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The Rise and Fall of American-Iranian Relations: A Personal Account
By Samuel J. Moon
Interviewee: Mr. Henry
Instructor: Mr. Glenn Whitman
St. Andrews Episcopal School
AP United States History
Table of Contents
I.Statement of Purpose
II. Biography of Mr. Henry Precht
Iranian Hostage Crisis: Causes and Consequences
IV. Interview with Mr. Henry Precht
V. Interview analysis
STATEMENT OF Purpose
The purpose of this oral history project is to provide a deeper understanding
of history by examining the experiences of an individual. Oral history is a way of making history more approachable. Because
it is being viewed from a personal perspective, the document is colored with emotion and humor. This paper will provide a
brief description of the Iran Hostage Crisis and then an interview with Mr. Henry Precht who was involved in the events.
His unique perspective allows the reader a more thorough understanding of the crisis and why it occurred.
Mr. Henry Precht was born in Savannah Georgia in 1932 and grew up in the South. He is a Protestant by religion and
is married with two children. He graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Being half German, a quarter English,
and a quarter Welsh, he says that he was “always interested in international affairs.” He began his career working for the
Navy and then briefly in the Labor Department.
In 1961 he became a member of the United States State Department.
This took him to work at the American Embassies in Rome, Italy and Cairo, Egypt before he returned to work at the State Department
in Washington DC. In Washington, Mr. Precht worked on Middle-Eastern affairs. In 1970, he went to work abroad again, this
time in Mauritius, where he stayed for two years. In 1972 he moved to Iran where he lived for four years. He was the officer
in charge of political-military affairs at the American Embassy in Tehran, the largest American Embassy in the world at that
time with more than 1400 American employees.
In 1976 he returned to the United States and had a couple of jobs
connected to military matters that were indirectly related with Iran. In June of 1978 he took over the Iran Desk at the State
Department as the Director of Iranian Affairs. This was just at the time of the Iranian revolution. The American Embassy
in Tehran was undergoing great upheaval as over ninety-five percent of the 1400 American employees returned to the United
States for security reasons. Mr. Henry Precht coordinated this mass departure and recruited a team of around sixty “adventurous
young men and women” (444 Days) to replace them.
During the Iran Hostage Crisis, which occurred between November
1979 and January 1981, Mr. Precht worked directly with President Carter during his term in office and was a chief advisor
to the crisis team. When the crisis was concluded, Mr. Precht flew to greet the hostages in Wiesbaden, West Germany along
with former President Carter and many other members of the State Department.
He is now retired and lives at home
with his wife, Mrs. Marion Precht, in Bethesda, Maryland.
The Iranian Hostage Crisis: Causes and Consequences
During the 1960s and 1970s, tension between Iran and America was high. On November 4, 1979 this tension exploded
into what became known as the Iran Hostage Crisis. 52 American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran and held captive for
444 days. Diplomatic errors on the part of both Iran and the United States created a rift between the two countries that
has lasted more than twenty years.
Iran, known as Persia until 1935, is situated in the southeast part of the
Middle East region, with the Caspian Sea to the North and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman on the South. It borders
Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia to the North, Turkey and Iraq to the West, and Afghanistan and Pakistan on the East.
Persia was a “crossroads of early civilization in the Middle East,” (Lawson 27) and had the Islamic faith imposed upon it
by the Arab traders in the region. Persia was eventually ruled by a series of kings called Shahs from Tehran, the capital,
who upheld the Shiite sect of the Muslim faith.
In 1908 oil was discovered in Persia and for the first time, industrialized
Western nations such as Britain and the United States began to take an interest in the region.
There was a large influx
of foreigners, particularly the British and the Russians who were interested mainly in political and economic affairs. The
Americans in Persia were principally Christian missionaries, who established many schools “in which several thousand [Iranian]
students were eventually enrolled... The Persian people resented this [British and Russian] dominance and resulting interference
in their affairs, and came to look kindly on the apparently unselfish Americans” (Lawson 29).
After becoming independent
in 1935, the Shah became increasingly harsh and found himself politically more closely allied to Germany’s dictator, Adolf
Hitler, than to America. As a result, the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union invaded Iran during World War II and
established a new Shah, 22-year old Mohammed Reza Pahlavi whom they would be able to greatly influence. By the 1950’s America
needed an ally in the Middle East close to the Soviet Union as the Cold War was beginning to ‘heat up’. Iran seemed an excellent
option as the Shah was definitely in favor of American interests and Iran bordered the Soviet Union on both sides of the
Caspian Sea. In an effort to uphold American influence in Iran, the CIA became deeply involved in an attempt to overthrow
the Iranian prime minister, a nationalist and isolationist, called Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1953 they carried out ‘Operation
Ajax’ by hiring many Iranians to stir up the people against him. They succeeded in forcing the prime minister from power,
but the Iranian people were unsettled as hundreds had been killed in the process and their popular leader was gone. When
the word began to leak out that America was involved in this violence, “there was for the first time a strong current of anti-Americanism
abroad in the land” (Lawson 32). America had betrayed the trust that Iran had given her and had become involved in manipulating
the political system in Iran.
At the same time the Shah’s personal friendship with America grew. He visited America
a total of ten times and was visited several times himself, once by Vice-President Richard M. Nixon during Eisenhower’s presidency
and a number of times by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson during Kennedy’s presidency. When the Shah passed a new law in 1964
granting American troops full diplomatic status, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the Iranian people were irate. Particularly
outspoken was a Muslim leader called the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (see left) who said the agreement “reduced the Iranian
people to a lower level than that of an American dog.” He blamed the leaders of Iran for “selling their country and roundly
condemned them as traitors” (Bill 160). Usually the Shah would have ruthlessly put down a usurper such as this with his secret
police called SAVAK, but, since the Ayatollah was a religious leader, he could not risk imprisoning him, so, he had him exiled
to France. However Khomeini continued to influence the anti-Shah demonstrations from Paris, France.
relations deteriorated dramatically as a result of SAVAK’s increasing brutality. In 1976 Jimmy Carter was elected president.
He attempted to help relations with the Shah by proposing to sell some new military equipment to Iran. Iran was at the time
the biggest importer of American arms. The Shah went to America to discuss the proposal. The public outcry in Iran was massive
and as a result huge demonstrations erupted. In the riots against the Shahs rule throughout Iran between 1978 and 1979,
“an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 persons were killed and another 45,000 to 50,000 injured during the fourteen-month revolutionary
upheaval” (Bill 236). On December 10, 1978 The Washington Post printed the following: “Tehran looked like a city expecting
a siege. Opposition organizers claim that 1.5 million people - a third of Tehran - will march Sunday in a mammoth anti-Shah
demonstration” (Randal A1). This marked a crescendo in the anti-Shah demonstrations that would eventually tear the Shah from
power just over a month later, on January 17, 1979, when he would leave Iran forever. He spent the next few years moving
from country to country asking for political asylum.
