On a late autumn evening 40 years ago, a worn-out Gulfstream II white jet landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a royal but sick passenger that almost nobody had expected.
On board were a Republican political activist, an entourage of Iranian military officers, four smelly and hyperactive dogs, and Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s recently deposed Shah.
But when the jet landed, only a Chase Manhattan Bank executive was waiting for the dismissed monarch. Not only had he asked the White House to accept the former Shah, he had also obtained visas for his retinue, searched for private schools and villas for his family, and helped arrange the Gulfstream to free him.
“The eagle has landed,” said Joseph V. Reed Jr., chief of staff of bank chairman David Rockefeller, the following morning at a formal ceremony at the bank.
Less than two weeks later, on November 4, 1979, revolutionary Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 Americans and Washington hostage for 444 days.
The Shah, Washington’s closest ally in the Persian Gulf, had fled Tehran in January 1979 when an uprising against his 38-year rule came with iron fists. Liberals, leftists and religious conservatives gathered against him. Strikes and demonstrations closed Tehran and its security forces lost control.
The Shah sought refuge in America. But President Jimmy Carter, hoping to connect with the new government that emerged from the chaos and was concerned about the security of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, refused to allow him to enter the country for the first 10 months of his exile. Even then, the White House reluctantly admitted him to medical treatment.
A recently revealed secret story from Rockefeller’s offices vividly shows how Chase Manhattan Bank and its well-connected chairman worked behind the scenes to convince the Carter administration that Shah, one of the bank’s most profitable customers, permit.
It was a fire decision for Carter, the United States and the Middle East.
The resulting hostage crisis allowed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to consolidate his theocratic rule, trigger a four-decade Washington-Tehran conflict that continues to haunt the region and help Ronald Reagan take the White House. For American politicians, Iran has become a parable of the political dangers in the case of a friendly, strong man.
Although Carter was publicly complaining about the print campaign at this point, the full story behind the scenes, which was set out in the recently published documents, was never told.
Rockefeller’s team named the project “Project Eagle” after the code name used for the Shah. Rockefeller used the power networks that reached deep into the White House to mobilize a phalanx of older statesmen.
These included Henry A. Kissinger, former Secretary of State and Chairman of a Chase Advisory Board; John J. McCloy, former commissioner of occupied Germany after World War II and adviser to eight presidents and future Chase chairman; a Chase manager and former CIA agent, Archibald B. Roosevelt Jr., whose cousin, CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt Jr., staged a coup d’état in 1953 to keep the Shah in power; and Richard M. Helms, former director of the CIA and former ambassador to Iran.
Charles Francis, a corporate public affairs veteran who was working for Chase at the time, alerted The Times to the documents.
“Today’s corporate campaigns are demolition crises compared to this operation,” he said. “It was smooth, smooth, smooth, and almost invisible.”
Project Eagle’s records were donated to Yale by Reed, the campaign manager. However, he found the material so embarrassing that Reed, who passed away in 2016, determined that the records would remain sealed until Rockefeller’s death. Rockefeller died in 2017 at the age of 101.
Some of the information can also embarrass others. Hawkish critics have often accused Carter of worrying too much about human rights and failing to defend the Shah.
However, the newspapers say that the President’s Special Representative for Iran had urged the country’s generals to use as much lethal force as necessary to quell the uprising and advised them to undertake a military takeover to protect the Shah to keep in power.
A Carter spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comments. A Carter spokesman was not immediately available at the time of the crisis.
After the hostages were taken, the Carter administration desperately tried to rescue the prisoners and, on April 24, 1980, approved a rescue mission that broke down in a disaster: a helicopter crash in the desert killed eight soldiers, whose charred bodies were happy by issued to Iranian officials.
The hostage crisis had caused Carter’s presidency to fail. And the team around Rockefeller, a lifelong Republican with a poor view of Carter’s restrained foreign policy, worked closely with the Reagan campaign to prevent and discourage what it called an “October surprise” – a release of the American hostages before the Choice. the papers show.
