Lifting the Veil; Life in Revolutionary Iran
By: John Simpson & Tira Shubart, 1995
"The revolution and its aftermath have produced excellent studies and memories by diplomats, political figures, academics, journalists, ex-hostages, wives of ex-ambassadors, and others, and each of these works provides valuable insights into recent events. But Iran did not come into existence in 1979 with the inauguration of ABC's "America Held Hostage." At that time, Iran had had over 2,000 years of recorded history as a distinct nation. That history may not explain or have justified a national temper tantrum, but it can tell us more than the nightly headlines and often disjointed portrayals offered the viewing public in 1979 and 1980."
Iran: At War With History
John W. Limbert, 1987
The Great Satan
'I owe my throne to God, my people, my army --and to you!' The Shah was speaking to Kermit Roosevelt, the Central Intelligence Agency representative in Tehran. Roosevelt quotes the remark in his book Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, which was reissued in 1979 at the height of the political turmoil in Iran, much against the wishes of the CIA itself. The book is a highly selective and not entirely accurate account of the 1953 countercoup which reinstated Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In 1978-9 the Shah was convinced that the CIA, together with the British, had engineered his downfall. That was not the case; the CIA's own documents, as published by the Students, show this clearly enough. Yet he certainly owed his throne to the success of Operation AJAX on 19 August 1953.
Faced with a powerful constitutional threat from his prime minister and political enemy, Dr Mohammed Mossadeq, the Shah briefly lost his nerve and fled the country when the soldiers sent to arrest his prime minister were overpowered and captured.
Kermit Roosevelt's book, together with recently declassified documents, have revealed further details about the coup. Using money that had been brought into Iran a few months earlier by General Norman Schwarzkopf, Snr, the father of the American commander in the Gulf War, Roosevelt set about buying the support he needed. Bribing the key officers in the police and army, and organizing partisan crowds from the bazaar with the help of British intelligence agents, he instructed them to attack mosques and pull down statues of the Shah While shouting slogans in support of Mossadeq.
Two weeks later, Roosevelt used the same crowd of Soldiers and bazaaris to demonstrate their revulsion against such 'communist' action. Obediently, they demanded Mossadeq's overthrow and chanted slogans in favour of the Shah. Meanwhile the Imperial guards attacked the prime minister's house, killing around three hundred of his supporters. General Zahedi, who had been chosen by the Americans and the British to take over from Mossadeq as prime minister, waited in the safety of the American Embassy until the fighting ended. Then he made a suitably triumphant appearance on a Sherman tank. The Shah, his courage and his throne restored, flew back to Tehran to crowds of thousands of cheering demonstrators. It was one of the most cost-efficient operations the United States ever conducted in Iran: a mere $100,000 was needed to bribe the crowd and the security forces, and the remainder of the million dollars which General Schwarzkopf had brought into the country was not required. By 1954 the oil consortium was dominated by American companies.
And so the United States bought the post of chief protector to the Shah at a bargain rate. Britain, which had held the post for a hundred years, had handled the crisis over Mossadeq's nationalization of Iran's oil so maladroitly, and was anyway so much weakened by the Second World War, that it had no chance of regaining its old position. For the Americans, Iran was new territory; they had had little to do with the country in the past and at first lacked the background knowledge to make their own assessment of United States interests there. Washington, however, came to share Britain's assessment that Iran occupied an important strategic position and that the Shah was the figure who would best preserve Western interests.
In 1953 the Soviet Union was a serious threat. The Western Allies with great difficulty, had forced Stalin to withdraw his troops from Iran after the end of the Second World War. Washington now accepted the inaccurate British assumption that Mossadeq's campaign to nationalise Iran's oil was inspired by Soviet Communism. Mossadeq had certainly received support from the Communist Tudeh Party, among other groups, but he was a nationalist in the tradition of the 1906 constitutional campaign.
The powerful Time-Life empire of Henry Luce, in its newsreel for March 1952, gave its backing to the view that the man it called 'the ageing, neurotic Mossadeq' was doing the work of the Soviet Union:
Any new instability in Iran might pave the way for Russian infiltration. This in turn could outflank the Turkish bastion, a main strongpoint against communism in the Middle East, and open a Red road to the Mediterranean and to Suez, to the oil of Iraq and Arabia, to the coveted ports of the Persian Gulf, and even to Pakistan and India.
And yet the dangerous, neurotic near-Communist of Anglo-American imaginings was in reality an elderly liberal whose thinking had developed along specifically Western European lines. Dr Mossadeq had studied law at the Ecole des Sciences in Paris and obtained his doctorate in Switzerland, where he was called to the Bar and practised for many years. What made him unacceptable in the eyes of British foreign policy was that he regarded Iran much as western European countries regarded themselves: as independent entities with a right to control their own resources.
The Americans, who in less sensitive parts of the world were starting to support nationalist leaders in British colonies against their colonial masters, chose to regard Mossadeq's challenge as unacceptable also. After the successful operation which put the Shah back on his throne, Washington was committed to keeping him there. By blocking liberal, secular nationalism in 1953, the Americans had unwittingly played an important part in ensuring the rise of fundamentalist Islamic nationalism a quarter of a century later.
Now throve the armourers. From 1950 to 1963 the United States provided the Shah with military assistance worth $829 million and weapons systems worth $1.3 billion. The Shah, who was fascinated all his life by advanced weaponry, continually asked the Eisenhower administration for more; in this he had the vocal support of the vice president, Richard Nixon, who had met the Shah and was impressed by him. It was the beginning of a powerful friendship. Eisenhower, from the basis of real military experience, resisted the Shah's demands on the grounds that better training, not more expensive weaponry, was required to deal with any threat from across the Soviet border.
President Kennedy, elected in 1960, was less interested in the threat to Iran from the outside, and more in the possibility of internal revolution. He made a loan of $35 million contingent on a programme of social reform, and urged the Shah to appoint Dr Ali Amini, the Iranian ambassador to Washington, as his prime minister. For a century and more, Iran's rulers had been told to run their country in the interests of outside powers; now the Shah was being ordered to run it in the interests of his own people --as defined by the theories of liberal economists such as Barbara Ward and W. W. Rostow.
The White Revolution which the Shah launched in 1962 ('white' as opposed to the 'black' revolution of the religious conservatives or the 'red' revolution of Marxism which he maintained were the alternatives) concentrated on land reform. That, indeed, was a liberal measure which was to have a profound effect on the prosperity of the country; but it also brought Khomeini, who had recently become an ayatollah, to national prominence. In 1962 and 1963 he took a leading part in the resistance to the Shah's refusal to exempt religious endowments from the programme of compulsory land purchase, and to the plans for the emancipation of women. When Khomeini was arrested in June 1963, there was serious rioting in Tehran.
