By Michael Willard
The debate at the US Embassy in Tehran went into the wee hours. It was our second night in a city about to burst at the seams with revolutionary fervor that summer four decades ago.
We had arrived under cover of darkness, a nondescript van taking us through a city very much alive on each street corner. The next day it was deemed too dangerous to drive. We flew to meetings in a helicopter.
Within months, the embassy would be invaded by militant student followers of an exiled religious leader named Ayatollah Khomeini, taking and holding 52 American diplomatic hostages for 444 days.
Participants in the embassy meeting were veteran Ambassador William Sullivan; my boss, Senate Democratic Leader Robert Byrd, and several staff, including me. We were note takers, but also gave our two cents.
The crucial question was whether Byrd should hold a news conference prior to our delegation departing Iran the next morning. President Carter urged Byrd to show America’s confidence in the besieged Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Around midnight, Byrd was led to a secure telephone line and called Carter. He told the President he would leave Tehran without making a statement. He had no confidence in the Shah’s survival.
Sullivan later wrote that Byrd was one of the few people that correctly analyzed the precariousness of the Shah’s position. In his personal report to the President, Byrd said the Shah could not alter the deteriorating situation.
The final decision made, we all turned in, sleeping in the same embassy that would later be occupied first by students and then Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, along with the hostages.
The crisis riveted the nation, and probably was the cause of Carter being a one-term president. It didn’t help that the President’s ill-planned hostage rescue operation was a failure.
Now, however, having pulled back from the brink of war, there is an opening for the US and Iran to renew a dialogue.
Living in Eastern Europe for 22 years, I had not thought too much about Iran in decades. But suddenly, I awoke in mid-June of 2019, finding we as a nation — and the world — were once again on the precipice.
To his credit, President Trump holstered America’s might at the last minute, deciding not to strike Iran following the shooting down of a $130 million drone. He went against the hawks in his Administration.
But who is to say about tomorrow, next week or next year. The war tribunal in Trump’s Administration lost this round, but what about the next?
Ambassador Sullivan’s pessimistic cables to Carter had triggered the President’s asking Byrd to make a side trip to Iran on his Middle Eastern mission. Byrd was the President’s emissary to help shore up a flagging Middle East peace process, the Camp David Accords.
It had been an intense trip with meetings with President Sadat of Egypt, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, King Hussain of Jordan, Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia and President Assad of Syria.
Today, I believe it would be wise to revisit the Middle East peace process because it is as related to the Iran crisis as much as you and I are related to the drunken uncle we tend not to talk about much but can’t ignore.
A couple of points to remember before we go there:
1.) Iran lost a million men in its war with Iraq in the 1980s. They are not intimidated by sanctions, or a tit-for-tat response to a downed drone.
2.) They have a population of 50 million. They will not shiver in the face of idle threats and a boastful President who uses such silly phrases as “we will obliterate you” as if he is Arnold Schwarzenegger in an action movie.
That said, Iran is a dangerous and a rather predictable trouble-maker in the region. Sanctions are a diplomatic tool if used smartly, and not merely as a hammer to blackmail a sovereign nation.
However, we only have to look within to assess the causes that brought us so quickly to the brink:
1.) The United States, against the advice and wishes of both our allies and our enemies, pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. It was not perfect, but it did halt their nuclear ambitions for a decade and beyond. It was working.
2.) Against the policy of previous presidents, Trump virtually killed Israeli-Palestinian peace hopes by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. That smothered any trust on the Palestinian side.
3.) Instead of stepping up efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration has seemingly encouraged Israel’s unilateral annexation of the West Bank.
Is there an answer to a coming quagmire?
The United States should re-open discussions on the nuclear arms deal, attempting to extend the amount of time prohibiting Iran from building additional heavy-water reactors or accumulate any excess heavy water.
The United States should have a more even-handed approach to Israel and its Arab neighbors, beginning by announcing its recommitment to a two-state solution in the region.
Also, the President should put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, on the bench and bring in a grownup as the point person on the Middle East.
The fact is there is no such thing as a war just with Iran.
It will be a war involving multiple actors in the Middle East, most likely halting oil supplies and other traffic through the straits of Hormuz and causing the deaths of untold civilians and military.
War, it has been stated, is not a particularly efficient tool of diplomacy. Given we have been at war for most of my life and for 50 years with no positive result, I think that’s an understatement.