This episode focuses on the Iranian hostage crisis (November 4th, 1979-January 20th, 1981), and features excerpts of an interview with former CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton.
One clarification from Tom Fenton: “I was in Wiesbaden, Germany to see the arrival of the released hostages, not in Algeria.”
TOM FENTON LINKS:
[00:00] [music] [crowd chanting]
Frank Reynolds: [00:11] Look at this. One American, blindfolded, handcuffed. Today, in the courtyard of the American Embassy in Tehran, he and 60 some others still held hostage and threatened in a country gone out of control.
Russ Mason: [00:28] This is the first of two “News Knowledge” episodes on the Iranian hostage crisis, which was an historical event that grew out of the revolution in Iran that placed the Ayatollah Khomeini in power after the decade’s long dictatorial reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, more commonly known as the Shah of Iran.
[00:47] This event also had a profound impact on Jimmy Carter’s presidency and his 1980 bid for reelection after the US Embassy in Iran was occupied by Iranian students on November 4th, 1979, and 52 embassy employees were taken hostage and held at various secret locations in Tehran until January 20th, 1981.
[01:09] Our daily recordings of national news broadcast here at Vanderbilt, which includes that short audio excerpt we just heard from an ABC News Special Program entitled, “The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage” preserved much of the US television network’s coverage of the Carter administration’s efforts to secure their release.
[01:28] In 1978, CBS News foreign correspondent Tom Fenton, who’s now retired, was living in Paris. In a moment, we’re going to hear from him about his experience as a reporter for CBS during the hostage crisis. First, I want to introduce two of the Iranians with whom Fenton interacted at times in gathering information for his reports.
[01:53] The first is Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, whose name was pronounced any number of different and occasionally amusing ways by network correspondents and anchors throughout their reporting during this period, but who was essential to Fenton’s understanding of what was beginning to take place in Iran prior to the revolution.
[02:10] Here’s a portion of Fenton’s profile of Ghotbzadeh that aired on the CBS Evening News in 1979.
Tom Fenton: [02:17] Ghotbzadeh first turned up in the news in July, 1961, when Iranian students staged a sit in at the Consul General’s Office in New York to protest their government’s refusal to extend the passports of the president and secretary of the Iranian Students Association. The Secretary was Ghotbzadeh.
[02:37] He was involved in other protests and arrests stemming from his opposition to the Shah while he studies sporadically in the 1960s at Georgetown University’s Undergraduate School of Foreign Service.
[02:47] Before entering Georgetown, Ghotbzadeh was twice arrested in Iran for his political activities. After entering the school, he was twice required to leave the United States. In the following years, he traveled widely in the Middle East and Europe as Khomeini’s representative.
[03:03] In 1977 in France, he told correspondent Mike Wallace that SAVAK, the Shah’s Secret Service, had tried to assassinate him.
Mike Wallace: [03:11] Mr. Ghotbzadeh, why would SAVAK want to kill you?
Sadegh Ghotbzadeh: [03:16] First of all, I hope you will ask the same questions from the Shah if you meet him again, because they have the answers precisely. He tries to eliminate the real opposition to his regime, the people who can replace him without any problems, who can run the country.
Mike: [03:37] Because you want democracy in Iran, the Shah, the SAVAK, wants you out of the way?
Ghotbzadeh: [03:43] Absolutely.
Russ: [03:45] The other Iranian from that era that I want to introduce was Ebrahim Yazdi, who was also with the Ayatollah Khomeini during his exile in France. Here’s a portion of an interview conducted by Barbara Walters with Yazdi in September of ‘79. Barbara Walters: [04:00] Dr. Yazdi, the chairman of the Iranian oil industry recently said that Iran may revise its agreement to sell oil to the United States. Is that going to happen?
Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi: [04:12] This is under consideration. We are telling you that the old way of acting is over. You can no longer treat us as a little brother and you as a big brother. “All right, I dictate to you what to do and you cannot say anything.” Now it’s over. Barbara: [04:30] In recent months, one of the things that caused the most reaction in our country was that the Ayatollah banned music on the radio. Why?
Dr. Yazdi: [04:38] Why you feel that only your culture is the best of all?
Barbara: [04:43] It’s not that, sir.
Dr. Yazdi: [04:44] If in our culture, we feel that this kind of the music, when he said “this music,” he means this Western type of music. If we wanted to have our independent, we have to care of all our relation with the West, including the cultural domination of the West.