But however advantageous the White Revolution was to many Iranians, it came complete with traditional colonial trappings. There was an influx of thousands of American technicians, support staff, military men and their families; and they were accorded the principle of extra-territoriality in a bill which passed through the usually tame Majlis by a majority of only 74 to 61. One deputy asked why a foreign refrigerator repairman should have the same legal immunity as Iran's ambassadors abroad. In his sermons, Ayatollah Khomeini characteristically couched it in terms that were stronger, more personal and more ominous:
If the Shah should run over an American dog, he would be called to account. But if an American cook should run over the Shah, no one would have any claim over him . . . If the men of religion had any influence, it would be impossible for the nation to be at one moment the prisoner of England, the next of America.
The debate, and the rioting which accompanied it, went largely unnoticed in the United States, even though several hundred people were killed. The exiling of Ayatollah Khomeini was not mentioned in any major American newspaper.
The presidential election of 1968 brought the Shah's friend Richard Nixon to power. When they had first met, in 1953, they had taken to each other and found they shared the same anxieties about the Soviet Union. Now Iran was the dominant regional power, and President Nixon was in a position to give the Shah what he wanted. The number of uniformed American military advisers was greatly increased, and the Shah was given almost unlimited access to the non-nuclear military technology of the United States. When Nixon visited Tehran in May 1972 he looked across the negotiating table at the Shah and said simply, 'Protect me.' The meeting placed the Shah on a new level: no longer the leader of a client state but an equal, regarded by Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, as a fellow strategist.
Only the Department of Defense, echoing Eisenhower's reservations, resisted the idea of opening the American arsenal to Iran and tried to introduce a note of caution. But Kissinger issued a memorandum in July 1972 that arms sales to the Shah were to be encouraged. In the four years that followed, Iran became the largest importer of US-produced arms in the world, at a cost of $4 billion. At that level, the United States was becoming as dependent upon Iran as Iran was on the United States.
After Nixon's fall as a result of the Watergate scandal James Schlesinger, as Secretary of Defense, asked President Ford in September 1975 for a review of US arms sales policy to Iran, doubting 'whether our policy of supporting an apparently open-ended Iranian military build-up will continue to serve our long-term interests'. But Kissinger was still in control of policy towards Iran and backed the continuation of the arms sales. The review took years to produce anyway; and only two months later Schlesinger was replaced as Defense Secretary by Donald Rumsfeld.
By 1976 there were 24,000 Americans working in Iran; 1270 of them were retired military men, hired by US manufacturers to work in Iran as arms salesmen. The American Embassy and its military mission employed 2000 US citizens. Two years later, in the months that led up to the revolution, the figure for US citizens living and working in Iran had risen to more than 40,000. Americans were paid much more than Iranians who were doing the same jobs for the same companies, even when those Iranians had received equivalent degrees from the same American universities. On oil projects in Abadan, Iranian technicians were housed in quarters which were separate from, and inferior to, the American quarters; air conditioning, for instance, was standard only for the Americans.
In Isfahan, where Bell Helicopters employed 1700 people on a forty-five-acre site near the city, there were regular complaints about the behaviour of American workers. Some of them were in the habit of roaring at speed around the city on motorbikes late at night. Street fights took place there between groups of Iranians and Americans. As in Abadan, anti-American feeling was high, and it was noticeable later that both cities played a significant part in the events leading up to the revolution. In Abadan the Iranian oil workers went on strike in the autumn of 1978, and workers in the civil service throughout Iran began to follow their example. In Isfahan, the Islamic Republic was in full operation before the final act of the revolution took place in Tehran.
The Americans, having adopted the British colonial pattern in Iran in 1953, found themselves facing a full-blown independence movement along colonial lines by 1978. And like one of the less experienced colonial powers of Europe, the United States found itself with no time in which to create some more popular alternative Iranian leadership to support. Within six years of being asked to be the protector of United States interests in the region, Iran had become its worst enemy there.
The man who was to pay the price for Nixon's and Kissinger's unheeding dependence on the Shah was President Jimmy Carter. The Shah himself was unenthusiastic about Carter's election to the presidency in 1976: under a Democratic administration there might be less chance of obtaining what he wanted in the way of weaponry. The Shah had felt most comfortable with the approach of the previous Republican administration.
Carter, by contrast, had campaigned on a promise to link American arms sales to a country's record in human rights. Nevertheless, his incoming administration was quick to exempt Iran from any prohibition on the grounds of its strategic importance; and when the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, visited Tehran in May 1977 he promised the Shah that the United States would honour all the arms contracts that had already been signed, and offered him the AWACS airborne early-warning system and 160 F-16 fighters. The Shah's response was to ask for another 140 F-16s.
Carter was also prepared to sell Iran the technology for generating nuclear energy, and approved a $1.1 billion package of military equipment. But the AWACS deal ran into trouble with the House International Relations Committee, on the grounds, later fully justified, that 'the security of advanced electronic devices could not be assured in Iran'. The subject was debated for three months, in terms that the Shah found deeply humiliating.
The subject of Iran's internal policies was less of a problem. The Shah, remembering the measures he had taken under President Kennedy in 1963, had introduced some modest social reforms and had done something to limit the use of torture by the SAVAK. Carter accepted the changes the Shah was trying to make, as he later wrote in his memoirs:
My intelligence briefings revealed that despite the Iranian standard of living from the distribution of oil revenues, the Shah's singleminded pursuit of his own goals had engendered opposition from the intelligentsia and others who desired more participation in the political processes of Iran. SAVAK was notorious for its ruthless suppression of any dissent and I was informed that there were 2500 (the Shah said 'below 2500') political prisoners in Iranian jails. The Shah was convinced that immediate suppression was the best response to opposition, and he was somewhat scornful of Western leaders (including me) who did not emulate his tactics.
In November 1977 the Shah visited Washington. His meetings with Carter went well; but 60,000 Iranian students had gathered to demonstrate against him, some of them carrying pictures of Khomeini. A counter-demonstration, using military cadets, had been rather ineptly organised by the Iranian Embassy, and while the President and Mrs Carter greeted the Shah and his Empress on the White House lawn the two groups clashed. The tear gas which the Washington DC police had been using drifted across the lawn and affected the eyes of the visitors and their hosts as they stood to attention for the two national anthems. It seemed trivial enough; but in Iran, where the new mood of mild liberalization enabled the pictures of the tear-gas incident to be shown on television, it demonstrated to people what they had not previously been told: the degree of hostility to the Shah which existed outside the country. With the Persian's ready enthusiasm for detecting hidden messages, many of those who watched their televisions that night assumed that the entire incident could have been allowed only with President Carter's agreement: in other words, the television pictures were a sign that Carter had implicitly withdrawn his support from the Shah. It was a significant success for the opposition, at a time when the Shah himself believed his position had never been stronger.
