America Held Hostage 


By David Dionisi, December 30, 2007

Many Americans are unaware that declassified information reveals the CIA helped overthrow an Iranian Prime Minister in 1953 and thwart 1980 hostage negotiations to defeat US President Jimmy Carter.

During 1979-1981 the American people were routinely told the reason for the Iran hostage crisis was that President Carter allowed the Shah to visit the US for medical treatment. While it is true the Shah did visit the US, the reason for the hostage crisis was to prevent another 1953 US coup. In 1953 the US and Britain illegally overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister.


Why did the US and Britain overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq? The answer is that Mossadeq interfered with US and British oil interests. The Shah, returned to power by the US and Britain, outlawed political opposition and committed terrible crimes. Together with the CIA, he created a secret police organization called SAVAK. Torture became common and the Shah and the US were despised by most Iranians.

While this truth was highly classified in the US during the hostage crisis, this information has been published by newspapers in other countries for decades. The American public may want to take note of this to understand why we must not solely rely on the news as it is reported here in the US. US media professionals knew the real reason for the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and yet they did not broadcast this information. They failed to do that in part because the official US government position until 1999 was that the CIA was not involved. Decades of US government denials were silenced and illuminated as lies after the National Security Archive filed a lawsuit with the CIA in 1999. Educating millions about this tragedy, The New York Times also published in 2000 the Top Secret after-action report by coup planner Donald Wilber. The after-action report, kept secret for almost 50 years, confirmed that US covert action executed out of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1953 was a catalyst for the US Embassy being stormed on November 4, 1979. Iranian students involved in the hostage crisis communicated this justification in 1979 but their voices were dismissed.

Since the Iranian people knew about the US overthrow of Mossadeq in 1953, why was it necessary for the US government to deny the operation even in 1999? The answer to this question is to be found in the presidential election of November 1980.

Beyond wondering what secrets are so horrible that the Bush administration hopes they stay classified at least 50 years, why revisit this subject now? As demonstrated with the recent British hostage crisis and current calls by political leaders to bomb Iran, understanding history is necessary both to understand current events and to prevent future wars. Believing the story constructed by the perpetrators, specifically that 52 Americans were released on January 20, 1981 after 444 days of captivity because Reagan simply put his hand on a Bible to become the President, creates the conditions for continued corruption. A careful review of what really happened reveals that not one but two governments were overthrown by the CIA, one directly, the other, indirectly much later.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was running against President Carter. Polls showed the major swing issue was the Iran hostage crisis. Time magazine’s October poll highlighted this point, showing how close the race was, with Carter at 42 percent and Reagan at 41 percent. Reagan understood that Carter would win if the hostages were released before the election.

Reagan, his candidate for vice president (former CIA Director George H. W. Bush), and campaign manager (experienced CIA officer William Casey), formed a team of 120 foreign-policy and intelligence professionals. Some of these operatives continue in 2007 to actively promote the “hand on the Bible Reagan miracle” propaganda in order to harden Republican party support. To highlight the size of this operation, reporters Abbie Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers noted in an article titled An Election Held Hostage that the National Security Council employed only 65 foreign-policy professionals. They also revealed that in September 1980, William Casey and Edwin Meese formed a subcommittee of these professionals, called the October Surprise (OS) group.

As a result of the focused OS intelligence effort, Reagan had informants at the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Council and in the White House Situation Room. This intelligence apparatus enabled Reagan to receive the “Top Secret – Eyes Only” documents regarding President Carter’s negotiations with Iran. When Reagan was asked how these Top Secret documents were found in his personal campaign file he answered “he didn’t know how they got there.” Reagan’s intelligence apparatus also explains why former Congressman David Stockman was able to boast on October 28, 1980 that he used a stolen copy of Carter’s briefing book to coach Reagan for a televised debate. The most important “Eyes Only” document Reagan’s network provided was on October 15, 1980, when classified information revealed Carter was about to have the hostages released. Reagan obtained this information from campaign strategist Richard Allen, future Reagan National Security Advisor. Allen said he obtained the information from reporter John Wallach, who obtained his information from Secretary of State Edmund Muskie.

