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In his address to the UN a few days ago, President Obama came the closest any American leaders has come to acknowledging America’s shameful legacy with Iran: overthrowing a democratically- elected government, installing a corrupt, repressive dictatorship in its place. It was something of an apology-almost. In fact more than 30 years ago, during the hostage crisis, another American President, Jimmy Carter attempted to block a 60 Minutes broadcast that also suggested the U.S. owed Iran something of an apology.
At the time, I had already made several reporting trips to Iran for 60 Minutes; had met its young revolutionaries; knew of the past relations between Iran and the U.S.– of the close ties between the Shah’s secret police–the Savak–and the CIA. It was not difficult to understand the volatile anti-American emotions that had exploded with the revolution. They were being stoked by Khomeini’s more extremist followers. They had organized the taking of 54 American Embassy hostages to undermine the moderates in the new chaotic regime, and advance their own radical cause.
Indeed, the anti-Iranian outrage provoked by the hostage-taking was boiling in the United States. In Washington, I was shocked to see stickers on every door up and down the corridors of the State Department hallways backing “The 54”, and a huge billboard on in New York, right up the block from CBS, with the most diabolical image of Khomeini, glowering over 57th street. Americans I spoke with seemed to lack any understanding of the history and emotion driving the Iranians. I suggested we do a crash report on the subject for 60 Minutes. Mike Wallace and our executive producer, Don Hewitt, agreed.
Over the next four days, we stitched together a very strong segment based on a series of interviews in New York and Washington. Former officials from the State Department and the CIA gave vivid first hand accounts of the extremely close cooperation between the U.S. and the regime of the Shah, despite the mounting evidence of torture and corruption under his rule.
Jesse Leaf, for instance, a former CIA analyst, said that early on in the 70’s he had wanted to write a report on torture in Iran but was ordered not to. “You’d have to be blind deaf and dumb and a presidential candidate not to know there was torture going on in Iran, “Leaf said. “We knew what was happening and we did nothing about it, and I was told not to do anything about it. By definition, an enemy of the Shah was an enemy of the CIA. We were friends. This was a very close relationship between the United States and Iran.”
Another former CIA officer, Richard Cottam, also condemned the U.S. for turning a blind eye to the excesses of the Shah, and refusing to deal with minority opposition groups. Such were the policy guidelines, he said, laid down by Henry Kissinger.
Mike Wallace asked: “What you seem to be saying, Professor Cottam, is that when the question “Who lost Iran?” is finally asked, Henry Kissinger is at the top of your culprit’s list.”
Cottam: “I think Henry Kissinger’s idea of diplomacy in this sense is…is intolerable…And Kissinger to cut us off entirely from…from a major popular force. I think is, to a very extensive extent, responsible for a lot of what’s happened, yes.”.
In our report we also showed copies of classified documents, seized by the Iranians who had captured the Embassy, indicating that American diplomats based in Teheran had actually warned Washington months earlier that radical Iranians might attempt to take U.S. diplomats hostage, particularly if the U.S. allowed the Shah to come to the U.S. for medical treatment, as was then being talked about. Those warnings had been ignored.
Now Iran’s relatively moderate president Bani Sadr was attempting—unsuccessfully–to defuse the crisis that was daily undermining his own political position. In return for releasing the hostages, he was demanding that the U.S. return the Shah, who was currently undergoing medical treatment in the U.S. Bani Sadr had other demands: the return of the moneys that, he claimed, the Shah had embezzled; an American pledge not to interfere in the future affairs of Iran; and an admission of U.S. past wrongs towards Iran.
In light of America’s interventions in that country, was the demand for an apology so outrageous? That was the stark question we posed as the title of our 60 Minutes report: “Should the U.S. Apologize.” The final cut of the report ran 25 minutes—an unusually long segment for the program.
But then the White House intervened. President Jimmy Carter called Bill Leonard, the president of CBS News to request that the network not broadcast the report. I was amazed. I knew of no other time that an American president had attempted to squelch one of our broadcasts.
Hewitt, Wallace, and myself were summoned to Leonard’s office to screen the segment for the CBS News president, and discuss what should be done.
Carter had insisted that our report would undermine the American position in the hostage negotiations. His argument made no sense. We were not revealing anything that harmed America’s national security. There was nothing we were reporting that was not common knowledge in Iran. The ones who might be surprised by our revelations were American not Iranian viewers. In other words, the only way our report could possibly undermine the U.S.’s negotiating position with the Iranians was by simply letting American’s understand the emotions driving the other side.
Before the meeting in Leonard’s office, I had my editor make a copy of the report. I felt I had no other moral option, if CBS News refused to broadcast the segment, than to quit and give the copy to Public Television or anyone else who would agree to put it on the air.
To his everlasting credit, Bill Leonard refused to back down. He requested only that we change the title from “Should the U.S. Apologize” to the more neutral “The Iran File.”
And that’s what went out at 7 P.M. that Sunday night, more than thirty-three years ago.