In the aftermath of the fall of the Shah, almost exactly a year later, every government with an embassy in Tehran examined its reporting during the difficult months of 1978 to see whether the revolution had been predictable; and the general verdict was that no one had forecast it with any accuracy. Neither the Israelis, the French, the British, the Russians nor the Americans --the embassies with the best connections in Iran-- correctly anticipated what would happen. As late as August 1978 the CIA, in its National Intelligence Estimate, reported that Iran could not be considered to be in a 'pre-revolutionary' position, because
. . . those who are in opposition, both violent and non-violent, do not have the capacity to be more troublesome. There is dissatisfaction with the Shah's tight control of the political process, but this does not threaten the government.
The CIA, by this stage, was working extremely closely with the SAVAK, and was influenced by the SAVAK's own, moderately optimistic view of events. The US Embassy did not share that particular set of blinkers, but it was equipped with others.
Part of the price that the United States paid for its close relationship with the Shah was that it was obliged to bow to the imperial wishes and avoid any link with the opposition groups or with individual political dissidents. Although relations with the military and with security organizations were extremely good, there was virtually no contact with the bazaar. Only one political officer apparently had contacts with the clergy, gained on an earlier Peace Corps posting. As for the locally employed staff, the majority were Armenians or Baha'is; there were very few Shi'ite Muslims. The ambassador himself came to rely heavily on the gossip provided by his Armenian driver. Apart from him, the only Iranians whom William Sullivan spoke to at any length were army officers, the Shah's ministers, and the Shah himself.
American journalists gained a far more accurate picture of what was going on, as did British and French ones, since they were often in daily touch with demonstrators and the leading ayatollahs. By the autumn, having witnessed the strength of feeling on the streets, and watched the draftees in the army wavering in their loyalty to the Shah, a number of American and British journalists were openly questioning his chances of political survival; but on 28 October Ambassador Sullivan was still reporting:
. . . the Shah is the unique element which can, on the one hand restrain the military, and on the other hand, lead a controlled transition. . . . I would oppose any overture to Khomeini.
Sullivan, like President Carter himself, had inherited a bureaucratic machine which was capable only of viewing the situation from one direction. His Embassy had become an office for selling equipment and weapons systems, and its political reporting role had been heavily reduced long before he was posted to Iran. He faced hostility from Zbigniew Brzezinski's National Security Council, which tried to undermine his influence and that of the US State Department. Brzezinski, indeed, seemed convinced that the Russians were behind the trouble in Iran: not a mistake which Sullivan made. Above all, Sullivan was reporting to an administration which for much of 1978 had been concentrating on the Camp David negotiations with the prime minister of Israel and the President of Egypt, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
On 9 November, without any prior warning, Sullivan broached the issues that had been raised by the demonstrators on the streets and by many journalists. His telegram, entitled 'Thinking the Unthinkable', suggested that the Shah, far from being the unique restraining element, might actually leave the country and Khomeini might return to Iran and take up 'a Gandhi-like position', choosing a leader who would be acceptable to the Iranian military. In the telegram there was no suggestion of the role which US policy might play with either the military or the Islamic forces, nor did it recommend making contact with the people who might possibly take over from the Shah. There had been no attempt to communicate with Khomeini in exile.
Sullivan later omitted the embarrassing expression 'Gandhi-like' when he quoted the telegram in his memoirs, and it is hard not to sympathise with him for leaving it out. As late as February 1979 a writer in the New York Times was suggesting that Khomeini might provide the Third World with a model of humane governance. But then journalists are used to making public mistakes and having to live with them. Ambassadors also have to live with their mistakes, but they are usually made in private. The telegram was used as ammunition between the State Department and the National Security Council and further eroded Sullivan's position in the bureaucratic infighting over Iran.
It is doubtful whether it would have made any difference to the situation at all if Sullivan had recognised the dangers to the Shah earlier than he did. After the Shah's overthrow, his reporting to Washington was often more accurate than that of other observers: he forecast both the weakness of Bakhtiar and the intransigence of Khomeini. But it made no difference whatever to US policy, which was rudderless now that the Shah had left. Departmental infighting worsened; but the view of the Iran Country Director at the State Department, Henry Precht, prevailed. Precht insisted, up to the day of the embassy takeover, that Iran was really being run by moderate elements who were gaining strength daily: Khomeini was just a figurehead. This view had been vigorously opposed by many in the Embassy, but Precht had brushed them aside.
One evening in 1986 an announcer on Iranian television warned viewers that they should watch an important programme later that night, but gave no indication of the subject. When the programme began, it proved to be about the takeover of the American Embassy, seven years previously, which had been the beginning of the hostage crisis. There had been programmes on the subject before, but this one differed in that the pictures which were shown had not been taken by people in the crowd outside; they were recorded by the fixed security cameras which the Americans themselves had installed on the main buildings of the Embassy.
Soundlessly, in black and white, the waves of attackers came swarming over the walls and gates and charged towards the embassy entrance. The pictures showed a few of the Marine guards trying to stand in the crowd's path, but they disappeared under the sheer weight of the attack. The pictures lasted for a matter of minutes only, but they were an extraordinary record of an incident which led to the humiliation of the United States and the ending of the political career of its President.
The great majority of the hostages who were taken at the Embassy that day were to remain prisoners for 444 days. But Marine Sgt. William Quarles, who had been out jogging when the attack took place, was released early. He was black, and the Students of the Imam's Line who were in control of the Embassy decided to free him and the other blacks and most of the women, thirteen Americans in all, as a gesture to people whom they believed to be oppressed by white American society. When Quarles had finished jogging he had gone back to his flat on the other side of the street from the Embassy, and had heard the security officer give the order over the walkie-talkies they all carried: 'Don't fire your weapons. When they come for you, give up.' A photograph taken by one of the Students immediately after the storming of the Embassy shows Quarles, who stands head and shoulders above everybody else, resisting while a blindfold is tied round the eyes of one of his fellow-Marines.
Quarles was an intelligent man, who had joined the Marine Corps because he wanted to see the world. Like one or two of the other Marines, he had learned a little Farsi. He also spent his free time out of the confines of the Embassy, which was unusual for Americans. He had Iranian girlfriends who were politically aware and had warned him some days earlier that there was going to be an attack on the Embassy. Quarles seems to have reported this to his commanding officer, but no extra precautions were taken. There had been similar warnings in the past and nothing had come of them.
