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Two Weeks in January: America’s secret engagement with Khomeini

THE LEVANT NEWS — By Gary Sick — The BBC has done a rather breathless account of some documents from nearly 40 years ago that have just been released. At the time of these contacts between the US Government and Khomeini’s forces, I was the point man in the White House dealing with Iran.

Not surprisingly, I have had a flurry of requests for comments. I wrote at length about these contacts in my book All Fall Down (Random House 1985), pp 140-147. My account was drawn directly from the documents that have now been released and I quoted many of the key phrases that the BBC has identified, plus others that are equally important but not mentioned in the BBC report. Regrettably, I do not have the text of the book in digital form, but it is available in paper for anyone who wants to look.

Here are some comments about specific aspects of these exchanges that may cast some light:

First, these discussions between Warren Zimmermann of the US Embassy in Paris and Ibrahim Yazdi, then a close aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, in a small inn near Neuphle-le-Chateau were discussed in advance with the shah, who encouraged the contact in order to avoid bloodshed in the wake of his departure, and with Shapour Bakhtiar, the shah’s nominee as prime minister.
Second, these contacts were essentially a negotiation about the role of the Iranian military and constitutional procedures after the shah’s departure. The US wanted to preserve the military as an institution, while the Khomeini forces were concerned about a possible military coup. Both sides wanted to avoid a collapse of order and a possible bloodbath. The discussions were essentially inconclusive and ultimately had little effect on the course of events.
Nobody in the US Government (nor in Iran far as I know) interpreted Khomeini’s words in these messages – or in his public pronouncements in favor of peace, stability, democracy, human rights, women’s rights etc – as evidence that he either wanted or expected a continued close relationship with the United States.
Finally, I have no knowledge of the reputed message from Khomeini to Kennedy in 1963, and it is very evident that nothing came of it.
Apart from selective quotations, there are some factual errors in the BBC report. For example, they claim that “On 9 November 1978, in a now-famous cable, “Thinking the Unthinkable,” the US ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, warned that the Shah was doomed. He argued that Washington should get the Shah and his top generals out of Iran, and then make a deal between junior commanders and Khomeini.“The message did NOT claim that the shah was doomed, and the deal that was eventually worked out by Sullivan with the Iranian opposition was done without Washington’s knowledge or approval. There was certainly no mention of such a deal in the Nov 9 cable.

Basically,this is a tempest in a teapot. The details of the exchange, in their full context, have been available in the public domain for at least three decades. The release of these documents, while welcome, adds nothing that we did not already know.

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