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20 Years after the Hostages:
Declassified Documents on Iran and the United States

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 21

Published – November 5, 1999

Edited by Malcolm Byrne

For more information contact:
Malcolm Byrne 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Washington, D.C., November 5, 1999 – The shocking seizure of the American embassy and its staff in Tehran on November 4, 1979, placed U.S.-Iran relations firmly in the deep freeze. Whatever hopes existed on either side for a rapprochement after the Shah’s departure at the start of the year were quickly doused. Twenty years later, the controversy over reestablishing ties rages on in both countries. Serious differences exist on strategic matters and regional policy, while public discourse is complicated by lingering images of blind-folded hostages and rhetorical invocations against "Global Arrogance".

In the last two years, however, Iran’s political scene has become far more fluid. President Mohammad Khatemi’s surprise landslide victory in May 1997 reflected strong grassroots demands to rejuvenate Iran’s post-revolutionary policies, and the new moderate leader has responded, even reaching out to the United States with a compelling call for a "dialogue of civilizations". Gingerly as yet, the White House has endorsed the idea, but neither side seems ready to take the official plunge. Instead, both President Khatemi and President Clinton have promoted private, non-governmental contacts as a way to crack the ice that has shrouded the two countries’ interactions for the past two decades.

To make the most of this new opportunity, the National Security Archive in 1998 initiated a project on the history of U.S.-Iran relations. Its aim is to expand both sides’ understanding of the experiences and perspectives of the other, and in the process help to dissolve some of the myths that have built up in the wake of contentious historical events ranging from the 1953 CIA-assisted coup to the 1978-79 revolution itself. The methodology consists of bringing together scholars and contemporaneous documentary sources from inside and outside Iran, and to compare findings from differing national perspectives. At the same time the project seeks to promote the values of freedom of information, open scholarly exchange, civil dialogue and toleration of opposing views, which the Archive embraces.

The following selection of documents is a sample of American sources on U.S.-Iran relations since World War II currently available at the National Security Archive. Although this project is relatively new, Iran has been a long-standing interest of the organization. One of the Archive’s first major microfiche publications, Iran: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1980 (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck-Healey, 1990) reproduced some 14,000 pages of declassified materials, including many documents seized and later published by the "Students Following the Line of the Imam" who overran the U.S. embassy in November 1979. The U.S.-Iran Project is also seeking new materials from British and former Soviet archives, given the crucial impact of those countries’ policies on Iran during the Cold War.



Document 1: "Developments in the Azerbaijan Situation," Central Intelligence Group, Office of Reports and Estimates (ORE 19), secret, June 4, 1947.

One of the first crises of the post-World War II period between the United States and Soviet Union centered around the northern Iranian province of Azerbaijan. Moscow’s refusal to withdraw its military forces after the war and its clandestine support for autonomy movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan rang alarm bells in Tehran as well as in Washington and London. By the end of 1946, however, the crisis had been resolved. Nonetheless, because of Azerbaijan’s (and Iran’s) strategic significance as a source of oil and a gateway to the Persian Gulf and other important regions, American officials still worried about the long-term fate of the province. This analysis, by the Central Intelligence Group (a precursor to the CIA), concludes firmly that the USSR "will not abandon its ultimate objective of controlling Azerbaijan, and eventually all of Iran."

This general feeling was already widely shared by U.S. officials, including President Truman, and had been an important ingredient in the development of the Truman Doctrine and the broader containment policy that prevailed throughout the coming Cold War. Yet, while Moscow’s aims were clearly a cause of concern for Iran and the West, documents beginning to surface from Soviet-era archives are showing that Stalin’s goals at the time were most likely limited primarily to getting a favorable oil concession from Iran, which would not only mitigate the USSR’s security and economic concerns but also satisfy the Soviet leader’s desire to be treated on a par with the other great powers, Britain and the United States.


Document 2: Memorandum for the President (discussing behavior of the Shah, Gen. Zahedi and Winston Churchill immediately after the coup), Memorandum from the Department of State, top secret, circa August 1953.

