American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis: A Look Back

April 2003

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The author brings unique qualifications to this study. Now a political science professor, in 1979 he was assigned to the U. S. embassy in Tehran and was taken captive when Iranian militants, reacting to the news that the shah had been admitted to the United States, overran the embassy. He and his colleagues then spent 444 days as a hostages.—Ed.

Jimmy Carter and the 1979 Decision to Admit the Shah into the United States

When the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, opened for business the morning of 22 October 1979, there was a cable waiting in the Central Intelligence Agency station from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The cable advised that President Carter had decided the previous day to admit the former Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, into the United States for life-saving medical treatment. From the perspective of the embassy staff, it was absolutely the worst thing that could happen, on two fronts: the decision would undo the progress, however slight, in improving United States-Iranian relations; and it would jeopardize the safety and security of all Americans in Iran. The embassy staff was utterly astonished, for not only had they warned Washington over the previous summer of the various dangers associated with such a decision, but some had even been told that by Washington seniors that the consequences of the shah’s admission to the United States were so obvious that no one would be "dumb enough" to allow it. Yet, with U.S.-Iranian relations still lacking real stability, and with an intense and growing distrust of the United States permeating the new Iranian "revolutionary" government, President Carter — unbelievably, from the embassy’s optic—had decided to allow the shah to enter the United States.
Was there no place else he could go? Was the United States the only country in the world with adequate medical facilities to treat the shah? Was the shah’s illness truly life-threatening at that point? Why did the president not insist on a second impartial medical opinion based on a physical examination and testing, rather than relying solely on the judgment of a physician engaged by a private citizen with a specific political agenda? Why did President Carter — seemingly against his own judgment — agree to the admission of the shah to the United States? Why did Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, and John McCloy so strongly urge the shah’s admission? Why did these three, who had no responsibility for policymaking or policy execution, press for a decision which had such awful consequences for the nation attached to it, consequences which were clearly apparent to all? Finally, if it was essential that the shah be permitted entry into the United States, why have not the reasons been clearly stated publicly? These issues require explanation, for this decision, founded as it was on "advice that was both flawed and incomplete" – is one of the most controversial decisions of post-World War Two foreign policy.

The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whose full title was "King of Kings and Light of the Aryans," had been considered a staunch ally of the United States ever since he was returned to the Peacock Throne in 1953 by a coup initially planned by the British Secret Intelligence Service (BSIS, or MI-6 as it’s more popularly known). Ultimately responding to the British government’s request for assistance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the CIA to provided financial and other support to Iranians, mostly military officers, opposed to the regime of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. After three days of political turbulence in mid-August, Mossadegh was placed under house arrest by the army and the shah, who had fled to Italy, was flown to Tehran to resumed control of the government and country. In the following years the shah moved closer and closer to the United States in a deepening relationship vital both to American and world interests.

Particularly important in this alliance were the TACKSMAN signals intelligence listening posts in the Elbourz mountains north of Tehran that provided clear electronic line-of-sight coverage of the Soviet intercontinental missile test ranges. Intelligence from these sites not only allowed the United States and its Western allies to followed critical developments in the Soviet strategic missile forces, they later provided data essential to verify arms control agreements with Moscow. The shah also shared the West’s vision of a stable Middle East in which Iran would play the dominant role.

But serving as the policeman of the Middle East required a huge investment in modern military equipment and, more significantly, large numbers of American technicians and trainers to support the highly sophisticated equipment for a very unsophisticated and under-educated military. A clash of cultures began appearing and grating on the general Iranian population, while resentment over the amount of Iranian oil revenues flowing to the United States and European countries concurrently generated building resentment against the West. Simultaneously, the shah’s regime was becoming increasingly and egregiously corrupt. To counter rising discontent, the shah gave his security forces carte blanche to ferret out and halt the dissidents; serious human rights issues ensued, further alienating the Iranian regime from its own citizens.

Revolution ensued in 1978, fueled by the acidic sermons and lectures of an aged fundamentalist cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, one of the Grand Ayatollahs of Shi’ite Islam. The shah capitulated early in the new year and again fled into exile himself; a provisional government he left behind collapsed within two weeks and Khomeini made a triumphal return to Tehran, where he was greeted by millions of Iranians filling the streets.

