Iranian President Hasan Rouhani’s recent U.N. visit was not the first time a top Iranian official succeeded in hoodwinking the West and especially its leading newspapers and media outlets. Just before he arrived in Tehran in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini succeeded at waging a successful deception campaign from his place of exile at Neauphle-le-Chateau, just outside of Paris. He completely hid his true intentions of what he planned to do once he would become the ruler of Iran.
A committee of advisers recommended to him that he refrain from rhetorically attacking the US or saying anything against women’s rights. He sent his personal representative, Ibrahim Yazdi, who had American citizenship and would later become his foreign minister, to meet U.S. officials in Washington as well as many influential academics. This was the first Iranian charm offensive.
The results of this Iranian effort were impressive. There was the embarrassing case of Professor Richard Falk from Princeton University who wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, entitled “Trusting Khomeini.” He wrote that the people around Khomeini were “moderate” and even “progressive.” He even added that they had “a notable concern for human rights.” Years later it should be noted, Falk adopted increasing extremist positions, even accusing the U.S. government in 2004 of complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Nonetheless, in 2008 the U.N. appointed him as a “special rapporteur” on Palestinian human rights. In 1979, his article was typical of many elite attitudes about Khomeini in academia and in the U.S. government.
In fact, among American experts there was little knowledge about Khomeini’s background, except for information transmitted by his supporters. The one exception to this trend was the case of Professor Bernard Lewis, who served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in World War II and then became one of the most influential Middle Eastern historians at British and American universities. One of his assistants found a written book by Khomeini in the Princeton University Library that contained the Arabic lectures he had delivered in 1970, while he lived in exile in Najaf, the Shiite holy city in Iraq. The book was entitled “Islamic Government.”
The CIA, as well as other parts of the American government, apparently did not even know the book existed. But Lewis studied the text, revealing Khomeini’s extremist positions, which he shared with the Washington Post. These included calls for “armed jihad” and the need to “take the lead over other Muslims.” The book was plainly anti-Semitic, suggesting that the Jews were seeking “to rule over the entire planet.”
There were American academics who were cultivated by Khomeini’s people and were prepared to suggest that Lewis had quoted Khomeini “out of context.” Henry Precht, who was head of the Iran desk at the U.S. State Department, went even further and rejected Lewis’ conclusions. He even said that the book that Lewis found was a forgery. He criticized the Washington Post for publishing excerpts of the book. Precht, who had met with Khomeini’s envoy, argued in internal meetings in Washington that after the fall of the Shah, Khomeini’s government would leave Iran more stable.
Years later, Khomeini admitted that he employed traditional techniques of deception, specifically referring to the tactic of khod’eh, which according to his biographer, Amir Taheri, meant “tricking one’s enemy into a misjudgment of one’s true position.” Thus in 1978, Khomeini told the British daily, The Guardian, that he was not interested in having “the power of government in my hand.” Many analysts thought he would retire to the Shiite seminaries of Qom, after he returned to Iran. William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Tehran, wrote a cable in 1978, in which he envisioned Khomeini taking up a “Gandhi-like role.”
Among his British counterparts, there were those who anticipated “enlightened Islamic rule.” The French intelligence services were somewhat better since they carefully monitored the speeches that Khomeini recorded and distributed on cassette tapes, but their recommendations were ignored by the political eschelons in Paris under the leadership of French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. In short, Khomeini’s deception campaign worked.
What followed after Khomeini reached Iran was the exact opposite of what Western experts had predicted. Revolutionary courts were set up which arbitrarily arrested and executed anyone suspected of opposing the new government. A bloodbath followed as hundreds were sent before firing squads. Khomeini’s regime was brutal. Under international pressure, the Shah had ordered a halt to the use of torture in Iranian prisons; Khomeini reintroduced torture when he came to power. He did not retire to Qom, but rather promulgated a religious doctrine, known as velayat-e faqih (the rule of the head jurisprudent) that made him the supreme source of authority in Iran.
In foreign affairs, Khomeini’s constitution called for “the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad.” A month after declaring Iran as an Islamic Republic in 1979 he established the Revolutionary Guards, which not only protected the regime from internal threats but also took part in the export of the Islamic Revolution, by undermining the internal stability of Arab states. U.S. allies in the Arab world were quickly targeted. For example, Shiite uprisings in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in 1979 and 1980 were backed by Tehran.
At this time, the Iranians promoted popular Shiite revolts in Bahrain and Iraq as well. They deployed an expeditionary unit of Revolutionary Guards in eastern Lebanon which gave orders to Hizbullah after its foundation in the early 1980s. This included the attacks in 1983 on the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut and the headquarters of the French peacekeeping forces there. Years later, Iraqi Shiite politicians disclosed that the Revolutionary Guards also directed an organization known as al-Dawa to undertake attacks in 1983 against the U.S. embassy in Kuwait.
While Iran was invaded by Iraq in 1980, it recovered all its lost territories by 1982 and yet Khomeini continued his war against Saddam Hussein for another six years. The Iranians even expanded their war with Iraq to the waters of the Persian Gulf where it attacked the tankers used by Arab states to export their oil. By the early 1990s, Revolutionary Guards were also stationed in Sudan, where Iran sought facilities for a future naval presence in the Red Sea. Today, using the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, which was specifically formed for these foreign operations, its commander General Qassem Sulaimani is active in advancing Iranian hegemony across the Middle East, by intervening in local wars with weapons, advisers, and even military forces.
It now appears that the community of Middle Eastern experts — both inside and outside of government — had absolutely no idea back in 1979 what the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini would mean for the future of the Middle East. They were charmed into believing that Iran, after the fall of the Shah, would adopt a moderate course. The consequences of their miscalculation were disastrous for the Iranian people and the world.
The first Iranian charm offensive required two parties to succeed: Iranians who skillfully employed a campaign of deception and gullible commentators in the West, who took at face value what the Iranians said. It can only be hoped that this time, with Rouhani’s charm offensive, this dangerous combination will not reappear, leading the U.S. and its allies to repeat the errors in interpreting Iranian intentions, that were committed in the earliest days of Khomeini’s rule.