The Ayatollah quickly returned to Iran and on his arrival
was greeted with great passion and in triumph. A student activist at the time, Farideh Mashinie, recalled, “the moment his
plane landed and Imam Khomeini came down the steps, that very moment was the most beautiful moment of my life” (444 Days).
Khomeini, with the country behind him, began to establish a radical Islamic government and appointed Mehdi Bazargan the provisional
President of Iran. At the time the United States Embassy in Iran was the biggest US embassy worldwide with over 1400 American
staff. This number decreased sharply with the departure of hundreds of American employees in response to the Ayatollah’s
intensely nationalistic policy and the violent attacks by thousands of student activists in the next few months, until only
about fifteen or sixteen were left.
The entire embassy, ambassador and all, were gone and were replaced by a small
group of sixty adventurous Americans, headed by Chargé d’Affaires, Bruce Laingen. His mission was to somehow improve American-Iranian
relations. Laingen and Henry Precht, Director of Iranian Affairs at the State Department, more or less ‘ran the show’ as
the rest of the state department was occupied with other crises. By the summer of 1979, Laingen was able to state “We seemed
to be having some success” (444 Days) and despite regular protests, the embassy was holding social events such as dinners
and dances to which some Iranian officials were invited: Iranian-American relations were improving greatly. However, the
Shah, who had been “moving from country to country searching for a safe haven” (444 Days), asked to be able to enter the United
States for medical treatment as he was dying of cancer. Jimmy Carter considered this and held many conferences with his advisors.
He finally decided to let the Shah into America, although there was a good chance that the Shah’s entrance to America would
see a renewal of the violent demonstrations at the United States’ Embassy in Iran. Henry Precht, said, “As so many weak leaders
do when they are confronted with conflicting choices, they select both of them. He [Carter] decided to keep the Embassy open
and let the Shah in at the same time: A fatal mistake” (444 Days).
There were a few days of quiet in Iran, with
little or no demonstrations, but a group of students were secretly planning a sit-in of the United States Embassy, which they
carried out on November 4, 1979. Planned as merely a demonstration, the sit-in became a siege and within a few hours the
sixty-six American diplomats inside the embassy were taken hostage. The embassy was totally unprepared for an attack and
“a very large quantity of classified information fell into the hands of the student militants” (Sick, All Fall Down 190)
which, much to their disappointment, did not supply the Iranian students with any definite conformation of their belief that
America had been running Iranian politics through the Shah. However, they broadcasted as much information as they could to
try to convince the world that the Americans were spies.
The hostages were moved around and separated. They
spent many of the 444 days that they were held hostage in the embassy compound and in an Iranian jail. Some of them were
tortured and threatened in an attempt to get information and thirteen Americans, mostly women and blacks, were allowed to
return to the United States. The conditions in which the hostages were kept were miserable. The provisional government and
President Bazargan strongly opposed the students’ actions, but Khomeini approved, and as a result of popular support being
undoubtedly in his favor, the provisional government fell within a week. Now Khomeini had total control of Iran and the hostages.
In response, Carter froze Iran’s multi-billion dollar assets in America, further damaging relations. However, he stated in
a press conference, “I am not going to take any military action that would cause bloodshed... We’re going to be very moderate,
very cautious...” (444 Days). And that seemed to be his policy for the first few months.
Negotiations went slowly
through Christmas of 1979, when an invitation came for three priests to come to Iran to be with the hostages over Christmas
Day. The invitation was quickly accepted and this was the first direct communication between the hostages and the world outside
Iran during which some of the hostages were given news of their families. Another communication between the hostages and
their families was made when the mother of one of the hostages managed to reach Tehran and had a brief interview with her
son. Kevin Hermening remembers, “one noon hour they walked into my room and told me I was going to see my mom... it was very
surreal” (444 Days). His mother, Barbara Timm, despite her jubilation at seeing her son said, “I was very, very frightened...
It was probably the worst time I’ve had in my whole life” (444 Days).
At this point, Carter decided that negotiations
were not going successfully and that a military rescue mission was necessary. Dr. Brzezinski, United States National Security
Advisor, had been pushing for military action since November 20th 1979. “The decision to proceed with the operation was taken
by President Carter on April 11, and it was scheduled to occur on the Iranian weekend evening of Thursday, April 24 ”
(Sick “Military Options and Constraints” 154). The mission was carefully planned: six aircraft and eight helicopters were
to fly from the USS Nimitz in the Arabian Sea, and land on an airfield in Southern Iran. From there the helicopters would
fly into a stadium adjacent to the United States Embassy compound and troops would force an entry into the embassy, rescue
the hostages and return to the USS Nimitz. Unfortunately, two of the helicopters were lost due to technical failures in the
first leg of the mission. This left the bare minimum of helicopters needed to rescue all the hostages. When a terrible accident
resulted in the destruction of another helicopter and a cargo plane and the death of eight officers, Carter aborted the mission.
However, he “behaved with great dignity. He made no excuses, sought no scapegoats, and accepted absolute personal responsibility”
(Gordon). In his Report To Congress on the Failed Hostage Rescue Mission, Carter said, “The mission on which they embarked
was a humanitarian mission. It was not directed against Iran. It was not directed against the people of Iran. It caused
no Iranian casualties” (Hofstadter 580-1). However, this speech did little to convince the Iranian government of any form
of trust between the two countries and the negotiations were slowed further.
The main reasons that the release
of the hostages was delayed so long were, first, the Ayatollah’s personal hatred of President Carter (which the rescue attempt
certainly did not improve). A second reason for the delay was that Iraq began “a full scale military invasion in September
1980” (Sick “Military Options and Constraints” 149). This gave the Ayatollah less time for negotiations with America.
Finally, Carter’s downfall was complete. The failure of the hostage crisis to this point increased his general unpopularity
and he lost the election of 1980 to Ronald Reagan. The negotiations began to speed up in the period after the election and
as Reagan’s’ inauguration neared, so did a conclusion to the crisis. The final agreement was that the US had to “lift the
US economic sanctions against [Iran] as well as to return $12 billion in Iranian assets frozen in US banks [in return for
the hostages]” (Lawson 39). However, the Ayatollah set the release date for January 20 1981, the day of Reagan’s’ inauguration.
As soon as Reagan was sworn in, the hostages were set free and flew to Wiesbaden, West Germany, and then home to America.
“The delayed departure deprived Jimmy Carter of the satisfaction of bringing the Crisis to a close ‘on his watch’. But it
was announced that the ex-president was flying to West Germany Wednesday to greet the hostages” (Detroit Free Press A1). Delaying
the hostage release was the Ayatollah’s final humiliation of President Carter.
In the next few years, relations
between the US and Islamic countries throughout the Middle East suffered. The revolution in Iran was spreading with the help
of Ayatollah Khomeini to surrounding countries such as Syria and Lebanon.
