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And what of David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, and John McCloy? To what extent did their unrelenting efforts to persuade the president to bring the shah to America influence the final outcome? All three had long ties to the shah personally and professionally. Rockefeller and McCloy had known the shah and had had business interests and contacts in Iran for almost two decades. Kissinger had, of course, been secretary of state and at this time was, among other enterprises, in the employ of David Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank as chairman of its International Advisory Committee. Kissinger especially was incensed over what he perceived to be shameful treatment of a loyal friend of America. He had, with anger and righteous indignation, refused in April to serve as the president’s envoy to inform the shah that the administration preferred the shah remain outside the United States until the situation approved in U.S.-Iranian relations, a policy he found "appalling" and "dishonorable." Rockefeller also refused the request.

After intervening with the Mexican president to resettle the shah in Cuernavaca, Rockefeller and Kissinger continued to phone or otherwise lobby (or pressure, depending upon one’s perspective) the president to reverse his position. Both proclaimed, as did McCloy and Brzezinski, as well, that such a long-time loyal ally deserved asylum in the nation that he supported. They also argued that admitting the shah was a humanitarian act which should have been above politics. It is noteworthy that, in contradiction of this apparently strongly felt personal principle, Kissinger urged in 1999 that the United States avoid the commitment of its military forces to stop the genocide in Kosovo, in part because he thought humanitarian deeds should not be permitted to override the national interest — which of course is exactly what was involved in his advocacy of the shah’s admission to the United States.

Rockefeller, Kissinger, and McCloy each contacted the White House a number of times on this issue, as well using public occasions to proclaim that it was a serious wrong by the administration to stand in the way of the shah’s entry. Vance later commented that his "morning mail often contained something from [McCloy] about the shah," and noted that McCloy was a "very prolific letter writer." President Carter was phoned by Kissinger on 8 April 1979, who pled the shah’s case; when the president turned him down, Kissinger went public in a rather spectacular manner. That night, at Harvard Business School, Kissinger levied a charge, later repeated frequently, that the shah "should not be treated like a Flying Dutchman who cannot find a port of call." The very next day David Rockefeller visited the Oval Office attempting to "induce" the president to admit the shah, with the president observing that it seemed to be a "joint project" with Kissinger, Brzezinski, and Rockefeller. In turn, Rockefeller thought the president to be "stiff and formal," leaving the impression that the president "didn’t want to hear about it."

Throughout the summer Carter was besieged "weekly" by the shah’s friends and supporters on his behalf while he "adamantly resisted" the importuning. Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan was frustrated with "numerous phone calls" from Kissinger and Rockefeller, as well as an "occasional note" from McCloy, and complained that because of these calls the issue appeared "periodically" on the Friday morning agenda. There is no record, though, that in any of these contacts did the security of Americans in Iran seem to concern the shah’s supporters, although both the president ("time and again") and Vance attempted to make the point. It reached the point where Jordan, at the 19 October Friday meeting, felt compelled to advise the president that "if the shah dies in Mexico, can you imagine the field day Kissinger will have…[h]e’ll say that first you caused the shah’s downfall and now you’ve killed him." Carter, according to his chief of staff, replied in anger, "To hell with Henry Kissinger, I am president of this country."

After the embassy takeover on 4 November 1979, Kissinger expressed his support for the admission of the shah but denied to reporters placing any pressure on the administration! Later, though, he finally admitted to making "five private approaches" to the White House on the shah’s behalf, but only through July of 1979. He did, of course, continue to speak out in public on the issue attempting to pose indirect influence. Twice in November of 1979, Rockefeller "conceded he had played a primary role" in the admission of the shah, but in an interview in spring of 1981 he proclaimed that the press had "monstrously distorted" his role — particularly, but apparently not entirely, with respect to financial relationships between Chase Manhattan and the shah.

In mid-November 1979 former Undersecretary of State George Ball, responding to earlier denials by Kissinger that he had "pressured US officials," termed the degree of duress exerted by the three as "obnoxious" and charged that, but for this intense lobbying, the shah would not have been admitted. This latter allegation is probably incorrect, however, as both the president, who "deeply resented" the influence attempts, and his chief of staff have written that, if anything, the calls were counter-productive. But there is little question that the pressure was applied unrelentingly.

There is also, of course, the obvious question of why the embassy wasn’t evacuated before the shah was allowed to land in New York. Notably and frustratingly, Carter and Vance are silent on this issue in their memoirs. Ham Jordan, in an interview with the Times, recounted that the White House "felt it was important to have representation on the ground in Iran…[w]e knew it was a risk but we thought it was a reasonable risk. Obviously, in hindsight, we were wrong." Gary Sick identifies three reasons which, collectively, offer the best, most accurate explanation. First, the administration expected the embassy security measures, including the hardening of the chancery, to provide sufficient protection in case of an attack until assistance could arrive. What no one foresaw nor could have been reasonably expected to have foresee, was that a sovereign government would support, abet, and condone the capture of an embassy belonging to another sovereign nation and its diplomatically protected staff.

Second, a "fundamental mistake was to place an unrealistic degree of confidence in the ‘moderates’ who were nominally in charge" of the PGOI. The relative strengths and weaknesses of the secular government under Barzargan had been the subject of debates in Washington during the summer of 1979, with the optimists essentially winning out, not through deliberate policy decision by the president, but rather by default and simple bureaucratic inertia. There was a concomitant sense of security, too, in recalling the actions of Yazdi and the PGOI during the February takeover, and it was taken for granted that they both could and would do the same, again.