The disaster was complete. Yet there was worse to come: in particular the botched attempt to rescue the hostages. This was forced on President Carter by some of his advisers and military men, and by the sense in the United States as a whole that not enough was being done. The plan was a risky one and if it had gone ahead many people, including most of the American hostages, would probably have died. As it was, the entire operation was aborted through a combination of bad luck and incompetence: a helicopter crashed into a tanker aircraft, eight men died, the necessary margin of logistical support (which would probably have been insufficient) was eroded. There was always something faintly make-believe about the plan anyway: two Iranian women I know happened to be walking past a football stadium about five minutes' drive from the American Embassy that day, and glanced into it; Every pillar and upright that they could see had yellow ribbons tied to them. The plan envisaged taking the hostages there on their way out of the country, and some CIA agent in Tehran had clearly decided to make them feel welcome. The women knew nothing at that stage of the rescue attempt, but they guessed at once that something was going on. They hurried off, anxious not to be associated with it in any way.
When the 444 days were over, it was President Carter who received the entire blame for everything; and in particular for the original cause of the attack: the decision to allow the Shah to come to the United States for medical attention a few days before. The Shah's strongest supporters in Washington, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski, had urged Carter for months to let him go to New York for treatment of the cancer from which he was suffering. Since equivalent medical facilities were available in Mexico, their purpose seemed less to do with the treatment than with a signal to America's friends that it would not desert them, whatever happened. Carter reluctantly agreed.
When the hostages were eventually released in January 1981, one of them, Moorhead Kennedy, an economic officer at the Embassy, was scathing about the lack of forethought which he maintained had characterized American policy:
What happened in Tehran was the diplomatic equivalent of Pearl Harbor. It was bad. We totally missed the significance of the Revolution. We supported the Shah much too long. We couldn't cut loose from him. We felt we owed him a debt of honor, and we sacrificed an embassy so he could have an operation. It was laziness, sheer intellectual laziness. When I was facing execution, one of the things that occurred to me was that I and a group of us had reported honestly, the embassy had done a very good job. But our warnings were not given the attention they should have in Washington. The same people [who had supported the Shah] blindly thought everything would be onward and upward in our relations with Khomeini. Of course it wasn't.
The hostages were freed only minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President. There was a powerful rumour in Washington to the effect that Reagan's campaign team had done a deal with the Iranians to delay their release until Carter was out of office. The Reagan team was certainly extremely nervous about the possibility of an 'October surprise' in the run-up to the 1980 election, in which Carter's diplomacy would win the hostages' freedom and he would be reselected on the strength of it. The notion that Reagan's officials would have negotiated secretly with their country's enemies for the sake of party advantage was something that most American newspapers dismissed without investigation. The mood of the first Reagan presidency was not one that encouraged reporting that was critical of him. It was only after his reselection in 1984 that American journalists began to realise that his officials had entered into relations with Iran which were morally dubious and sometimes questionable constitutionally. Reagan himself, with his fading selective memory and frequent inability to sort out fact from fiction, was not perhaps the best witness about the truth or otherwise of the 'October Surprise' concept. Nevertheless, when he was interviewed about it on a golf course in California in June 1991 his answers seemed highly suggestive, even though he was trying to deny any wrongdoing.
Gary Sick, an academic and specialist on Iranian affairs who served on the National Security Council under President Carter, examined the question of illicit contacts between the Reagan team and Iran and decided that there was evidence that these had taken place. Sick's book, October Surprise, was carefully researched and far from excitable; yet when it appeared in 1991 there was still little interest in the notion on the part of the American media.
If Carter believed that his chances of reselection had been destroyed in this way, he did not show it. Soon after Reagan had been inaugurated in January 1980, Carter boarded a plane for Wiesbaden in Germany where the hostages had been taken for medical treatment and debriefing. The visit was in the nature of a personal pilgrimage, and it must have taken a good deal of courage. Most of the hostages felt that Carter had personally let them down, and was responsible for their long imprisonment. Shortly before he arrived in Wiesbaden the more hot-headed of the young Marines were taken aside by their commanding officer and told to control their tempers and behave properly towards the man who had been their commander-in-chief When Carter spoke to them, however, his obvious emotion won over a number of people who had previously regarded him as their worst enemy.
Few of them extended the same forgiveness to Iran. When they were interviewed before their return to the United States, many of the hostages reacted bitterly. Donald Hohman of the US Army said: 'All I want to see is a scorched earth policy in Iran. I want to make it clear to them they don't have the right to treat people the way they treated us.' Malcolm Kalp, an economics officer, who had spent 373 days in solitary confinement after trying to escape: 'I'd give them eight billion dollars' worth of bombs.' Bruce German, from the budget and management section: 'I'd only want to go back in a B-52.'
Marine Sgt. William Quarles, who had joined the military to see the world, had a different perspective; partly, no doubt, because he had been released early.
I hear people say 'Send in the Marines', or 'Let's nuke the hell out of them, so that the United States can look good in the eyes of the world.' But I don't think Americans really understand. [The Iranians] began showing me official US classified documents. I realized that the US has been doing things there that these people didn't like. It makes you see that there are two sides to every story, and seeing what I have since I have been home, the media doesn't tell Americans all the things that are going on, all the things this country has participated in over there.
Quarles's insights were not shared by most ordinary Americans. There were many interviews on radio and television with people who wanted to turn Iran into a parking lot. In California, Texas and New York, businessmen and students who had come to the United States to find sanctuary from Khomeini's revolution were attacked and beaten up in the streets, merely for being Iranian. An Iranian student who was badly injured in an accident which was the fault of the other driver was advised by his lawyer not to sue for damages. 'In this climate,' the lawyer said, 'no court will give you a sympathetic hearing.'
For thousands of Americans, their view of the awfulness of Iran was fixed not merely by the revolution and the hostage crisis, but by a book written by an American woman who married an Iranian and eventually escaped from him and from Iran with their child. Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody is execrably written, but it reinforced a view of Iran which many Americans held: that it was a country of violent, unreasoning cruelty. By the early 1990s there were only two hundred American women left in Iran, almost all of them married to Iranians. For the great majority of them, their experience has been completely different from Betty Mahmoody's, and they tend to have nothing but contempt for her book.
Nancy grew up in the Midwest in the 1980s, an adventurous and independent-minded young woman who was always interested in the world outside the confines of Middle America. She met her future husband Bijan at university. He came from a well-to-do family in north Tehran, and was finishing his medical studies.
'On my first date with Bijan he cooked me a Persian meal. It was great chicken Khoresht with fragrant saffron rice and it seemed so exotic to me. I didn't know any men who could cook and I hadn't travelled outside America then. He had to show me where Iran was on the map. But his cooking worked and later that year, right after we graduated, we got married.
