Held Hostage In Iran: A Tour Like No Other

Editor's note: Former Iranian hostage William J. Daugherty first wrote about his experiences as an American held hostage in Iran in 1996. November 4, 2009 marks 30 years since the event Daugherty describes in detail. His in-depth account first appeared on the CIA's Web site cia.gov.  

I do not recall now the exact circumstances in which I was finally and firmly offered Tehran for a first tour, nor even who made the offer. I do know, though, that I did not hesitate a second to say yes. For the most part, I have not regretted that decision, but at times it is only with a prodigious dose of hindsight that I have been able to keep it in perspective. After all, it is not often that a newly minted case officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations (DO) spends his first tour in jail.

I was recruited into the Agency in 1978, during my last year of graduate school, and I entered on duty the next January. In my recruitment interviews, I was told about a special program managed by the DO's Career Management Staff that was designed to place a few selected first-tour officers overseas in a minimal period of time, without lengthy exposure to the Washington fishbowl or reliance on light cover. The program sounded fine to me, and so I joined the Agency and was rushed through the Career Training (CT) program by skipping the standard six months of interim assignments.

Something else that presented a problem initially--but later came to be a blessing in disguise--was that I enjoyed an astonishingly small amount of knowledge of the DO and how it did its business. Despite that innocent state, I managed to do well in training. I was particularly captivated by the stories told by the instructors from the DO's Near East (NE) Division, and by the challenging situations found in the Middle East; midway through the training course, I had decided I wanted to go to NE Division. At that point, during a Saturday visit to Headquarters, the deputy chief of NE Division (DC/NE), knowing of my participation in the special program, raised the possibility of my being assigned to Tehran--even though I possessed absolutely no academic knowledge of, nor any practical experience whatsoever with, anything Iranian.

By the time of this conversation in spring 1979, Tehran station was in the midst of coping with post-revolutionary Iran. The Shah (ruling monarch) of Iran had fled the country on January 16, and soon thereafter--on February 2--Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to oversee a government founded on his perception of an Islamic state. Also of importance to later events, U.S. Embassy and station personnel had already been taken hostage for several hours, on February 14, 1979, in what came to be called "the St. Valentine's Day Open House."

This last event triggered an almost total drawdown of Embassy and station personnel, along with a reduction of active-duty American military forces in Iran from about 10,000 to a dozen or so, divided between the Defense Attaché's Office (DAO) and the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). It did not, however, generate much (if any) sentiment at the highest levels of the United States government for disrupting or breaking diplomatic relations with Iran. In fact, it served mainly to strengthen American determination to reconcile with Iran's Provisional Revolutionary Government.

By March, Tehran station consisted of several case officers and communicators rotating in and out of Iran on a "temporary duty" basis. But NE Division was already looking ahead to the time when the station could again be staffed with permanently assigned personnel and functioning as a station should--recruiting agents and collecting intelligence. And that was the state of affairs when I met DC/NE in Langley on that spring day.

The Right Background

The deputy chief had fair reason to consider placing me in Tehran station. First, my special program had kept my cover clean: I had no visible affiliation with the US Government, much less with the Agency or any of its usual cover providers. I did have military service--eight years of active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. But between those years and my entry on duty with the Agency I had spent 5 1/2 years as a university student.

The nature of my military experience and education probably also helped prompt DC/NE to look at me for assignment to Tehran. During my eight years of Marine Corps service, I had first been an air traffic controller and, for more than half my service time, a designated Naval Flight Officer flying as a weapons system officer in high-performance jets. When my time for a tour in Vietnam rolled around, I was assigned to a fighter/attack squadron deployed aboard an aircraft carrier. I flew 76 missions over North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos in the venerable F-4 Phantom. While no hero (indeed, I was the most junior and least experienced aviator in the squadron), I nonetheless had been subjected to the pressures of potential life-and-death situations and to high standards of performance. On returning to school, I earned a Ph.D. in Government, specializing in Executive-Congressional relations and Constitutional law associated with American foreign policy. This background seemed to nudge DC/NE toward selecting me for Tehran, and later it also was to serve me well in critical ways, in circumstances the nature of which I could have scarcely conceived.

