US documents reveal Khomeini’s secret contact with ‘Great Satan’

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On January 27, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, the man who called the United States “the Great Satan” – sent a secret message to Washington, BBC News reported on Saturday.

From his home in exile outside Paris, the defiant leader of the Iranian revolution effectively offered the Carter administration a deal: Iranian military leaders listen to you, he said, but the Iranian people follow my orders.

If President Jimmy Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation, stability could be restored, and America’s interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.

At the time, the Iranian scene was chaotic. Protesters clashed with troops, shops were closed, public services suspended. Moreover, labour strikes had all but halted the flow of oil, jeopardising a vital Western interest.

Persuaded by Carter, Iran’s autocratic ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, known as the Shah, had finally departed on a “vacation” abroad, leaving behind an unpopular prime minister and a military in disarray – a force of 400,000 men with heavy dependence on American arms and advice.

Khomeini feared the nervous military: its royalist top brass hated him. Even more worrying, they were having daily meetings with a US Air Force General by the name of Robert E Huyser, whom then president Carter had sent on a mysterious mission to Tehran.

The ayatollah was determined to return to Iran after 15 years in exile and make the Shah’s “vacation” permanent. So he made a personal appeal.

In a first-person message, Khomeini told the White House not to panic at the prospect of losing a strategic ally of 37 years and assured them that he, too, would be a friend.

“You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans,” said Khomeini, pledging his Islamic Republic will be “a humanitarian one, which will benefit the cause of peace and tranquillity for all mankind”.

Khomeini’s message is part of a trove of newly declassified US government documents – diplomatic cables, policy memos, and meeting records – which tell the largely untold story of America’s secret engagement with Khomeini.

This story is a detailed account of how Khomeini brokered his return to Iran using a tone of deference and amenability towards the US that has never before been revealed.

The ayatollah’s message was, in fact, the culmination of two weeks of direct talks between his de facto chief of staff and a representative of the US government in France – a quiet process that helped pave the way for Khomeini’s safe return to Iran and rapid rise to power – and decades of high-stakes tension between Iran and America.

In the official Iranian narrative of the revolution, Khomeini bravely defied the United States and defeated “the Great Satan” in its desperate efforts to keep the Shah in power.

But the documents reveal that Khomeini was far more engaged with the US than either government has ever admitted. Far from defying America, the ayatollah courted the Carter administration, sending quiet signals that he wanted a dialogue and then portraying a potential Islamic Republic as amenable to US interests.

To this day, former Carter administration officials maintain that Washington – despite being sharply divided over the course of action – stood firm behind the Shah and his government.

But the documents show more nuanced US behaviour behind the scenes. Only two days after the Shah departed Tehran, the US told a Khomeini envoy that they were – in principle – open to the idea of changing the Iranian constitution, effectively abolishing the monarchy. And they gave the ayatollah a key piece of information – Iranian military leaders were flexible about their political future.

What transpired four decades ago between America and Khomeini is not just diplomatic history. The US desire to make deals with what it considers pragmatic elements within the Islamic Republic continues to this day. So does the staunchly anti-American legacy that Khomeini left for Iran.

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