'My parents didn't know anything about Iran, and I suppose neither did I. They were really charmed by Bijan and impressed by his generosity, and very, very happy that I was marrying a doctor. When we told them we were moving to Iran, my mother was terrified; a friend had just given her that ridiculous book Not Without My Daughter and she was practically hysterical. Bijan's parents tried to talk to her on the phone from Tehran and tell her not to worry, but when I got on the plane I discovered she had put that book in my bag. Bijan was really disgusted and threw it away. It was months later that I read it in Tehran, and there were not many things in it that I believed; especially about how dirty Iranians are. That's so dumb. And I know people who were friends of Betty Mahmoody's who were very unhappy about how they were portrayed.
'All the American women who live here come and go with our children to America. We get together for tea sometimes and just chat. Some of the women are good friends, and some are very different from me. Just because we are Americans in Iran doesn't mean we are going to be best friends; my closest girlfriends are two Persian girls that I ride with: our horses are at the same stable. But I haven't stopped going to America and I spend at least a month there every summer. It's nice to get out of the heat here for a bit and walk around in skimpy T-shirts and shorts outside, but Iran is my home. I've given up even trying to explain it to most Americans I know; they seem to think it's like a prison and I'm crazy.
'Yes, I hate hejab when I really think about it, and sometimes I get angry if I get hassled by the Komiteh or something. But we have a beautiful home and my boys are safe, not like where I grew up where you're nervous every time your kids walk out the door.'
Nancy speaks good conversational Persian and is learning to read and write the Arabic script it is written in. Unable to pursue her work in the field of sociology, a field which scarcely exists in Iran, she has turned to other things. She helps with local children's groups and has acquired dozens of books on Persian art.
'Bijan always gives me some Persian craft or carpet for my birthday and Christmas. Whenever there's a holiday we will go to some new part of the country, depending on what I've been reading. We've been to the city of Bam and set up our tents to just breathe in the atmosphere of the place. I should have taken some photos and sent them to the L. L. Bean catalogue. And then there's Luristan and the bronzes. And of course Isfahan alone is like a Ph.D. courses on Persian arts from crafts to architecture. I'm not a Muslim but I love the mosques there, especially the Friday mosque. My new passion is tiles; I'm beginning to learn more about them and I've just ordered some books from London on them. This could develop into a serious addiction. And then of course there's water-skiing.'
A day or so later Bijan was sitting in a motorboat, watching the driver revving up the engine and waiting for the figure in the water to give a thumbs-up sign. Rising above us were bare red cliffs which reflected the sun back on to the lake. Beyond them lay the stark Albourz Mountains, the last green of the spring burned out by mid-June. The tang of diesel rose in the air as the motor purred. 'OK, hit it!'
The boat took off from a standstill and the figure in the water was pulled up by the towrope, perfectly balanced on a slalom ski, weaving curving turns back and forth in the wake of the boat. Nancy is an expert water-skier, and she has not given it up in Iran; merely modified her clothes. The contrast between her graceful style and her dripping wet, all-encompassing roupush and black leggings, topped by a bathing cap, was ludicrous. Nancy said it took her some weeks to get used to the different balance because of the weight of wet Islamic clothes. After twenty minutes we slowed down. Nancy's momentum carried her close to the boat and she sank down in the water, loosening her ski to hand it up to us.
A few hundred metres away on the shore, a Komiteh patrol watched us carefully. Nothing improper had occurred and we had strictly observed the Islamic rules on dress. The men in the boat couldn't give Nancy a hand up, not even her husband; so they lowered a clumsy rope-ladder and moved a few feet away towards the bow to make it obvious to the moral guardians opposite that no physical contact had been made. Nancy grinned as she climbed over the side of the boat: she knew her water-skiing had improved.
'My face is burning up. That's the trouble with sports here, unless you cover your face with lotion, you end up with a tan face and white body. It's just too weird, so I always use factor 25.' She turned to her husband. 'Bijan, please hand me the sun lotion.'
As she smoothed it on, she started smiling again. 'Bijan tells me that when I write my book on Iran I should call it "Not Without my Coppertone".'
For some years it looked likely that Iran would win the war outright. There would be some major breakthrough, the regime of President Saddam Hussein would fall, and the will to continue the war would evaporate. This didn't happen for a number of reasons. One was the role of the great powers, which were so nervous after Iran had captured the Faw Peninsula in February 1986 that they gave Iraq an increasing amount of help. The United States deployed satellites over the region and passed intelligence to Baghdad through Saudi Arabia. As a result, Iran could never stage a surprise attack of any size again. The former Soviet Union provided the technology and some of the manpower to build the vast network of defensive canals and lakes around Basra, the key to the defence of southern Iraq. The cost, borne by Moscow over a period of years, amounted to more than a billion dollars.
After the Iranian capture of the Faw Peninsula most Western governments had begun to believe that Iran would go on to win the war. The key moment had come when the Revolutionary Guards crossed the Shatt-al-Arab waterway under cover of darkness and launched an amphibious attack against Iraqi positions on Faw which had previously seemed impregnable. It was a remarkable feat of military planning and execution. The Iraqi defenders escaped as best they could, leaving large amounts of equipment behind them, and the Iranians found themselves for the first time in possession of a sizable amount of Iraqi territory. From now on, the war would be fought at least in part on Iraqi soil: a pleasing thought to a country which had been unable to dislodge the invaders for so long. The Iranians sent out a general invitation to the world's television, press and radio to come to Faw to inspect it for themselves.
The world's television, press and radio were not, for the most part, particularly enthusiastic. Such invitations had been issued time and again by both Iran and Iraq, and huge a mounts of money and considerable lengths of time would be invested in sending in correspondents or camera teams, who would spend most of their time at expensive hotels in the capital, waiting to leave for the front. They were rarely allowed to see any fighting, and were usually shown a few unburied bodies and a few trenches. Sometimes an explosion on the horizon would show where the fighting was now taking place. Most news organizations had decided that there were better ways to spend their money.
The Iranians were reluctant to take visiting journalists right up to the front line because if they were killed it would look as though the victory had not been as decisive as Iran had claimed. There were no restrictions on their own people: week after week Iranian television showed remarkable coverage of tank battles, infantry charges and bombardments. Thirty-six camera men, sound-recordists and reporters had been killed on the Iranian side in battle: a higher figure than in either the Second World War or in Vietnam.
I was keen to accept the invitation, even though we found out early on that Tira, as my television producer, would not be allowed in. 'No women at the war front,' was the principle on which the Ministry of Islamic Guidance operated, I thought I might be able to stay on in Iran for a week or two afterwards, my first trip there since the revolution. Altogether there were only a dozen Western journalists on the trip, and most of them had come with the same idea. It seemed unlikely that we would see anything of interest at the front itself.
