US Intelligence Assistance to Iran, May-October 1979

Article excerpt

This article describes a US initiative to provide intelligence to Iran in 1979, as radical Islamists were becoming increasingly powerful there and tensions were escalating with the United States. This initiative began in May 1979, when Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and other Iranian officials asked US embassy personnel for information on ethnically based uprisings that threatened the new Islamic regime. It culminated when a CIA officer gave two briefings in mid-October warning Iran's leaders that Iraq was making preparations for a possible invasion of Iran. It ended abruptly in November 1979, when radical Islamist students seized the US embassy in Tehran. Iran's leaders did not heed the US warning and were entirely unprepared for the Iraqi invasion of September 1980, which had a devastating impact.

In mid-October 1979, a CIA officer gave two briefings in Tehran to top officials in the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. The main themes of these briefings were that Iraq was making preparations for a possible invasion of Iran and that Iran could use a US-built electronic surveillance system to monitor and counter these preparations. These briefings were the culmination of months of discussion between the two governments about sharing intelligence on matters of mutual interest. This nascent intelligence exchange was cut short by the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by radical Islamist students on November 4, 1979, which severely disrupted US-Iran relations and led Bazargan to resign. The Bazargan government did not inform its successor of the US warning. Iraq did, indeed, invade Iran in September 1980, starting an eight-year war that devastated both countries and transformed the region.

This article explains the events that led up to these briefings and the details of the briefings themselves - topics that have not been covered adequately in the many published accounts of US-Iran relations in this period.1 It is based mainly on classified US documents published by the students who seized the US embassy and discussions with key US and Iranian officials, including all four participants in the October briefings. Although a few details remain murky, a clear enough picture emerges to permit us to draw important conclusions about US-Iran relations and Iranian domestic politics in this crucial period. This article also clarifies the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Abbas Amir Entezam, Iran's most prominent political prisoner in recent decades, who was a key participant in these events.

US-IRAN RELATIONS IN EARLY 1979

After Islamic revolutionaries seized power in February 1979, Iran remained chaotic and unstable. The revolution's preeminent leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, appointed Bazargan to lead a provisional government pending the enactment of a new constitution and nationwide elections. Bazargan was a professor at Tehran University and head of the Islamic modernist Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI) party. He appointed a cabinet of like-minded moderates, who sought to restore order and resume essential government services. The revolution had unleashed a variety of radical Islamist and radical leftist factions, which were now heavily armed, brimming with revolutionary fervor, and determined to implement their own ideological agendas. These various radicals continually challenged and attacked Bazargan and his colleagues. Indeed, radical Islamists assassinated armed forces commander Valiollah Qarani and circulated hit lists naming Entezam, who was Bazargan's deputy, and Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi as targets for assassination.2 Khomeini respected Bazargan but wanted to move more rapidly to implement his vision of an Islamic regime, putting him squarely in the radical Islamist camp. Bazargan and his colleagues were increasingly marginalized during 1979, unable to implement their moderate agenda or stop the chaos and radicalization that were engulfing the country.

Iran also faced growing threats from abroad. …