Soon after my conversation with the DC/NE, however, I was told that the Tehran assignment was being withdrawn. When the acting chief of station (COS) was offered an inexperienced first-tour officer, he not unwisely rejected me. His position, which is difficult to rebut, was that Tehran was a hostile environment in which contacts and agents were placing their lives at risk by meeting in discreet circumstances with American Embassy officers (all of whom, of course, were considered by many Iranians to be CIA). Therefore, our Iranian assets deserved to be handled by experienced officers who knew what to do and how to do it. Further, any compromise whatsoever, for any reason, would unquestionably have severe repercussions for US-Iranian relations, which the Carter administration was trying to resurrect. Hence I was offered another station as an alternative.

It was sometime in late June or early July, while I was on the other country desk, that I was again offered Tehran. A permanent COS had finally arrived in Tehran and, when my candidacy was raised with him, he did not hesitate to say yes. Later, he told me that given a choice between a well-trained, aggressive, and smart first-tour officer or a more experienced but reluctantly assigned officer who would rather have been somewhere else, he would take the first-tour officer. I thought then, and have thought ever since, that the COS made a courageous decision--one that, had I been in his place, I might have decided differently. He earned my respect right then and there, and it has never waned.

I accepted quickly. Shortly afterward, elated at the thought of going to a very-high-visibility post of great significance to policymakers, I was on the desk reading in. When the day came to depart for Tehran, I called on DC/NE. He ushered me into his office, chatted a minute or two about my itinerary, wished me well, and, shaking my hand, looked at me and said, "Don't [expletive] up." I wish he had been able to convey that message to a few other government officials downtown.

Historical Perspective

Iran (then known as Persia) at the turn of the century was a barren country barely existing as a grouping of tribal fiefdoms, more or less caught in the rivalry between Russia and Britain. The discovery of oil in Persia in 1908 changed things considerably for the Persian people and the two competing empires, particularly the British, but had little initial impact on US interests. With the events in revolutionary Russia in 1916 and 1917, that nation's ability to exercise power and influence in Persia diminished, and Persia quickly became fully incorporated into Britain's sphere of influence. Succeeding US presidents avoided any official contact or involvement, preferring instead to sidestep Persian entreaties and to recognize that the country was now within the British sphere.

In 1925 a Persian Army officer, Reza Pahlavi, became something of a national hero by halting a Communist-sponsored revolt in northern Persia. He parlayed that success into being elected Shah by the civilian Parliament, and then turned that semidemocratic position into a highly autocratic dictatorship. In short, he became just the latest in a centuries-long line of Persian masters who ruled by fiat and fear.

Officially calling his country Iran, Reza Shah began a reign that left him popular with virtually no one. Before World War II, he engaged in modernization of his country, although not necessarily for benevolent or public-spirited motives (one of many reasons he was detested by his subjects). During his reign, Iranian-US relations continued at a low ebb, with neither country understanding the other's culture and with much distrust existing on both sides.