We gathered at the military air base in Tehran: a dozen British, American and western European journalists. The only member of the party who did not seem to belong was a short, stout German in a tan-coloured suit and tie. I had noticed him the moment he walked into our hotel in Tehran: he had looked so ill at ease and was so laden down with luggage, that I assumed he was a businessman who did little travelling. As it turned out, he was the Middle East office manager for one of the big West German magazines, and the local Iranian Embassy had refused to allow anyone else to come even though it was obvious that they had invited the wrong man. He was a pleasant man, very nervous and full of forebodings about what was going to happen.
'Don't worry,' said a Frenchman, 'nothing ever happens on these trips. They always make sure of that.'
The German did not look convinced. He was sweating heavily.
We flew down to the city of Ahwaz in a Fokker Friendship airliner which was to become famous within a matter of thirty-six hours, and arrived in the early morning. Ahwaz is an ugly, mud-coloured place under leaden skies, lying along the sluggish Karun River in Khuzestan, the Arab province of Iran. The heavy yellow alluvium of the Karun delta gives the city its tone and clogs its streets, so that the soles of your shoes are heavy with mud after twenty yards of walking. Although the war was being fought a matter of thirty miles away, and Ahwaz had often been attacked by the Iraqi air force, all the lights in the city were blazing and the shops were open for the evening trade as we wandered out in small groups to look around. Goldsmiths drank coffee from small cups and looked hopefully at this sudden influx of potential customers. Our guide told us quietly that the gold in Tehran was much better.
The best hotel in Ahwaz did what it could for us. Before the revolution Western oilmen had stayed here and grumbled about it. Now when you arrived you had to tread on the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack and the Hammer and Sickle, painted side by side on the floor in front of the main door, and a notice on the door requested you sharply to respect the rules governing Islamic dress. Outside was a large sign which showed an Iranian soldier under an apparent shower of blood and bore the words, 'We are all warriors and never fear from war'. We made the best of the hotel, though we were two or three to each of its small, bleakly appointed rooms. After a brief and disturbed night's sleep we were roused early for a military briefing on the situation at Faw.
The arrangements for the briefing were of some political and military interest in themselves. The men who had captured Faw belonged to the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards: the highly trained force which the Islamic Republic had created in order to defend itself from external and internal attack. The Revolutionary Guards had done the most difficult fighting, and had been sent to the most dangerous areas; and by and large they and the Basijis had acquitted themselves well. The regular army, by contrast, had been little more than bystanders at some of the most significant points in the war. They had fought with distinction in the early stages of the Iraqi invasion, but never been trusted by the government. Like the Soviets, the ayatollahs created a parallel army of their own, and the regular army was obliged to accept the demotion.
'In the name of God,' someone began: it was a tall, serious man in his early twenties with bad posture and an inadequate tuft of beard under his chin. He stood in front of a large yellow map and made sketchy, nervous movements at it. He looked very junior indeed: but as the briefing went on it became clear that he had, in fact, played an important part in the planning and command of the attack in Faw.
'The enemy were superior in every way,' he said. The map seemed to give him confidence. I wondered if he had ever addressed a group of foreigners in his life before. 'They never thought that a military force would be able to cross the river here.' He pointed with his stick to the wide wound of the Shatt-al-Arab, cutting its way through the marshes on either bank.
'Our aim was to cut off Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf, and in order to do that we had to fool the enemy by staging another operation, further to the north.' He gestured at some point close to the ceiling, well off the top of his yellow map. 'As a result of our attack we captured 800 square kilometers of enemy territory and an Iraqi army headquarters. Altogether the Iraqi losses were 15,000 dead and 22,000 captured - mostly men of the special Presidential Guard.' Even allowing for a certain amount of enthusiasm in the reckoning, it seemed to be an important victory. Another man took his place before the map: a thirty-year-old, who was operations director of the Revolutionary Guards. Neither he nor his colleague appeared to have any military rank, which is one of the peculiarities of the Guards; their officers, it was explained to me later, simply emerge. This man lectured us about the strategic objectives: how they planned to establish a base in Faw for the capture of Iraq's second city, Basra, while closing the waterways and air corridor to Iraq. He was an enthusiast for military history.
'There were worse tides for this attack than for the D-Day landings in Normandy. Napoleon himself rarely managed to get his own military plans accomplished, because of tactical problems on the ground. We achieved great success in that.'
He paused, as though there was something else he was supposed to say, and it had temporarily gone out of his mind. Then he remembered.
'Our military brothers helped us by providing helicopters and so on. After the initial attack had succeeded.'
I looked round at the representative of their military brothers: a tough, self-reliant colonel, smart in his light green uniform, with a camouflage cravat at the throat. He looked straight ahead, not reacting in any way. It probably took some effort. . .
There were even more of us in the lead Huey this time: so many that the pilot, a big, unshaven, impressive man in his late thirties who spoke good American English, had an argument with his co-pilot about the dangers of taking us. In the end he shrugged and agreed. We were crammed in tightly behind him, sitting on the floor of the Huey with our chins on our knees. If we wanted to shift position we had to ask the two or three closest people for help. The Hueys swooped along in convoy, strung out over two-thirds of a mile. The yellow of the mud flats was turning green with palm trees, and when I could turn my head I could see the Karun curving its way two hundred feet below us. It was a beautiful clear day: too clear to fly into a war zone.
Then we were within sight of Faw and dropped down to seventy or eighty feet. Every one became tense. The co-pilot pointed to something over the horizon, and then white and grey clouds suddenly erupted out of the ground in neat lines across my field of vision, eight miles or so away. The pilot turned and grinned. The Iraqis were bombing at a distance, not over Faw itself but across the Iranian front line. There was a brief radio conversation with the ground control and the decision was taken. We had to go in to Faw; it was too dangerous to go back.
We flew in just above the palm trees. This was not just another well organized press facility, with the danger neatly edited out: the pilots were worried, and wanted to put us down fast and get their valuable machines away as fast as they could. Ahead lay the landing strip, with a few small gesticulating figures visible on it: a great gold-coloured square, bulldozed out of the surrounding mud and marshland. Our helicopter sank down on to it jarringly, and the pilot started yelling, 'Out! Out! Out!' the instant we were settled.
It was difficult to run at first, with the circulation coming back into my legs, but I followed the others out from under the rotor blades and away from the fierce hail of dust and mud they were throwing up. Within half a minute our pilot was already in the air again, heading south-west as the second Huey came in from the north-east and filled the air with its racket. The third stood off, awaiting its turn; and before it had properly settled the bombing began.
