Newly declassified files show that Ayatollah Khomeini, who led Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, had a secret channel of communication with the United States, and even sent a personal letter to US President Jimmy Carter. On January 16, 1979, after nearly a year of street clashes and protests against his leadership, the king of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, fled the country for the US. His decision to leave was strongly influenced by his American advisors, who feared that Iran was heading toward a catastrophic civil war. The Shah’s departure did little to calm tensions in the country. Protesters —many of them armed— engaged in daily street battles with members of the police and the military, who remained loyal to Pahlavi. Meanwhile, a national strike had brought the Iranian oil sector to a standstill, thereby threatening to bring about a global energy crisis. Moreover, the country was home to thousands of American military advisors and the Iranian military was almost exclusively funded and supplied by Washington. The Carter administration worried that the weaponry and technical knowledge might fall into the hands of a new, pro-Soviet government in Tehran.
It was in that tense and highly unpredictable context that the White House opened a secret channel of communication with Ayatollah Khomeini. Newly declassified US government documents show that these secret contacts began on January 15, 1979, just days before Khomeini returned to Iran from France, where he had been living in exile. The files have been accessed by the BBC’s Persian service, and allegedly contain “diplomatic cables, policy memos, meeting records” and other documents. They show that the first meeting between US government officials and Khomeini’s team took place in Neauphle-le-Château, a small village located a few miles west of Paris. It was led by Warren Zimmermann, a political secretary at the US embassy in Paris, and Ebrahim Yazdi, an Iranian-American physician who was Khomeini’s chief of staff in France. Through these secret meetings, Washington signaled to Khomeini on January 18 that American advisors in Tehran would not oppose a discussion about changing the Iranian constitution in order to abolish the monarchy and turn the country into a republic.
Nine days later, on January 27, Dr. Yazdi gave Zimmerman a letter written by Khomeini and addressed to President Carter. The letter, which addressed Carter in the first person, was cabled to the Department of State from the US embassy in Paris and, according to the BBC, reached the US president. In the letter, Khomeini promises to protect “America’s interests and citizens in Iran” if Washington pressured the Iranian military to stand aside and allow him and his advisers to return to Iran. Khomeini’s fear was that the royalist Iranian military would not allow a new government to take hold in Tehran. But the exiled cleric was aware of America’s influence in Iranian military circles, which at the time were effectively under the command of General Robert Huyser, Deputy Commander of US Forces in Europe, who had been dispatched to Tehran by President Carter. Before answering Khomeini’s letter, the White House sent a draft response to the embassy in Tehran for input and advice. But Khomeini did not wait for Washington’s response. On February 1, he returned to Iran, where he was greeted by millions of people in the streets and welcomed as the next leader of the country. Meanwhile, Washington had already instructed General Huyser to rule out the so-called “option C”, namely a military coup carried out by the Iranian armed forces.
The documents unearthed by the BBC show that, despite their apparent recalcitrance, the US government and Ayatollah Khomeini were far more engaged with each other than has generally been assumed. The revelations would appear to especially affect the official narrative of the Islamic Republic, which claims that Khomeini managed to take command of the Islamic Revolution despite frantic attempts by Washington to stop him. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tehran has dismissed the BBC’s revelations, calling the documents “fake” and denouncing what it described as “hostility from the British”. The Department of State has refused comment on the BBC’s revelations.