During the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan often joked that Jimmy Carter came to him in a dream and asked him why he wanted his job. “I told him I didn’t want his job,” Reagan quipped. “I want to be president.”

In the American popular imagination, Carter is often cast as a failed one-term president who could not tame inflation, bemoaned a national malaise, and found himself humiliated when, in 1979, anti-American revolutionaries in Iran overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the country’s U.S.-aligned ruler, and later held 52 Americans hostage in the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

Whether Carter deserves that overall image is debatable. But in the four decades since he left office, it has become clear that, at least in the case of Iran, Carter was far from weak and hapless. In fact, the Carter that emerges from the historical record—including some recently declassified documents—is an Iran hawk: imploring the wobbly shah to forcibly suppress the revolution; trying to instigate a coup to save the monarchy; and, after the revolution, committing the United States to a policy of regime change.

Carter tried hard to thwart the revolution and then to undo it. But the Iranians were never really listening to Washington. The lesson for today’s U.S. policymakers is clear: the United States cannot create its own reality in Iran.

“HARD BALL”

In 1978, Iran was coming undone. The political atmosphere was suffocating, with spies and informers everywhere. In many ways, the shah was a victim of his own success in creating a modern middle class and a vast cohort of educated young people. As often happens in developing countries, the shah’s bargain with his people was transactional: they remained politically passive and he rewarded them with economic security. This proved to be an unsustainable compact, as members of the new middle class increasingly wanted a say. And behind all the glitter of the shah’s economic modernization, Iran was experiencing a religious revival, as more people reclaimed their faith and wanted spiritual leaders to play a greater role in national affairs. The mosque was a place of worship that could not be shuttered, and thus it became the most important platform for the opposition.

The usually reliable shah was facing a rebellion that he could neither control nor contain. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had summoned Iranians to a great cause: a revolution waged in the name of God and led by Islamist avengers. The shah, secluded in his palace, slowly dying of cancer, dithered and blamed the CIA for his predicament. He simply had no stomach for the fight.

Carter had not focused much on Iran during the first half of his presidency. Forging arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and brokering peace between Egypt and Israel consumed his attention. In the fall of 1978, his administration’s approach to Iran was a jumble of contradictions. Cyrus Vance, Carter’s patrician secretary of state, called for a coalition government between the shah and his opponents, which Khomeini curtly rejected. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had studied revolutions, pressed for a crackdown, arguing that concessions would only embolden the radicals. The administration called on the shah to simultaneously reform his regime and restore order. No one in Washington seemed to understand that these two things could not be done at the same time.

The United States cannot create its own reality in Iran.

But by the time Carter finally turned his attention to Iran, in November, he did so with discipline and determination. He put an end to the bickering among his aides and, in a written message, instructed the U.S. ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, to inform the shah that he had Carter’s full support but that Washington saw a “need for decisive action and leadership to restore order and his own authority.” This was a clear green light for a crackdown.

In Tehran, Sullivan dutifully presented Carter’s message to the shah, who rejected the call to arms. In a cable Sullivan sent back to Washington, he reported that the shah had pointedly asked him: “Why [does] the president [think] a military government would be successful?” The monarch had ended his meeting with Sullivan by telling him that if the army used force, Khomeini “would call for a jihad and there would be a bloodbath. Even some of the military would take their obligations to Islam ahead of their obligations to the shah.” All Carter could do was to lament, in his diary, that the shah was “not a strong leader but very doubtful and unsure of himself.”

Not long after that, the shah fled Iran, paving the way for Khomeini’s return after 15 years in exile. In many ways, the battle for the future of Iran then became a contest of wills between the Iranian ayatollah and the American president. It was hardly an even match, as Khomeini had the backing of wide swaths of the country, whereas Carter had to rely on the broken royalist army. This did not deter Carter, who dispatched General Robert Huyser, the deputy commander in chief of the U.S. European Command, to Iran to steady the nerves of the generals and prepare them to take over. “I told the generals that this was ‘hard ball’ and that their country was at stake,” Huyser recalled later at a private dinner hosted by the banker David Rockefeller and the veteran statesman John McCloy, according to notes from the meeting preserved in the papers of Rockefeller’s aide Joseph Reed. But the shah’s generals were too busy planning their exits to pay much heed to Huyser’s instructions. Huyser soon concluded that they were “gutless” and settled back in his headquarters in Germany.

On February 11, as the revolution edged toward its final triumph, Huyser received a call from Brzezinski, Deputy Secretary of Defense Charles Duncan, and General David Jones, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asking whether he would be willing to return to Tehran and stage a military takeover. It is inconceivable that this request would have been made without Carter’s consent. Indeed, when McCloy asked Huyser who had issued his orders, he insisted that “President Carter wrote the orders personally and I understand that prior to the official transmission they were hand-written.” Still, the general understood that the end was at hand and he agreed to return to Iran only if the White House provided him with 10,000 U.S. troops. After an awkward silence, the call ended.

