20 Years after the Hostages:
Declassified Documents on Iran and the United States
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 21
Published – November 5, 1999
Edited by Malcolm Byrne
For more information contact:
Malcolm Byrne 202/994-7000 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Washington, D.C., November 5, 1999 – The shocking seizure of the American embassy and
its staff in Tehran on November 4, 1979, placed U.S.-Iran relations firmly
in the deep freeze. Whatever hopes existed on either side for a rapprochement
after the Shah’s departure at the start of the year were quickly doused.
Twenty years later, the controversy over reestablishing ties rages on in
both countries. Serious differences exist on strategic matters and regional
policy, while public discourse is complicated by lingering images of blind-folded
hostages and rhetorical invocations against "Global Arrogance".
In the last two years, however, Iran’s political scene has become far
more fluid. President Mohammad Khatemi’s surprise landslide victory in
May 1997 reflected strong grassroots demands to rejuvenate Iran’s post-revolutionary
policies, and the new moderate leader has responded, even reaching out
to the United States with a compelling call for a "dialogue of civilizations".
Gingerly as yet, the White House has endorsed the idea, but neither side
seems ready to take the official plunge. Instead, both President Khatemi
and President Clinton have promoted private, non-governmental contacts
as a way to crack the ice that has shrouded the two countries’ interactions
for the past two decades.
To make the most of this new opportunity, the National Security Archive
in 1998 initiated a project on the history of U.S.-Iran relations. Its
aim is to expand both sides’ understanding of the experiences and perspectives
of the other, and in the process help to dissolve some of the myths that
have built up in the wake of contentious historical events ranging from
the 1953 CIA-assisted coup to the 1978-79 revolution itself. The methodology
consists of bringing together scholars and contemporaneous documentary
sources from inside and outside Iran, and to compare findings from differing
national perspectives. At the same time the project seeks to promote the
values of freedom of information, open scholarly exchange, civil dialogue
and toleration of opposing views, which the Archive embraces.
The following selection of documents is a sample of American sources
on U.S.-Iran relations since World War II currently available at the National
Security Archive. Although this project is relatively new, Iran has been
a long-standing interest of the organization. One of the Archive’s first
major microfiche publications, Iran:
The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1980 (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck-Healey,
1990) reproduced some 14,000 pages of declassified materials, including
many documents seized and later published by the "Students Following the
Line of the Imam" who overran the U.S. embassy in November 1979. The U.S.-Iran
Project is also seeking new materials from British and former Soviet archives,
given the crucial impact of those countries’ policies on Iran during the
1: "Developments in the Azerbaijan Situation," Central Intelligence
Group, Office of Reports and Estimates (ORE 19), secret, June 4,
One of the first crises of the post-World War II period between the
United States and Soviet Union centered around the northern Iranian province
of Azerbaijan. Moscow’s refusal to withdraw its military forces after the
war and its clandestine support for autonomy movements in Azerbaijan and
Kurdistan rang alarm bells in Tehran as well as in Washington and London.
By the end of 1946, however, the crisis had been resolved. Nonetheless,
because of Azerbaijan’s (and Iran’s) strategic significance as a source
of oil and a gateway to the Persian Gulf and other important regions, American
officials still worried about the long-term fate of the province. This
analysis, by the Central Intelligence Group (a precursor to the CIA), concludes
firmly that the USSR "will not abandon its ultimate objective of controlling
Azerbaijan, and eventually all of Iran."
This general feeling was already widely shared by U.S. officials, including
President Truman, and had been an important ingredient in the development
of the Truman Doctrine and the broader containment policy that prevailed
throughout the coming Cold War. Yet, while Moscow’s aims were clearly a
cause of concern for Iran and the West, documents beginning to surface
from Soviet-era archives are showing that Stalin’s goals at the time were
most likely limited primarily to getting a favorable oil concession from
Iran, which would not only mitigate the USSR’s security and economic concerns
but also satisfy the Soviet leader’s desire to be treated on a par with
the other great powers, Britain and the United States.
2: Memorandum for the President (discussing behavior of
the Shah, Gen. Zahedi and Winston Churchill immediately after the coup),
Memorandum from the Department of State, top secret, circa
Prior to the 1979 hostage-taking episode, the most contentious issue
in U.S.-Iran relations was the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister
Mohammad Mossadeq, which the CIA and British intelligence helped to instigate.