The Ayatollah and his government were satisfied
with the result of the Hostage Crisis, as Iranian politics were no longer dominated by America, as they had been since the
Mossadegh incident in 1953. His regime in Iran had received international attention and there was no loss of pride on the
Iranian side. As a result of this success another hostage situation arose in the Iran-Contra Affair of 1987, which brought
about a huge embrolio of foreign policy violations.
The problem in the Iran Hostage Crisis was that neither Iran
nor America really understood the other country. America saw the Shah as representing Iran while actually the Iranian people
were protesting both the Shah’s rule and the American dominance in Iranian politics. The Iranian people saw the Shah as a
representative of America, cruel and brutally oppressive; and that is the tragedy of American-Iranian relations.
Interviewee: Mr. Henry Precht
Interviewer: Samuel Moon
Date: Dec 26, 1999
Location: Mr. Precht’s
temporary residence; Barons Court,
Samuel Moon: How did you become a member of the State Department?
Henry Precht: I was always interested in international affairs: I was in the Navy and worked briefly in the Labor
Department. I took the examination in 1961: written exam, oral exam, health exam, passed it and went first to Rome, then
to Egypt, then back to Washington, working on Arab-Israeli affairs. Then after Mauritius, two years there, I spent four years
in Iran. I was the officer in charge of political-military affairs.
SM: What was the relationship between Americans
and Iranians while you were there?
HP: At the time that I served there, 1972 to ‘76, there were very close relations
between the two countries. That is between the Shah and his government, and the government of the United States. I can’t
say that there were particularly close relations between the two peoples, although there were numerous business connections.
The Shah and OPEC raised the price of oil. That gave him a lot of money to spend, which he spent on arms and development
projects and a variety of things, which brought in American businesses.
SM: How did the Shahs regime come to be?
The people didn’t like him at all...
HP: The Iranians suffer from a case of arrested political development. They
had had a constitutional revolution in which the Shah of the time, that is 1903, had a constitution imposed on him by merchants,
intellectuals and religious leaders. Then the British and the Russians interfered and blocked that development. After World
War I and the Russians had faded from the picture, the British manipulated the political system and put an army officer, Reza
Khan, on the throne as the Shah in 1925. He became the head of the new dynasty. In 1941, he was too friendly with the Germans
and as the War [W.W.II] had broken out in Europe, the British deposed him and put his young son who was about then about 21
years old on the throne. He was quite a weak figure at the time. Later on he had trouble with the more independent minded
government, led by Prime Minister Mossadegh, who wanted to nationalize the oil industry. The American CIA together with
the British succeeded in deposing Mossadegh through control of Iranian crowds and brought the Shah, who had fled briefly into
exile, back and put him on the throne. Then through the CIA and other agencies helped to keep him on the throne by developing
a security apparatus in Iran.
SM: So the Mossadegh affair was really what began the negative relations between
Iran and America?
HP: I think that is correct; until that time the Americans enjoyed relaxed policy in Iran because
they hadn’t been involved as the British and the Russians had in manipulating Iranian politics. After 1953 though, we were
blamed for preventing the full development of Iranian politics.
SM: You were Director of Iranian Affairs; you weren’t
actually living in Iran at the time of the Hostage Crisis...
HP: Yeah, after I lived in Iran, working at the Embassy
from ‘72 to ‘76, I returned to Washington. I had a couple of jobs, only indirectly related to Iran, mainly with military
matters. In June of ‘78 I took over the Iran Desk at the State Department. The revolution, we didn’t call it that then,
was in progress and people were worried by the troubles the Shah was experiencing with street riots and things got worse.
I was one of those who believed the Shah’s days were numbered, I came to that view earlier than most people, and I suffered
because that wasn’t American Government policy.
SM: What was your impression of the American Iranian relationship
at that time?
HP: When I first arrived in Iran, I was struck by the lack of any political freedom at all. I wondered
how a country that was developing in a modern sense, that is they had professional people, they had an economy that manifested
itself with western involvement, a traditional economy. I wondered how the new engineers, the doctors, the accountants, how
they could function without any political life at all. They couldn’t stretch themselves at all. We came to the conclusion
that it was a country that was ‘making it’ for the first time. A country in which people suddenly had money; they could educate
their children, they could buy a car, and they preferred that to having
SM: So they felt
secure in their political regime at the time and didn’t want to change that...
HP: They didn’t want to run the
risk of disrupting life when the Shah had such an iron control.
SM: Was it hard being an American in Iran then?
HP: No, people were not unfriendly to us, although while I was there for four years, six Americans were assassinated.
My daughter was driving with some friends at the embassy and the car behind them was shot up. An Iranian employee was killed,
so from then on we drove around in bulletproof vans and we followed very strict security procedures, but we didn’t have difficult
encounters with Iranians in the bazaars and that sort of thing.
SM: So the general feel was fairly neutral?
HP: It was fairly neutral, but I wouldn’t say it was a friendly country. I lived in Egypt when our relations were terrible,
that is with Nasser, but I had many more friends in Egypt than I did in Iran.
SM: You were returning from Iran
when the hostages were taken on November 4th 1979. Where were you when you heard the news?
HP: I had gone to
Iran for two weeks, as country director, to see how it had changed since I had lived there two years earlier. When I left
Iran, I believe it was on a Wednesday; I came to London to visit my daughter who was in school. Then I went back home to
call the State Department because I was uneasy about the way things had seemed to be developing. The State Department said
everything seems to be under control, there had been a threat of a demonstration at the embassy, but it had passed. So on
Friday I went up to see my son at his school in New York State, and then when I was driving back on Sunday, I turned on the
radio at noon and I heard that the embassy had been seized, and I knew we were in big trouble.
SM: So what was
your reaction to the news... did you do anything?
HP: [smiles] I just continued driving to Washington, and when
I got there I went immediately to the State Department, where people were gathering and trying to figure out what to do.
SM: One of the reasons the hostages were taken was because the Shah had been allowed back into America, which had
sort of enraged the people...
HP: There was, ever since the Mossadegh incident, in which the Shah had fled the
country and been brought back by the Americans, there was a fear that, once the revolution had succeeded, the Americans would
try to undo that by putting the Shah back on the throne. So when he was brought to the United States many people thought:
Ah, this is the first step in that direction. However, when I arrived in Iran in the middle of October, we went to see the
Prime Minister and asked if they would protect the embassy. They said they would do their best to protect us, and there was
no problem for two weeks. But then these students thought that perhaps they could force the hand of the embassy by seizing
SM: And you were actually in Iran during those two weeks...
HP: Right. I went to see
many leading politicians, including religious leaders. None of them, none of them, complained to me of the Shah being in
the United States.
SM: After the Shah had been admitted, is there any way a violent retaliation could have been
avoided, do you think?