The Chase team helped the Reagan campaign collect and spread rumors about possible payouts for the release. These propaganda efforts, Carter administration officials said, hampered the talks about the release of the prisoners.
“I had done my best to thwart Carter officials’ efforts to pull through the long-suspected” October surprise, “” wrote Reed in a post-election letter to his family, apparently referring to the chase Discourage one Hostage release: He was later appointed Reagan’s ambassador to Morocco.
Then Rockefeller personally campaigned for the new government to ensure that Iranian politics protect the bank’s financial interests. According to the records, Rockefeller hoped to restore a version of the deposed government.
At the beginning of the Iranian upheaval, the newspapers show Kissinger Rockefeller advised that the likely conclusion would be “a kind of Bonapartist counterrevolution that gathers the pro-Western elements along with what is left of the army.”
Kissinger recently confirmed in an email that the forecast “reflects my way of thinking at the time,” but said “it was a judgment, not a political proposal.”
But Rockefeller was apparently committed to some form of restoration long after the shah’s flight from Tehran.
As late as December 1980, Rockefeller personally called on the incoming Reagan government to promote a counter-revolution by stopping “carpet dealer negotiations” for the hostages and instead taking military action to punish Iran if the hostages were not released. He proposed to occupy three Iranian-controlled islands in the Persian Gulf.
“The most likely outcome of this situation is the eventual replacement of the current fanatical-Shia Muslim government by a military one, or a combination of the military and civilian democratic leaders,” Rockefeller argued, according to his discussion topics for meetings with the Reagan transition team.
Rockefeller, a heir to his family’s oil assets, made himself a statesman and knew many White House officials, including Carter. He had known the Shah since 1962 and was with him in New York, Tehran and St. Moritz in Switzerland.
When Tehran’s coffers increased in oil revenues in the 1970s, Chase set up a joint venture with an Iranian state bank and earned high fees for advising the national oil company.
By 1979, the bank had syndicated more than $ 1.7 billion in loans to Iranian public projects (about $ 5.8 billion today). The Chase balance sheet included over $ 360 million in loans to Iran and over $ 500 million in deposits.
Rockefeller often insisted that his concern for the Shah was only about Washington’s “reputation and credibility”. It was about “leaving a friend when he needed us the most,” he wrote in his memoirs.
His only stand up for the Shah, Rockefeller wrote, was briefly neglected by Carter during a White House meeting in April 1979.
“I have done nothing publicly or privately to influence the thinking of the administration.”
However, the Project Eagle papers show that Rockefeller has received detailed information about the risks to Chase’s holdings and that even his absence from Carter was planned for the previous day with Reed, McCloy, and Kissinger.
During lunch at the Knickerbocker Club in New York, Carter’s Tehran Special Representative, General Robert E. Huyser, told the Project Eagle team that he had asked the Iranian military leaders to kill as many demonstrators as necessary to keep the Shah in power ,
If the shooting over the protesters’ heads failed, “focus on the chests,” Huyser told the Iranian generals after lunch. “I got tough and loud with the military,” he added, but in the end the top general was “gutless”.
Rockefeller had his own special representative who was trying to help the Shah: Robert F. Armao, a Republican operational and public relations advisor who had worked for Rockefeller’s brother Nelson, a former New York governor and former vice president.
Armao became one of the Shah’s closest advisers, and after Nelson Rockefeller passed away in early 1979, he reported to the Project Eagle team in Chase almost daily for more than two years.
“Everyone hoped that the 1953 events would happen again,” Armao recalled recently, referring to the US-backed coup that restored the Shah on his first escape.
When the Shah’s reign became unsustainable in early 1979, the State Department first contacted David Rockefeller for help in moving the Iranian monarch to the United States.
“Not big enough for my very special client,” Reed wrote to a broker in Greenwich, Connecticut, who had offered two properties for around $ 2 million each – about $ 7.4 million today.