Russ: [05:03] We’ll be hearing more about Ghotbzadeh and Yazdi throughout this episode.
[05:07] Tom Fenton now lives in London, and as we join my telephone conversation with him, I’ve just asked how he began to learn about the growing discontent toward the Shah of Iran who’d been in power at that point for 25 years.
Tom: [05:20] Actually, the story fell into my lap. I was contacted by Sadegh Ghotbzadeh who was one of the closest persons to Ayatollah Khomeini who happened to be one of my neighbors. I didn’t know it when I was living in Paris in 1978 as the CBS News correspondent there.
[05:46] He looked me up. In fact, he invited himself. He came to tea at our apartment and, basically, launched into a pitch to try to get me to go to Iran and see what was going on there.
[06:01] Of course, I like most people, had not been reporting on Iran in recent years, although I had been there earlier when working as a foreign correspondent for “The Baltimore Sun.” But I hadn’t been there for years. If you would read “Newsweek” and other major media organizations in those days, it sounded like everything was just fine and dandy in Iran. The Shah was on the throne. He was a beneficent ruler trying to modernize the country. He had called it a White Revolution, I believe, revolution from the top.
[06:38] Ghotbzadeh explained what he said was the real situation in Iran which was quite different, quite different indeed. I tried to talk CBS into sending us there, and they did. As we got there, I found that the situation was not at all as advertised in the major media in the United States. There was, indeed, widespread discontent. There was unrest in the student population.
[07:08] Ghotbzadeh arranged for me to meet a number of university professors who, far from being radicals, were more interested in reforming the government. They laid out all this stuff, the fact that the Shah had been enriching himself, his sister had been enriching herself. There was widespread corruption. There was secret police which we, the CIA, had helped to train as well as the Israelis and used fairly brutal methods in putting down any dissent.
[08:04] Most of this anti-Shah movement centered around the mosques because that was one place where you…It was a space for free speech. This was fairly widespread. The Shah was deeply unpopular. That I put in a piece that I did for CBS, and CBS refused to run it. It was the old thing that many foreign correspondents run up against. They’re on the spot. They see what’s actually going on. You have people back at home base, wherever that was in our case, it was New York who had been reading the wires or reading the news magazines. What I was reporting didn’t match what they were reading. They figured they knew more than I knew.
Russ: [09:06] Do you have a sense of how Ghotbzadeh became a part of Khomeini’s entourage there?
Tom: [09:13] He’d studied at Georgetown. Like a number of Iranians, he was well educated. He had been a student agitator, a leader of student demonstration. He goes way back. He and Ebrahim Yazdi, who had an American passport as well as being an Iranian and was a physician, who had been training in Texas, also was one of the close associates and supporters of the Ayatollah. It was Yazdi and Ghotbzadeh who arranged and actually did the interpreting for me for the interview with the Ayatollah.
Russ: [09:59] I wanted to ask you about that. After you returned from that 1978 trip to Iran, and then CBS decided not to air your report [laughs]. Then, you got this interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini, which CBS did air.
Tom: [10:22] By then, CBS had learned that things had reached the point in Iran where you couldn’t hide the fact that there was deep and widespread unrest. CBS, of course, in that case, was delighted to have the first American television interview with the Ayatollah.
Russ: [10:44] Here’s a portion of Tom Fenton’s report as it was aired on the CBS Evening News on November 6th, 1978.
Tom Fenton: [10:50] The Ayatollah, spiritual head of Iran’s 32 million Shiite Muslims, and undisputed head of the forces now grouped against the Shah, remained adamant in his demands that the Shah must be overthrown and the monarchy replaced by an Islamic Republic.
[11:05] Khomeini told CBS News that the Shah must be brought to trial, and as a minimum, imprisoned for life for having ordered the killing of innocent persons.
[11:14] He urged the army to join the opposition and warned that once the Shah is overthrown, the new government would not maintain friendly relations with the United States unless relations were placed on a new and more equal basis.
[11:28] Khomeini’s only direct link with Iran is a single telephone through which aides pass orders that can bring hundreds of thousands of demonstrators out on the streets within a few hours. There’s an air of expectancy now in Khomeini’s cramped headquarters. His aides are convinced that the Shah cannot hang on for much longer.
Yazdi: [11:44] No matter what he does, no matter what his supporters will do, there’s no way that he will be saved. The train of the monarchy is at the end of the line.
