William Sullivan dies at 90; diplomat had key roles in Vietnam, Iran conflicts

William H. Sullivan, a veteran diplomat who oversaw the "secret war" in Laos, aided in negotiations to end U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and was the last American ambassador to Iran, died Oct. 11, one day before his 91st birthday.

Sullivan died at an assisted-living facility in Washington, according to his daughter, Anne Sullivan. The cause was not given.

As ambassador to Laos, Sullivan controlled a secret U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnamese troops moving through Laotian territory along the Ho Chi Minh trail. His daughter said Sullivan required that he approve all bombing runs, in an effort to limit civilian casualties and armed conflict in Laos.

Sullivan played an important role in initiating the opening of discussions with the North Vietnamese that led to the Paris peace talks. As a deputy to Henry Kissinger, who was President Nixon's national security advisor, Sullivan spent months helping coordinate the talks to extricate the U.S. from the Vietnam War.

Sullivan then served as ambassador to the Philippines and helped coordinate the arrival and eventual resettlement of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

He was named ambassador to Iran by President Carter in 1977, at a time that restive Iranians were growing tired of the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In 1979 Sullivan was instructed to tell the shah that the U.S. felt he should leave Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the exiled revolutionary leader, returned to Iran in early 1979, and revolutionary forces toppled the monarchy.

Several days later, heavily armed guerrillas attacked the U.S. Embassy. Sullivan directed the defense of the embassy and ordered Marines to use tear gas to keep the attackers out while staff destroyed files and equipment. The attackers captured Sullivan and about 100 other Americans and they were briefly held hostage, but pro-Khomeini forces were able to gain control of the embassy from the attackers.

Sullivan left Iran soon afterward and retired from the Foreign Service later in 1979. Sullivan's experience as a hostage in Iran came nine months before the seizure of hostages at the U.S. Embassy that lasted from November 1979 until the end of the Carter presidency on Jan. 20, 1981.

William Healy Sullivan was born Oct. 12, 1922, in Cranston, R.I. He graduated from Brown University and served in the Navy during World War II. After earning a joint graduate degree from Harvard University and Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1947, he began his 32-year diplomatic career.

He was posted to Bangkok, Calcutta, Tokyo, Rome, the Hague and Saigon before his Laos appointment.

Sullivan, whose wife, Marie, died in 2010, is survived by four children.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times