Zbignew Brzezinski vs. Cyrus Vance
Carter’s national security adviser, Zbignew Brzezinski — a cold war hardliner whose realism was more coherent in essays than in reality — had pushed Carter to take a hawkish stance against Iran’s revolutionary Islamist students. (The same Brzezinski would soon be enthusiastically endorsing American support of militant Islamists in their fight against Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan.) As protests against the shah grew and became violent, Brzezinski wanted Carter to support a military crackdown by the shah, including the imposition of martial law and the use of force, if necessary. Carter resisted getting personally involved. His commitment to human rights overrode Brzezinski’s concerns that the shah could be toppled.
Cyrus Vance, Carter’s secretary of state, had urged the president to stop backing the shah and open a line of communication with Khomeini when the ayatollah was still in Paris. Carter, not wanting to look like the president who “lost Iran,” refused to pull back official support of the shah.
The Shah loses Power
But by November 1978, the shah’s hold on power was academic. It was a matter of time before he’d be driven out. When, on Nov. 6, 1978, the Shah imposed martial law, his speech to the nation sounded like a surrender: “I commit myself to make up for past mistakes, to fight corruption and injustices and to form a national government to carry out free elections.”
Two months later—on Jan. 16, 1979—the shah fled Iran. And on Feb. 1, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini flew on an Air France jumbo jet from Paris to Tehran. Carter sent a squadron of F-16s to Saudi Arabia as a show of American force and will. But word leaked that the F-16s were unarmed. It was a humiliation for Carter that sent a message to American foes: the United States was not committed to defend its interests forcefully.
Two weeks after the Ayatollah’s de-facto reign began, Iranian revolutionary guerillas took over the American embassy in Tehran—but only for two hours. Revolutionary Guards intervened against the attackers, and Khomeini, by way of another ayatollah, apologized for the attack.
Fatal Mistake: Admitting the Shah Into the United States
The ayatollah’s tune changed in October 1979 when Carter caved to David Rockefeller’s and Henry Kissinger’s insistence that the shah be allowed into the United States for medical treatment. The shah was suffering from cancer. Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank had loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to the shah while he was in power, and Kissinger’s interests shadowed Rockefeller’s. Rockefeller was looking to get his money back. Nursing the shah while forcing Carter’s hand were cynically minded business decisions.
Carter knew the risk of letting the shah into the country. His outgoing ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, had made it clear: “If they let him in, they will bring us out in boxes,” Sullivan told State Department official Henry Precht over the phone. The concerns were relayed to Carter, who was resisting letting the shah in until Vance defected from his side and joined the chorus urging Carter to let in the shah. “What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?” Carter asked his aides during a foreign policy breakfast on Oct. 19, 1979. No one answered. “On that day,” Carter went on, “we will all sit here with long drawn white faces and realize we’ve been had.”
(The quote is from Hamilton Jordan’s Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency (Putnam, 1982), page 32. Jordan was Carter’s chief of staff.)
On October 22, 1979, the shah entered the United States. On Nov. 4, militants took over the American embassy in Tehran. (The shah died on July 27, 1980, in Cairo.)
How Rockefeller and Chase Bank Profited From the Crisis
“The benefit of the embassy takeover was significant for Chase” and Rockefeller, writes Patrick Tyler in World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East from the cold war to the war on terror (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009). “Carter froze Iranian assets in the United States, including the hundreds of millions of dollars in Chase accounts. The freeze enabled Chase to declare Iran in default on its loans since the Iranian central bank was no longer able to move money between accounts to make interest payments. Chase then seized Iran’s cash reserves in the amount of the outstanding loans and walked away clean from the disaster.”
Carter—and the United States—would be neither so lucky nor so unscathed. And for the hostages in Iran a 444-day ordeal was just beginning.