NEARLY ONE FOURTH of Jimmy Carter's "Keeping Faith" is devoted to events in Iran, the seizure of the hostages and his efforts to win their freedom. His account regularly departs from extensively documented versions of the same events provided by other participants, though Carter himself never explains these discrepancies. Some examples:
Recording his famous New Year's 1978 toast to the shah's Iran as "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world," Carter notes that he "saw no visible evidence of the currents of dissatisfaction which, though underestimated by the shah, I knew to be there."
Carter provides no further information about this perception that the shah might be vulnerable. Instead, his next paragraph is taken from an entry in his diary made nearly ten months later, on Oct. 25, 1978. So in recounting the story Carter skips over a crucial phase in the evolution of the Iranian revolution.
In the process Carter recasts the history of the fall of the shah and America's response to it. He glosses over advice that he ignored during those months and subsequently from his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, a consulting expert, George Ball, and his ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan. By year's end all of them agreed that the shah had waited too long to make piecemeal concessions and must be urged to dramatically transfer power if any American voice in Iranian affairs was to be preserved -- a position Carter never accepted.
Carter mentions that after the shah declared martial law in Sept., 1978, there was "a bloody confrontation between the police and a large crowd of demonstrating Moslems. Several hundred people were killed by bursts of machine-gun fire."
Carter does not note that the confrontation consisted of the shah's troops mowing down peaceful demonstrators who, apparently unaware of the martial law declaration, had ignored orders to disperse from a tightly packed square. He also does not say that he called the shah two days later, a call interpreted as encouragement to the shah to continue dealing forcefully with his opposition.
Carter observes that "until (November 1978), those opposing the shah had been fragmented. . .Now an identifiable leader (Khomeini) was emerging." In early November, Carter says, the Shah was attempting to move "quickly toward a coalition government which would include representatives of some of the dissident groups."
Actually, for the better part of 1978, Khomeini had been the rallying point for the militant opposition. The shah made no real move to include representatives of dissident groups until December and when he did, they refused his overture.
Carter notes that in late 1978 "we were particularly worried about the approaching holy days, when Iranians were expected to fill the streets and work themselves into a frenzy. Khomeini was calling for bloodshed, but on this occassion the massive throngs ignored the Ayatollah's call for violence."
Actually, U.S. officials credit Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's plea for calm with preventing violence at the time. The American government's experts on Iran considered his ability to organize such a massive, and yet disciplined and peaceful, demonstration the most significant indication of Khomeini's extraordinary popularity and influence.
Carter observes that the Shah's hand- picked successor, Shahpour Bakhtiar, "apparently had the confidence of some of the dissident groups in Iran," although he gives no examples. He notes that while Sullivan had concluded that the Shah must go and that we should "try to form some kind of friendship or alliance with Khomeini." Carter says he "rejected this recommendation because the Shah, Bakhtiar, and the Iranian military leaders needed consistent American support."
And according to his account, Carter still believed in early January 1979, that although "Bakhtiar was never supported by Khomeini, I thought there was a chance for their relationship to improve."
Carter cites no source for his contradiction of the long-prevailing consensus of participants and his own advisors that when Bakhtiar assumed power the shah had virtually no support from any sector; that Bakthiar also had little, if any support, and certainly none from the main opposition groups; and that well before this, Khomeini had ruled out collaboration with the Shah. Carter does not mention Ambassador Sullivan's view that since the shah and Bakhtiar were already finished, facilitating some dialogue with Khomeini's forces was the only way to hold together the pro-American military and transfer power peacefully.
Concerned that Sullivan was unable to provide "adequate reports from (inside the Iranian) military," Carter says that he and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown "concluded that we needed a strong and competent American representative in Tehran" to keep them informed. For this reason, Carter says he sent to Teheran General Robert Huyser, the Deputy Commander of U.S. forces in Europe.
"Sullivan's reports about the military's attitude were often at variance with those of Gen. Huyser. . .Over time, however, I came to trust Huyser's judgment." Later quoting some of Huyser's advice, Carter notes that "Huyser believed the military had made adequate plans to protect its equipment and installations. . ."
But a page later, Carter notes without explanation or apology that "the Iranian military simply disintergrated," precisely what Sullivan had predicted they would do.
Carter is deeply critical of Sullivan for continuing "to insist that we go directly to Khomeini in Paris to evolve some working arrangment with him," a strategy Carter rejected in favor of asking the French to see if Khomeini would support Bakhtiar. "Sullivan apparently lost control of himself, and. . . sent Vance a cable bordering on insolence, condemning our asking the French President to contact Khomeini instead of doing it ourselves. He used such phrases as 'gross and perhaps irretrievable mistake,' 'plea for sanity,' and 'incomprehensible.'"
Yet Carter fails to explain that what Sullivan found so "incomprehensible" was Carter's first approving and then, at the last minute and without explanation, cancelling a plan for an American official to meet Khomeini in Paris. This eliminated the small remaining chance that the U.S. could develop a working relationship with Khomeini before he came to power in Iran.
Summarizing Vance's opposition to the rescue mission to save the hostages, Carter writes that the secretary of state's "primary argument was that we should be patient and not do anything which might endanger their safety."
But Vance's associates have made it clear that his opposition was based on his judgement that the hostages would probably be released unharmed at the end of a prolonged negotiation, which was about to be strengthened by economic sanctions, although perhaps just before or after the November elections. Vance felt the rescue mission could result in heavy casualities, and even if successful, would end in the taking of other Americans in Tehran as hostages.
"We had observed (the site for the refueling of the helicopters, Desert One) for several weeks, and vehicular traffic near it was rare,"Carter writes. He says little about the difficulties and risks of the rescue plan, attributing its failure to "the incredible series of mishaps."
Subsequent commentators have noted that this was the main route between two major cities on which traffic was heaviest at night late in the week. (The mission landed on a Friday night.) There is a large, and growing, body of evidence that the inherent risks of failure were extremely high, and that the timing of the attempt had as much to do with the presidential politics as it did with the weather and the hostages welfare.
Carter makes no mention of the massive accumulation of Soviet troops on the northern borders of Iran or the U.S. military's concern that the tremendous number of American fighters backing up the rescue mission might end up battling Soviet Migs over the Persian Gulf.
Carter says that the failed rescue mission "had frightened (the hostage's) guards into treating them better."
Although some hostages may have received better treatment after the raid, most reported that their treatment was much rougher and their living conditions even more unpleasant.