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A vignette from the 1979 Iranian Revolution

Chronicle Guest View

February 20, 2019
By Dennis Lamb , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

In case you've missed it, 11 February was the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

On 14 February 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was briefly overrun by leftist anti-shah/anti-American militants an event not to be confused with the subsequent seizure of the embassy seven months later on November 4, 1979, that resulted in the better-known 444-day Iran Hostage Crisis.

In the mid-1980s, I met one of the American diplomats who experienced firsthand the February 14th takeover of our embassy. I don't remember his surname (it was some thirty years ago) but recall his first name was Jack and his 'laughter through tears' account of those events.

According to Jack, it began early the morning of 14 February when machine gun rounds began hitting the outside walls. In a well-organized assault, heavily armed leftist guerrillas, part of the array of anti-shah/anti-American groups, were attacking the embassy compound. They blocked off the street in front of the compound's main entrance, then opened fire from surrounding rooftops. Soon they were coming over the walls.

Jack described a surreal scene of him and his wife laying on the floor of the embassy with him filling out forms requesting his next assignment be either London or Paris while bullets flew through the air overhead.

Armed only with tear gas and shotguns loaded with skeet shot the embassy's 19 Marine guards were no match for the hundreds of militants coming at them over the walls and firing from rooftops. After ordering everyone on the ground floor upstairs, Marines tear-gassed the lower corridors and locked a metal door to the stairs.

After about an hour, with hundreds of gunmen storming the building and tear gas fumes seeping under the door, Ambassador William H. Sullivan had no choice but to surrender the embassy.

Marched outside, all embassy personnel, including Iranian embassy employees, were lined up against a wall. There the militants started yelling in Farsi for the Iranian embassy personnel to get out the way because they were going to kill the Americans. Jack, who had a beard and understood because he spoke Farsi, tried to edge his way in with the departing Iranian embassy employees hoping to blend in. About this time, however, the cavalry arrived in the form of pro-Khomeini forces with Mullahs who took control of the situation and forced the leftist militants to leave.

Jack's request for London or Paris as his next posting? Washington had other ideas. Jack, it turned out, was one of the few people in the U.S. government at the time who spoke Farsi. In neighboring Afghanistan, a Marxist government under Nur Muhammad Taraki had come to power in 1978. Farsi speakers were needed in Kabul to monitor events there so Washington wanted Jack to go to Kabul. He refused to go. You only have to be lined up against a wall once, he observed sardonically. Washington, however, was not to be denied: The powers-that-be sent his household effects to Kabul and told him he just had to go to Kabul to get them.

I later heard that for several years Jack gave a presentation about his close call with Iranian leftist militants to personnel at the CIA and Department of State titled "How Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps saved my life".

I tried to locate Jack on the internet several years ago when I still remembered his full name but learned he had died in Vermont.

If there is a moral to this story, it may be: In choosing a foreign language to study, be careful which one you choose.

Dennis Lamb, formerly of Chelsea, retired from the CIA in 2002 after serving 30 years in its directorate of operations as a case officer and as an intelligence analyst. His viewpoint above is personal and not the views of his former employer.

 
 

 

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