It took World War II to create the Iranian-U.S. ties that were eventually to become so seemingly invincible and permanent. The Soviet Union had been invaded by the Nazis in June 1941 with three field armies, one of which headed for the Transcaucasus region in southwestern Russia. With vital lines of transport and communication severed, there remained only two avenues of supply by which needed US lend-lease and other materials could reach the Soviets: the always dangerous Murmansk Run for ship convoys, and the Trans-Iranian Railroad reaching from the warm-water ports of the Persian Gulf to the Soviet borders in northwestern Iran. The Transcaucasus thrust also threatened Iranian oil fields, for which Germany's need was desperate.
The outcome was the occupation of Iran in the north by Soviet troops and in the south by predominantly British forces. Reza Shah (whose army was completely undistinguished in its efforts to deter the arrival of foreign troops) was forced into exile on the island of Mauritius, and his teenage son, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, was placed on the throne in a figurehead status. During this period, both Soviet and British troops earned Iranian antipathy as occupiers who were, in the eyes of most Iranians, looting their country while fighting a war in which Iran had no stake. (This enmity was not without some justification, although the British were never given the credit they deserved for significant and measurable assistance to the Iranian people throughout this period.) All of this, of course, deepened Iranian suspicions of foreigners and hostility toward outsiders who tried to or, in this instance, actually did control the country. The U.S. government's stake in Iran, as well as its diplomatic and military presence, concomitantly increased as a consequence of America's unyielding support to its wartime allies, Britain and the Soviet Union.

With the war over in 1945, the Soviets refused to leave Iran, as previously agreed to under a 1943 treaty. Instead, relying on sympathizers in the local populace they had worked to cultivate during the war, the Soviets commenced a blatant attempt to annex the northern regions of Iran, coveting both the oil and access to a warm-water port. By the time American and British troops had departed from Iran in spring 1946, the Soviets were firmly ensconced in the province of Azerbaijan and were moving into Iran's Kurdish region.

Although George Kennan was still a year away from enshrining the geopolitical strategy of containment in his celebrated "Mr. X" article, the highest officials in the US Government had already recognized the true nature of Stalin's Soviet Union and the need to prevent, where possible and practical, the USSR's expansion beyond its own borders. Exerting strong diplomatic efforts, including mobilization of the nascent U.N. General Assembly, the U.S. government finally succeeded in getting the Soviets out of Iran and in having their puppet governments in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan disbanded.

Now, with Soviet and British influence over Iran greatly diminished, US-Iranian relations on all fronts gradually expanded, with the first arms sale by the United States to the Iranian military coming in June 1947. From then on, oil and "strategic imperatives" cemented and drove this unnatural relationship, despite continuing and increasing distrust and antipathy toward each other over the next decades.

CIA involvement in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 loomed extraordinarily large in the minds of Iranians. In April 1951 the then-popular but eccentric Mossadeq, a wealthy career civil servant and uncompromising nationalist, had been appointed by the Shah as prime minister to replace his assassinated predecessor. Shortly thereafter, the Shah, under pressure from Iran's political center and left, signed an order nationalizing the British-dominated, putatively "jointly owned" Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC); Mossadeq had earlier submitted, and the Majlis (parliament) had approved, legislation mandating AIOC's nationalization. The ultranationalist Mossadeq, who had advocated remaining aloof from both the Soviets and the Americans (rather than continuing the usual strategy of embracing both in order to play one off against the other), soon came to be seen by many in the West, including Washington, as de facto pro-Soviet.

The nationalization of AIOC touched off two years of political turmoil, during which Mossadeq's popular support eroded. This period culminated in August 1953 with the Shah's flight into a brief exile, CIA's stage-management (under explicit Presidential directive) of the coup against the Prime Minister, and the Shah's return (with US Government assistance) and consolidation of his power. Subsequently the United States, driven by the inexorable forces of the Cold War, increasingly assumed the role of chief protector for Iran and the Shah, leaving many Iranians more convinced than ever that the Shah and their country were simply a dominion of the United States, administered by or through the CIA. The seeds of the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 were being sown.

Fifty-Three Days

I arrived in Tehran on September 12, 1979 and began the first of what turned out to be only 53 days of actual operational work. If I knew little about Iran, I knew even less about Iranians. My entire exposure to Iran, beyond the evening television news and a three-week area studies course at the State Department, consisted of what I had picked up during five weeks on the desk reading operational files.

