US sent CIA Director as Ambassador to Tehran after CIA overthrew Iran’s Democratic gov’t (US now Complaining about Hostage-Taker Amb.)

The decision of the Obama administration and the resolution passed by Congress barring entry to Iran’s designated ambassador to the United Nations has angered Tehran and provoked demonstrations in Iran. Hamid Aboutalebi has served as ambassador to several European countries. He is accused by Washington politicians of having participated in the taking of US diplomats hostage in 1979-81. Aboutalebi says that he was not among the militants who took the hostages, but rather later on agreed to serve as a translator for the group.

The hostage-taking in revolutionary Iran is a deeply distasteful episode that contravened international law as well as Shiite Islamic law (which recognizes the immunity of diplomats). I have friends among the surviving diplomats, and don’t forgive the criminals who terrorized them.

Ironically, Iran is condemning the US exclusion of Aboutalebi as a contravention of international law, and pledging to go to the United Nations over it rather than sending a new ambassador.

The tiff is unfortunate because Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council are engaged in talks with Iran aimed at ensuring that the latter’s civilian nuclear enrichment program can never be weaponized. Presumably it would be useful to have an Iranian ambassador to the UN right about now. Presumably Iran’s clerical Leader Ali Khamenei sent Aboutalebi at this time precisely because of his minor role in the hostage incident, as a way of mollifying Iran’s hard liners, who are upset about the talks and the Iranian government’s apparent willingness to offer the West more transparency about its enrichment processes and facilities.

The other thing to say about the high dudgeon in Washington, however, is that the US has acted in equally or worse bad taste in the past toward Iran.

In 1953 the US Central Intelligence Agency conspired with right wing generals and other anti-democratic elements in Iran to overthrow the elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. See Ervand Abrahamian’s recent study of this episode, “The Coup.” A liberal from an aristocratic background, Mosaddegh had committed the sin of coming to power just after the parliament nationalized Iran’s petroleum industry (i.e. declared that it belonged to Iran–as it did– rather than to BP’s then incarnation, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.). The US put Mohammad Reza Pahlevi back on the throne, and he became an insufferable dictator and pro-American stooge.

An operative in the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s was Richard Helms, the “gentlemanly planner of assassinations. He rose to become deputy director of the CIA and then, 1966-1973, director. Helms was a serial murderer who attempted to rub out Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende among others.

In 1973-77, Helms was sent by the Nixon administration to be ambassador to Iran. Sending a career CIA operative and former director of that organization as diplomatic envoy to the country where the CIA had destroyed democracy was a huge slap in the face of the Iranian people, and they knew it. (Because Third Worldism was in vogue, many leftist youth in Iran were probably also aware of Helms’s sinister role in Chile and Cuba).

The hostage crisis? It happened precisely because the US embassy in Tehran was used as a planning HQ for the 1953 coup. When the Carter administration admitted the shah for medical treatment into the US, the revolutionaries became alarmed that this step was a prelude to Washington putting him back on the throne yet again. It wasn’t a wild notion.

The US inability to separate out intelligence work from dirty tricks and covert operations, and its inability to separate out the latter from diplomacy, is what put American diplomats’ lives in danger in late 1979.

Appointing Aboutalebi to a position in New York was intended as an insult.

But sending Helms to Tehran as ambassador was truly a douchebag FU moment.

So as usual, however much the Iranian hard liners (who have never forgiven the US for the coup) want to insult the US, we’ve done much worse to them.


Related video:

Euronews: “Iranian official denied visa for UN ambassadorship”

27 Responses

  1. “So as usual, however much the Iranian hard liners (who have never forgiven the US for the coup) want to insult the US, we’ve done much worse to them.”

    Dear Prof. Cole,

    I agree with this, but only partially. The Iranian “hardliners” who are making so much noise about this, are NOT doing it because they have not “forgiven” the 1953 coup. Rather, they NEED the “cold war” state in the U.S.-Iran relations because (much like their Israeli and American right-wing counterparts) they need a state of crisis in order to survive politically–and economically. Dr. Mossadegh said: “Internal despotism” and “external colonialism” are two (mutually interdependent) sides of the same coin.
    Moji Agha
    Founder, Mossadegh Legacy Institute / America for Nonviolence Initiative
    link to

  2. Not only is the US refusal to grant a visa a slap in the face of Iran, but it contravenes the treaty between the US and UN signed when the organization was created and sited in New York: Basically, America agreed to grant visa’s to any accredited diplomat or government leader heading to the UN on official business.