HP: Umm, I think, my feeling was that if we defended the Shah, we were putting ourselves
in jeopardy in Iran. We couldn’t do both things. I think we were asking for trouble when we did that. Could we have avoided
it? If we had reduced the staff or closed the embassy we would have avoided it. Otherwise we were always going to be at
SM: How did Jimmy Carter handle the crisis?
HP: At the beginning?
HP: At the beginning one didn’t know what to do... There were two options I think. One was to try to force the Iranians
to release the Americans by either threatening them: giving them a certain time period and then saying, if you don’t do it
by then, bingo you’re going to be hit. Or by negotiating with them. Dr. Brzezinski argued for the use of threats and force.
I argued against it. I knew most of the people who were hostages. I had recruited them to go to Tehran; I couldn’t put their
lives at risk. We didn’t know where they were. We didn’t have any way of knowing if we could successfully rescue them.
That was extremely doubtful. I thought, this is an Iranian problem; we have to let the Iranians find the solution in their
Carter had the intense pressure of the American public opinion: he had to be shown doing something.
So he appointed a special envoy to go to Iran and give a letter to Khomeini to demand that the hostages be released. I didn’t
think that was going to pay off, I thought the Iranians would reject that kind of pressure, and I was right.
SM: How is it that you had lived there and were also the head of the department, yet he disagreed with you that much?
HP: Because he was responding to political pressure in the United States. When the public was outraged, the press was
outraged; he had to be shown to be active. My preference would have been to say, OK, tell the Iranians were going to give
you a certain amount of time. You work it out, then we can... You find a way. Your own, your own way. He had to be shown
to be doing something so he sent this plane, Air Force One, with his special envoy; I was on board the plane. We took off
on Monday, late in the day without Iranian permission to come. When we were over the Atlantic we heard that the evening news
was announcing that we were on the way. The Iranians then said that we couldn’t land in Air Force One. We stopped in Spain
and then we went to Athens to pick up a small plane, they didn’t want a big plane. Then they said you can’t come in any kind
of American Government plane, you have to come in a commercial plane. We switched. We went to Istanbul to get a commercial
plane. At that point Khomeini said no Americans could come at all.
SM: So the envoy never actually made it.
HP: No. We parked in Istanbul. We tried to telephone Tehran, but putting the Turkish telephone system together with
the Iranian system, at that time, took hours to make the simplest call.
SM: Ayatollah Khomeini was the religious
leader, and after the revolution and the preliminary government, became the leader of the regime. Why was he so hard to deal
with, so hard to negotiate with?
HP: I think you’re talking about his personality... he had been opposed to the
Shah since 1963, when he led demonstrations against the Shah. Actually it was against the Shah accepting an American requirement
that our military advisors be tried in American not Iranian courts. Khomeini said if an Iranian kills an American he will
be tried, but American kills an Iranian he will not be tried. He led these demonstrations but was suppressed by the Shah’s
tanks. Khomeini was arrested and sent into exile, and there he brooded until he returned in 1979. He was a man who had an
intense vision of what Iran should be like, but knew very little of the outside world, knew very little of negotiations.
He objected (we are told now) to the seizure of the embassy because this was done independently of his decision. But then
when he saw that the seizure was supported by many religious people, hard-line religious people, and also by many people in
the street, he couldn’t go against them, and so he took this tough line.
SM: So did he feel that the hostages were
HP: I don’t think so, initially, but I think... The crisis was, in part, a result of inexperience and
ignorance on both sides: the American side and the Iranian side. No one knew how to end this thing. He [Khomeini], dealing
in very simple terms that no one talks to the Americans, made it impossible for us to negotiate with them, to have any kind
of exchanges with them. Very soon the government that we had been dealing with, of Dr. Bazargan, resigned. Then there was
no one, the new government that came in we didn’t know at all. Ghotbzadeh and Bani-Sadr. There was no one for us to talk
to. Then a crucial thing happened. The embassy had not been able to destroy files. Until that time there had been simply
an outrageous seizure of the embassy: no one could approve of that. But then when the files began to be published, they
could portray our embassy as a ‘Nest of Spies’, as they called it, that we were there for espionage and to fight the revolution.
So in Iranian eyes at least, this seizure had some justification. Further on, a couple of weeks into the crisis, there was
a... Iran had huge sums, hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe billions of dollars, stashed in American banks since the days
of the Shah. We thought that they were going to withdraw this money: take it out of our banks. If they did that, then our
companies who had claims against them would have had no basis for a settlement of those claims. So, in order to preserve
some leverage for our companies, we froze the money. That gave the Iranians [chuckle] yet another argument against us: that
we were attacking them by taking their money. So, simply, in the beginning it had this snowballing effect.
So it was a back and forth, give and take...
SM: And that’s why it ran on so long, because
it was 444 days from start to finish.
HP: Right. But once you got over this initial period, then we continued
to hope that something, something would turn up and resolve our problem. Nothing turned up, so we did what governments do,
we went to the World Court, we went to the Security Council, and we got legal action taken against Iran. But these revolutionaries
couldn’t care less about the World Court or the UN; they were outside the system entirely. Quite frankly it made no impression
on them at all. One aspect where we failed is that we couldn’t get the support of our allies or anybody else for a complete
embargo on Iran. None of the Europeans would cooperate with us on that, and the Russians were intensely suspicious of us,
as they thought that we were simply using this hostage crisis as an excuse for re-entering Iran and re-establishing ourselves
on their border. So no one would collaborate with us, at this stage, in isolating Iran through sanctions.
Why was that?
HP: I think they were looking for their own economic advantage. They probably didn’t think it would
work; you know: the British, the French the Germans had considerable stakes. If we had refused to buy Iranian oil it would
have sent the price of oil up; we would have disrupted their economy. So they wouldn’t go along with that. The Russians
didn’t want to do us any favors, as it was the cold war. They later invaded Afghanistan [laughs] because they thought we
were threatening them there... No country really would join with us fully in trying to isolate and pressure Iran.
And then Jimmy Carter tried to do a forceful recovery of the hostages, a rescue mission...
HP: Before that, before
that beginning in January of ‘79, we got in contact, almost accidentally, with a French lawyer and an Argentinean lawyer who
had contacts in Tehran. The French lawyer had worked with Iranians before. He was a radical type. He was in contact with
the Iranian Prime Minister, Ghotbzadeh, and using them as an intermediary in highly secret negotiations, we tried to create
a scenario in which there would be an exchange of actions, a group would be appointed to go to Iran to investigate America-Iranian
relations, various statements would be made. It was all a sort of play, written out, and approved by the Iranian side, we
thought. It was all staged so that... this whole deal was secretly agreed to, we thought, by March, and supposed to be keyed
by, we make a statement, they make a statement, the hostages would move out of the embassy to depart. All that failed. It
all collapsed. We tried to revive the negotiations but it didn’t work: Khomeini wasn’t on board. The senior religious people
would not play ball; the whole thing failed. We had no other recourse. None of the Europeans had any ideas. Carter decided...
he yielded to the pressure of Dr. Brzezinski of trying a rescue mission. We had been opposed to that, we in the State Department,
because we didn’t think it would work. So Carter... First he expelled the Iranians who still had an embassy open, and imposed
sanctions. And then, I forget the precise date, the rescue mission was launched.