Virtually all my insights into Persian minds and personalities came from a lengthy memo written by the recently reassigned political counselor, which described in detail (the accuracy of which I would have ample time to confirm) how Iranians viewed the world, and why and how they thought and believed as they did. It did not take much to see that even friendly and pro-Western Iranians could be difficult to deal or reason with, or to otherwise comprehend. The ability displayed by many Iranians to simultaneously avow antithetical beliefs or positions was just one of their quainter character traits.

One memorable introduction to all this was my first encounter with the Iranian elite several weeks after my arrival. In this instance, I met with an upper-class Iranian woman who was partnered with her husband in a successful construction company. This couple was wealthy and held degrees from European and American universities. They were well traveled. But, her exposure to the West and level of education notwithstanding, this woman insisted that the Iranian government was directly controlled by the CIA. She said that the chief of the Iranian desk at CIA headquarters talked every day to the Shah by telephone to give the monarch his instructions for that particular day, and that the US Government had made a deliberate decision to rid Iran of the Shah. Since the U.S. government did not, in her scenario, have any idea whom it wanted to replace the Shah as ruler, it had decided to install Khomeini as the temporary puppet until the CIA selected a new Shah. I was both fascinated and stupefied by this explanation of the Shah's downfall.

The woman's unshakable theory did not encompass an explanation of why the United States would have permitted the bloody street riots in 1977 and 1978. Nor did it explain why, if the U.S. government (or the CIA) wanted the Shah to leave, he was not just ordered to go, thereby avoiding the enormous problems of revolutionary Iran.

My initial weeks in Tehran passed quickly. The Chargé, L. Bruce Laingen, was more than helpful, as was Maj. Gen. Phillip Gast, U.S. Air Force, head of the MAAG, with both of them generously taking care to include me as a participant in substantive meetings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Iranian General Staff Headquarters. I worked essentially full-time during the day on cover duties, which I found much more interesting than onerous, dealing with issues of genuine import; in the evenings, I reverted to my true persona as a CIA case officer. I was 32 years old, at the top of my form both physically and mentally. Captivity was to change all that, and I have never since regained that same degree of mental acuity and agility. But during those 53 days on the streets of Tehran, I reveled in it all.

On October 21, however, I came to realize that my euphoria would probably be short-lived. On that date, the other station case officer (as acting COS) shared a cable with me in which CIA Headquarters advised that the president had decided that day to admit the Shah, by then fatally ill with cancer, into the United States for medical treatment. I could not believe what I was reading. The Shah had left Iran in mid-January 1979 and had since led a peripatetic life; indeed, he had even rejected an offer of comfortable exile in America (to the relief of many US Government officials). Now, with US-Iranian relations still unstable and with an intense distrust of the United States permeating the new Iranian "revolutionary" government, the Shah and his doctors had decided the United States was the only place where he could find the medical care he needed.

The Shah Comes to America

Since February 1979, strong pressure on President Carter for the Shah to be admitted to the United States had been openly and unrelentingly applied by powerful people inside and outside the US Government, particularly by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and banking magnate David Rockefeller, with added support from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Had the Shah come directly to the United States when he left Iran in January 1979, there probably would have been little or no problem--the Iranians themselves expected this to happen and were surprised when it did not. But, as the ousted monarch continued to roam the world, the US Government was also working to build a productive relationship with the new revolutionary regime. Thus, as a practical working plan, the greater the American distance from the Shah, the better for the new relationship--and vice versa. The Shah's entry into the United States 10 months later, however, quickly unraveled all that had been achieved and rendered impossible all that might have been accomplished in the future.

