Op-Ed: What Trump has in common with the Ayatollah Khomeini

Iranians gather before the entrance of the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran on Nov. 6, 1979
Iranians gather at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran on Nov. 6, 1979.

(Associated Press)

Wednesday’s disgraceful spectacle at the United States Capitol resurrected chilling memories for me. Forty-one years ago, on Nov. 4, 1979, I and my colleagues at the American Embassy in Tehran faced a mob that, like the one on Wednesday, invaded a supposedly sacrosanct compound and overwhelmed inadequate security — all with encouragement from their nation’s supreme leader.

For me, the similarities in the two events were unnerving. In the summer and fall of 1979, Iran’s leader — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — had incited his followers to act against the United States, blaming us for all Iranians’ problems. His vitriol only increased after President Carter — against his own better judgment — allowed the deposed shah of Iran to enter the United States for medical treatment.

Despite the obvious dangers, our embassy had only minimal defense against a mob attack. When that attack came, Khomeini not only did not condemn it, he praised the mob as agents of “a second revolution, greater than the first,” referring to the Islamic Revolution that had overthrown the Iranian monarchy nine months earlier. At that time only the cool heads of our embassy’s young Marine Security Guards prevented a bloodbath. Their superb training and discipline saved our lives.


On Wednesday, I again witnessed a mob storming the gates of a purportedly inviolable building. I again witnessed failure to provide timely assistance. When I heard statements that “the National Guard is on the way” and “the Maryland and Virginia state police are coming,” I couldn’t help recalling the empty promises we heard from Iranian authorities — that help would arrive soon. Help finally did arrive at the Capitol, but not before multiple deaths and injuries, and too late to prevent the mob from running amok through our nation’s beloved and beautiful “people’s House,” with some even posing for pictures in the vice president’s chair in the Senate.

In Tehran, however, the promised help never arrived. Fourteen months later, when our ordeal finally ended, we were still waiting for it.

I even heard the same after-the-fact criticisms: “We should have known.” “We could see it coming.” “Why did no one foresee such an obvious threat?” “Why did no one prepare for it?”

In both cases, two factors led to these failures: the very outrageousness of the attack and the fact that such events had happened so rarely. An armed group had attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran nine months earlier, in February 1979, but at that time the Iranian authorities had reacted quickly to clear the compound. But no similar event in Tehran had occurred since 1829, when a mob stormed the Russian Embassy and murdered almost all of the Russian staff, including the ambassador. The last attack on the U.S. Capitol was in 1814, when the British troops occupied and burned Washington during the War of 1812.

In Tehran, we were accustomed to noisy anti-American demonstrations. In Washington, the police were expecting a noisy pro-Trump demonstration near the Capitol. What they (and we) were not expecting was a mob that would storm the building. No similar event had occurred in Washington for 207 years. In Tehran, no one expected that the country’s ruler would give his personal endorsement to the occupation of a foreign embassy. Such outrageous things simply did not happen. Even the bloody 1829 attack on the Russian Embassy was not condoned by the Iranian authorities.

In both Tehran and Washington, the power to foresee was not the power to prevent. President Trump and his shills were obviously inflaming his followers with their incessant lies about election fraud. Despite these warning signs, the Washington mob easily brushed aside the inadequate security forces at the Capitol. Trump’s hollow “go home, we love you” message to the mob did nothing to end the riot.


In the Tehran case, 40 years earlier, Carter himself foresaw the consequences of his decision to admit the ailing shah. According to the memoirs of Hamilton Jordan, his chief of staff, the president asked his advisors, “What are you going to tell me to do when our embassy is overrun and our people are taken hostage?” History has not recorded any response.

John Limbert, a retired Foreign Service officer, was among the last American diplomats to serve in Iran, where he was held hostage from 1979 to 1981. He is a former professor of Middle Eastern studies at the U.S. Naval Academy and is the author of “Negotiating With Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History.”