SM: How come it was handled so
badly? Eight Americans died and several planes were lost.
HP: Those were accidents... when you do something in
secret, that means you fence off people who know something. For example, they landed on this airfield in the desert, right
next to a highway. The people who planned this were experts in landing in deserts perhaps [chuckles], but didn’t know that
in Iran, in the hot weather, people travel at night, through the desert. So, what happened was, you know, inevitably, a bus
came by when they had landed, spotted them. But there were also the sandstorms... Iran is a huge country: big as the United
States East of the Mississippi. It’s a lot of distance to cover. Tehran is a huge city. We were only somewhat sure of where
the hostages were being kept. There were so many imponderables, I think, that there was a very slim possibility that it could
have succeeded without even greater loss of life than took place.
SM: Did you know about the mission before it...?
HP: No. No, we were not consulted at the State Department. As a matter of fact, the night, in Washington time,
when it failed, I was called by my boss who said, “Henry,” about 4 AM or something like that, “Henry, you know that thing
we thought, we feared they were going to try?” I said, “Yes, I can imagine.” [He said] “They did try it, it failed, come
down to the State Department.” So, we had to go and pick up the pieces from there.
SM: Do you think the mission
would have been more successful if people who had know Iran, lived in Iran and
people like yourself had been involved?
HP: I don’t think it could have succeeded because, you know, it required landing in a football stadium next to
the embassy, and then going over the embassy walls and shooting down the people who were holding the hostages, finding them
all on this huge compound. Then the three others away in the Foreign Ministry, getting them out too, coming back to the football
stadium, taking off in helicopters, getting back to the base... I think there was slim, slim chance that it could have succeeded,
no matter what experts you could have supplied.
SM: So it was more just another ploy of Carter’s to be doing something?
HP: I think it was a reflection of deep frustration he had. Now you have to remember that at this time he was
being pressed by senator Kennedy, for the nomination, that is Presidential elections were coming up in November and the Primaries
were being held and Kennedy was mounting a serious attack on his competency. The longer the hostage crisis went on, the worse
shape he was going to be in for re-election. So those calculations, I hate to say it, I think they entered into his thinking.
SM: How was it finally solved?
HP: I think... time. [chuckles] Time wore down the Iranians. But, more
crucially, Khomeini, back when our secret negotiations failed, he took himself out of the picture. He said the Iranian people
are going to have to decide through their elected representative, which meant we had to wait until they elected their first
parliament in the fall. So we had to wait until that stage. More importantly, a crucial thing happened: Iraq attacked Iran
in September . Iran had weakened itself. By now every other [European] country, except the Russians had joined an economic
embargo. Their military was decimated because arms dealers leaving and they were not able to get equipment... They were
probably at a weaker stage than they might be... ever. Iran is a much larger country than Iraq, but Iraq was on very bad
terms with Iran, had been for years, and [Iran] had accepted an agreement in 1975 that they had considered to be unfair.
So they attacked in September and had success initially. I think the Iranians then knew that they had to get this hostage
thing out of the way so that they could deal with Iraq without that impediment.
SM: It was slowing them down...
HP: Right. Getting rid of that thing. But there was another factor. One is that they hated Carter, they hated
him for having been a friend of the Shah, they hated him for the rescue mission and they didn’t want to do anything to help
him. So they refused to bring the thing to an end. The other thing is that they wanted their money back. They had these
inflated ideas of how to get this. It entered into a large and difficult negotiation.
SM: So it was Ayatollah
Khomeinis hatred of Carter that...
HP: There was that, but I think also the people around him were probably...
not the best thing, but certainly he hated Carter. It was a personal animosity.
SM: Could Carter have expected
to conclude the hostage crisis “on his watch”?
HP: Well he did conclude it by about 15 minutes. But I think, looking
back, it would have been very difficult to do. I think the deal of the frozen assets was about as good a deal as the Americans
could have gotten because this money was put into escrow [a suspense account] and the claim was going to be settled by an
independent tribunal. That was a very good deal for us. It’s worked out very well, it’s still working. But, I think with
the bitterness towards him, he wasn’t going to get any glory. If the Iranians had known, if they had had any world sense,
they would have known that dealing with Carter was far preferable [chuckles] than dealing with Reagan. I think they did realize
that, they wanted to punish Carter but they didn’t want to bother with Reagan, so they got rid of the problem before Reagan
SM: The hostages actually left just an hour after Reagan was inaugurated...
HP: I think it
was just about a few minutes after. Carter was on the way to the swearing in of Reagan at the Capitol.
Carter, in the eye of the American people at least, hadn’t finished it... The hostages were the main aspect, as far as the
American people were concerned, and they didn’t leave until Carter was gone...
HP: I think they gave Carter credit
for having gotten them out without loss of life, but there was no great respect for Carter. Immediately after the inauguration
of Reagan, he let Carter use Air Force One to fly to Germany to greet the returning hostages. I was on that plane with a
number of other people who had worked under Carter. I talked to Carter on the plane... I mean you can’t realize the feeling
of great relief we all had. There was no bitterness of anybody, it was just simply relief that the hostages were free and
that they had not been harmed.
SM: So despite his loss in the election Carter wasn’t too ‘down’?
No, I don’t think... he probably was down; it had been a humiliating defeat. But I was called into his cabin on this plane,
Air Force One, to talk to him about the individual hostages that he would meet and tell him something about each one. I warned
him that he would very likely encounter intense resentment from them for having admitted the Shah and put them in danger,
which resulted in their captivity. His attitude was, well, you have to live with it.
SM: He has to face up to
HP: He has to face up to it. I mean he did it very manly. I think, I mean I’ve heard from the hostages,
that when they had gotten the story of what happened during their absence, they were very supportive and warmly greeted Secretary
Vance who had resigned after the rescue mission, because they agreed with me that it could have been fatal for any of them.
They were polite to Carter, there was no rudeness, no hostility expressed openly...
SM: They were probably just
HP: They were so thankful to be out... I must say that they were also not very friendly towards me,
some of them, because they blamed me for...
SM: ...getting them into it...
HP: For getting them into
SM: Did things get cleared up later?
HP: Ohh, I think I’ve talked to many of them and I think
there’s no hostility... I mean: twenty years, a lot has washed away...
SM: Were any of them good friends before
HP: Oh yes. And they remain good friends. I didn’t know Bruce Laingen before he went out, but he has become
a very good friend. Mike Metrinko, Victor Tomseth numbers of them. Most of these people, I had arranged for them to serve
HP: ...I mean, we remain friends. Some of them wondered why did you do this,
why did you do that, you know, that kind of thing. Once I had explained my position they seemed to accept it...