Fenton: [11:54] Despite the unparalleled political influence he exercises over the majority of the population, Khomeini rejects the idea of heading an Islamic Republic himself, but his authority gives him a virtual veto over any attempts by the opposition to reach a compromise with the Shah. Tom Fenton, CBS News, Pontchartrain.
Russ: [12:13] Now 39 years later, Tom Fenton’s recollection of his interview with Khomeini is still vivid.
Tom: [12:20] It was arranged by Ghotbzadeh and Yadzi, but both of whom eventually served as foreign ministers, if only briefly, later on in Iran. It was arranged for us to go to Pontchartrain, which is not far outside of Paris. The Ayatollah was living in a bungalow, one story. He had a tiny office, something like 10 x 12 feet, unheated. There was a single telephone in that bungalow, and it was used to transmit messages from the Ayatollah to his followers in Iran. He could get tens of thousands of people, with a simple phone call, out of the streets of Tehran.
[13:07] The Ayatollah himself was like no one I’d ever met before. I came away from the interview feeling that I’ve never seen a person so driven by one overwhelming emotion, and that was hatred. It was hatred of the Shah, who had exiled the Ayatollah and who had treated his family badly. By extension, hatred of the West and hatred of the United States.
[13:44] The other thing about him was his eyes. They seemed to drill holes right through you, like two burnt holes in a blanket. I had just never met anybody quite like that.
Russ: [13:57] Of course, he didn’t speak English, so did Ghotbzadeh, was he the interpreter for that interview?
Tom: [14:06] It was Yadzi. Yadzi did the interpreting, but they were both there. The messages were pretty clear. Basically, what he was saying is that he wanted Iran to be treated on a fair and equal basis by the United States. He also insisted that the Shah had to go. Those were the two most important points that he wanted to make.
[14:33] I tried to pin him down on what his role would be. He said he had no desire to run the government. Indeed, initially, when he went back to Iran, he was the overseer in a system where you had a government, but he had the last word. Eventually, though, he was really running the show himself. Nothing could be done without his approval. Even if he wasn’t president, he wasn’t prime minister, he had a very special position under a complicated government. It’s about as complicated as our American government where different branches of the government have equal but separate powers. The final word, of course, was the Ayatollah’s.
Russ: [15:38] In January of ‘79, the Shah left Iran, ostensibly to go on vacation, but he never returned. Then in February, Khomeini flew from Paris to Tehran accompanied by over a hundred journalists. Unfortunately, during this period, Tom Fenton had to recover from both pancreatitis and a paralyzed vocal cord before he could resume reporting for CBS.
[16:01] Throughout 1979, the US Embassy in Tehran was a focal point for protests by Iranian students. After the Shah was admitted in the US to undergo treatment for cancer, the embassy was seized, and 65 embassy employees were taken prisoner, 13 of whom were released for various reasons within the first few days. The decision to admit the Shah to the US for medical treatment was examined by Bill Moyers on an episode of his PBS program, “Bill Moyers Journal,” which aired in June of 1981.
Bill Moyers: [16:33] As we learned with Batista in Cuba, and Somoza in Nicaragua, and as we may yet learn with the generals in Argentina and Guatemala, and with Marcos in the Philippines, a dictator’s friend should not expect esteem from the dictator’s victims when they rise in revenge. President Carter’s failure to understand this, to perceive how the Iranians had transferred their hatred from the Shah to us, led directly to his decision to admit the Shah to America. The President acted ostensibly on humanitarian grounds. The Shah was a sick man, and he’d been a loyal ally.
[17:04] In the end, the decision that precipitated the seizure of the embassy was made because the President was more sensitive to the pressure of David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger than the perceptions in Iran. When those two powerful boosters of the Shah applied the squeeze, Carted buckled. For Iranian revolutionaries, it was the last straw. Kissinger had armed their nemesis. Rockefeller, or so they imagined, had financed him. Now, Kissinger was working for Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank. Small wonder the militants saw the smoke of conspiracy.
Bill Moyers: [17:37] Peter Strauss was Director of The Voice of America, and one of the senior officials in Washington on the receiving end of warnings about the dangers of admitting the Shah.
Peter Straus: [17:45] We respected the particular decision about admitting the Shah for medical or other reasons. We had cables and personal visits from our officials who’d been in Tehran. I think, weekly, is probably a fair description toward the end, saying, “We understand the decision has many components, and that is the decision that’s going to have to be made by the White House. But if you do, be sure to get everybody out of here, not because we’re personally fearful, but because we can tell you what is going to happen. We can tell you there is going to be an attempt, and possibly a successful one, to take over the embassy there.”