    But, then, the US also signed treaties banning torture and agreeing to prosecute anyone approving or engaging in it and yet George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and a whole raft of neo-con war pornographers still walk the earth as free men.

    So much for US respecting its treaties.

    So much for American “exceptionalism,” where we hold ourselves to a higher standard than the rest of the world.

    And, as an aside, this is another example of why Congress should not be legislating foreign policy.

    • “So much for American “exceptionalism,” where we hold ourselves to a higher standard than the rest of the world.”

      US exceptionalism doesn’t hold itself to a higher standard than the rest of the world, but rather a complete and utter disregard for the standards of the rest of the world.

  3. According to David Crist, a historian for the US federal government, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, “began backdoor conversations…with hard-liners inside the Iranian government about a possible military takeover. In an October 28, 1978, meeting at the White House with CIA Director Stansfield Turner, Brzezinski asked the CIA to look into developing information that could be used to undermine the opposition and strengthen the shah.” While the shah could be kept in power in the short term, in the long run, according to CIA analysts, he “needed to move more swiftly to establish a democratically elected civilian government.”
    link to

  4. What you say here about a US diplomatic facility being used as cover for intelligence purposes applies to Benghazi, Libya. Read Seymour Hersh’s fine piece of investigative journalism in the London Review of Books at link to

  5. Your last sentence in your thoughtful and experience-filled essay is the total of Usa foreign policy – and with the cover of scotus, is now domestic policy.
    Thank you for your honesty.

  6. He is, after all, being sent to the UN, not as ambassador to the US. This is just one more reason why the UN should move out of New York to a neutral country like Switzerland. The UN is becoming embarassing to us anyway as it increasingly becomes the US and Israel against the world.I am sure they have outgrown tha t old building anyway; a good excuse to move without the US losing too much face.

    • I agree with the sentiments expressed. I would choose Singapore instead, simply because Switzerland maybe neutral (now) but is European and the world center of gravity is slowly shifting towards the east. NYC, Switzerland are too tied to the structure that was created by US and the west after WWII, and this structure is showing a lot of strain. I will not go into IMF, WB etc…

  7. Professor Cole, it seems to me from the video clip you provided to accompany this story that President Obama is hedging its bets on the passage of the resolution ( the press secretary said the administration will be investigating the constitutionality and utility of this resolution in the press conference).

  8. It is sad that Iran and the United States cannot get over their past history and move forward to a more productive relationship. While any sane person should condemn the taking of US hostages by a group of militant students, it is important to put it into context. The true history of the hostage crisis has not yet been written. Many people in the West do not realize that during the first year after the revolution in February 1979 a deadly battle was going on between leftist and communist groups on the one hand and Ayatollah Khomeini and his religious followers on the other hand for supremacy. The leftist groups, especially the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), believed that they had been the main instigators of the revolution. Many people also do not know that US Embassy in Tehran was first occupied by MKO members, but Ayatollah Khomeini and Prime Minister Bazargan immediately sent Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi to talk to them, and he persuaded them to leave the Embassy compound.

    Later on, a group of militant religious students decided to occupy the Embassy in order to outmaneuver the leftist groups and to prove their own revolutionary credentials. They intended to occupy the Embassy for a day or two to outdo the MKO, but when Khomeini noticed that it had received popular backing, again mainly by leftist groups, he used it to consolidate his own position and to crush and decimate the leftist forces.

    Although his action was wrong and opportunistic, nevertheless, at that time many people in the West regarded the clerical rule to be preferable to a complete leftist takeover of the government. In any case, that incident cost Iran much more than it did the United States. Less than a year later Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, if not with initial US support, at least with the support of US allies in the Middle East and later on with direct US military and political support. That war killed and wounded a million Iranians and cost hundreds of billions of dollars in damages.

    I do not think that Aboutalebi’s appointment was meant as an insult, but it was probably an oversight, as he had served as ambassador in a number of European capitals and had also visited the United States as a member of Iranian delegations without any problem. However, at this particular time when there is a possibility of rapprochement between Iran and the United States it has provided ammunition to the extremists in both countries who wish to undermine any prospects of an agreement between the two sides. They should not be allowed to succeed. As President Carter has said it is time to leave the past behind and to move on.