When the shah left Iran on 16 January 1979, it was expected that he would quickly seek asylum in America, the nation that had been his strongest supporter and stalwart friend. Even Khomeini had "expressed no objections" to the shah’s exile in the United States at this time. To this end Sunnylands, the sprawling Palms Springs estate of Walter Annenberg, was offered and readied as a place of haven for his royal friend. But the shah "proved to be as indecisive in exile as he had been in power, and this presented a disagreeable problem for the United States government." Without consulting with the Americans, the shah first made a quick one-week stopover in Cairo at the invitation of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and then flew on to the household of another monarch, King Hassan II of Morocco, for an indefinite stay. To Brzezinski, this "pause" in his peregrinations "proved to be disastrous," and "generated an issue where none should have existed." As February rolled along the shah’s invitation remained valid, but the shah preferred to remain as Hassan’s guest.

But just two weeks after his arrival in Rabat, circumstances reversed for the shah. If he had been loitering in the Near East region hoping that there would be a reversal of fortunes in Iran which would result in an opportunity (or call) to return to the Peacock Throne, he was destined for disappointment. Chances were dimming that the Provisional Government of Iran (PGOI) would collapse; nor had Khomeini’s support among the masses of Iranians waned. And, in a case of rather unfortunate timing, revolutionary militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran on 14 February, holding the mission personnel hostage for several hours and generating fear for the safety of the remaining Americans in Iran. The final blow for the former monarch landed when King Hassan decided he had had sufficient time with the depressed and dispirited shah; he asked his guest to leave. The shah now sent word to Washington that he was ready to accept the U.S. government’s invitation.

At a meeting of the Special Coordinating Committee (SCC -- the highest level policy and crisis management group in the Carter White House) on 23 February the decision was made to inform the shah that, while the invitation was still officially open, there were now serious complications. Specifically, the short-lived takeover of the American embassy the previous St. Valentine’s Day had some senior officials in Washington reconsidering the wisdom of hosting the shah. The shah’s entry into the United States was potentially an inflammatory act, and, with a deteriorating security situation in Tehran, there was still a very real threat to American interests and the remaining American officials and citizens. The risk to American lives at that time was serious, apparent, and exigent: U.S. intelligence personnel at one of the CIA’s TACKSMAN intelligence collection sites had been taken captive days before, and American Ambassador William Sullivan was at that moment in negotiations over their release (the TACKSMAN sites were a cooperative effort with the shah’s regime for monitoring the Soviet missile test ranges).

Manifestly, the entry of the shah would no doubt unleash severe and potentially uncontrollable repercussions against these and other Americans in Iran. A query from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Ambassador Sullivan requesting the latter’s opinion on the shah’s admission had brought a negative response, with the envoy advising that it was not a sound idea in terms either of embassy security or the improving political relationship between the two countries. Sullivan "supported [the] judgment that the [shah] should not now be permitted to enter the country." At home, increasingly hostile demonstrations in U.S. cities staged by pro-Khomeini Iranians resident in America raised security issues for the shah and his supporters, should he be admitted. Further, as the shah would now be a private citizen, there was no way to insulate or immunize him from any possible legal or congressional action against him or his family.

In the end, whether one was for or against the shah’s admission in principle, prudence dictated a denial at this time. National Security Advisor Brzezinski concurred with reluctance while feeling a "personal repugnance." Vance, despite his own belief that the decision was the only wise one, described his recommendation to deny entry as "one of the most distasteful I ever had to make…." The shah, his unhappiness with the official decision apparent, had little choice but to accept the news; he traveled to the Bahamas on 30 March.

During the ensuing months, the Carter administration worked to construct at least a stable, if not immediately productive, relationship with the new revolutionary regime in Iran. As a practical matter, for the health of this relationship the greater the American distance from the shah, the better, and vice versa. The shah’s evident desire to enter the United States threatened to unravel the little that had been achieved to date and would render impossible all that might be accomplished in the future. In April, as he grew increasingly discontent with life in the islands, the shah’s general state of unhappiness turned to bitterness as he began telling the world press that the Carter administration was responsible for his fall. When this became known in the United States, renewed pressures on President Carter to admit him were openly and unrelentingly applied by a handful of powerful people inside and outside of the government.

Particularly intense were National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, banking magnate David Rockefeller, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and the esteemed elder statesman John J. McCloy, a coterie which Brzezinski labeled "influential friends of the shah." In their collective opinion, the admission of the shah, whenever it was to occur, was "a matter of both principle and tactics." Brzezinski personally "felt strongly that at stake were [America’s] traditional commitment to asylum and our loyalty to a friend. To compromise those principles would be to pay an extraordinarily high price not only in terms of self-esteem but also in our standing among our allies…." This was a position in which there was unquestionably much merit. But it was not the only consideration.