Robert Parry’s book Secrecy and Privilege was published in 2004. Parry’s interview with Ari Ben-Menashe (Israeli military intelligence officer 1977-1987) for PBS Frontline and subsequently in testimony to Congress revealed that the now Secretary of Defense Gates was a key October Surprise operative. Ben-Menashe also revealed he and Gates attended a 1986 meeting with a Chilean arms manufacturer (Cardoen) who was supplying chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein. Ben-Menashe’s book, Profits of War, describes the Paris Ritz Hotel meeting that followed the October 15th Carter administration leak. At that meeting Gates, McFarlane, Casey, and George H. W. Bush met with Iranian cleric Karrubi. French investigative reporter Claude Angeli confirmed the French secret service provided “cover” for this meeting between the Republicans and Iranians on the weekend of October 18-19. This meeting, by delaying the hostage release, effectively determined that Ronald Reagan would become the president of the United States.

The fact that Reagan insiders had arranged for Iran to keep the hostages an additional 76 days served to successfully shape the Iran Contra scandal investigations with the false perception that US weapons were shipped to Iran starting in 1985. Reagan initiated Iranian weapon shipments actually started in 1981. During the Iran Contra investigations, to explore Reagan’s pre-1985 conduct would have revealed to the American people that acts of treason successfully enabled Reagan to seize power.

Why would so many intelligence officers serve as moles against a sitting president? After the Shah was deposed, President Carter saw that the CIA was out of control and needed to be reined in. He reorganized and fired much of the CIA’s Middle East division for misleading him about the reasons for anti-American feelings in Iran. Carter chastised CIA Director Admiral Stansfield Turner just as President Kennedy had blasted CIA Director Allen Dulles. Both presidents reached the boiling point because of misleading information from the CIA. For Kennedy it concerned the April 1961 Bay of Pigs failure and for Carter it was suspected sabotage of the disastrous April 1980 Eagle Claw rescue attempt.

On February 24, 1988, President Carter wrote that he received reports in 1980 that the Reagan campaign was dealing directly with the Iranian government to delay the release of the US hostages. President Carter wrote “I chose to ignore the reports. Later, as you know, former Iranian president Bani-Sadr has given several interviews stating that such an agreement was made involving Bud McFarlene, George Bush and perhaps Bill Casey. By this time, the elections were over and the results could not be changed.”

In summary, the leaders in 1953 (President Eisenhower and spymaster Allen Dulles) bear much of the responsibility for the conditions that led to the 1979-1981 hostage crisis. The 1953 coup operation planners, like Donald Wilber, are not heroes but criminals. Reagan’s acts of treason seized the presidency and paved the way for the 41st (George H. W. Bush) and 43rd presidents (George W. Bush) with increasing hawkish foreign policies and violations of the Constitution. The important message here is that when we turn a blind eye to injustice and dirty tricks, even decades old, it can lead to more dirty tricks and the undermining of our democracy.

Where do we go from here? Formally apologize to the people of Iran for overthrowing their democratically elected government in 1953. When we do, we can begin to restore the friendship the US and Iran once shared.



For the now declassified reports and sources to support this article, please see the below.


1. Books:


Secrecy and Privilege
By Robert Parry

Published by the Media Consortium, Arlington, Virginia, 2004.








Profits of War: Inside the Secret Israeli US Arms Network

By Ari Ben-Menashe

Published by Sheridan Square Press Inc., New York, New York, 1992.







