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Kennedy: Benghazi and Cairo Recall Tehran in 1979

The assaults on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and on our embassy in Cairo brought back familiar nightmares. I was one of the Foreign Service personnel and Marines taken in the assault on our embassy in Tehran, Iran, on Nov. 4, 1979, and held hostage for 444 days.

Our diplomats in Benghazi and Cairo were taken by surprise. We were, too, but should not have been. In October 1979, yielding to enormous pressure, President Jimmy Carter had admitted to New York the refugee Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi for medical treatment. This gave the Students in the Path of the Imam, a political action group, the excuse it needed to take over the embassy.

The shah’s illness, they argued, was only a pretext. Just as the CIA had orchestrated his restoration to the throne in 1953, so now he was, once again, being positioned for his return. The embassy would be the staging point.

The country director for Iran, who was in Washington, D.C., had sent our chargé d’affaires a letter assuring us that the shah would not be admitted to the United States before consulting us, particularly, of course, with regard to our security. Instead, we were informed of the shah’s entry only after it had happened. After they took over the embassy, the students found the letter and showed copies to many of the hostages. It did not improve morale.

Still, what was about to happen to us should have been obvious. Student groups had taken over nearby hotels with impunity, testing the ability of the shaky provisional government to maintain order. I asked an old Tehran hand, “If they can get away with this, what will they do next?”

“Man,” a Marine had said to me, “we’re going to have an Alamo!” Our security officer warned me, “Mike, we’re on our own.” I sort of knew deep down that we were in real trouble. Symptoms of my anxiety were mounting. My bodily functions went out of whack. I left my safe unlocked two nights in a row, a serious security violation.

My wife, Louisa, had called from Washington earlier in our final week. “Get out!” she shouted. “Take leave! Go to England!” But I kept on denying. Later, in captivity, our senior captor, Hossein Sheikholislam, asked me, if you all knew you were in such trouble, why didn’t you just leave?

One just didn’t.

On Nov. 4, the students came over the wall, and we retreated to the upper floor behind a bank vault. Smoke from burning newspapers outside the vault indicated a possible fate. One hundred years before, Russian diplomats in Tehran had been torn limb from limb. It could happen again.

After we surrendered the embassy, for no further resistance was possible, I was blindfolded and led downstairs. The captor guiding me kept whispering in my ear, “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Our more naive younger captors saw themselves as avenging, on behalf of the rest of the developing world, the “great crimes of the United States.”

At this point, the two stories, Benghazi/Cairo and Tehran, begin to intersect.

We should remember that, over the years, the United States had supported a corrupt ruler whom Amnesty International had characterized as the world’s most serious violator of human rights. Strong American support for the shah, reiterated by Carter, whose foreign policy was declared to have human rights as its centerpiece, had reduced our moral authority.

And regarding Benghazi/Cairo, what great crimes might we have committed that could provide the perpetrators with some excuse, however tenuous, for these assaults? No crimes. But we cannot ignore the ill-informed lack of respect, for beliefs, institutions and cultures in the Middle East on the part of too many Americans who should know better, and the anger that it generates.

At the same time, that anger is no excuse for violence. Official American willingness over 30 years to ignore the violation of international law and inherent moral principle in the takeover of the Tehran embassy, with violence against its public servants, only encourages others to think that they can get away with more of the same.

Hopefully, H.R. 5796, the Justice for the American Diplomats Held Hostage in Tehran Act, now awaiting action in the House and a Senate counterpart bill soon to be introduced will help to provide a needed reminder and deterrent to such conduct in the future.

Moorhead Kennedy is a retired foreign service officer who was held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981.

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