iOS app Android app More

Clueless in Iran: America's Déjà Vu All Over Again


I am personally intrigued by what is going on in Iran these days. And I am amused by America's bemusement. Here's why.

Almost 31 years ago, in the fall of 1978, the Ayatollah Khomeini was granted asylum in France. He set up his modest headquarters in Neaufle-le-Chateau, a quiet suburb of Paris. Almost immediately, scores of Iranians who had been studying or working in America came to join him.

I was a junior correspondent in the Paris bureau of CBS News at the time. Weeks before Khomeini's arrival, his devoted young follower, Zadig Ghobezadig, visited our office -- time and again -- telling us there was going to be a revolution in Iran, and that Khomeini would overturn the Shah.

My bureau chief, a hardened veteran cameraman who had covered the war in Vietnam, more or less waved Zadig aside. But the French press covered Khomeini's arrival thoroughly and seriously, and finally, almost reluctantly, I was sent out with Zadig and a camera crew to interview Khomeini.

I wore a drab pantsuit, which covered me from wrists to ankles, but Zadig shook his head when he saw me. "That won't do", he said, as we got into his car. He stopped at a boutique on the Champs-Elysées and bought me a huge wool scarf, as drab as my suit, and wrapped it around my head, tucking in every wisp of hair. And off we went.

Stepping into the Ayatollah's presence, sitting before him, I felt a chill: he observed everyone silently, unsmilingly, with eyes of steel. Zadig translated my questions from French to Farsi, and then Khomeini's answers back into French for me. The camera rolled. A little boy, Khomeini's grandson, toddled in at some point but was led away.

When the interview was over (no handshake, no smile), I chatted for a few minutes with the Iranian-Americans who had come to join him. They were optimistic and ecstatic at the prospect of returning to Iran and overthrowing the regime. The young women were already wearing chadors.

Back at the office, I wrote my story. It began simply: "This is the 78-year old Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who may overthrow the Shah."

The story, edited with the visuals, was sent that night.

This, in October 1978, was the scoop of the year.

It was never aired! No one believed the story, or felt it was important.

Finally two months later, in December, America began to take notice of this bearded old man in France. A crew was sent out almost every day to stake out his headquarters, but of course, no one ever got an interview again. A news editor in New York had the idea of questioning Americans who had been living in Iran and were returning to the U.S. for Christmas holidays: did they see any trouble ahead for the Shah's regime? We caught them in transit at the Paris airport. At least half of them said "no problem" -- they were returning to Tehran after New Year's.

Of course, the Shah himself had assured Mike Wallace on "Sixty Minutes" earlier in the year that his regime was stable! And President Jimmy Carter was certain of it, too.
Then it happened: on February 1, 1979, Khomeini and Zadig and most of his entourage flew off to Tehran. I met Zadig at the airport before they left.

"Take care", I said. "Take care of everyone, Christians and Jews." He promised they would.

"Salaam", I said.

"Shalom", he answered.

He was named to a post in Khomeini's government, but little more than a year later we learned he had been executed for "treason".

There are many facets to this story, and more than one bottom line. But beyond my professional disappointment, and Zadig's undeserved death, and the three decades of repression in Iran, there is the hard truth that America doesn't look, doesn't listen, and therefore doesn't understand and respond to what is really going on in the world.

And so today, we are all Twittering while Tehran burns.