But they knew that your ideas had been to try and help them?
HP: Some of them probably still hate me but you know
that’s part of life...
SM: What was the state of American-Iranian relations after the crisis in comparison to those
HP: Well, before they were very tenuous. We were trying, from the period between February, when the revolution
succeeded, and November when the hostages were seized, we were trying to build a new relationship. We tried to convince the
Iranians that we didn’t want to dominate them, that we didn’t want any special position; we just wanted an ordinary, normal
relationship. And when I went to Iran, at that time no member of the embassy could meet with a religious leader, they refused
to. I told Mr. Yazdi, the Prime Minister, that we weren’t going to make the same mistake as we had under the Shah, when we
refused to talk to the opposition. I said we want to talk to everyone, we want to talk to religious minorities, Jews, Bah’ais,
everyone, the opposition... He said what about the religious leaders? I said they wouldn’t talk to me. He said, I’ll fix
it up, so I talked to Beheshti, I spoke to Montezeri, both Ayatollahs. That was our feeling: that we were going to deal with
Iran like a normal country, not like somebody who was our client. But the Iranians could not get out of their minds that
we had once dominated them and, being a superpower, would try to dominate them again.
SM: So the American people
had seen Iran as the Shah, and the Iranians had seen America as being represented by the Shah. He was the real stumbling
HP: They viewed their leader as an American puppet. As I said, first we thought of Iran only in terms
of the Shah: what the Shah wanted was what Iran wanted. Then, after the Shah was gone, we thought of Iran in terms of Khomeini:
what Khomeini wanted was what Iran wanted. The latter was closer to the truth.
SM: ...the people were mostly behind
him. And after the entire crisis was over, you dealt with everybody.
HP: That’s right, during that interim period.
Then came the hostage crisis when things were frozen. Then afterwards I was gone [chuckles] from foreign affairs, but afterwards
I think there was this huge barrier between us: Americans feeling badly wronged and then there was Reagan’s arms for hostages
deal led by the Israelis...
SM: The Iran-Contra affair.
HP: Right. That was a terrible mistake. But
over time that has faded, maybe not so much in the United States where there’s still lingering hostility, but in Iran now...
I think the Iranians, now, are quite positive about the United States, except the political leadership...
if Americans interfered at all now...
HP: If we tried again, we’d be back down the same road...
But other than that, commercially...
HP: No, we don’t trade with Iran. We don’t and we have various laws that
we don’t want other countries to trade with Iran. We accuse Iran now of trying to develop nuclear weapons, of supporting
terrorism, and opposing the Arab-Israel peace process. And they accuse us of trying to dominate them and holding their assets.
But basically things have begun to mellow a bit and, I think, over time things will continue to...
SM: Do you
think some of the accusations are just a political thing?
HP: Sure, there’s political mileage to be made on both
sides. I mean conservative clerics want to use the United States as a way of defeating their more liberal opponents in Iran.
In this country, opponents of Iran want to use any softness on Iran as a way of getting at the administration.
How long do you think it will be before the situation between America and Iran will be totally cleared up... commerce will
HP: Uhh, well, we are now into an American election year. The Iranians are also having elections
in February for their Parliament. The following year I think they are having elections for their President. I think in this
period, very little is likely to happen, nobody is particularly going to want to take any risks. A lot will depend on who
is elected in America and who is elected in Iran. But I imagine that in two or three years, things will begin to mellow considerably;
if not sooner, because there is considerable appetite in Iran for the kind of technology and assistance that American businesses
can bring to the country. They need it for the full development of their oil industry. They need it if they are going to
modernize their economy.
SM: And America definitely wants the oil.
HP: They want the oil to flow, and
who knows what else is going to happen in the Middle East. I mean it’s not a region that is particularly stable. We don’t
have a problem at the moment with Iraq but who knows what else could happen, and we need to have... Or in Central Asia, or
in South Asia... We need to have some kind of way of talking to Iran and trying to find common ground.
I think that’s about it, Thank you very much.
HP: That’s it? Well, you asked good questions...
Analysis: The Importance of Oral History
The Iran Hostage Crisis was, and still is, a very controversial issue.
Many errors were made by both Iran and the United States that created tension, not only between the two governments but also
within the countries. For those
involved in the decision making, the entire period was extremely strenuous, yet the public
was told little of the
personal disagreements within the government, particularly then, during the Cold War. The media
focused more on
the event as a whole rather than the people involved.
It is valuable to have documented the
impressions of a person who experienced the event, the negotiations and
the tension first hand. The twenty years that
have passed since the hostage crisis have given those involved
enough time to see where things went wrong, but not enough
to let them forget. This interview with Mr. Henry
Precht is historically valuable because, although there is a lot of
written documentation about the hostage crisis, it
is mostly just analyzing the event rather than the experiences of those
Mr. Precht had had many years experience in the Middle East and particularly in Iran. He lived in Iran
years and in Egypt before that. At the time of the crisis he was the senior officer dealing directly with Iran
State Department. This experience gave him an edge over most government officials as to life in Iran. He could
see both sides of the revolution in Iran and why the Shah was experiencing problems. He believed that the
“days were numbered” (Moon 12) at an early point. This put him at odds with the people around him
because it differed
from United States Government policy. However he was absolutely correct.
He experienced enough of Iran to form
a deep impression of Iranian lifestyle and contrast it to the United States.
He said, “I was struck by the lack of any
political freedom at all. I wondered how a country that was developing in
a modern sense... could function without any
political life at all” (Moon 12). He concluded that “it was a country
that was ‘making it’ for the first time. A country
in which people suddenly had money; they could educate their
children, they could buy a car, and they preferred that to
having political rights” (Moon 12). His insight into
Iranian life is valuable to this project as there was little information
on Iranian lifestyle in my other sources. This is because few Americans were personally involved in the crisis and the few
who did document their experiences
analyzed the event as a whole rather than their personal involvement.
main events of the Hostage Crisis were already documented; so much of the interview merely verified my
helps establish Mr. Precht as a reliable primary source. However, he told the story from beginning
to end and clarified
the most important facts, which was very useful. One of the most important points was that
Mr. Precht did not believe
that retaliation could have been avoided after the Shah was admitted in October 1979,
unless the embassy in Tehran was
closed (Moon 15). Another important point was that Mr. Precht mentioned was
that many of President Carters actions during
the hostage crisis were in response to “the intense pressure of the
American public opinion: he had to be shown doing
something” (Moon 16). His first action was to send an envoy to
Ayatollah Khomeini to demand the release of the hostages.
Mr. Precht said, “I thought the Iranians would reject
that kind of pressure, and I was right” (Moon 16). The envoy was
never even allowed across the Iranian border.