When the Shah's doctors contacted the U.S. government on October 20, 1979 and requested that he be admitted immediately into the United States for emergency medical treatment, the President quickly convened a gathering of the National Security Council principals to decide the issue. Only Secretary of State Vance opposed the request; the others either strongly supported it or acquiesced. The CIA was represented by DDCI Frank Carlucci in the absence of DCI Stansfield Turner; it is instructive to note that Carlucci was not asked for CIA's assessment of the situation. The meeting concluded with President Carter, while harboring significant misgivings about letting the Shah in, nonetheless acceding to the majority vote and granting permission for the Shah to enter the United States for "humanitarian" reasons. The president, familiar with warnings from Bruce Laingen about the danger to the Embassy if the Shah were to be admitted to the United States, asked what the advisers would recommend when the revolutionaries took the Embassy staff hostage. No one responded.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were enraged by the decision to admit the Shah, seeing in him a despot who was anything but an adherent to humanitarian principles. They also felt, not for the first time, a strong sense of betrayal by the U.S. president.


In 1976, Jimmy Carter had campaigned for the presidency on a platform that included a strongly stated position advocating human rights around the world. Friendly or allied nations exhibiting poor adherence to those criteria were not to be excluded from sanctions, one of which was the withholding of US military/security support and related assistance. Many Iranians heard this and took heart, believing that President Carter would cease US support to the Shah's government while also easing, or stopping completely, the abuses taking place in their country.

On December 31, 1977, while the president was making a state visit to Iran, he openly referred to the country as an "island of stability in a sea of turmoil," lauding the Shah for a commitment to democracy. All Iranians were keenly aware of the rioting that had broken out in their cities during the past year. Such disturbances were occurring ever more frequently, accompanied by a mounting death toll at the hands of the Army and the internal security forces.

To many Iranians, this seeming unwillingness of President Carter to accept reality was a bitter sign that he had been dishonest and deceptive in his often-stated desire to promote human rights. Those few spoken words by the President generated an intense disillusionment within the Iranian populace--about which my militant captors frequently talked during the hundreds of hours of harangues, discussions, and debates I was to have with them.

Now the same president who had spoken fervently in support of human rights was letting the Shah into the United States for putatively humanitarian reasons. Again, a sense of betrayal flooded the Iranian people.

There was one notable irony in the decision to bring the Shah into the United States. After the Embassy was seized, President Carter publicly proclaimed that the lives and safety of the Embassy hostages were his first consideration. It was unfortunate that we did not occupy the same position in his hierarchy of priorities on October 20; instead, the lives and safety of 66 Americans were secondary to the life of a man who was already dying. I have never understood that logic.

It is not accurate to say that the policies of and actions by President Carter and his advisers created the Iranian crisis; they in fact inherited and continued policies put in place by their predecessors. What is clear is that President Carter was not well served by several of his advisers in their unwillingness to face the possibility that the Shah's regime might not last the decade, much less to the end of the century.

That said, I doubt that the United States would have been able to rejuvenate its relations with Iran even if the Shah had been denied admission to enter the United States. With hindsight, it is easily arguable that, if the militants had not used US admission of the Shah as a pretext to take the Embassy and break relations, some other unacceptable act would have occurred to sever the relationship. The Iranian revolutionary regime continued to engage in state-supported terrorism, murders of exiled dissidents, and attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. The country's new rulers also made an enormous (and at least partially successful) effort to export the revolution to other nations. The United States would not have been able to do business with such a hostile and outlaw government. Refusing the Shah would simply have prolonged what, in retrospect, was inevitable.

To the ever-suspicious Iranian radicals, the admission of the Shah for medical treatment was a sham designed to hide a conspiracy aimed at overthrowing their revolutionary government. To add more fuel to the fire, Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi (a graduate of a U.S. medical school who had practiced his profession in the United States, and who held a Permanent Resident Alien green card) met briefly with National Security Adviser Brzezinski in Algiers on 1 November 1979, during the celebration of Algeria's independence day. In this meeting, which was not publicized in Algiers, the Shah and the future of US-Iranian relations were discussed. When the radicals in Tehran learned of these talks, they used Radio Tehran to claim that nefarious motives lay behind the meeting.