But while the Shah was in Egypt and Morocco, an Iranian mob briefly seized the US embassy in February. Diplomats warned that the shah’s admission would risk another attack, and Carter changed his mind about offering refuge.
Rockefeller declined to convey this bad news to the Shah, fearing that it would harm the bank by alienating a valued customer.
“The risks related to the CMB position in Iran were too high,” he replied, referring to the Chase Manhattan Bank.
Instead, Rockefeller sought to find somewhere else to stay – first in the Bahamas and then in Mexico – while he considered with Kissinger, McCloy, and others how to convince the White House to let the Shah in.
During a three-day advance in April, Kissinger personally contacted national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and then called Carter. Rockefeller buttoned the President in the White House.
In a speech, Kissinger publicly accused the Carter administration of forcing a loyal ally to travel the world in search of refuge, “like a flying Dutchman looking for a focal point” – the seed of a campaign that lost Iran Republican theme.
McCloy flooded the White House with lengthy letters to senior officials and often argued about the danger of demoralizing other “friendly princes”. “Dear Zbig,” he said to his old friend Brzezinski.
Finally, in October, Reed sent his personal doctor to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to “take a look at the Shah”.
He had hidden a cancer diagnosis. Doctor Benjamin H. Kean found that the Shah needed sophisticated treatment within a few weeks – in Mexico, if necessary, Kean later said he had come to the conclusion.
But when Reed put the doctor in touch with State Department officials, another prognosis came out: the Shah was “at the end of death” and only a New York hospital could “possibly save his life,” Carter described the Times at the time.
With this opening, the Chase team prepared the flight to Fort Lauderdale.
“When I told the customs officer who the director was, he almost passed out,” the waiting manager, Eugene Swanzey, reported the next morning.
The plane’s bathroom was not working. The Shah and his wife searched in vain for a missing video cassette to end a film. And their four dogs – a poodle, a collie, a cocker spaniel and a Great Dane – jumped on everyone. The Great Dane “hadn’t been washed in weeks,” said Swanzey. “The aroma was just awful.”
When Reed met the plane when he last arrived in New York, he remembered the next day when the Shah thought, “I am finally in competent hands.”
But when he checked the Shah into the New York hospital, Reed was careful.
“I am the unknown American,” he said to the curious staff.
Reed, Rockefeller and Kissinger met again three days after the hostage was taken.
“What was remarkable was the feeling of indignation as high and nothing useful to say,” read the minutes.
The White House said the Shah would have to leave as soon as possible, but Project Eagle continued.
“The ideal place for the eagle to land,” Reed wrote to Armao on November 9, sending him a brochure for a 350-acre Hudson Valley estate.
A week later, Rockefeller Carter personally called in a phone call to instruct the Secretary of State to meet with the Shah about the “current situation”. Carter did not and the Shah soon traveled to Panama, then Egypt.
It was only after the shah’s death on July 27, 1980, nine months after landing in Fort Lauderdale, that the Project Eagle team moved to new destinations. One protected Rockefeller from the blame for the crisis.
On August 19, Rockefeller and nine other members of the team gathered over a veal roast and a vintage wine at the exclusive River Club in New York to discuss a praiseworthy biography of the Shah from a Berkeley professor whom the team had warned against a Rockefeller link to seize the embassy was difficult to escape.
Why was the Shah admitted? “Medical treatment / DR recommended,” said one with Rockefeller’s initials, according to the dinner protocol. “This assignment cannot be ignored.”
But Kissinger was comforting. Congress would never conduct investigations into the election campaign.
“I don’t think we’re in more trouble, David,” Kissinger said to him.
The hostages were released on the day of inauguration, January 20, 1981, and a few days later, Carter’s retiring White House lawyer called Rockefeller to inquire about the effects of the release deal on Chase Bank.
“It worked very well,” said Rockefeller after his notes. “Far better than we feared.”
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2019 The New York Times Company