(Jerusalem, Israel) — Forty years ago this month, the Shah of Iran was toppled. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini surged to power. Iran would soon be declared the world’s first Islamic Republic. And a policy of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” would set into motion a tragic and bloody era of almost non-stop war and terrorism.
Rather than fizzle out over time, the Islamic Revolution that Khomeini inaugurated has gained momentum, and adherents, even as the Iranian government has gained more deadly technologies, from ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel and Western Europe — and soon the continental United States — to a nuclear industry that could soon produce fully operational nuclear warheads.
Just this week, the current Supreme Leader — the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — vowed to assassinate American leaders.
Exactly one month from today, my new political thriller — The Persian Gamble — will release in hardcover, e-book and audio formats. Soon, I’ll announce details of a month-long book tour schedule in which I’ll crisscross the U.S. talking not only about the plot of this new novel but also about the real-life implications of the West’s all-too-often timid and indecisive response to Iran’s murderous, even apocalyptic, mission.
Until then, I do hope you’ll pre-order the novel here or through your favorite online or brick-and-mortar book retailer. And I hope you’ll find helpful this excerpt from a non-fiction book I wrote a decade ago on the early days of the Iranian Revolution…..
On February 1, 1979, a chartered Air France 747 touched down in Tehran at Mehrabad International Airport at precisely 9:33 a.m. local time and was immediately greeted by a rapturous welcome. An estimated fifty thousand Iranians had converged on the terminal, tarmac, and grounds, some weeping, some wailing, all desperate to get a glimpse of the man they suspected might, in fact, be the Twelfth Imam they had so long awaited.
“The holy one has come!” the crowds chanted as the Ayatollah Khomeini, tall and slender with a long gray beard and dark, brooding eyes, draped in black robes and his signature black turban, stepped out into the morning air. Now seventy-eight, he looked somewhat tired at first, even tearful, as he waved a bit feebly to the cheering throngs. But as the roars grew and people screamed, “He is the light of our lives!” the firebrand seemed to draw energy and resolve from the crowd. The shah was gone, Khomeini was back, and the country was his for the taking.
As he descended the stairs to the tarmac below, the crowd began to chant, “Khomeini, O Imam! Khomeini, O Imam!” and “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great!”
“A personality cult was in the making,” the head of the BBC’s Persian broadcasting service would later write. “Khomeini had been transformed into a semi-divine figure. He was no longer a grand ayatollah and deputy of the Imam, one who represents the Hidden Imam, but simply ‘The Imam.’ In Arabic [and Sunni theology and common usage], the term “Imam” is used to describe a leader or prayer leader, but in Shi’i Iran, where the title was reserved for the twelve infallible leaders of the early Shi’a, among ordinary people it carried awe-inspiring connotations. In encouraging its use, some of Khomeini’s supporters clearly wanted to exploit popular religious feelings and to imply that he was the long-awaited Hidden Imam.”
And Khomeini certainly did nothing to discourage the people from thinking he was the One.
“I thank the various classes of the nation for the feelings they have expressed toward me,” Khomeini said in remarks broadcast around the country. “The debt of gratitude I owe to the Iranian people weighs heavily upon my shoulders, and I can in no way repay it.”
Then, in an ominous foreshadowing of events still ten months away, Khomeini added, “Our triumph will come when all forms of foreign control have been brought to an end and all roots of the monarchy have been plucked out of the soil of our land. The agents of the foreigners during the recent events have been trying desperately to restore the Shah to power. . . . I say that their efforts are in vain. . . . Unity of purpose is the secret of victory. Let us not lose this secret by permitting demons in human form to create dissension in the ranks.”
The massive crowd went wild.
Iranian security forces had never seen anything like it. But this was only the beginning.
What really terrified the security people were the quarter of a million Iranians waiting at Khomeini’s next stop, a cemetery for Islamic martyrs, and the estimated five million more frenzied Shia Muslims lining the roads from the airport into the heart of Tehran. More than one in seven people living in Iran at the time turned out to catch a glimpse of their new leader. The security officials knew they could not afford to allow the leader of the Revolution to be swallowed up and crushed by the unprecedented crowds. The country had already been through so much.
They had to change their plans. As Time magazine would later report, “the crush stalled the Ayatollah’s motorcade, so that he had to be lifted out of the crowds, over the heads of his adulators, by helicopter.”
“This Is the First Day of God’s Government”
On February 14, 1979—just two weeks after the Ayatollah Khomeini had returned to Iran—a hundred and fifty or so Islamic Radicals stunned American officials by storming the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran and taking hostages. It was a tense and terrifying time for the nearly one thousand diplomats, Marines, and support staff who had already witnessed more than a year of massive demonstrations, riots, and violent anti-shah and anti-American protests.
Fortunately, the situation had a happy ending. Only a few hours after it began, the Radicals—under pressure from Khomeini loyalists—released their hostages and retreated from the embassy grounds. Breathing a sigh of relief, the staff referred to the incident as the “St. Valentine’s Day Open House.”
But events in Iran were clearly going from bad to worse, and the State Department recalled most of its diplomatic team, leaving fewer than seventy employees on site.