Russ Mason: [18:20] Once Tom Fenton regained his health, he joined the other correspondents reporting from Tehran. In my phone conversation with him, he shared his recollections of that experience.
Tom Fenton: [18:29] The picture in Iran was somewhat different from the picture that we were feeding the American people. We saw night after night demonstrations. On one occasion, I recall a camel was sacrificed in front of the American Embassy, for our benefit, of course.
[18:54] The students and they were mostly in their 20s, and a number had been educated in the United States, including the spokeswoman for the students, following the line of the Ayatollah or of the Imam, as they called themselves. They knew that if it bleeds, it leads, or if you would burn or stomp on the picture of President Carter, that this would make air. Of course, night after night, we fed this stuff into the United States.
[19:36] At one point, I thought, “This is not quite the whole picture.” I took the CBS crew one block away from the embassy, the embassy that was in the hands of the students following the line of the Imam, just to photograph them or to film what was going on. Of course, nothing was going on.
Tom: [19:57] People were walking down the street. They were shopping. They were having coffee. [laughs] All of this was a show at the American Embassy made for American television, and it was very effective. The students knew what they were doing.
[20:13] Not only that, they were not particularly hostile to us, the American media, because they needed us to transmit the pictures of what they were doing.
[20:26] I remember one incident. I was out in front of the American Embassy filming with our crew, and a group of young men, that were marching down the street chanting, “Marg bar Āmrikā, Marg bar Āmrikā. Death to America.”
[20:45] They suddenly spotted the CBS camera. “Oh!” and ran over to say in front of it, “CBS. Hey, are you from New York?” He asked me if I knew a friend of his who lives there. [laughter] That was the real atmosphere. One of the main reasons for the seizure of the American Embassy and maintaining the 52 hostages that were held for 444 days was to make sure there would be no turning back, because there were large elements of the Iranian government that wanted to settle these differences with the United States.
[21:54] This was a way of ensuring that the bridges were burnt, and there would be no kiss and make up until the Shah was returned to Iran. That was the thing.
Russ: [21:52] To be put on trial, right?
Tom: [21:53] To be put on trial.
Russ: [21:56] There was a question I was going to ask you a while back. Mike Wallace got an interview with Khomeini shortly after the hostages were taken.
Tom: [22:06] Yes, wonderful. Mike says [laughs], “President Sadat has called you…” I forget. “His words, not mine, Ayatollah.” Do you remember that?
Russ: [22:21] Yes, I do. We’ve got that interview in our collection.
Tom: [22:24] Oh, wonderful.
Russ: [22:26] Mike Wallace made a point of saying that there were strict ground rules and that all the questions had to be submitted in advance. Were you under any restrictions like that when interviewing him?
Tom: [22:38] I’ve never done that, to my recollection. With Khomeini, I was free [laughs], to ask any question I wanted. I’ve always thought, and we usually say it in the trade, “There’s no such thing as a bad question, only a bad answer.” In fact, CBS was very meticulous about not submitting questions in advance. That was a big no no. I don’t know how Mike got away with that, but he did.
Russ: [23:11] Here’s that moment that Tom Fenton just recalled from Mike Wallace’s interview with Ayatollah Khomeini, when Wallace quoted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which aired on 60 Minutes on November 18th, 1979.
Mike Wallace: [23:23] Imam, President Sadat of Egypt, a devoutly religious man, a Muslim, says that what you are doing now is, “A disgrace to Islam.” He calls you, Imam, forgive me, his words, not mine, “a lunatic”. I know that you have heard that comment.
[23:48] Yes. That’s what I heard President Sadat say on American television. That the Imam is “a disgrace to Islam,” and he used the word “a lunatic.”
Ayatollah Khomeini: [24:13] [non English speech]
Translator: [24:13] Sadat states he is a Muslim, and we are not. He is not, for he compromises with the enemies of Islam.
Russ: [24:18] The US Embassy in Tehran remained occupied for all of 1980, and Tom Fenton recalls spending consecutive Christmases there. Here’s a portion of his report that aired on that second Christmas of the US Embassy employees’ captivity following his interview with the Vatican’s representative in Tehran, Monsignor Bugnini.