Mohammad Mosaddeq and
the 1953 Coup in Iran

Edited by Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne







il 2007

All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror

By Stephen Kinzer

Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, 2003.





il 2007

The October Surprise

By Gary Sick*

Published by Three Rivers Press (November 10, 1992)





*Gary Sick, an American diplomat wrote “The October Surprise” that the Reagan presidential campaign negotiated with Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after Reagan won the election. Gary Sick was a member of the Carter administration and a member of staff of the National Security Council from August 1976 to April 1981. According to his congressional testimony he said “ In the course of  hundreds of interviews in the US, Europe and the Middle East, I’ve been told repeatedly that individuals associated with the Reagan Bush campaign of 1980 met secretly with Iranian officials to delay the release of the American hostages until after the Presidential election. For this favor, Iran was rewarded with a substantial supply of arms from Israel.”

According to Mr. Sick, low level intelligence operatives and arms dealers are no boy scouts, “Their accounts were not identical, but on the central facts were remarkably consistent.” Because of my past government experience I knew about certain events that could not possibly be known to most of the sources. Yet their stories confirm these fact.

In a series of meetings from October 15th to October 20th 1980 events came to a head in meetings in Paris. “Accounts of these meetings vary, There is, however, widespread agreement on a number of points.” One, “William Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager was a key participant. Two, Iranian representatives agreed that the hostages would not be released prior to the presidential election on November 4th. Three, “Israel would serve as a conduit for arms and spare parts to Iran.”

“At least five of the sources that said they were at these meetings insist that George H.W. Bush was present at least for one meeting. Resources say they saw him there.”

According to Sick’s congressional testimony, immediately after the Paris meetings things began to happen. Iran publicly shifted its position in the negotiations with the Carter administration. Sick also said “Between October 21st and October 23rd, Israel sent a planeload of F-4 fighter aircraft tires to Iran in contravention of the US boycott and without informing Washington.

In 1991, a congressional committee, led by Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton (also the man who served a whitewash role as the co-commissioner of the 9/11 Commission), declared there was no credible evidence linking Reagan’s team to the delay of the hostage release. 

According to Sick, one of the hostages he shared his evidence with said, “I don’t want to believe it. It’s too painful to think about.” Sick summed up what happened in 1980 and 1981 with "We know what to do with someone caught misappropriating funds, but when confronted with evidence of a systematic attempt to undermine the political system itself, we recoil in a general failure of imagination and nerve."

2. The National Security Archive -  This is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at George Washington University. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Please note, the following documents are in PDF format. Reading PDF files on this site requires the free Acrobat Reader which can be downloaded by clicking here.


The following documents are examples of materials that have recently come to light through Freedom of Information Act requests or research at the National Archives. At least two internal histories are known to exist--still--but only one of those is available in meaningful form. That document, written in March 1954 by coup planner Donald Wilber and originally published in 2000 by The New York Times, is available from this link. Below are the declassified documents.

Document No. 1: National Security Council, NSC 136/1, "United States Policy regarding the Present Situation in Iran," Top Secret Report, November 20, 1952
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, "Records relating to State Department Participation in the Operations Coordinating Board and the National Security Council, 1947-1963," Lot 63D351, National Security Council, Box 68, Folder: "NSC 136: U.S. and Policy regarding the Present Situation in Iran"

This was the last policy statement on Iran prepared during the Truman administration. Truman and his top advisers always focused on working out an oil agreement between Mosaddeq and British. To the end, they believed that Mosaddeq represented the most effective barrier to a communist takeover in Iran. This view differed sharply from the Eisenhower administration's, which held that Mosaddeq's inability to withstand Tudeh subversion or a coup made him a liability that had been removed. Truman's fears about the deterioration of conditions in Iran grew while he was in office, leading him to declare, as in this document, his readiness to deal militarily with a communist coup. But he never reached the point of considering an anticipatory move as Eisenhower ultimately did. Still, the steady progression of his views raises the interesting hypothetical question of whether, had he remained in office for another term, Truman might have eventually followed the same path.

