The incident rivetted the hopes, fears and prayers of Americans for more than a year. On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian Islamic militants took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They confined more than 50 Americans to the embassy compound and seized bundles of diplomatically sensitive documents. For the American public the national trauma caused by the mission seizure ended on Jan. 20,1981, when the Iranians released the hostages, 444 days after the drama began. But for the Iranians the saga is continuing, at least on paper. Since 1982 the Iranian government has published at least 39 paperback volumes of secret U.S. documents found in the embassy, and U.S. state department officials say that the publication of the thousands of pages of secret papers that remain in Iranian hands will continue for years. The paperbacks provide a panorama of U.S. covert activity in Iran and reveal the reluctance of President Jimmy Carter’s administration to face the erosion of power of the country’s monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
For the United States, the publication of the purloined documents constitutes “an intelligence disaster of the first order,” according to Gary Sick, a former staff member of the National Security Council under Carter’s administration. Sick, 49, who now teaches Middle Eastern politics at Columbia University in New York City, says that the loss of confidential papers is “certainly the most damaging since the fall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon nine years ago.”
As fascinating as spy novels, the paperbacks provide a rare glimpse into the world of diplomats and undercover
agents who often worked -
with stunning ineptness. Some volumes offer hard evidence of U.S. reluctance to accept that the ailing shah was losing his grip on the reins of Persian political power and that his fall was inevitable. As well, the paperbacks show how the United States failed to take steps to
establish a relationship with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the shah’s successor, who assumed power on Feb. 11,1979, after overthrowing the government of Shahpur Bakhtiar. According to Sick, whose book about the United States’ encounter with the 1978-79 Iranian revolution, All Fall Down, is scheduled for publication next spring, the papers contain “no smoking gun”—no evidence that the United States manipulated the shah or dictated Iranian policy. On the contrary, Sick says that some papers reveal “the tail wagging the dog”— they show that the shah repeatedly overruled U.S. objections on such matters as arm sales and oil pricing.
Some documents contain fascinating accounts of secret meetings between Central Intelligence Agency officials and their field agents, information which exposed - many Iranians to the retribution of the new regime. One account deals with an attempt to obtain information on Khomeini. The CIA instructed an operative, code-named T/l, a former member of Savak, the Iranian secret police, to seek a job in the Iranian foreign ministry just after Khomeini’s re-
turn from his 15-year exile in France in February, 1979. To obtain the details of his assignment T/l was instructed to meet with a CIA officer on a busy street corner and “wait at site for maximum of 10 minutes... attempt to have in left hand small shopping bag, in right hand, a newspaper.”
T/l was also told to wear a black turtleneck sweater, blue jeans and hornrimmed glasses with clear lenses. His assignment: to prepare a full dossier on Khomeini’s health, his headquarters and on his aides. T/l was to deliver the information he obtained in note form to the CIA station officer through T/l’s daughter. The documents reveal the real name, address and phone number of the daughter, as well as the identities of T/l and of other CIA agents. The fate of T/l and of the other agents remains unknown.
The embassy papers also detail the routine dealings between embassy staff and a wide range of Iranians with whom the Americans did business over a 30year period, many of whom the books identify by name and address. For many of those people, mainly politicians and businessmen, the papers’ seizure has represented hardship. The militant mullahs who now rule Iran say that the United States is the “Great Satan” and that all those who worked with the Americans were tools of the CIA. Al-
though information remains sketchy, according to Sick, after the papers established links between the innocent Iranians and the embassy, Khomeini’s regime sent many of them to the Evin prison in Tehran, where a number still languish.
The papers offer a rich collection of diplomatic misjudgments. In mid-1978 a source close to the shah had warned the embassy that if a crisis arose, the United States should urge the shah to “prepare Iran for change, not just depart abruptly.” That memo never reached the White House, having been lost as a low-priority message in the morass of papers at the state department. Documents written in late 1978 reveal the embassy’s continuing tilt toward those Iranian sources who said the shah would survive. One of the documents attributed the shah’s problems to his “bad image” and recommended the establishment of a think tank to change it. Another memo suggested that his “image could be improved if sacrificial lambs” successfully gave the impression that the shah was responding to widespread opposition charges of rampant corruption.
The published documents reveal that U.S. officials in Tehran ignored persistent rumors in August, 1978, that the shah was seriously ill with cancer, and that they continued to send the state
department optimistic reports of his ability to hold on to power. On Jan. 16, 1979, the shah fled Iran, flying first to Egypt and then to Morocco, where Carter administration officials denied him permission to take refuge in the United States. But for the next seven months he pleaded with Carter’s officials to allow him to come to the United States for medical treatment. The embassy was deeply opposed to the granting of that permission and it predicted, correctly, that if the shah were to enter the United States his arrival there would provoke a violent anti-U.S. reaction in Tehran. But the Carter administration ignored the mission’s warnings and the shah arrived in New York on Oct. 22,1979. Two weeks later the militants took over the embassy. The seized documents reveal that the White House had concluded that the powerful Iranian army would take control of the country once the shah was gone, by coup if necessary, even though the embassy had warned administration officials days before the return of Khomeini that the military was likely to support the Ayatollah.
The state department’s view was that the Iranians’ literary coup should never have happened. Shortly before the militants made their unsuccessful first attempt to seize the embassy in February, 1979, Ambassador William H. Sullivan had ordered his embassy staff to send back to the United States all sensitive documents. But a few months later, when the state department decided that the political situation in Iran was stabilizing, it gradually returned most of the files to the embassy without informing the White House. Then, in November, when the militants’ second and successful attack on the compound began, embassy staff should have destroyed the vast storehouse of documents as a matter of standard operating procedure before the Iranians penetrated the embassy’s inner sanctum. Staffers had time to partially shred only some of the documents, but the Iranians simply pasted the pieces together.
In the past two years alone, the Iranians have published a series of 26 paperbacks in Persian under the single title of The Spy Nest Documents. U.S. officials expect the militant anthologizers to continue the publishing offensive for several years because thousands of pages of secret cablegrams, diplomatic documents and personal papers remain unpublished. Much to the relief of U.S. state department officials, the revelations so far have not caused an uproar at home from angry Americans. But as the Iranians painstakingly pursue their task, the possibility remains that they could eventually piece together even more damaging revelations from the United States’ stolen secrets.
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