In early 1978 the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, asked the United States for assistance in setting up a command-and-control system and developing doctrine and operational concepts for the reorganization of his armed forces. Until that time, the Shah had managed the armed forces singlehandedly, carrying all his doctrine in his head. According to General Robert E. Huyser, deputy commander in chief of U.S. European Command at the time, “He preferred to operate in this way, as insurance against a military coup.”
The Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized the formation of an Iranian Military Command Control Assistance Team, consisting of 23 officers and 2 enlisted men (7 Army, 10 Air Force, 5 Navy, and 1 Marine Corps) under Air Force Colonel Donald E. Ernst, to go to Iran on a four-month assignment to analyze its military organization. The team’s travel and per diem would be paid for by the Iranian government as part of a foreign military sales agreement. While in-country, the team would report to the Iranian Military Assistance and Advisory Group (ARMISH-MAAG).
The only Marine, I joined the team in Washington on 30 October for four days of briefings. During this time, I became aware of the increasing menace to the Shah’s regime by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had threated to destroy the Pahlavi dynasty. The Washington Post noted, “The as-yet undeclared Iranian revolution saw one prime minister resign, another appointed, the imposition of martial law, and a terrorist attack in which the obscure cleric Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers simultaneously struck at the British embassy in Tehran and the Iranian offices of Israeli air carrier El Al.” I began to think the assignment was more than I had bargained for.
Despite the increasing unrest in the country, we departed for an overnight stay in London. The following day, 5 November, we boarded a Lufthansa flight (the only airline that still would fly into Iran). Shortly after takeoff, the flight was diverted to the Frankfurt/Rhein-Main International Airport, where the aircrew announced without explanation: “Everyone who is traveling to Tehran please depart the aircraft.” As we were disembarking, a well-dressed man asked me if the team was U.S. military. I directed him to Colonel Ernst.
Buses took us to the InterContinental hotel, where Colonel Ernst informed us Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport was closed because of a reported mass shooting of protesters by the Iranian Army. That night most of us hit the hotel bar to talk over the situation. Lo and behold, the same man who approached me in the plane was sitting in the bar. He identified himself as U.S. embassy staff and loudly proclaimed that the Shah’s government was going to fall . . . and no one would listen to him. Needless to say, his comments added to my concern.
The following morning we boarded the Lufthansa flight for Tehran—the airport was now open. When we landed, we were welcomed by several high-ranking Iranian officers, mostly Iranian Air Force, who ushered us to a bus for the trip to the hotel. I immediately noted chicken wire covering all the open windows. The two Army paratroopers, whom I had befriended, nodded knowingly. There was only one reason for the wire—to keep hand grenades and bombs from being thrown inside.
At a roadblock near the airport’s exit, the Iranians had set up a machine-gun position. It was pointed directly at the bus, with the gunner’s finger on the trigger and his assistant holding the belted rounds up to the gun’s firing port. “Don’t anyone sneeze,” I mumbled loud enough for my Army friends to hear. One of them stage whispered, “What the hell have we got ourselves into?”
We ran into three more roadblocks during the 20-minute ride to the city. One was actually manned by a Chieftain tank the Iranians had bought from Britain. Fortunately our escorts had all the correct passes, and we were allowed to proceed through the blacked-out city to the International Hotel. Later we learned the electrical workers had programmed a power failure to kick in at 2100 every night. The government imposed a curfew at the same time. It was unnerving driving through a city that was completely black with not a soul in sight.
We were surprised to find our hotel lit up like a Christmas tree, the only building in a several block area that had lights. Management had installed a generator for just this sort of emergency. My room, which I shared with an Air Force officer, was on the third floor, facing the street. In the distance I could hear the scattered crackle of small arms fire echoing off the buildings. It was a sign of what was to come.
My roommate, a missile expert who spent most of his time in an underground silo, opened the heavy curtains and stood in front of the window, oblivious to the threat of someone taking a shot at his highlighted figure. I got out of the line of fire and asked, “Have you ever been shot at?” He answered rather quizzically, “No.” I replied, “Give it a minute, and we’ll see what happens!” I will say he was quick on the uptake and hastily shut the blinds.
We conducted most of our analysis in Tehran at the Iranian Army’s command-and-control structure at the Imperial Iranian Headquarters. ARMISH-MAAG had an office in the building. One day I spotted a notice tacked to the bulletin board, titled “Info-Gram.” On closer inspection, I saw it had been prepared by the public affairs office of ARMISH-MAAG and provided updated warnings on disruptive and dangerous incidents in the city. After reading several consecutive Info-Grams, I could see that the situation in the city was deteriorating almost daily.
We normally walked to the Imperial Headquarters from the hotel because it wasn’t far and seemed reasonably safe. One morning, however, a man literally jumped out of some bushes and physically threatened one of our team who was walking a distance from the group. When the assailant saw us rushing to intervene, he ran away. From that day on, we were transported by a MAAG bus.
By late November, nighttime small arms fire was increasing. The front page of the November 20 issue of Time declared: “Showdown in Iran,” and featured a photograph of the Shah surrounded by flames.
We noted that the Iranian soldiers manning the checkpoint in front of our hotel were becoming increasingly tense. One night after curfew, the two Army paratroopers and I were talking in their room when we heard a car racing up the street. We could tell by the sound that it would never be able to stop at the checkpoint. The soldiers at the checkpoint started yelling in Farsi. Next we heard the sound of bullets being racked into the chambers of their rifles. We reacted instinctively and got on the floor below the window frame. The soldiers fired dozens of rounds into the vehicle, sending it crashing into a building across the street.