Following on the heels of the shah’s arrival in the Bahamas were phone calls to the president in early April by David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger urging the shah’s admission. Carter was not pleased. While understanding of and grateful for the past benefits to the United States which flowed from the shah’s friendship, senior administration foreign policy officials — the president, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and Undersecretary of State David Newsom, among others — balanced the shah’s wishes against the hope that relations with the new government of Iran would improve given sufficient time and came down on the side of the promoting the political ties to the PGOI. They continued to hold firm against the shah’s admission.

An official statement on 5 May by the Iranian foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi (a medical doctor who had trained in the United States and held permanent resident alien status), espousing a desire to better relations with America was seized upon as an important positive signal by the Carter administration. This added further weight to denying the shah. And the embassy in Tehran soon after had yet another opportunity to warn against admission; when queried about the PGOI’s position on allowing the shah’s children to enter the United States for schooling, Iran’s secular prime minister, Mehdi Barzargan, responded that such would not create any difficulties, but he "reiterated his warning about the dangers of admitting the shah himself."

Decidedly unhappy in the Bahamas where he had evolved into a tourist attraction as he strolled the beaches, the shah again called upon his friend David Rockefeller to assist in obtaining safe haven in the United States. After a reassessment of the situation and American interest, Carter made it known to the shah through an emissary that this was not the time, an act which incensed Henry Kissinger. Rockefeller and Kissinger then smoothed the path for the shah to move on to Mexico, where he arrived on 10 June 1979. By late July. frustrated with the pressures being applied on the shah’s behalf, Carter wrote in his diary that he saw no particular benefit in letting the shah into the United States: "I don’t have any feelings that the shah or we would be better off with him playing tennis several hours a day in California instead of Acapulco, with Americans in Tehran being killed or kidnapped."

Kissinger was hardly appeased by the relocation of the shah to anywhere other than the United States. One minor question from this time centers on whether or not Kissinger at least intimated, if not threatened, in July of 1979 to "blackmail" the Carter administration into admitting the shah. The energies of the Carter national security team, since before inauguration day, had focused on a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) with the Soviets. The recently signed treaty was not without controversy and was looked upon with great skepticism among conservatives as it approached ratification in the Senate. It was well known that Kissinger would be called to testify as to the viability and wisdom of the agreement, and that — for Carter — the former secretary of state’s support of the treaty before the Senate was crucial to its ratification. Defeat of the treaty would be a blow to the success and credibility of Carter’s tenure. Brzezinski has asserted that, during at least one of Kissinger’s contacts with the White House over the admission of the shah, Kissinger "linked his willingness" to support SALT II to the shah’s entry: unless the shah was allowed into the United States, Kissinger would condemn the treaty before the Senate.

Kissinger has denied this. Lloyd Cutler, the president’s lawyer, argued that the White House’s official position (which he placed in writing on 27 November 1979) should be that Kissinger neither contacted the White House after the shah’s illness became known (on 28 October) nor that he ever threatened to withdraw his support for SALT II. Kissinger in fact testified in support of the SALT agreement on 31 July 1979, but the question remains whether there was a quid pro quo at least subtly implied (or inferred) in any of his contacts with the White House.

As summer neared its end, the shah’s residence in exile more or less faded to a background issue, although he did gain one more supporter. Vice-President Walter Mondale, upon reflection, drafted a memo for the president in favor of the shah’s entry. Still concerned about the situation in Tehran, on 25 July Vance cabled the recently arrived chargé d’affaires in Tehran, career diplomat L. Bruce Laingen, for another assessment of the PGOI’s reaction to the shah’s entry. Specifically, Laingen was to query the PGOI about its willingness to accept the shah’s admission into the United States if the shah (a) formally renounced any and all claims to the Peacock Throne, and (b) agreed to eschew any political activity in the United States. Laingen’s reply tracked his earlier comments on the same issue, citing again potential harm to American interests and peril to the embassy staff. In noting a burgeoning struggle for power between secularist moderates and religious fundamentalists for control of the Iranian government, Laingen did hold out the possibility of resolving favorably the issue of the shah if or when the power contest was decided. Laingen did suggest that the shah’s abdication — which the fallen monarch had so far refused to even consider — would "lessen risks to our own interests." But then everything fell apart in October.

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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