The United States and Iran: The Secret History Part One: Carter and the Shah

  Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, and his wife, Empress Farah, wave goodbye prior to boarding an aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base.  Photo provided by the US Dept. of Defense.
Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, and his wife, Empress Farah, wave goodbye prior to boarding an aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base. Photo provided by the US Dept. of Defense.
In 1972, the intelligence chief for Saudi Arabia, Kamal Adham, predicted to associates that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, would fall. The Shah had advised the Al Saud family to consider allowing public reforms and public protests in Saudi Arabia. Adham ignored his advice. Frustrated, Adham could not understand why many advisers to President Nixon, and later Ford and Carter, refused to recognize what he saw as inevitable: the end of the Iranian monarchy.

In Teheran in 1977, Ambassador Thomas Sullivan, who had replaced Richard Helms, the former CIA director, was one of the few who heeded Adham’s warnings. He told Washington that when the revolution started, the Shah’s army was not going to shoot fellow Iranians to keep the Shah on the Peacock Throne. He was all but ignored by the Carter national security team.

Helms, along with other Shah friends like Henry Kissinger, urged President Carter to support the Shah. Carter took their advice. In January 1978, he called the Shah’s government “an island of stability.” In a matter of months, the island of stability was starting to fall apart. In June 1978, a Shah-sponsored newspaper campaign against the Ayatollah Khomeini triggered riots in the holy city of Qom, where Khomeini had lived before he had gone into exile in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Over the next few months, the unrest spread to Tabriz. In August 1978, the beautiful old city of Esfahan was placed under martial law. Then the protests turned deadly: several hundred Iranians were burned to death when a theater was set on fire in Abadan. The CIA, unwilling to face up to the catastrophe that was unfolding, gave Carter no warning to abandon the Shah’s failing regime even after martial law was imposed in Teheran and hundreds of protestors were gunned down by the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, on what came to be known as “Black Friday”—September 8, 1978.

For the CIA, a chance to influence the Ayatollah Khomeini had come many years before, in 1964, when the CIA had arranged for him a safe haven in Iraq after he had been briefly imprisoned by SAVAK and exiled to Turkey. The CIA had arranged for the Iraqi regime to let Khomeini move to the holy city of An-Najaf, where he had directed his campaign against the Shah. When Saddam Hussein came to power as Iraq’s vice president in 1968, he permitted the CIA to place a number of Iranian-born agents around the Ayatollah. From the huge and beautiful golden-domed mosque in An-Najaf, Khomeini was the most influential cleric in the region.

Then, in October 1977, Khomeini’s beloved son Mustapha was found dead in bed. Because Islam does not permit postmortems, Mustapha’s death remains a mystery, but many at the time suspected that SAVAK was responsible. When the son’s death was followed by an attack on the father by the Shah’s information minister, the theological colleges in Qom shut down in protest. In January 1978, four thousand seminary students in Qom protested the Shah’s actions. SAVAK opened fire on the students. Dozens were killed, and the people of Iran were outraged.

According to Sarkis Soghanalian, who later became Saddam Hussein’s key arms dealer, Khomeini presented a threat to Saddam’s secular ways. Saddam was receptive to the Shah’s request that his guest might be happier in exile somewhere else. In October 1978, Khomeini moved to the hamlet of Neauphlé-le-Château, outside Paris. Several Iranians who had been on the CIA payroll in the United States joined his staff in France, where they helped him prepare for a triumphant return to Iran.

Keeping the Shah in power became impossible after the Iranian oil workers went on strike in October 1978
Keeping the Shah in power became impossible after the Iranian oil workers went on strike in October 1978
The CIA’s hopes of keeping the Shah in power evaporated when Iranian oil workers went on strike in October 1978. In November, the Shah formed a military government, while Khomeini announced from Paris that he was forming an Islamic Republic in Iran. In December, millions participated in anti-Shah demonstrations throughout Iran. The Shah’s last prime minister, Shahpur Bakhtiar, tried, to stave off the Islamic revolution by forming a new government. In January 1979, at a summit at Guadeloupe, the Western nations formally asked the dying Shah to leave Iran. A few weeks later, after fourteen years in exile, Khomeini, with several CIA agents on his staff, triumphantly returned to Iran, where he appointed Mehdi Bazargan to head the first Iranian Provisional Revolutionary Government.

For the next few months, Carter was inundated with requests by friends of the Shah, including Helms and Kissinger, to allow the Shah to come to the United States for treatment of his advanced prostate cancer. In September 1979, Carter approved the visit. Almost immediately, the Shah’s treatment in the United States was seen as a slap in the face of the Iranian people.