THE BLACK CHAMBER

The demise of the Pahlavi dynasty did not end the conflict between the Carter administration and what was now known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini was determined to humiliate the United States and punish Carter. The embassy proved too tantalizing a target. For decades, historians have claimed that Khomeini did not have advance knowledge of the plot to take over the building and merely skillfully exploited the raid to fan the flames of anti-Americanism. This was not the judgment of the CIA. Shortly after militants seized the embassy, Carter’s National Security Council met. “It does appear that Khomeini gave permission for the occupation of the Embassy,” CIA Director Stansfield Turner told the assembled officials, according to a recently declassified record of the meeting. “The chances of negotiating with them do not appear to be good,” Turner advised.

This view of Khomeini’s role was subtly confirmed by Ayatollah Mohammad Mahdavi-Kani, who was responsible for the Iranian regime’s internal security at the time. In his memoir, he recalls that after the militants attacked the embassy, he called Khomeini’s son Ahmad, who acted as his father’s chief of staff. “The night of the embassy occupation, I contacted Ahmad and asked him, ‘What is happening?’” Mahdavi-Kani wrote. “Initially, he just laughed and would not answer. I asked him, ‘Did you know about this?’ He laughed. Finally, after I insisted, he said, ‘The imam [Khomeini] is satisfied with this and you should not get involved.’” It was at Khomeini’s instigation that his militant disciples assaulted the embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

At the time, Carter’s inability to free the hostages—best symbolized by an abortive rescue mission that ended in disaster—made the United States look like a helpless giant and led many Americans to conclude that Carter lacked the will to confront the ayatollah. Behind the scenes, however, Carter committed himself to overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Recently declassified documents reveal that in December 1979, Carter issued a presidential finding—a notification to Congress required under laws passed in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal—ordering the CIA to “conduct propaganda and political and economic action operations to encourage the establishment of a responsible and democratic regime in Iran; make contacts with Iranian opposition leaders and interested governments in order to encourage interactions that could lead to a broad, pro-Western front capable of forming an alternative government.” The dovish Vance pointed to the historical gravity of the moment. According to declassified notes of a December 20 meeting, Vance told a group of senior officials and cabinet members that the “finding represents a major step. It indicates that this group has made a decision to bring groups together to bring down Khomeini.” No one blinked.

Carter’s problem was not a lack of resolve but rather unsteady Iranian allies and an unyielding adversary.

The decision to try to change the regime in Iran rested on a number of assumptions made by the intelligence community. It was the judgment of the CIA that “Khomeini’s attempt to rule a semi-developed state of the late twentieth century by the standards of a tenth century theocracy will ultimately fail,” as the agency put it in a 1979 memorandum to Carter and his senior national security advisers. The Americans had difficulty believing that a gang of mullahs who were decimating the ranks of the professional bureaucracy could manage a modern state. The beneficiaries of their incompetence, officials in Washington believed, would be forces on the Iranian left allied with the Soviet Union. Thus, it was important for the United States to expedite the collapse of the clerical regime and place pro-American factions in a position to inherit the mantle of leadership.

Shortly after the embassy seizure, Carter established an interagency committee to oversee covert operations against the new regime in Tehran, placing it under the direction of David Aaron, the deputy national security adviser. Officials referred to the group by a number of different names, including the “black group” and the “Black Chamber.” The precise operational plans remain classified. But it appears that under the committee’s direction, the CIA attempted to organize external Iranian opposition groups into a cohesive force, tried to aid dissidents in Iran, and enlisted regional powers such as Saudi Arabia to help undermine the nascent theocracy.

Before the campaign could make much progress, however, the Carter administration was over. Carter, laid low by a weak economy and widespread perceptions of him as a weak leader, was trounced by Reagan in the 1980 election. It remains unclear whether Reagan persisted with the covert regime change program; historians will learn more about that when documents from the Reagan administration begin to be declassified in the coming years.

CAN THE REGIME BE CHANGED?

Carter’s post-presidency, dominated by images of his humanitarian aid work and Bible school teaching, has distorted public memory about his temperament and approach to governing. He was hardly a gentle soul: in fact, he was unusually self-assured, quick to anger, and often ruthless. His problem in Iran was not a lack of resolve but rather unsteady Iranian allies and an unyielding adversary. He failed to understand that a populist revolution determined to sweep away all that stood in its way could not be thwarted by coups or the CIA’s machinations. The Islamic Republic may have been in its infancy, but the revolution at that time still had the support of the vast majority of Iranians.

Four decades later, the Islamist regime has forfeited much of its legitimacy. Its revolutionary élan has long faded. The theocratic state is exhausted: drowning in corruption and shielding itself behind an ideology that few believe in any longer. Nevertheless, Washington should not overestimate its ability to condition outcomes in Iran. Iran today is defined by the same basic struggle that has shaped its past century: a population seeking freedom is confronting absolutist rulers determined to preserve their power. In this context, Washington will have a role to play, albeit a modest one. And should the Iranian people succeed, they will probably do so in a manner that confounds another generation of Americans who, like Carter before them, thought they understood Iran better than the Iranians.

CORRECTION APPENDED (March 1, 2021)

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Americans taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979. It was 52, not hundreds.

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