Sick’s third point is an acknowledgment that the topic of evacuating the embassy staff was in fact "scarcely discussed at all" either in Washington or in Tehran. This was apparently because of the stock placed in the purely mythical assurances of protection, the "overwhelming importance of Iran in the politics of the region…[with its] vital US interests," and the "dedication and professionalism" of the embassy staff.

This last point is precisely why it was Washington’s responsibility to order the evacuation, rather than expecting the embassy staff to make that decision themselves. While those in Tehran could have, at any time between 30 October and 4 November 1979, on their own left Iran for a safe location, it was unrealistic to expect them willingly to desert their posts and unfair to put that burden on them. They were all volunteers, and volunteers are logically the last to concede that their place is elsewhere. And too, most volunteered at least in part because of a belief in the mission and that their presence mattered. It was Washington’s ultimate responsibility to recognize this and to decide when their presence in a danger zone would or could become counter-productive. But it is also understandable, perhaps, that Washington would place the same faith in them that they had in themselves.

Whether to admit the shah was a dilemma that presented Carter with no good options, and no chance of emerging unscathed regardless of his decision. He was well aware of the dangers involved, both for the nation and for the Americans in Tehran, yet he could not have refused at this point without enduring vociferous political and personal criticism from Rockefeller, Kissinger, and the Republican party. And this was just not acceptable in an election year. The president’s query at that Friday morning meeting about what his advisors would say when Americans were taken hostage in Iran was purely rhetorical.

But that does not mean that the public record on this decision should be permitted to remain unclear on key points. What was the president told, and when, regarding the shah’s illness? How and when did Dr. Kean’s appraisal that the shah’s illness was not life threatening and that Mexican medical facilities were satisfactory become translated into a belief that the shah’s demise was imminent and that, of all the countries in the world, only the United States had the resources and knowledge to save him? How or why did Bruce Laingen’s cable from Tehran, screamingly silent on the issue of Iranian assistance with the safety of the embassy, come to be read as offering promises or guarantees or assurances of the same? And what was the true extent of the pressures applied by the shah’s "influential" friends; was it just a "modest" effort or was it more pervasive — and effective — than has been acknowledged?

The full truth may never be known, particularly with respect to the efforts of Rockefeller and friends. But there is no reason why the State Department should not now release any and all memoranda and other documents written by its medical officer relating to the shah’s illness, as well as the notes drafted for the president’s information by Secretary Vance and Deputy Secretary Christopher. Likewise, it is time for Dr. Kean and Dr. Dustin to speak on the record. Without this information the record will remain incomplete and Americans will remain unenlightened about one of the most controversial and detrimental decisions any president has made since the end of World War Two.



Zbigniew Brzezinski
Richard M. Helms
L. Bruce Laingen
Charles W. Naas
David Newsom
Henry M. Precht
Gary Sick


National Security Archives: "The Making of US Policy: "Documents from the Den of Espionage," published in Tehran, Iran. [cited as NSA/Iran]


Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principal: Memoirs of the National Security Advisor, 1977-1981, (rev. ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985.
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Christopher, Warren et al. American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Gates, Robert M. From The Shadows. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Jordan, Hamilton. Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency. New York: Put- nam's, 1982.
Kissinger, Henry. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.
---------------------- Years of Upheaval. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982.
Laingen, L. Bruce. Yellow Ribbon. New York: Brassey's, 1992.
Sick, Gary. All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran. New York: Random House, 1985.


Bloom, Mark. "The Pahlavi Problem: A Superficial Diagnosis Brought the Shah into the United States." Science, vol. 207, 18 January 1980.


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Armstrong, Scott. "The Fall of the Shah." Washington Post, 26 October 1980.
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Humanitarian," New York Times, 17 November 1979, A-7.
Editorial, "Scapegoating." Washington Post, 2 December 1979, D-6.
Gwertzman, Bernard. "Carter Emissary Dissuaded Shah From US Exile." Washington Post, 20 April 1979, A-I;
----------------------- , "US Decision to Admit the Shah; Key Events in 8 Months of Debate., " Washington Post, 18 November 1979, A-I
Kissinger, Henry. "Kissinger On the Controversy Over the Shah," New York Times, November 1979, A-19.
--------------------- "No Ground Forces for Kosovo." Washington Post, 22 February, 1999, A-20.
Morgan, Dan. "Chase Manhattan's Ties to the Shah: Rockefeller and His Bank Been Active in Iran for Years," Washington Post, 16 November 1979.
National Desk (no by-line), "Shah's Admission to the US Linked to Misinformation on His Sickness." New York Times, 13 May 1981, A-I.
Nossiter, Bernard D. "Shah of Iran Welcome in US But He's Told Later Would
Be Better." Washington Post, 21 April 1979, A-16.
Oberdorfer, Dan. "The Making of a Crisis: US Agonizes Over an Exile’s Entry."
Washington Post, 11 November 1979, A-1.
Richards, Bill. "Ball Asserts Kissinger's 'Obnoxious' Pressure Preceded Entry of
Shah." Washington Post, 26 November 1979, A-8.
Simmons, Marlise. "Shah, Entourage in Mexico with Aid of Kissinger; Kissinger A in Shift by Shah." Washington Post, 11 June 1979, A-1.
Smith, T. "Why Carter Admitted the Shah," New York Times, 7 May 1981, 6-36.

Dr. William J. Daugherty, who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, teaches political science at Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, Georgia, USA. He is a former Marine officer and Vietnam War veteran who has served with the National Security Council Staff. He is the author of In the Shadow of the Ayatollah: A CIA Hostage in Iran (2001). His Ph.D. is in government, from the Claremont Graduate School in California.

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