seeing the Soviets defeated. The CIA began indirectly passing intelligence to Tehran via the Swiss and Algerian governments that highlighted Soviet designs on Iran and stressed Washington’s support for Iran’s territorial integrity.
The administration remained divided on armed subversion inside Iran. The Iranian Covert Action Program signed by President Reagan prohibited providing weapons for either exiles or internal dissidents. But in 1982, when the program came up for its annual review, the Reagan administration debated the wisdom of this prohibition. “If the United States was really serious about countering the Iranian threat, why not arm the Islamic Republic’s opposition?” said Charles Cogan, the CIA’s chief for Near East and South Asia, during a meeting at the White House in 1982. “The basic issue is whether the present regime in Iran is in U.S. interests.”
Robert McFarlane, the deputy national security adviser, believed the United States should explore more extreme measures to overthrow the Iranian regime. In a September 10, 1982, memo, he wrote, “It is difficult to come to a judgment on the issue without altering the ‘halfway house’ finding: that is, lift the restriction against providing lethal weapons to the Iranian opposition. This having been done, we could explore with the Iranian opposition and with friendly governments there of possibly creating disturbances within Iran.”
Caspar Weinberger concurred. The defense secretary frequently voiced the need to look at a more ambitious program to replace, or at least significantly undermine, the Islamic Republic. Arming an opposition movement might not lead to an overthrow of Khomeini, but forcing Iran to battle a fifth column might sap the revolutionary energy that otherwise would be directed outward toward friendly Arab governments.
Casey agreed with Weinberger. Supporting an Iranian insurgency was no different than what he was already doing with the Contras in Nicaragua and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. “An enhanced covert action program against Iran would provide reassurance to the Saudis and others of our serious interest in containing Iran,” wrote an NSC staffer in laying out for Casey and Weinberger the pros of a more aggressive paramilitary operation against Iran.
On July 13, 1982, President Reagan concurred with a recommendation by his national security team for the CIA to explore building an armed opposition against Iran. Feelers were sent out via intelligence circles to both Saudi Arabia and Oman about building an insurgency within Iran, including funneling arms for the insurgents through the two countries in order to distance Washington from the operation. A joint military-CIA team traveled to Oman to look at a proposed base for the guerrilla army on the Musandam Peninsula, the jut of land that the Strait of Hormuz wraps around. During intelligence exchanges with Baghdad, the CIA floated the idea to the Iraqis of working together to subvert the Iranian government. Not surprisingly, Saddam Hussein eagerly embraced the idea.
However, in the end Reagan never approved fomenting an armed counterrevolution within Iran. “The downside always outweighed the gain,” said McFarlane.9 The CIA eventually concluded that no armed group could seriously challenge the regime. The State Department consistently voiced concern that it would only fuel even greater anti-Americanism and destroy any hope of reconciliation, a view shared by many CIA analysts. After months of debate and discussions about building an insurgency in Iran, the idea died the death of inaction.
Building a spy network in Iran would not be an easy proposition. Iran was, in the parlance of the spy business, a “denied country.” With no American embassy to provide cover for CIA officers or to serve as a base of operations, the agency would have to infiltrate Iran from outside the country. The CIA established a new office to run its Iranian operations inside one wing of the I.G. Farben building in Frankfurt, the same headquarters housing ISA, the U.S. Army’s V Corps, and the military’s regional clandestine operations. It also quietly served as the main support base for CIA operations in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Langley called its new unit “Tehfran,” an amalgam of Tehran and Frankfurt. Germany provided reliable cover for the operation; after 1979, many Iranian exiles had settled there. Bonn maintained diplomatic relations with Tehran, and Iranians often traveled to Frankfurt. The CIA could easily bring recruits to the city for screening and training, as well as for the occasional rendezvous between handlers and agents.10
“Tehfran” began the painstaking process of recruiting agents. As Turkey did not require a visa for Iranian citizens, it served as a corridor for those trying to escape the repression under the ayatollah. Ankara and Istanbul swelled with Persian expatriates looking to obtain visas to travel to Europe or the United States.
Turkey quickly took center stage in the spy contest between Washington and Tehran. The CIA used the American consulate in Istanbul as a recruiting center for Tehfran, with an intelligence officer assigned to identify potential Iranians for recruitment. The grounds around the consulate became a favorite recruiting locale for American intelligence officers.
“It was a heavy workload,” recalled Philip Giraldi, who worked in the Istanbul consulate and ran its Iranian operations from 1986 to 1989. Sifting through the stacks of visa applications for those in the military or with political connections, he conducted around twenty interviews each week, with one or two showing promise. “Of these, one every couple of months we would actually go after and pitch. And the pitches were frequently successful.”11
The CIA found fertile ground among Iranian military officers. Many had attended schools in the United States and had close friends in the U.S. military. The navy and air force were the most pro-American, and Giraldi himself recruited three senior air force officers, including a brigadier general. CIA case officers across Europe were on the watch for important Iranians, people “needing a favor with information we could use,” as one retired CIA employee put it. Operating under diplomatic cover and using fictitious first names, the CIA encouraged their recruits’ sympathies for the United States or their abhorrence of communism. If that failed, the Americans used coercion to obtain cooperation, dangling a coveted visa to the United States for a recruit’s family in return for spying for Langley. This proved one of the most effective means employed by the CIA to obtain cooperation.12
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