On November 4, 1979, five hundred angry Iranians invaded the U.S. Embassy compound and took ninety people hostage. While some of the hostages were released two weeks later, fifty-three remained incarcerated. Carter’s “human rights” presidency and his Camp David Accords triumph were now seen as images of weakness. Carter tried economic sanctions. The only result was another rise in the price of gasoline.

As the Shah was falling from power in early 1979, the United States forced Iranian General Hassan Toufanian, the vice minister of defense for procurement, to sign a memorandum of understanding as the price for his rescue. Middle East scholar Gary Sick described the importance of this document: “It was indispensable for the United States: initially to manage the complex network of contracts and deliveries in the absence of any responsible authority in Teheran; then to handle Iran’s frozen military assets during the hostage crisis; and finally to resolve the disputed claims of the two parties at the special tribunal established at The Hague in 1981 as part of the negotiated agreement for release of the hostages.” One week after the memo was signed in February 1979, the Shah’s Imperial Guard was defeated.

The memorandum, negotiated by Pentagon official Erich von Marbod, amounted to a power of attorney that gave the United States government the authority to terminate all of Iran’s military contracts. This document was the reason the Iranians—now facing a potential war with Iraq—were in desperate need of armaments.

Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Beheshti, one of the most powerful clerics in the revolution and a disciple of Khomeini, was mysteriously close to a deputy of General Toufanian’s named Ahmed Heidari, who was arrested when Toufanian escaped Iran. Beheshti quickly arranged for Heidari’s release from prison.

One of Heidari’s most important responsibilities for the new regime was to act as middleman in all clandestine deals with Israel. The cozy relationship between Iran and Israel had reached its peak under the Shah in 1977, when Iran had agreed to finance sophisticated weapons systems with Israel. Under the auspices of General Toufanian, Iran had provided Israel huge amounts of foreign exchange and large land areas on which to test new weapons systems. One of those weapons systems was a surface-to-surface missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. The Israeli nuclear program, which had already produced a dozen nuclear weapons by 1977, was being partially aided by Iranian petrodollars, in exchange for Israeli nuclear technology according to an Iranian mullah who worked for Heidari.

Just before the Shah fell, Toufanian authorized the last $200 million in oil money to be paid to Israel. He had operated the program so secretly, at the Shah’s bidding, that when the new post-revolution officials took over, they could find no detailed records of the joint projects. It was not the short-term monetary loss that concerned the Israelis, but the loss of their secret twenty-year relationship with Iran, their only major trading partner in the region. The Israelis felt that they had to find a way to get along with the new regime. A friendly relationship with Iran was a cornerstone of their entire foreign policy, using Shite Iran as a hedge against predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Former CIA Director and Ambassador to Iran Richard Helms was advising President Carter at the same time he was under criminal investigation for lying to Congress about the overthrow of Salvadore Allende in Chile. Compounding the deliberate ignorance was Richard Helms’s close personal relationship with the Shah, whose government was largely an American Frankenstein’s monster. Officials like Helms and American General Richard Secord would look very bad if the leaders they had championed for decades suddenly seemed untenable.

President Carter was therefore blind to the building rage in the Middle East. The reality of the Islamic revolution that was overtaking the Middle East had been not just missed by the CIA, but deliberately ignored. This intellectual blindness was the second element of the nightmare of what would become the jihad against America.

In the late 1970s, when the J. J. Cappucci company was training Anwar Sadat’s personal bodyguards, Egypt’s long-festering Islamic fundamentalist movement, centered on the Muslim Brotherhood, was stirring again. The “Brothers,” as they were called, had been brutally put down by regime after regime, including Sadat’s.

Said Ramadan, the hand-selected successor to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, was an expert in Islamic law and a father of the Islamic revolution in Iran. He operated in exile out of Geneva, Switzerland. Ramadan should have been of enormous interest to U.S. intelligence. Instead, he and others successfully built a shadowy Islamic fundamentalist network into a modern worldwide movement. By 1978, cells of the Brotherhood operated all over the Middle East and were established in the United States. In 1979, Ramadan was routinely traveling back and forth to the United States to preach at the Islamic Center mosque in Washington, D.C.

In Egypt, the combination of repression and corruption went back generations. Under Sadat, hopelessness among educated young Arab men helped bring about the resurgence in the Brotherhood. Similar young men in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere across the region saw in the Brothers a ray of hope that there might be a chance at a better life.

The extreme Islamic movement that began in Egypt under the name of the Brotherhood was no more extreme than the repression the dictatorships used to stifle grassroots Islam.  US intelligence developed deep connections to the Brotherhood during Hitler’s efforts in Egypt. What made the Brotherhood so effective was its ability to organize and operate like a well-disciplined political organization. The Brotherhood copied many of the techniques of the old Russian revolutionary movement. The Brotherhood’s efforts in the United States were directed at the African-American Islamic community.