In the eyes of the radicals, the prime minister and the foreign minister were meeting "secretly" and conspiring with a representative of the US President. The inevitable conclusion was that the United States was again planning to return the Shah to power in Iran. At a protest march in Tehran attended by anywhere from 1 million to 3 million demonstrators, the stage was set for actions against the American Embassy in Tehran and the actors were placed into motion.

Shaky Security

We all knew the Embassy was vulnerable, despite additional physical security measures taken to protect the chancery following the St. Valentine's Day Open House. But the building had not been rendered impervious to assault; rather, the structure had merely been "hardened" to provide protection from gunfire, increase the difficulty of forced entry, and establish an area of (relative) safety where the Embassy staff could hold out until help arrived. With news of the Shah's admittance into the United States, there came a certain realization that it would now be just a matter of days before the Iranians reacted. The only question we had was whether they would repeat the February 14 takeover, with more serious consequences, or renew the terrorist attacks against U.S. officials that had occurred early in the decade. But no new changes were made in the Embassy's security posture.

From all outward appearances, life seemed normal. The Embassy staff was being told that it was safe in Tehran, and employees were being encouraged to bring over their families, including preschool-age children; on the day of the takeover there were several dependent families of Embassy staff at the Frankfurt airport waiting to fly to Tehran.

The chief purveyor of this position was the State Department's office director for Iran, who was visiting the Embassy when the news of the Shah's admittance into the United States was announced to the staff. Bruce Laingen asked the office director to join him on the trip to the MFA to inform the Iranians and to ask for protection for the Embassy, which Foreign Minister Yazdi personally promised.

Unbeknownst to us, however, the same office director had, while in Washington before his trip, written a series of memos discussing in detail the lack of adequate security at the Embassy and the dangers the staff faced if the Shah came into the United States. He said nothing of this to the Embassy staff during his visit, preferring instead to repeat that it was now "perfectly safe" for us to be in Iran. (In a chance encounter with this officer following my return to the United States, I raised the issue. Somewhat disingenuously, he replied only that he did not think it proper for "those of us in Washington to be second-guessing the assessments of those who are actually on the ground." I let the matter drop.)

One other sign that the State and Defense Departments were buying into the "perfectly safe" assessment was the presence of literally thousands of classified documents in the Embassy. 

Following the February 14 takeover, many Embassy safes and files had been flown to storage in Frankfurt, including over 30 safe drawers of materials from the Defense Attaché Office. By mid-July, however, those files were back in Tehran, in anticipation of better relations with the new government and improved security measures at the Embassy. In addition to the DAO files, the political section had more than 24 safe drawers full of files, and the economic section had roughly the same number. Also on hand were all the personnel files for the Embassy staff of about 70. (The Iranian militants eventually published the documents taken from Embassy safes, along with translations into Farsi. As of around 1990, the Iranians had published more than 65 volumes of these documents.)

The political and economic section files included documents going back to the mid-1950s, useful only in a historical context, if that. These files provided the means to compile a list of all Iranians who had visited the Embassy officially during the past 25 years. As it turned out, "someone" did make a list, creating serious problems for hundreds of Iranians who found themselves accused of espionage and interrogated by militants demanding to know why they had visited the "spy den" two decades previously. When visiting the DAO or the political offices, I had often seen safes with multiple drawers open. I had been dismayed by the amount of paper remaining in a building so vulnerable to another takeover.

Twice in the summer of 1979, Chargé Laingen had been queried by State as to when and whether the Shah should or could be admitted to the United States. Each time, he replied that this would eventually be feasible, but not before the U.S. government had fully signaled acceptance of the revolution and not before the Provisional Revolutionary Government had been replaced by a more stable and permanent government. To do otherwise, he warned, would place the Embassy and its staff in serious jeopardy. Neither criteria had been met before the Shah arrived in New York, nor was there any sign that officials in Washington were giving much thought or credence to Laingen's position.

William Daugherty's memoir of his experiences as a hostage in Iran first appeared on CIA.gov. To continue reading his account, click here.