In the Midst of a Revolution: OSI Agents in Iran

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

From 1966-1979, agents of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, now the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), provided counterintelligence (CI) support to U.S. military and contractor personnel, as the lone DoD CI/security agency in Iran. As part of the Military Assistance Group, agents narrowly escaped from the country when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to power in early 1979. The antiterrorism work in Iran was the beginning of a very successful program that served as a model for future missions throughout the nation’s history. 

In 1926, the Iranian military commander, Reza Khan, was crowned Reza Shah Pahlavi. Initially, Reza Shah was a popular leader. He modernized Iran’s economy and introduced progressive social ideals, which took power away from religious leaders. He censored the press and arrested opponents. His popularity faded and he was exiled in 1941. His son, the Shahanshah Aryamehr Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, assumed the throne in September 1941. Under his rule, the country continued to modernize and became one of the world’s largest exporters of oil. In an effort to modernize the military, the Shah put a great amount of Iran’s money into military contracts with the U.S. Iran developed into a dominant military presence in the Middle East and served a security role in the Persian Gulf.

Despite Iran’s thriving economy, there was growing discontent with the Shah. A clear definition grew between his upper class supporters and the larger lower classes who were not ready for the modern changes he brought to the country. They resented the Shah’s close relationship with the U.S., and were influenced by some religious leaders who believed westernization corrupted their society.

OSI officially moved into Tehran in 1966. Previously, agents traveled from District Office (DO) 69 in Turkey to Iran to conduct CI reports on Soviet intelligence activities. Once a detachment and eventually a district office were established in Iran, OSI’s main role was to provide criminal and CI investigative support to the growing U.S. military and DoD contractor populations performing the military assistance and technology support role in the country. As mentioned, from 1966 to 1979, OSI was the only DoD CI/security agency in Iran.

Increasing anti-American sentiments focused the mission on antiterrorism concerns. With no existing policy to guide them, agents benchmarked several antiterrorism policies and programs.  Once economic conditions were on the downswing around 1977, anti-Shah elements started a movement to remove him from power. As discontent grew, agents often witnessed public demonstrations and the burning of the American flag.

As violence escalated throughout the country, OSI played a crucial role in collecting and disseminating information back to the Air Staff in Washington D.C., although it was not always well received. Some reports indicated that Air Staff members wanted to portray the Iran situation in the best possible light and that they discounted some of the information relayed.

Significant threats developed in late 1978. Isfahan had a large American contractor population and many anti-American residents. On October 11, 1978, a motorcyclist threw a pipe bomb through the window of a bus belonging to Bell Helicopter International, injuring three Americans. In another incident, two agents working at the Grumman Aircraft Corporation building and six other weekend shift employees encountered a mob of approximately 150 to 200 demonstrators, who threw bricks through the windows, entered the building and set it on fire with drums of kerosene.

One agent escorted six Americans out a backdoor and over a fence, where they escaped to an Iranian home offered as a safe haven. A second agent and a security officer climbed to the roof of the burning building.  Iranians threw bricks and rocks at the two men as they jumped to a rooftop of an adjacent building, but they eventually reached the safe house. The mob followed and demanded that the homeowner send out the Americans. One agent spoke with the mob and surrendered a useless portion of the security guard’s radio to them. Iranian troops finally arrived and stabilized the situation.

Back in Tehran, many American military members and their dependents were victims of violence. Although few were injured, many received verbal assaults and their cars were pelted with rocks or beaten upon as they drove through the city. The cost of living skyrocketed when oil field workers went on strike. Many District Office 72 employees abandoned their personal vehicles. Even worse, as winter approached it became too costly to heat their homes. As living conditions worsened and threats increased, all U.S. military dependents were ordered out of the country.

On January 4, 1979, Gen. Robert E. “Dutch” Huyser arrived in Tehran. He was serving as the Deputy Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe and as a special envoy to President Carter. Huyser’s military standing made him a target for backlash and his personal security was in danger throughout his three-week stay in Tehran. Mobs chanted “Death to Huyser” throughout the city streets and his itinerary was publicized on Iranian radio. OSI agents served as Huyser’s personal security detail during his stay. He later credited the agents with keeping him alive during his turbulent visit.

After Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in early 1979, things took an irreversible turn for the worst. OSI agents left their district office when revolutionaries overran the compound. These agents were eventually among the last of the American military to be evacuated from the country. Even though most OSI members had already left Iran, two agents remained in Isfahan and Iranians occupied all U.S. military facilities in Tehran. Two Air Force members in Tehran and the two agents communicated information via shortwave radio to a larger radio station that could broadcast information out of Iran. At the time, this was the only U.S. communication leaving the country. Their broadcasts from the station, named “Pinnacle,” became untenable when Iranians suspected the purpose of their transmissions. As they made their way to the Tehran airport, Iranian guards stopped their charter bus six times to search the passengers. Since OSI had developed a bad reputation with Iranians because they were known to collaborate with SAVAK, Iran’s “secret police,” the agents hid their credentials in their socks so the guards could not find the badges unless they strip-searched them. After waiting for hours to board the plane, the two men eventually returned to the U.S.; thus ending OSI’s presence in Iran. The tumultuous period, though, served as the origin of OSI’s modern-day antiterrorism program.