The Iraqis had known we were coming. They had followed the progress of our Fokker F-27 the previous day, and they had tracked our helicopters in their radar that morning. Their bombers, two miles above us in the clear blue sky, had plenty of time to scramble and catch us while the Hueys were setting us down. Sudden columns of earth and smoke heaved up into the air around us, and the heart stopping noise of the Iranian anti-aircraft guns around the landing zone opened up in an effort to defend us. It was appallingly disorienting, as we tried to get our bearings.
'Get down! Get down!' people were screaming at us, and I threw myself, elbows first, into some dead bushes beside the edge of the zone, hoping they would break my fall. They did, and I rolled over and managed to get my stills camera out of my shoulder-bag --the one that didn't contain my gas mask. Taking photographs, I had always found, was a kind of therapy under fire: it gave me something to do and stopped me worrying. The columns of earth and smoke continued to rise around us, and I snapped away.
The third Huey was only now disgorging its tightly-packed occupants,and the shock and disorientation must have been far worse for them than it had been for us. The bombs seemed to be landing all round us, and the explosions from the anti-aircraft guns were terrifyingly close: it took time to realise that those were the only explosions which were not harmful to us, and the latest arrivals by helicopter didn't have that much time.
Now a new order was being shouted: 'Get on to the trucks! Get on to the trucks!' The trucks were a good fifty yards away, on the edge of the landing zone, and the drivers, in their agitation, began revving up and started to move. I had to wait while the cameraman coolly finished filming the chaos around us and collected his gear. All the television cameramen were behaving in exemplary fashion, standing out in the open to film the explosions, while everyone else was trying to dig into the ground to get away from them.
I didn't notice the reluctant German: too much was happening around us for that. But the heat, the fear, the dreadful noise of the artillery and the bombing, and the fifty-yard run for the trucks in the constricting overalls we were wearing, proved fatal for him. He reached the trucks, almost the last to get there, and was hauled on board as they pulled out at speed: and as he lay on the floor of the truck, with the crash of guns still going on around us, his heart gave way under the strain of it all. He was dead before anyone had realised it; and although the doctors at the field hospital had orders to leave the Iranians who had been wounded in the bombing and look after him, two hours and more of effort failed to resuscitate him. I admired him for agreeing to come on the trip at all. Many bureau managers would have found a way of refusing.
Away from the landing zone, things were easier for the rest of us. We bucketed along the potholed road, through the shattered remnants of the town of Faw, whose mosque tower was the only building of any size to have escaped damage. Now the green flag of Islamic revolution flew above it, and everywhere we went the flag was visible, a symbol of the most important battle that Iran had won in centuries. Everywhere, too, we were cheered on by soldiers in makeshift uniforms, units of the rear who occupied each crossroads and dug themselves into the mud for shelter. Our motorcade consisted of three troop-carrying lorries with Western journalists on board, together with Jeeps, motorbikes and whatever else our escorts could commandeer. And all the time, on the skyline around us, grey and black smoke was going up from bomb explosions, and the thud of anti-aircraft fire could be heard above the grinding noise of our trucks' engines. The Iraqi air force had other targets now.
We stopped in the remains of the town, and soldiers surrounded us enthusiastically. They were simple men who assumed we were there out of solidarity, and they were excited and proud of their achievement. Some were very young indeed, but among them was a man who looked like an Old Testament prophet gone to the bad: with his grizzled beard and bald pate, tied around with a red scarf, he seemed to be in his late fifties. He was the most warlike figure we saw all day, with two bandoleros stuffed with bullets crisscrossing his chest, and a rifle which like him was antique but threatening over his shoulder. It would have been terrifying to have come across him at dusk on a remote mountain pass; but here he was the foghorn voice of God's victory: 'Allahu Akbar!' Praise be to God for destroying His enemies! We shall march to Kerbala! We shall liberate the shrines of Hossain and Ali from the hands of the defilers! We shall march on holy Qods itself and capture that in the name of God and the Imam Khomeini! God is great! Khomeini is our leader!'.
He was magnificent in his way, the kind of technicolour figure who would look good on any newspaper front page or as the opening shot in a report for television news. He was not, however, a combatant, any more than the teenagers who swarmed enthusiastically about him were. We saw the real front-line troops a little later: exhausted, grey figures, their uniforms thick with dust, trudging back for other duties after the bombing they had received that morning. But they too raised a cheer for us, and chanted about God and Khomeini. These were the Revolutionary Guards who had swum the Shatt-al-Arab a few days before and captured the Iraqi positions, and were now holding off all the counterattacks. Not all the bodies of their dead enemies had been buried. Here and there we saw the huddled shapes of men who lay where the bullets or the shells had caught them, singly or in enough numbers to fill a trench, their faces frozen and inhuman, their eyes half-closed, the flies busily at work on them.
We had already been shown one of the crueller aspects of the war that morning: a bus full of gas casualties. We clambered aboard like tourists, with the encouragement of our winders', photographing and filming the appalling state of the men sitting there. Many of them were unable to open their eyes, and were sitting, swaying with the pain and the discomfort. Others held medicated cloths to their faces. There was a terrible sound of coughing, tearing at the lungs and throat. Then someone who was less badly gassed noticed that we were there, and began a feeble chant of 'Allahu Akbar'. Gradually more and more men took it up, chanting the words slowly and weakly, as if they were talking in their sleep. Then the coughing and the moaning became stronger and the chanting weaker, and the sufferers were left on their own again.
A United Nations team, visiting Iran a week or so later, identified the gas which the Iraqis were using as mustard gas, of a type which showed its First World War origins: Yperite. It was mostly dropped from Iraqi planes, and from the moment we landed in Faw I was aware of a faint irritation in the air which made my eyes water a little: it was the almost totally attenuated tang of mustard gas in the air, like the aftermath of a riot where CS gas has been used.
About a mile away across the Ypres landscape, Iraqi bombs were still falling close to the place where our helicopters had landed. Clouds of white smoke billowed up from the explosions: gas, according to the Iranian soldiers escorting us. The trucks we were travelling in seemed to be heading in that direction, so we pulled out our gas masks and sat there with them on, swaying to the motion of the truck, so many anonymous insect-like faces with long protective snouts. Without warning, the driver jammed the brakes on and we were out of the bus and diving for the ditch: Iraqi bombers were coming in low, almost overhead. But they had other targets to attack and ignored us, and when they were safely past we clambered aboard again. It was a little time before I could work out why the Iranians with us were laughing at me. Then I took my mask off and examined it: the filter had fallen out in the ditch incident. I might as well leave it off, since it wouldn't help me now. I tried to pretend I thought it was funny too, but the memory of the men on the bus with their sear coughs and the chemical eruptions on their skin was not really very amusing. I sat in my seat with my useless gas mask on my lap, and tried to think of something else.