Numerous questions remain about the coup itself, its impact, and the circumstances
which brought it about. To what extent was Mossadeq leading his country
down the path toward communist subversion? Could the coup have succeeded
without substantial Iranian public dissatisfaction with Mossadeq’s policies?
Did key Iranian political and religious figures, wittingly or not, receive
CIA payments in return for stirring up the population? What effects did
the coup have on the future development of internal Iranian politics, including
possibly radicalizing anti-Shah and anti-American opposition elements with
consequences that would not be foreseen until the revolution itself?
The search for answers will have to wait at least until more of the
documentary record is available in both Iran and the United States. Unfortunately,
a portion of the record on the American side will never be recovered because
CIA operatives, according to former Director of Central Intelligence James
Woolsey, destroyed them in the 1960s. The surviving files remain locked
away from public view on the grounds that their declassification, even
46 years later, would damage the national security. Because of the obvious
public interest value and historical significance of these materials, the
National Security Archive in May 1999 filed suit against the CIA to demand
their release. The suit is still pending.
3: "Follow-up on the President’s Talk with the Shah of Iran,"
Memorandum from Henry Kissinger to Secretaries of State and Defense, secret,
July 25, 1972.
Iran-U.S. relations took a dramatic turn during the Nixon presidency.
Within the framework of the Nixon Doctrine, announced in June 1969, which
declared that the United States would increasingly look to regional powers
in support of American interests, and in the wake of the British decision
the year before to begin to pull back its military presence from the Persian
Gulf, the Shah was handed the opportunity he had long been waiting for
to assert his country as a dominant power in the Middle East. As one of
America’s main "pillars" in the region, it followed that Iran would need
major infusions of military aid. Nixon and the Shah apparently reached
a basic agreement on this point as early as October 1969 during the Shah’s
visit to the United States. In May 1972, after another meeting, Nixon agreed
to expand America’s commitment to Iran’s military build-up. This memo from
Henry Kissinger instructs the secretaries of state and defense to implement
the president’s decisions.
4: Shredded CIA Cable reporting on information provided
by an Iranian contact, secret, September 1, 1979.
When the "Students Following the Line of the Imam" stormed the U.S.
Embassy on November 4, 1979, they gained access to the embassy’s extensive
files. Before they were taken hostage, embassy officers had tried to destroy
as much as possible — often by shredder — but the Iranians managed to recover
the shredded items and systematically reassemble them. They then published
facsimiles of the documents in a series that currently numbers over 70
volumes. Most of the shredded materials are CIA cables that relate to clandestine
contacts with Iranians. This example describes a nugget of military information
provided by one such contact.
5: "U.S. Policy Toward Iran," The White
House, Draft National Security Decision Directive (NSDD), secret,
June 17, 1985.
Despite a strict official policy of refusing to cut deals with terrorists,
President Ronald Reagan in August 1985 authorized the first of a series
of covert arms deals with Iran in order to gain the release of several
Americans being held hostage by Islamic militants in Lebanon. This draft
directive, prepared by National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, was
one of the first documents to propose sending weapons to Iran, although
its rationale was firmly rooted in Cold War imperatives: "[O]ur primary
short-term challenge must be to block Moscow’s efforts to increase Soviet
influence" in Iran. The idea of arming Iran met with derision from Defense
Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who called it "almost too absurd to comment
on." Yet, within weeks, the president had given his approval for McFarlane
to explore contacts with Tehran.
6: "Responding to Iraqi Aggression in the Gulf," The White
House, National Security Directive (NSD 54), top secret, January
As the Cold War wound down, President George Bush, in signing this directive,
set in motion a hot war against the regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Unlike
the draft 1985 directive (Document 5), there is no
longer any reference to the Soviet Union and its threat to American interests,
but the document does restate — indeed in its opening sentence — the overriding
importance of oil to U.S. national security, an article of faith since
World War II, and the principle reason for the United States’ involvement
in the Persian Gulf throughout the Cold War. Ironically, during the early
1980s, Washington had secretly sided with Saddam Hussein in his war with
Iran (1980-1988) in the belief that Ayatollah Khomeini’s attempts to export
his Islamic revolution (and strong anti-Americanism) to the rest of the
Persian Gulf represented the greater threat to U.S. interests.