Carter made a second decision that was fueled mostly by the desire to be
“doing something,” the failed rescue
mission. Very few people were consulted about the mission and, because the few planners
had little or no
experience of Iranian culture, they made a mistake.
The people who planned this were experts
in landing in deserts perhaps [chuckles], but didn’t know that
in Iran, in the hot weather, people travel at night.
So... inevitably, a bus came by where they had landed
and spotted them... There were so many imponderables; I think
that there was a very slim possibility that
it could have succeeded without even greater loss of life. (Moon 20-21)
Oral history is a great way to document events in history because personal experiences help define a period just
precisely as professionally documented historical events do. Mr. Precht's personal experiences in Iran allow
to see what life was like in the country in a way that has not been previously documented:
My daughter was driving
with some friends at the embassy and the car behind them was shot up. An Iranian employee was killed, so from then on we
drove around in bulletproof vans and we followed very strict security procedures, but we didn’t have difficult encounters
with Iranians in the bazaars and that sort of thing. (Moon 13)
Mr. Precht’s presence on board Air force One when
it was on its way to pick up the hostages in Wiesbaden is a
great example of how oral history goes beyond written documentation.
He described the “feeling of great relief”
(Moon 28) everyone aboard had. In his conversation with the former President,
Mr. Precht warned that he would
“very likely encounter intense resentment” (Moon 28). Carter’s response was “very manly”
(Moon 28), according to
Mr. Precht. These observations show that first hand experience of an event can bring much more
meaning to it
than a history book.
An important point, which my research had not shown, is that the political
and religious leaders had not
complained to Mr. Precht about the United States admitting the Shah in October 1979 (Moon
introduces the possibility that the political and religious leaders were neutral on the subject; they probably
that the Shah was in very poor health and wanted to enter the United States only for treatment. As a result, they
were unsure whether they should take action or not. The rest of the Iranian population probably did not know why
Shah entered the United States. Their reasoning was in all probability as Mr. Precht described.
There was, ever
since the Mossadegh incident, in which the Shah had fled the country and had been brought back
by the Americans, there
was a fear that, once the revolution had succeeded, the Americans would try to undo that
by putting the Shah back on the
throne. So when he was brought to the United States many people thought: Ah,
this is the first step in that direction.
Why the political and religious leaders went along with it when the student activists took the embassy
unclear. This would have been a great question to ask Mr. Precht during the interview, but they probably stood
the students for lack of any alternative action.
The fact that the Iranian leaders appeared to be impartial may
have been a deciding factor for President Carter in
leaving the embassy open in Tehran. This broaches one of the most
central points of the entire issue: whether the
fundamental error was in letting the Shah in or keeping the embassy open.
The fact that Mr. Precht was, 20 years
after the event, still unclear as to which was more a problem shows that, at the
time, the question must have been
more confused. This added to Mr. Precht’s description of the rescue attempt exposes
the danger of hindsight in
oral history, as it is difficult not to judge earlier events by their outcome. When one knows
how a situation will end
up there is always a tendency to emphasize certain points that, in hindsight, were the most important,
the time the feeling may have been different. This points to the fact that oral history is most effective
when it is
supplemented by documented evidence that can clarify confusing statements.
Also, the interview was,
at times, a bit confusing because of blurred detail and this took away from the overall
effectiveness of the document
slightly. One such case was on the topic of security for Americans in Iran. Mr.
Precht said, “No, the people were not
unfriendly to us, although while I was there... six Americans were
assassinated” (Moon 13). However, after the interview
Mr. Precht clarified that a small number of militant groups
were responsible for most of the hostilities and the grand
majority of the population was much more welcoming.
These aspects of the danger of hindsight and blurring of detail
appear to be some of the weaknesses of oral history
that can be illustrated in this project. However, the gains of first-hand
experiences in oral history far out weigh the
Oral history is an important way of documenting and
analyzing history because it is directly from a primary source and as such enhances the ‘collective memory’ of history. Although
the interviewee may not always remember
everything from his or her history, they do remember personal experiences, which
can shape a time period just as
effectively as history books written by experienced historians. During the Iran Hostage
Crisis, there were not very many people directly involved in such a high up position as Mr. Precht. This documentation of
experiences during that time is a valuable resource about life in Iran, working in the State Department,
hostage crisis. Interviews with former hostages, the student leaders of the hostages, and religious leaders in
Iran, would be the next people to interview as their experiences would be able to define the event from different
and therefore improve the collective memory of the period. Without an interview, a project on the Iran Hostage Crisis would
be less emotional and probably boring, as it would consist only of facts dredged from history books. An interview brings
a history project to life. Personally I found that this project was challenging in its consumption of time and effort. However,
it did give me a good understanding of an event that I previously knew nothing about.
James A., The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988
444 Days. dir. Leslie Woodhead. Videocassette. Antelope in assoc. with The History Channel, BBC, International
Gordon, Craig L., “US-Iranian Relations and the Hostage Crisis.” Roots of the Reagan Revolution
Internet. 4 Feb. 2000. Available:
Edward, “Flags of the World.” Fringe Flags on the Web (1998) Online. Internet. 4 Feb. 2000. Available:
Hofstadter, Richard and Beatrice, Great Issues in American History Vol. 3 From Reconstruction to the Present
Day, 1864-1981. “Foreign Policy 1958-1981, Document 12, Jimmy Carter, Report To Congress On The Failed Hostage Rescue
Mission To Iran, April 26, 1980,” New York: Vintage Books, 1982
“Hostages Go Free; Reagan Sworn In. Iran Releases
All 52 as Tehran Mob Jeers”, Detroit Free Press. 21 Jan. 1981: A1
Lawson, Don, America Held Hostage: The Iran Hostage
Crisis and the Iran-Contra Affair. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991
“Maps of the Middle East”, The Perry-Castañeda
Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin (1999)
Online. Internet. 12 Dec. 1999. Available: lib.utexas.edu/Libs/PCL/Map_collection/middle_east.html
McFadden, Robert, Joseph B. Treaster, and Maurice Carroll. No Hiding Place. New York: Times Books, 1981.
Precht, Henry, Personal Interview. 26 Dec. 1999
Randal, Jonathan C. “The Peacock Fades.” Washington Post.
10 Dec 1978: A1
Sick, Gary, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter With Iran. New York: Random House, Inc.
Sick, Gary, “Military Operations and Constraints.” American Hostages in Iran. Ed. Paul H. Kriesberg.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. 144-172.