Prior to the 1979 hostage-taking episode, the most contentious issue in U.S.-Iran relations was the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, which the CIA and British intelligence helped to instigate. Numerous questions remain about the coup itself, its impact, and the circumstances which brought it about. To what extent was Mossadeq leading his country down the path toward communist subversion? Could the coup have succeeded without substantial Iranian public dissatisfaction with Mossadeq’s policies? Did key Iranian political and religious figures, wittingly or not, receive CIA payments in return for stirring up the population? What effects did the coup have on the future development of internal Iranian politics, including possibly radicalizing anti-Shah and anti-American opposition elements with consequences that would not be foreseen until the revolution itself?

The search for answers will have to wait at least until more of the documentary record is available in both Iran and the United States. Unfortunately, a portion of the record on the American side will never be recovered because CIA operatives, according to former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey, destroyed them in the 1960s. The surviving files remain locked away from public view on the grounds that their declassification, even 46 years later, would damage the national security. Because of the obvious public interest value and historical significance of these materials, the National Security Archive in May 1999 filed suit against the CIA to demand their release. The suit is still pending.


Document 3: "Follow-up on the President’s Talk with the Shah of Iran," Memorandum from Henry Kissinger to Secretaries of State and Defense, secret, July 25, 1972.

Iran-U.S. relations took a dramatic turn during the Nixon presidency. Within the framework of the Nixon Doctrine, announced in June 1969, which declared that the United States would increasingly look to regional powers in support of American interests, and in the wake of the British decision the year before to begin to pull back its military presence from the Persian Gulf, the Shah was handed the opportunity he had long been waiting for to assert his country as a dominant power in the Middle East. As one of America’s main "pillars" in the region, it followed that Iran would need major infusions of military aid. Nixon and the Shah apparently reached a basic agreement on this point as early as October 1969 during the Shah’s visit to the United States. In May 1972, after another meeting, Nixon agreed to expand America’s commitment to Iran’s military build-up. This memo from Henry Kissinger instructs the secretaries of state and defense to implement the president’s decisions.


Document 4: Shredded CIA Cable reporting on information provided by an Iranian contact, secret, September 1, 1979.

When the "Students Following the Line of the Imam" stormed the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979, they gained access to the embassy’s extensive files. Before they were taken hostage, embassy officers had tried to destroy as much as possible — often by shredder — but the Iranians managed to recover the shredded items and systematically reassemble them. They then published facsimiles of the documents in a series that currently numbers over 70 volumes. Most of the shredded materials are CIA cables that relate to clandestine contacts with Iranians. This example describes a nugget of military information provided by one such contact.


Document 5: "U.S. Policy Toward Iran," The White House, Draft National Security Decision Directive (NSDD), secret, June 17, 1985.

Despite a strict official policy of refusing to cut deals with terrorists, President Ronald Reagan in August 1985 authorized the first of a series of covert arms deals with Iran in order to gain the release of several Americans being held hostage by Islamic militants in Lebanon. This draft directive, prepared by National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, was one of the first documents to propose sending weapons to Iran, although its rationale was firmly rooted in Cold War imperatives: "[O]ur primary short-term challenge must be to block Moscow’s efforts to increase Soviet influence" in Iran. The idea of arming Iran met with derision from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who called it "almost too absurd to comment on." Yet, within weeks, the president had given his approval for McFarlane to explore contacts with Tehran.


Document 6: "Responding to Iraqi Aggression in the Gulf," The White House, National Security Directive (NSD 54), top secret, January 15, 1991.

As the Cold War wound down, President George Bush, in signing this directive, set in motion a hot war against the regime of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Unlike the draft 1985 directive (Document 5), there is no longer any reference to the Soviet Union and its threat to American interests, but the document does restate — indeed in its opening sentence — the overriding importance of oil to U.S. national security, an article of faith since World War II, and the principle reason for the United States’ involvement in the Persian Gulf throughout the Cold War. Ironically, during the early 1980s, Washington had secretly sided with Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran (1980-1988) in the belief that Ayatollah Khomeini’s attempts to export his Islamic revolution (and strong anti-Americanism) to the rest of the Persian Gulf represented the greater threat to U.S. interests.


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