Tom: [24:37] Bugnini and an Iranian Catholic priest said mass and spent five hours last night with about half of the 49 hostages held by the militants. Three Iranian Protestant pastors held services for the other half in another room which Bugnini believed was not very far away.
[24:55] The hostages received gifts, Christmas cards, and letters from home. Bugnini, who was taken there blindfolded, said the room, somewhere in Tehran, was large, well heated, simply but comfortably furnished, and appeared to be where these hostages were living. The two women hostages, Bugnini said, had decorated the room with great care and taste.
[25:17] The Iranian television team that filmed these scenes said film will be released tomorrow of 49 hostages, including statements from most of them to their families, and some statements to their government. The film of the three other hostages held at the Foreign Ministry will be released Saturday.
[25:33] Bugnini said he did not talk politics with the hostages. He did not know whether they were aware of the apparent failure of the negotiations for their release.
Russ: [25:41] Of course, these Christmas scenes were just another show staged for the media. Once they returned home, several of the former hostages revealed a fuller picture of the considerably harsher treatment they were subjected to by their captors. My conversation with Tom Fenton included his explanation of Algeria’s role in securing the hostages’ release which finally occurred as Jimmy Carter left office on January 20th, 1981, which was Inauguration Day for his successor, Ronald Reagan.
Tom: [26:12] The United States had frozen Iran’s money. There was a good deal of it in American banks. The whole thing was about since the Shah was no longer, the Shah had died of cancer, they wanted the money back. They wanted guarantees that they would get the money. They didn’t trust this other guy. I can understand that.
[26:33] It was very difficult to reach an agreement. The Algerians were the intermediaries and they worked endlessly to try to solve the problem. It was several backs and forth between Tehran and Washington. Eventually, when the agreement was made, the release wasn’t done – this was a bit of spite – until right after President Carter left office.
Russ: [27:10] For us in the States, there was an emotional component to the whole thing at that point because the story had been a part of our consciousness for over a year. I remember Peter Jennings in particular. While all three networks, of course, were covering the hostages, as they came off the plane in Algiers, Peter Jennings had, I thought, was the perfect response or reaction to them coming off the plane. He was right there in the moment, and I sensed he was feeling that same emotion that a lot of other citizens were feeling because these hostages that we’ve been hearing about for over a year, we were seeing them for the first time.
Tom: [28:03] I can remember sleeping all night on the floor of aviation car at the airport waiting for them to come. It was a very emotional moment.
Russ: [28:16] Yeah, it certainly was.
Peter Jennings: [28:17] As we all know, Frank, a number of these former hostages are not going to be easily recognizable to their friends. One of the things that Ambassador Lang said, as he saw them before they left Tehran Airport tonight, was how much they had aged and, particularly, the older ones. The Chargé d’affaires Bruce Laingen, who had a very difficult time with the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, I’ve talked to him a couple of times over the last year. He did, as anybody in Washington at the State Department will know, have a very strong sense of frustration. Certainly, as Bob Anders will know, at having been separated from his people when the Embassy…
Peter Jennings: [28:54] Ah, Frank, there we are. That is Elizabeth Swift, I believe, on the left.
Bob Anders: [28:58] Kathryn Koob.
Jennings: [28:59] Kathryn Koob just behind her coming off. Two of them wearing their yellow ribbons, holding hands. These two women who’ve come so very close in captivity.
Anders: [29:09] There’s Jerry Plotkin and…
Jennings: [29:11] Jerry Plotkin, Bill Quarles. Please join in.
Anders: [29:13] It’s William Belk in a red jacket behind.
Jennings: [29:17] William Belk in a red jacket behind.
Anders: [29:19] Steve Lauterbach behind him.
Jennings: [29:21] Steve Lauterbach just behind him. Elizabeth Swift…
Anders: [29:24] Elizabeth Swift.
Jennings: [29:25] …in the foreground of the pictures.
Anders: [29:27] There’s Michael Metrinko.
Jennings: [29:28] Look at the smile on her face.
[29:31] [background music]
Anders: [29:31] Colonel Scott, Paul Needham.
Russ: [29:34] That concludes the first of two News Knowledge episodes in which we’re focusing on the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
[29:41] In our next episode, we’ll have more of my conversation with Tom Fenton. We’ll also hear George Washington University Professor William Adams discuss the small, unexpected role that he and the Vanderbilt Television News Archive itself played in the psychological readjustment of the former hostages once they were finally released from captivity.
[30:01] I’m Russ Mason, and for all of us here at the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, we thank for listening.