These recruitment efforts would lead to a bizarre series of events involving Richard Helms and a young American named David Belfield.

David Theodore Belfield was born on November 10, 1950, in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the third of five children of Charles and Jackie Belfield. David is not of Arab or Persian descent, or even a Muslim by birth. He is an African American whose family had always been respected community leaders.

In 1968, David left New York, where his family had moved from North Carolina, for Howard University in Washington, D.C. Like many young black men, he dabbled in black causes. He joined a group organized along military lines, but left after a year because it opposed his interest in Marxism. During this period, David met a Korean War deserter and musician who convinced him that Islam was the way for black men to find their destiny. David Belfield, the quiet kid from Bayshore, Long Island, found a voice and an acceptance in this new Islamic world that was not available to him anywhere else. David explored all forms of Islam. As he got to know the most militant Islamic leaders in the United States, he became more and more radical himself and more at odds with the Chicago version of Islam being preached by the Honorable Elijah Mohammed. Soon he changed his name to Dawud Salahuddin, the name of one of the great warriors of Islam.

Dawud began frequenting an unfashionable orthodox mosque on Park Road in Washington, D.C., run by a very unusual and flawed man. Ernest “XX” McGee had recast himself as the fanatically spiritual Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Malcolm X, while making his pilgrimage to Africa, became convinced that the Honorable Elijah Mohammed was more like a crooked televangelist than a servant of Allah. Khaalis shared this belief and became a follower. After Malcolm X was murdered, Khaalis took his faith one step further: he formed an orthodox movement called the Hannafi Muslims and quickly began recruiting Muslims in the Washington area who were looking for an alternative to the Honorable Elijah Mohammed.

For Dawud Salahuddin, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis’s fundamentalist view of Islam represented an undiluted love for the discipline and laws of the religion. Khaalis was a good family man. He and his extended family lived in a house in Washington’s upper-class, largely black Gold Coast, bought for the Hannafi sect by basketball star Lew Alcindor, whom Khaalis had renamed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the fall of 1971.

The increasing attention Khaalis was getting alarmed the Chicago Muslims. When Khaalis publicly declared that the Chicago Muslims were an affront to real Muslims, members of the Nation of Islam decided to take action. According to former Washington, D.C. Police Detective Carl Shoffler, a team of eight men was dispatched from the Nation of Islam’s Mosque Number 12 in Philadelphia, which was under the control of Louis Farrakhan. The team arrived in Washington on January 17, 1973. The next morning, when the team arrived at Khaalis’s house, he was away visiting friends. At home were his twenty-three-year-old daughter Alima; his son Dawud, twenty-two (the same age as Dawud Salahuddin); his younger son Rachamon; his younger daughter Bibi; and Bibi’s three small children. Khaalis’s wife Khadyja was out marketing with another sect member.

Two members of the team approached the house under the pretext of wanting to purchase pamphlets. When one of Khaalis’s children opened the door, the remaining members of the team forced their way in. They systematically shot the adults and drowned the young children in the bathroom.

Khaalis was beside himself with grief. But for Dawud Salahuddin, it was a moment of clarity. He knew “that the black Islamic leadership in America was being run like the Mafia.”

By 1977, Khaalis had become totally radicalized by his experiences. On March 9, 1977, he and his small group carried out a violent takeover of the Anti-Defamation League building in Washington and the District of Columbia government buildings. Councilman and future mayor Marion Barry was shot during the takeover, and the nation’s capital was paralyzed. The siege ended with Khaalis’s arrest and a lifelong prison term. But the war between the Chicago and the Hannafi Muslims was a mere skirmish in a growing worldwide Islamic movement.

In the aftermath of the Hannafi takeovers, the D.C. police paid special attention to the problems in the Muslim community, assigning detectives to keep a close eye on the growing battle between factions vying for control of D.C.’s Islamic Center. The local police interest was not shared by federal law enforcement agencies. Federal agents considered these activities purely a local matter. They were wrong. At the beautiful white marble Islamic Center on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., former police detectives Carl Shoffler and Bill Cagney soon realized that they were witnessing a battle in an international war being waged for the soul of Islam.

Had the late Carl Shoffler been an ordinary detective, his assignment would have seemed routine in a major world capital. But Shoffler was in police intelligence. He had connections across the government. Even so, he had no way of knowing that his assignment at the Islamic Center had placed him at the intersection of homegrown pressures among African Americans and the simmering unrest in the Middle East.