How Khomeini deceived ‘the Great Satan’
Washington - Iran’s propaganda machinery consistently depicts Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as an uncompromising revolutionary who devoted his life to the fight against “the Great Satan” — the United States — and the shah of Iran.
Newly declassified US government documents, including diplomatic cables, policy memos and the minutes of top-level meetings, however, depict Khomeini as an able chess player who masterfully deceived the United States to secure a bloodless transfer of power from the shah’s regime to Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries.
The documents also disclose the unbelievable naiveté of the Carter administration.
Khomeini’s first overture to the United States was a letter written in November 1963 during his house arrest to president John F. Kennedy. In it, the ayatollah condemned the shah’s “white revolution”, which, among other things, distributed the land of religious charities among landless peasants and granted Iranian women the vote.
Both initiatives were anathema to the Shia clergy, who incited the mobs in the holy city of Qom to rebel against the authorities. While attacking the shah, the ayatollah carefully explained he was not opposed to American interests in Iran and considered a US presence necessary to “counter the Soviet and British influence”.
Khomeini did not receive a response to his letter. Iranian prime minister Asadollah Alam successfully crushed the Khomeini-led uprising in 1963 and Kennedy was assassinated a few weeks after the letter was delivered to the US State Department.
Towards the end of 1979, the situation had changed: Cancer was devouring the shah and his regime was crumbling. Khomeini’s star was in the ascendant and only the imperial army stood between the ayatollah and control of Iran.
The Carter administration did not care too much for the shah and had its eyes fixed on its Cold War enemy in Moscow. As long as Iran did not go red and the Iranian military was preserved as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, it did not matter much to the Carter administration whether the ayatollah or the shah was in power.
Khomeini’s representative, Ebrahim Yazdi, was more than happy to reassure American diplomats in Paris and a deal was struck between Washington and the revolutionaries: Washington would not object to the abolishment of the monarchy and would prevent a military coup in Iran.
In return, Khomeini pledged not to destroy the Iranian military, promised an Iran free of Soviet domination, neutral, if not friendly to the United States, one that would not export its revolution abroad nor cut the flow of oil to the West.
The Carter administration lived up to its part of the bargain: It persuaded Nasser Moghadam, head of the SAVAK, the shah’s notorious US-and Israeli-trained intelligence and security service, and Abbas Gharabaghi, the army chief of staff, to engage in negotiations with Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, another of Khomeini’s representatives.
US president Jimmy Carter tasked US Air Force General Robert E. Huyser with dissuading the shah’s generals from staging a last-minute coup.
On February 11, 1979, the Supreme Military Council indeed declared itself “neutral in the current political disputes” but Khomeini did not show the same degree of fidelity.
Early cadres of what later became known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), armed with weapons seized from military garrisons and police stations, rounded up the top generals, who were later executed by firing squad.
Moghadam, who was a key witness to Khomeini’s “deal” with Washington, was among them.
The United States was too good an enemy for Khomeini to lose and, as soon as he used Washington to neutralise the threat of a military coup, he sang the usual anti-American hymn.
As the BBC’s Persian Services broadcast the latest declassified US government reports, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accused Washington of “fabricating” evidence of the liaisons between Khomeini and the Carter administration.
But Khamenei, himself a master of deceiving Washington, knows better than that and is emulating his predecessor. It is Washington that has not learnt from its previous encounters with the Islamic Republic.