The Following Story was originally located here:
AS THE SHAH FELL
This article is from "The American HEritage" magazine, from an article entitled,
"My Brush with History"
http://www.americanheritage.c om/98/may/032b.htm I was eleven, and my
family had been living in Iran for
more than three years while my father was attached to the American Embassy
in Tehran. In its Middle Eastern
way, both lazy and exuberant,Tehran had been good to me. But that was about
to change. In early November
of 1978, after months of escalating tensions, my school became engulfed in an anti-shah
broke its bounds and turned into a riot. That afternoon on the soccer field, we dropped to
the ground when a
nearby building blew up; a fire set by rioters had ignited the big diesel fuel tank in the
shaken, our teachers tried to maintain a normal schedule for the rest of the day, even though
we could hear
the crowds growing outside the school compound. At day's end we were told via loudspeaker not to
go to our
buses but to return to our homerooms and await instructions. Our room was on the second floor, and
classmates and I rushed to the window to look over the compound wall to see what was happening.
As far as we could tell, it was chaos. Everyone was waving a sign and yelling angrily. A few people lay
scattered on the street and sidewalks; we couldn't tell if they were hurt or dead. Finally we saw tanks
the crowd, apparently to contain the riot or cut off escape. At the age of eleven one doesn't think
only adventure, and we crowded around the open window—an eager audience to the unfolding
As the tanks moved closer, an Iranian friend of mine, Neda, started to pray. This scared me. Did she know
something we didn't? We all knew her father had something to do with SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, and
we waited nervously for something to happen. We heard the low-flying helicopters before we saw them, and
we suspected that the yellowish gray smoke billowing in their wake was not a good thing, we had no
idea it was
tear gas until we were overcome. We could barely see or speak as we stumbled downstairs into the
we managed to find a few adults, who hurried us back inside to wash out our eyes. That
just made the stinging
Finally my bus number was called. Our principal boarded after us and ordered all foreign-looking
lie on the floor with our coats over our heads until we passed through the worst of the rioting.
aninternational school, but there were enough Iranian students sitting up so as not to raise suspicion.
bus driver yelling at each roadblock, we managed to make it to the northern
most of us lived. Rather than snow days we began to have riot days, and we spent the next two
weeks at home while
unruly mobs surrounded our school. This was fine with us, and we arranged "curfew
sleepovers" to lleviate
the boredom. During one such sleepover I learned to belly-dance (sort of). At another,
in an apartment on the
main north-south road through Tehran, we watched from a window at two in the
morning as hundreds of the shah's
troops rumbled ominously past.
It happened two more times; we would go to school only to be sent home to
wait another two weeks. Each time
we returned to class more friends had left. First the Iranian students fled,
then the students from other Middle
Eastern nations, finally the Western Europeans. The last to be pulled out
of school were the American, British,
and Norwegian students.
Neda was one of the first to
go, and she vanished without a trace. I walked over to her house one day during
our enforced holiday to find
The neighbors would tell me nothing. Every evening I'd go up to the roof with my father to watch
which grew bigger and bigger, defying the curfew. He would radio the embassy, letting them know what
going on in our neighborhood.
Some nights the military shot up huge flares, like fireworks,
to aid in their work; other nights the demonstrators
set large buildings on fire. Every night was quite a show,
and given that I was stuck at home, it was the most
interesting thing I saw all day.
my mother sent me to the corner store for eggs. Anti-American rhetoric was getting worse and worse,
but my mother
thought that since we had lived here for almost four years, everyone knew us and we would be
safe. She was wrong.
I had my first lesson in mob psychology that day, when my neighborhood friends threw
stones at me on my way home
from the store. Although none of them hit me, the message was clear: We were
no longer welcome in this country.
I did not go out alone again.
Soon afterward an embassy official telephoned our house. Because of the increasing
death threats against
Americans, and in anticipation of a demonstration to mark Ashura, one of the most holy
days of Shiite Islam, all
nonessential personnel were being evacuated in forty-eight hours. We could pack two
suitcases each. If the
situation improved, we would be able to return, maybe before Christmas. My father would
stay behind, but not
in the house. My sister, then five, screamed that she did not want to go, this was home,
she would stay.
I—amazed and thrilled, truth be told, at the turn our previously peaceful life had taken—began
I don't remember what I took with me; it was nothing special. Later, when we knew we would not
be able to
return, I remembered vividly what I had left behind: my stuffed animal collection, jewelry box, photo
books, drawings, records—in short, my life.
The next afternoon, a crisp, clear winter's
day, all the evacuees met at the embassy; the cars and vans in its
motor pool had been bulletproofed four years
earlier after a few terrorist attacks on Americans. We milled
about nervously, waiting for word on what would
happen next. One family had brought their myna bird, hoping
to take it with them. Finally our convoy, with a
Marine guard escort, set off for Mehrabad Airport.
The streets were absolutely still because everyone was
already at the airport. I was not prepared for the crush
of desperate humanity trying to get a seat on any of
the planes out. Most of the commercial flights into Tehran
had long since been canceled; Pan Am had been chartered
to work the evacuation. Planes staffed by
volunteer crews were landing, boarding, and taking off every hour.
Sadly, while other nations were doing what
they could for their citizens, there were not many choices. Iranians
who wanted to leave had to
persuade their countrymen to let them out and a foreign government to let them in.
Desperation mounted, and
I saw rolls of rials change hands a number of times. Some families had camped out at
the airport for days,
putting their names on every list for a flight out.
Rumors were flying
about Khomeini's imminent return. I found out later many of the evacuation flights did not
have proper clearance,
and everyone feared trouble. On the plane I found three or four classmates, which was
not surprising since the
entire expatriate population was trying to leave.
Everyone was quiet as we took off. Soon the magnitude
of what had happened started to sink in, and the
adults talked about whether they would ever be back and what
they had left behind. In many cases whole
households had been sacrificed for the chance to leave before the anti-American
sentiment burst into
violence. When we left Iranian airspace and began flying over Turkey, the adults cheered,
everyone perked up. I left my seat to play cards with my friends. We all congratulated one another
part of something so exciting and wondered if anyone outside Iran would believe us.
Barely aware of the commotion the revolution had caused in the rest of the world, we were surprised when a
flight attendant asked us if the rumors were true, if the shah was on the plane. We laughed and said that if he
were, everyone would know it. She explained that there had been talk that he would try to leave the country in
disguise. Hearing that, we jumped up and set about looking for him. Since his picture had been everywhere in
Tehran—in shops, in homes, even inside the cover of our school notebooks—we figured we had as good a
as any to discover him.
We debarked in London expecting to stay with friends for only a few days. But following
an initially peaceful
demonstration, order in Iran swiftly and completely broke down. Although not politically
understood momentum, and on some level I knew that the momentum was not in our favor. We waited
London for two weeks with growing uneasiness and then, relinquishing all hope of returning to Iran, flew to
grandmother's house in Indiana.
Three weeks after we left, the shah fled and Khomeini returned
triumphant. Iran became an Islamic republic.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated,
then disintegrated. My father stayed until
June of 1979, avoiding being taken hostage by a few months.
Some days a slant of light, a languid camel at the zoo, or a mercantile transaction of exuberant proportions
reminds me that politics can become very personal.
—AMY RUKEA STEMPEL, a freelance writer,
lives in Arlington, Virginia.