Two Weeks in January: America's secret engagement with Khomeini
excerpts posted here. the article is long but IMVHO a good read. and could be of some help in deciphering Persian thought
On 27 January, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - founder of Iran's Islamic Republic, the man who called the United States "the Great Satan" - sent a secret message to Washington.
From his home in exile outside Paris, the defiant leader of the Iranian revolution effectively offered the Carter administration a deal: Iranian military leaders listen to you, he said, but the Iranian people follow my orders.
If President Jimmy Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation. Stability could be restored, America's interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.
At the time, the Iranian scene was chaotic. Protesters clashed with troops, shops were closed, public services suspended. Meanwhile, labour strikes had all but halted the flow of oil, jeopardising a vital Western interest.
Persuaded by Carter, Iran's autocratic ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, known as the Shah, had finally departed on a "vacation" abroad, leaving behind an unpopular prime minister and a military in disarray - a force of 400,000 men with heavy dependence on American arms and advice.
Khomeini feared the nervous military: its royalist top brass hated him. Even more worrying, they were having daily meetings with a US Air Force General by the name of Robert E Huyser, whom President Carter had sent on a mysterious mission to Tehran.
The ayatollah was determined to return to Iran after 15 years in exile and make the Shah's "vacation" permanent. So he made a personal appeal.
In a first-person message, Khomeini told the White House not to panic at the prospect of losing a strategic ally of 37 years and assured them that he, too, would be a friend.
"You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans," said Khomeini, pledging his Islamic Republic will be "a humanitarian one, which will benefit the cause of peace and tranquillity for all mankind".
Khomeini's message is part of a trove of newly declassified US government documents - diplomatic cables, policy memos, meeting records - that tell the largely unknown story of America's secret engagement with Khomeini, an enigmatic cleric who would soon inspire Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Americanism worldwide.
This story is a detailed account of how Khomeini brokered his return to Iran using a tone of deference and amenability towards the US that has never before been revealed.
The ayatollah's message was, in fact, the culmination of two weeks of direct talks between his de facto chief of staff and a representative of the US government in France - a quiet process that helped pave the way for Khomeini's safe return to Iran and rapid rise to power - and decades of high-stakes tension between Iran and America.
In the official Iranian narrative of the revolution, Khomeini bravely defied the United States and defeated "the Great Satan" in its desperate efforts to keep the Shah in power.
But the documents reveal that Khomeini was far more engaged with the US than either government has ever admitted. Far from defying America, the ayatollah courted the Carter administration, sending quiet signals that he wanted a dialogue and then portraying a potential Islamic Republic as amenable to US interests.
To this day, former Carter administration officials maintain that Washington - despite being sharply divided over the course of action - stood firm behind the Shah and his government.
But the documents show more nuanced US behaviour behind the scenes. Only two days after the Shah departed Tehran, the US told a Khomeini envoy that they were - in principle - open to the idea of changing the Iranian constitution, effectively abolishing the monarchy. And they gave the ayatollah a key piece of information - Iranian military leaders were flexible about their political future.
What transpired four decades ago between America and Khomeini is not just diplomatic history. The US desire to make deals with what it considers pragmatic elements within the Islamic Republic continues to this day. So does the staunchly anti-American legacy that Khomeini left for Iran.
Message to Kennedy
It wasn't the first time Khomeini had reached out to Washington.
In 1963, the ayatollah was just emerging as a vocal critic of the Shah. In June, he gave a blistering speech, furious that the Shah, pressed hard by the Kennedy administration, had launched a "White Revolution" - a major land reform programme and granted women the vote.
Khomeini was arrested. Immediately, three days of violent protests broke out, which the military put down swiftly.
A recently declassified CIA document reveals that, in November 1963, Khomeini sent a rare message of support to the Kennedy administration while being held under house arrest in Tehran.
It was a few days after a military firing squad executed two alleged organisers of the protests and ahead of a landmark visit by the Soviet head of state to Iran, which played into US fears of Iran tilting towards a friendlier relationship with the USSR.
Khomeini wanted the Shah's chief benefactor to understand that he had no quarrel with America.
"Khomeini explained he was not opposed to American interests in Iran," according to a 1980 CIA analysis titled Islam in Iran, partially released to the public in 2008.
To the contrary, an American presence was necessary to counter the Soviet and British influence, Khomeini told the US.
The embassy cable containing the full text of Khomeini's message remains classified.
It's not clear if President Kennedy ever saw the message. Two weeks later, he would be assassinated in Texas.
A year later, Khomeini was expelled from Iran. He had launched a new attack on the Shah, this time over extending judicial immunity to US military personnel in Iran.
"The American president should know that he is the most hated person among our nation," Khomeini declared, shortly before going into exile.
Fifteen years later, Khomeini would end up in Paris. He was now the leader of a movement on the verge of ridding Iran of its monarchy. So close to victory, the ayatollah still needed America.