Document No. 2: State Department, "First Progress Report on Paragraph 5-a of NSC 136/1, 'U.S. policy regarding the present situation in Iran'," Top Secret Memorandum, March 20, 1953
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, "Records relating to State Department Participation in the Operations Coordinating Board and the National Security Council, 1947-1963," Lot 63D351, National Security Council, Box 68, Folder: "NSC 136: U.S. and Policy regarding the Present Situation in Iran"

One of the points of interest about this memo is that it is a progress report from the Eisenhower period on a policy adopted by President Truman. It is of particular importance because it focuses on a series of specific covert measures the U.S. planned to take in the event of "an attempted or an actual communist seizure of power" in Iran - one of the aspects of US policy that long remained out of reach for historians because it was classified. In fact, the section under discussion, paragraph 5-a of NSC 136/1 (see previous document), was redacted in the policy document itself but has been included - and of course elaborated on in detail - in this follow-up report.

Document No. 3: State Department, "Measures which the United States Government Might Take in Support of a Successor Government to Mosadeq," Top Secret Memorandum, March 1953.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, Records of the Officer-in-charge of Iranian Affairs, 1946-1954, Lot 57D529, Box 40, Folder: Policy

This fascinating memo lists several proposed steps to take in the event - apparently still hypothetical at this stage - of a coup against Mosaddeq by "a successor government we wish to support." The document is referred to in the CIA's "Zendebad Shah!" history (below) in footnote 66 on page 19. The gist of the memo's recommendations is to make sure the new government and the Shah were aware that the United States was ready to offer support. But the authors make clear that any substantive measures would have to be taken outside of the public eye since it "would be literally fatal to any non-communist successor to Mosaddeq if the Iranian public gained an impression that the new premier was a 'foreign tool'."

Document No. 4: State Department, "Proposed Course of Action with Respect to Iran," Top Secret Draft Memorandum, August 10, 1953
Source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 59, Policy Planning Staff 1947-53, Box 42, Lot 64D563, Folder: Record Copies, July-Aug 1953

Written just five days before the initial launching of the coup, this memo reflects several interesting points. For one, it shows how completely out of the picture some parts of the U.S. government were regarding the operation. Months after Eisenhower's top advisers had given up on winning an oil settlement with Mosaddeq, this paper continues to recommend steps in that direction. Equally interesting are the author's assessments of Iran's political and economic situation, which are at odds with the views of top policy-makers that led them to approve the coup. Specifically, the author downplays the likelihood of a Tudeh overthrow attempt, saying the party is not "sufficiently strong or well-organized to attempt a coup." He does point up the longer-term threat of the Tudeh building power and prestige, as did those who supported the intervention. The author of this memo also indicates that Iran's economy, while deteriorating, is "in balance" in several areas and continues to allow the government to "meet its fiscal needs."

Document No. 5: CIA, "Zendebad, Shah!": The Central Intelligence Agency and the Fall of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, August 1953," Top Secret Draft History, History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, June 1998.
Source: Freedom of Information Act lawsuit

This 139-page internal history prepared by the CIA's History Staff became available in highly redacted form after the National Security Archive filed a lawsuit with the CIA in 1999 for materials relating to Iran in 1953. At first it was denied in its entirety, then upon review sections already marked Unclassified were released (for the most part), along with a single section previously marked Secret (but apparently based primarily on a published account). The document is potentially of great historical value because it was prepared by a trained historian with the benefit of a variety of still-classified supporting documentation and many years of historical perspective. As such, it would be extremely useful to compare it with the only other extant internal history, which by contrast was written by one of the coup's main architects, Donald Wilber, just a few months after the operation. In its current largely inaccessible state, however, the document is mostly a testament to the continuing obstacles faced by researchers to a more complete understanding of the coup.

3. The "Secrets of History" from the New York Times.

4. In 1999 the CIA continued to fight the release of the truth about the 1953 covert action in Iran. In a sworn statement by William McNair (the information review officer for the CIA’s directorate of operations), McNair claimed that release of any other part of this document other than the one line that had previously appeared in Wilber’s memoirs, would “reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to the national security of the United States.” 

5. Abbie Hoffman and Jonathan Silvers, "An Election Held Hostage," Playboy, October 1988, pages 73-74 &150-155.

6. Robert Parry's three part series on the October Surprise.


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