Jimmy Carter's engagement with Ruhollah Khomeini

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Helmut Schmidt, Jimmy Carter, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and James Callaghan. Photo taken during the Guadeloupe Conference which took place from 4 to 7 January 1979
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ebrahim Yazdi, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh and other members of Khomeini's retinue giving a press conference at Khomeini's residence in Neauphle-le-Château near Paris, France

In 2016, the BBC published a report which stated that the administration of United States President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) had extensive contact with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his entourage in the prelude to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.[1][2] The report was based on "newly declassified US diplomatic cables".[1][2] According to the report, as mentioned by The Guardian, Khomeini "went to great lengths to ensure the Americans would not jeopardise his plans to return to Iran - and even personally wrote to US officials".[1][2] According to the report, in turn, Carter and his administration helped Khomeini and made sure that the Imperial Iranian army would not launch a military coup.[1][2]

The BBC report also showed a 1980 CIA analysis, which portrays Khomeini's attempts to contact the US as far back as 1963, during John F. Kennedy's administration.[1][2]

Iran's political élite has dismissed these declassified reports. Ayatollah Khamenei stated that "it was based on fabricated documents". Ebrahim Yazdi (formerly a close associate of Khomeini) and Saeed Hajjarian viewed the BBC report with skepticism.[1][2]

November 1978 – January 1979[edit]

Picture of Robert E. Huyser

A declassified cable shows that on 9 November 1978, William H. Sullivan, then-US ambassador to Iran alerted the Carter administration of the Shah being "doomed".[2] Sullivan stated that the US should get Iran's Shah and his most senior generals to exit the country, and construct an agreement between secondary commanders and Ruhollah Khomeini.[2] In January 1979, General Robert E. Huyser was dispatched to Iran.[2] According to the narrative of Carter's government, Huyser was sent to promise US support for the Shah.[2] However, the declassified reports show that Huyser was in fact sent to Iran in order to prevent the Iranian military leaders from orchestrating a coup in order to save the Shah.[2] He was also reportedly tasked with convincing the Iranian military leaders to meet Mohammad Beheshti, Khomeini's second in command.[2] Huyser was soon faced with accusations of neutralizing the Iranian military and for paving the way for Khomeini's ascension to power.[2] However, Huyser himself always strongly denied these claims. Huyser's reports to Washtington have not yet been published.[2] In the meantime, US ambassador William Sullivan actively worked behind the scenes in order to undermine the Shah's Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar:[2]

[He] praised Bakhtiar's courage to his face, but behind his back, told Washington that the man was "quixotic", playing for high stakes, and would not take "guidance" from the US. The state department saw his [Shapour Bakhtiar] government as "not viable". The White House strongly backed him in public, but in private, explored ousting him in a coup.

On 9 January 1979, David L. Aaron told to Zbigniew Brzezinski to target Bakhtiar with a military coup and then form a deal between Iran's military leaders and Khomeini's entourage which would remove the Shah from power.[2] On 14 January 1979, with the Shah's government still in power, Cyrus Vance sent a message to the American embassies in France and Iran:[2]

We have decided that it is desirable to establish a direct American channel to Khomeini's entourage.

On 15 January 1979, Warren Zimmermann, an official of Carter's government in France, met with Ebrahim Yazdi in Paris.[2] Zimmermann met with Yazdi on two more occasions in Paris, the last meeting being on 18 January 1979.[2] Meanwhile, on 16 January 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had left Iran; suffering from terminal cancer, he had been told by Carter a few days earlier, on 11 January 1979, to "leave promptly".[2]

On 27 January 1979, Khomeini told the US just weeks before the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's government:[1][2]

It is advisable that you recommend to the army not to follow Bakhtiar (...) You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans. (...) There should be no fear about oil. It is not true that we wouldn’t sell to the US. (...)

In mid-to-late January 1979, according to the declassified documents, Carter's government de facto admitted that it would have no issues with the abolishment of the Iranian monarchy and its military, whom were having daily talks with Huyser — as long as the eventual result would come gradually and in a controlled way. Khomeini and his entourage now realized that Carter had discarded Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.[2]

February 1979[edit]

Two days before Khomeini's return from France, commander-in-chief Abbas Gharabaghi told Khomeini's entourage that the Iranian military was not against political alterations, particularly with regard to "the cabinet".[2] On 1 February 1979, Khomeini arrived in Tehran. By 5 February 1979, the Iranian military was not resistant to changes in the type of government anymore, as long as these changes were conducted "legally and gradually".[2] By this point, junior officers and conscripts deserted and a mutiny erupted in the Air Force. On 11 February 1979, Iran's military leaders, behind Shapour Bakhtiar's back, declared neutrality, which de facto meant that they had surrendered.[2]

Gary Sick, former member of the National Security Council during the period of the Islamic revolution has stated to The Guardian that "the documents [shown by the BBC] are genuine".[1][2] However he added that he was unaware of Khomeini's alleged attempts to get into contact with the US back in 1963.[1][2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Dehgan, Saeed Kamali; Smith, David (10 June 2016). "US had extensive contact with Ayatollah Khomeini before Iran revolution". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Fattahi, Kambiz (3 June 2016). "Two Weeks in January: America's secret engagement with Khomeini". BBC. Retrieved 25 April 2019.