The Central Intelligence Agency, however, did not seem troubled. “Don’t worry about another embassy attack,” the chief of the Iran branch in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations in Langley, Virginia, calmly assured his team back in Tehran. “The Iranians have already done it once so they don’t have to prove anything. Besides, the only thing that could trigger an attack would be if the Shah was let into the States—and no one in this town is stupid enough to do that.”
Actually, that wasn’t quite true.
Within days of the release of the hostages, Khomeini named a provisional prime minister to run the day-to-day affairs of state and moved quickly to authorize a national referendum that would change the very nature of the Iranian system of government from a constitutional monarchy to a nation governed by Sharia law. On March 30 and 31, millions of Iranians went to the polls, and then, on April 1, 1979, Khomeini officially announced that the referendum had passed overwhelmingly, with 97 percent of the vote. Iran was now the first Islamic Republic in the history of the world.
“I declare to the whole world that never has the history of Iran witnessed such a referendum,” Khomeini noted that day from his home in Qom, “where the whole country rushed to the polls with ardor, enthusiasm, and love to cast their affirmative votes and bury the tyrannical regime forever in the garbage heap of history. . . . By casting a decisive vote in favor of the Islamic Republic, you have established a government of divine justice, a government in which all the segments of the population shall enjoy equal consideration, the light of divine justice shall shine uniformly on all, and the divine mercy of the Qur’an . . . shall embrace all, like life-giving rain. . . . Tyranny has been buried. . . . This day [is] the first day of God’s government.”
The Fuse Is Lit
In January, the shah and his family had settled briefly in Morocco after fleeing into exile, but that did not last long. By March, King Hassan was growing increasingly worried that Islamic Radicals might use the shah’s presence as an excuse to launch violent attacks inside his kingdom or even attempt to overthrow his regime. He asked the shah to leave.
Without much choice, the Pahlavis flew to the Bahamas, then to Mexico. By October, however, the shah had been diagnosed with malignant lymphoma. His body was beginning to shut down, and his doctors worried that without better treatment he might not live more than eighteen months. On October 22, President Carter agreed to allow the shah and his wife entry into the U.S. for medical treatment. The next day, they arrived. But neither the president nor his top aides fully appreciated the fuse they were lighting or the firestorm that was coming.
Khomeini had just called on “all grade-school, university, and theological students to increase their attacks against America.” A second embassy takeover plot was already in advanced planning stages by a group of university students eager to play their part in the Revolution, and now the students’ leaders felt they had two critical elements for success. First, they had a blessing from their Supreme Leader to strike the “Great Satan,” indirect though that blessing was since Khomeini at that point was not even aware of their plans. Second, they had a perfect pretext to strike since Iranians throughout the country were deeply outraged by Carter’s decision to show hospitality to a man they felt was a traitor to Islam and thus worthy of death.
On November 1, more than two million Iranians demonstrated at Tehran University, not far from the embassy grounds, shouting, “Death to America! Death to America!” What more incentive did they need, the plot leaders surmised, than the fact that the Imam and his people were with them?
Dawn had not yet broken in Washington.
It was Sunday morning, November 4, when an urgent “Flash Traffic” message from Embassy Tehran arrived in the State Department’s top-secret communications center: “Demonstrators have entered embassy compound and have entered the building.”
More than three thousand Radicals, most of them students, had climbed over the embassy’s walls, penetrated the compound’s internal security fences and doors, disarmed the Marines (who had been ordered by their superiors not to shoot), and were holding sixty-six Americans hostage while rifling through whatever files they could get their hands on.
Staffers in the White House Situation Room immediately awoke the president at Camp David with a phone call at 4:30 a.m. The president spoke with Brzezinski, just back from Algiers, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Both were concerned, to be sure, but neither was overly worried, believing the situation would be corrected quickly, as it had been on Valentine’s Day. The president, therefore, went back to sleep. It was the last half-decent sleep Carter would get until after he left office on January 20, 1981.
U.S. intelligence officials soon had a translated copy of the students’ first communiqué, which blasted “the world-devouring America” and stated, “We Muslim students, followers of the Imam Khomeini, have occupied the espionage embassy of America in protest against the ploys of the imperialists and the Zionists. We announce our protest to the world; a protest against America for granting asylum and employing the criminal shah while it has its hands in the blood of tens of thousands of women and men in this country.”
Top officials at the CIA and State all expected Khomeini to order the students to free the Americans and their compound in short order. It never happened.
To the contrary, the ayatollah quickly issued a statement praising the students. He then appointed his son, Ahmad, to serve as the liaison with the students holding the embassy.
Ahmad would later write that his father expected “thunder and lightning” from Washington, a quick and fierce military operation that would both rescue the embassy staffers and punish the new regime. But weeks turned into months without such a response. Instead, in Ahmad’s view, the Carter White House churned out feckless, limp-wristed statements and showed no serious interest in a military confrontation. President Carter’s envoy to the United Nations, Ambassador Andrew Young, publicly implored the ayatollah to show “magnanimity and compassion.”
Khomeini smelled weakness. He mocked the Carter administration as acting “like a headless chicken,” and exploited Carter’s indecision to the fullest.
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