Info-Grams put out by the Iranian Military Assistance and Advisory Group chronicled the deteriorating situation in Tehran.
I peered out the window and saw them drag the driver out of his car and beat him with the butts of their rifles. Sometime later his limp form and the heavily damaged car were hauled away.
We flew to several military bases to complete our analysis. It was at Bandar Abbas, a major naval base on the Straits of Hormuz, that I came face to face with how bad the situation was becoming. We were billeted on an Italian liner, the SS Michelangelo, that the Iranians had purchased as a floating barracks. One night several of us were eating with our Iranian counterparts, one of whom mentioned he had just finished talking to his wife in Tehran. She told him to call back later, because she wanted to go to the roof to watch the demonstrations. She mentioned that many of the women demonstrators were wearing white chadors. The officer noted the quizzical look on my face and explained that the white chadors were a significant development, because they meant the women were willing to die for their cause.
His comments started a discussion on what was going to happen. One Iranian officer stated quite emphatically that the Shah would “kill them all [the demonstrators] and the country would go back to normal.” Another officer said, “No, the government is
The author’s Iranian identification card.
going to fall.” I was left wondering whom to believe—and more important, how I would get out of the country if the Shah fell.
We returned to Tehran a few days before the start of Muharram, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. Large-scale demonstrations were planned throughout the city, and rumors floated around that the Shah was going to turn the army loose on the demonstrators. Westerners were warned to stay indoors and off the streets. Our hotel took an extra precaution by erecting blast shutters on all the first-floor windows. We laid in a three-day supply of food.
Early on 2 December, the first day of Muharram, I was awakened by high-pitched chanting. Outside, hundreds of people were marching toward a large open area two blocks away. The space already was packed. The chanting sent shivers up my spine. By this time, the entire team was observing the scene and wondering what it would mean for us. I called the MAAG and filled them in. The duty officer told me the same thing was being reported throughout the city and cautioned me not to do anything to upset them. “Fat chance of that,” I thought.
By mid-morning the crowd marched past our hotel, many carrying signs and placards with crude drawings of the Shah in various unflattering poses, which in times past would have meant arrest or worse. Wave after wave of demonstrators chanting “Allahu akbar” [God is great] caused us a great deal of concern. What if hotheads decided to attack us? Fortunately, they continued marching.
We were told later that more than 2 million people called for the overthrow of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile. Surprisingly, the army was not turned loose. The Shah had made an agreement with the organizers that if the demonstrations were peaceful, he would not crack down.
The handwriting was on the wall, and most Americans were trying to get their families out of the country. Unfortunately, airplane tickets were prohibitively expensive, and the U.S. government would not provide transportation, because it might be perceived as a lack of support for the Shah.
As conditions continued to deteriorate, the Shah’s position became increasingly precarious. Both the United States and Great Britain concluded the bloodshed could not be stopped as long as he remained in the capital. There was no reason for Americans to be left in harm’s way, so the U.S. government decided to act. Initially, dependents were encouraged to leave using their own resources. A few days later, they were offered free transportation on military aircraft to the nearest U.S. base. Then all dependents were ordered to leave the country immediately. The policy changes threw the American community into a panic and created chaos as military families scrambled to pack belongings, pull children out of school, and head for the airport.
Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Iran on 1 February 1979, two weeks after the Shah left the country, ending 14 years of exile.
Despite the evacuation order, no one stopped the inflow of replacements for those whose tours were ending. I observed American families arriving, while others were leaving, often on the same aircraft. It was obvious one hand did not know what the other was doing.
To make matters worse, by mid-December large numbers of wealthy Iranian citizens also were attempting to flee. The exchange for Iranian rials against the dollar was 100 or more, if they could find dollars, but they were desperate to get out.
Our foreign military sales agreement authorized the team a two-week Christmas break in the United States. On 16 December, we boarded a bus for Mehrabad airport and a flight home, we hoped. There were rumors the Shah’s secret police might keep us from leaving. Fortunately, we were allowed to proceed through the various checkpoints to the waiting room. The room was a madhouse—crying children, anxious mothers, and the watchful eyes of soldiers carrying rifles.
As the time came for our departure on an Iranian airliner, I watched as the luggage was loaded. The cargo compartment was so full the ground crew had to use a forklift to push the hatch closed. I nudged the team’s Navy pilot, who had a stricken look on his face. “Will the bird get off the ground?” he mumbled. Every cubic inch of space in the airplane was crammed with boxes and suitcases. Even the flight attendant’s area was stacked from floor to ceiling. All we could do was pray the plane would take off and stay in the air.
The passengers, almost all women with children, seemed anxious, not because of the heavy load, but for fear they would be hauled off the plane at the last moment. I wondered the same thing. I noticed that many wore dozens of thick gold bracelets from wrist to elbow. It was one way they could smuggle money out of the country. There was a huge sigh of relief when the aircraft went wheels up.
Just after Christmas I received a message that the remainder of the assignment had been canceled. On 16 January, the Shah left the country “on holiday.” Two weeks later, Khomeini arrived. He fostered tremendous anti-Americanism, calling the United States “The Great Satan,” and offered encouragement to the students who seized the U.S. embassy in November 1979. I realized I had been an eyewitness to revolution.