  9. I have always understood that when New York was chosen in 1945 as the permanent location of the United Nations, there was an agreement of some sort that the U.S. government would never interfere in the choice of UN ambassador by any member country. Am I right? If so, it seems that our government’s refusing a visa for Iran’s current choice of UN ambassador is illegitimate.

  10. “The US inability to separate out intelligence work from dirty tricks and covert operations, and its inability to separate out the latter from diplomacy, is what put American diplomats’ lives in danger in late 1979.”

    In other words, “blowback” and the blame for the hostage taking belongs in great part, short of completely, with the original troublemakers.

  11. As a sign that Aboutalebi’s nomination was not intended as an insult or a snub, there are reports from Tehran that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has nominated Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister and the chief nuclear negotiator, as the new ambassador to the UN. If this report is confirmed, it will show that Iran did not intend to pick a fight with the United States and US Congressmen should have the grace to reciprocate. In view of the domestic backlash, this could not have been an easy decision to take, but it shows that Iran wishes to defuse the crisis.

  12. Richard Helms received the ambassadorship to Iran in 1973 from Richard Nixon for several reasons:

    (1)he was a college roommate of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi when they studied in Switzerland;

    (2)the Watergate scandal had implicated several former CIA personnel – including E. Howard Hunt, who had been Helms closest aide at one point – and Nixon was anxious to place Helms in an area as far away as possible from the scrutiny of Watergate investigators;

    (3)Nixon wanted to mollify Helms after firing him by giving him a plum position as ambassador to prevent Helms from being cooperative with any Congressional investigations – and this worked as Helms was viewed by many as evasive during Church Committeee hearings.

    Helms was fired by Nixon as CIA director due to his refusal to invoke the “State Secrets Doctrine” to block the criminal investigations and prosecutions arising from the Watergate episode.

    Helms was revered within the Central Intelligence Agency with a cult-like following as the first career intelligence officer to become DCI when he was appointed by LBJ to replace Admiral Raborn in 1966. When he was convicted for being in contempt of Congress, Agency personnel donated the funds to pay for his fine.

    Here is a link to Helms’ official CIA career bio:

    link to

  13. It is ironic that such a fuss is being made about this, but no mention has been made of the State Department’s removing the Mujahedin-e Khalq, one of the primary organizers of the takeover, from the list of terrorist organizations.

  14. What a brilliant history lesson! Thank you to Dr. Cole and the other commentators. Really, almost everybody needs to come here occasionally for unbiased reportage on the Middle East and the Muslim world.

  15. NR

    And now makes an issue when #Iran wants to send a 1979 student activist to the #UN! Beats me? No! #USDoubleStandards! Period.

  16. The turture – you all forgot to mention it. After the 1953 coup the US and Israel organized a massive torture apparatus in Iran. Few Iranian families were left untouched. It was evil incarnate.

  17. US foreign policy can be summarized as vicious, inhuman and hypocrisy.

    No disagreements here whatsoever.

    Faramarz Fathi

  18. Faramarz,
    From your name I am sure you are Iranian in origin–like me. While I agree with you re the way you have accurately characterized the foreign policy of U.S. (and of Israel), let us not forget that Iran’s foreign policy under the “supreme leader” (and especially under Ahmadinejad/Mesbah-Yazdi) needs–and depends on–the U.S. / Zionist foreign policy to be “vicious, inhuman and hypocritical” (i.e., colonial/racist) in order to justify right wing “internal despotism” (and horrific abuse of human rights), unfortunately in the name of religion–giving the right-wing Israeli/American policy-makers exactly the racist / “Orientalist” excuse they need. This is what the Late Dr. Mossadegh predicted over 60 years ago–before his democratic government was overthrown by the CIA.
    Shame on violence.
    Mojtaba Aghamohammadi (Moji Agha)
    Initiator, Mossadegh Legacy Institute link to

  19. I would have thought this violates the agreements setting up the UN and putting it in New York.

  20. If you really want to see how hypocritical this refusal of a visa is, have a look at the speech Eisenhower gave in 1959 to the Iranian majles, 6 years after approving the overthrow of democratically elected Mossadegh.
    Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Address to the Members of the Parliament of Iran,” December 14, 1959. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. link to

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