We reached the landing zone, and almost immediately the Iraqi planes turned their attentions to us. For the next two hours or so we were pinned down, out in the open, waiting for a lull that would be long enough for our helicopters to pick us up. Sometimes twenty minutes or more would pass without any action, and we would stroll around, interviewing people, filming things and, in my case, looking out for any useful spare parts for my gas mask.
But the Iraqi bombers always came back. It felt as though they knew exactly where we were: a common delusion of people pinned down by aerial bombing. I would lie with my back against a ramp of bulldozed yellow earth and watch the little silver crosses high above us in the blue sky. And each time, as the crews on the anti-aircraft guns spun around trying to get a decent aim, it would occur to me with uncomfortable clarity that the difference of a thousandth of a second in the pilot's timing as he pressed the button to release his load of bombs might mean the difference between a direct hit and a near miss.
Eventually our minders took a decision: the Iraqis were not going to let our helicopters back in, so we would have to be taken by motorboat across the Shatt-al-Arab. From there, more trucks would pick us up and take us to an Iranian air base. We loaded ourselves clumsily into the boats during the next lull in the bombing, and headed out fast into the middle of the waterway, our helpers and guides waving us goodbye from the rickety wooden pier. As the last boat was pulling away, the bombers returned. We were still only a couple of hundred yards from the shore, and watched as a bomb threw up a column of debris and white smoke precisely where we had been taking refuge a few minutes before.
It was a long drive to the Iranian air base. Late in the afternoon, one fewer in number, we climbed on board an enormous Iranian Hercules. The Fokker Friendship which had brought us down had been requisitioned at the last moment so that a party of government officials and members of the Majlis could visit Ahwaz and Faw. Our escorts kept telling us that the Iraqi bombardment had been directed at us, but in the relief of having survived a difficult day's experiences that seemed hard to believe. It was only the next day that we heard what had happened to our Fokker Friendship: eighteen miles north-east of Ahwaz, an hour or so before we took off in our Hercules, it had been shot down by two Iraqi jets. All forty-four people on board were killed.
The war took on a life of its own, as Siegfried Sassoon believed the First World War did. The balance between the two sides was finely drawn: Iraqi weapons and money versus Ayatollah Khomeini's refusal to countenance anything short of victory. In the summer of 1987 Iraq ma managed to alter the entire focus of the war, from land to sea. By staging a series of attacks against tankers using Iranian ports in the Gulf, Iraq goaded Iran into retaliating against the shipping of other nations, especially those which supported Iraq in the war.
The United States was still smarting from the humiliation it had received when a lone Iraqi pilot (later, it is thought, executed after being repatriated) successfully attacked the USS Stark. Now it warned that it would use force, if necessary, to protect itself and its Gulf State friends from attack, and to keep the sea-lanes open. The fact that it was Iraq, and not Iran, which had attacked the Stark and taken the initiative in the war against the tankers was rarely mentioned in the United States; Americans had become conditioned to the notion that Iran was their natural enemy in the region. The British government, though privately of the opinion that Washington's commitment to 'reflag' Kuwaiti tankers and protect them as if they were American was ill-thought-out and unwise, felt obliged nevertheless to send a quarter of the Royal Navy to the Gulf to join in the exercise. The French, the Italians, the Dutch, and the Belgians joined them. The Russians sent a large fleet as well.
In the early stages of the operation things went embarrassingly wrong. The Iranians used fleet auxiliary vessels and small patrol boats to lay mines of World War Two design and manufacture in the sea lanes of the Gulf, but the United States Navy, equipped for the Third World War, had no minesweepers on hand to deal with this antique menace. US admirals had, it emerged, always regarded minesweeping as unglamorous because it involved a low standard of technology; as a result the ability to build wooden ships of the right size (wood being required to avoid setting off magnetic mines) had died out in American shipyards. Worse, a 'reflagged' Kuwaiti tanker hit a mine while it was under escort by US Navy ships.
The government in Tehran made the most of Washington's embarrassment. It denied having planted the mines, insisting t hat they had been laid by 'hidden hands'; and for a time it looked as though a full-scale war might erupt between Iran and the United States. The Iranians, however, were always careful to prevent that from happening: the Americans were capable of inflicting heavy losses on what remained of the Iranian air force and navy, so Iran's ability to continue fighting its war against Iraq was at stake. And although the attention of the rest of the world was fixed on the waters of the Gulf, Iran's Supreme Defence Council, which controlled the strategy of the war, knew the outcome would be settled on land. The provocations against American ships and those of its friend,s and allies continued, but never to the point where the United States might be provoked into all-out retaliation.
In August 1987, at the height of all this tension, I went back to Iran, to join one of the largest gatherings of foreign journalists since the revolution. We were to be taken to see for ourselves that Iran, far from laying mines as the West believed, was in fact engaged in an elaborate operation to locate mines and render them harmless. It was a maladroit public relations stunt, intended to create an alibi for Iran in case the Americans attacked. We were flown down to the port of Bandar Abbas, from which much of the military and naval hardware seemed to have been withdrawn, and put on board an American-made Sea Stallion helicopter of precisely the kind the US Navy was using to search for mines, not far away. In appalling temperatures we found the small contingent of Iranian naval ships which were supposedly on mine-clearance duties off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and after circling for half an hour to allow the cameramen on board to film everything they needed, we landed on the deck of a support ship. It was a relief to get out into what seemed like cool fresh air; though the temperature there was 119 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the ship's wardroom, an Iranian naval captain and commodore had been delegated to brief us about the operation. They were pleasant, professional men who had trained in Britain during the Shah's time, and were as awkward about speaking to journalists as most serving officers are in any navy or army. It was, therefore, almost an act of cruelty to interrupt them as they briefed us and ask who had planted the mines they were hunting.
'We don't know who planted them,' said the captain, looking round desperately for the commodore to help him out. 'No, we don't know,' said the commodore. The captain gave a ghastly grin and tried to continue. But the whole point of the exercise had evaporated in the ferocious heat of the wardroom.
There was a great deal of discussion in the United States about the reliability of the seagoing Revolutionary Guards who laid many of the mines and carried out attacks on shipping: were they acting under orders, or were they, as the vogue phrase had it, 'off the wall' - that is, uncontrolled fanatics capable of any insane action? Many American newspapers carried details of an attack by Revolutionary Guards on a ship which turned out to be carrying Iranian oil; several of the reports presented this as evidence that the attackers were so maddened by zeal they were capable of crazy acts of destruction. It was in fact a foolish mistake; the ships which used the Gulf tend to bunch together for protection, and in the confused conditions one tanker was mistaken for another. The notion of the off-the-wall fanatic said more about the standard Western view of Iran than it did about the behaviour of the Revolutionary Guards. . .