The 1979 Revolution, the American Hostage Crisis, and Iran Contra Affair
From Inside CIA
During the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the American Hostage Crisis, and Iran Contra Affair, Judith Yaphe was assigned the Iran desk at CIA. She is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School and Senior Research Fellow and Middle East Project Director in the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Before joining INSS in 1995, Dr. Yaphe served for 20 years as a senior analyst on Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf issues in the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis, Directorate of Intelligence, CIA. She specializes in Iraq, Iran, Arabian/Persian Gulf security issues, and Political Islam/Islamic extremism. Yaphe received the B.A. with Honors in History from Moravian College and the Ph.D. in Middle Eastern History from the University of Illinois. Selected publications include Strategic Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran with Dr. Kori Schake, (2001), The Middle East in 2015: The Impact of Regional Trends on U.S. Strategic Planning (2002), The United States and the Persian Gulf, ed. by Richard D. Sokolsky (2003).
The American Hostage Crisis
Well, there were 52 hostages, almost all of them were in the embassy as employees. There were a few who were just there to get Visas, they were taken too. And a number of them still live in the area here and they pop up every now and then. They’re quite active. Bruce Langan, for example, who I think was the DCM, the Deputy, and there are a few others. And it was – well, they call an average day, but it was a very hostile environment and few people were going out. You have to understand that from the beginning of the revolution, even before that, there was a bit of hostility, and by the time all these events unfolded there was a lot of anti-Americanism in the street. But you always think that you’re protected in an embassy and _______ here was a case when you were not.
And at first, there was hope that the Iranians would come to their senses and there was hope that Khomeini would say oh well, that was a wrong thing to do, and let them go. But the problem is, the revolution was in its very early stages and if there’s one thing that saves a revolution, and I don’t care what revolution it is, it could be the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, if you have an outside threat it brings the different factions together behind the government, the new government, the government that’s there. And in this case, two things happened that do this for Iran, and the first one was the taking of the American hostages in the embassy.
Origins of Hezbollah
The Iranian ambassador, after the 1979 revolution, in Lebanon and in Syria are activists, very much believing in the export of the revolution and they and the IRGC combine to create Hezbollah in Lebanon. Now, I had mentioned earlier this cleric Musa al-Sadr, Iranian origin – Lebanese but also of Iranian origin, had been trained in Najaf and other places. A very famous, very prominent family, Sadr is a very famous name in Shia clerical, it’s one of the major families, many branches. You have a very activist branch in Iraq today, the Sadrs. He creates this organization among the poor Shia of Lebanon, Amal. He becomes a very powerful, popular, charismatic leader, but there are people in Amal who are a little bit disappointed that it’s not activist enough, perhaps, and in the early ’80s, with – especially with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, very famous, that’s where the Israeli army under Sharon goes up to Beirut.
They allow the Christian militias into sovereign ______ camps. There’s the massacre. One of the reactions to all of this was the creation of Hezbollah, created to a great extent – again, by the Iranians, by the IRGC commander, and this was early days for this group, and there is a famous part of that group called the Quds force. Now, Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. It’s also used in Persian as well. Jerusalem is ___ Quds, the holy. So they recruit and draw in Hezbollah. Hezbollah, as a beginning organization, follows a pattern – it becomes an established pattern. It’s one that is followed by many semi-clandestine, semi-overt organizations. Muslim Brotherhood will begin the same way, back in the 1920s in Egypt. In other words, you have an overt organization dedicated to good works, mosques, helping the poor, orphans, widows, subsidies to families, proper cover hijab and veils, abaya or chador, if you will, for women, transportation, schools, education, housing, all of those good social services and they’re mosque-based and it’s social welfare.
And it was a high-agenda item for the U.S. government. When the hostages were taken in Lebanon, that was an extremely high visibility issue, maybe visibility isn’t the right word ’cause nobody knew who – you know, we were not known as to who was working on this. But the point I wanted to make is it had the attention of the president, President Reagan, and nobody, I think, really understood how deeply he was affected by that. And that took us into Iran – Iran-gate, you know, we never buy hostages or pay terrorists, yes, we do. And that turned into Iran-Contra.