40 YEARS AGO: Iran Part One

Pan AmForty years ago this week, a Pan Am 747, staffed by an all-volunteer crew, landed in Tehran to evacuate us to Frankfurt, Germany.

Though Khomeini guaranteed safe passage for foreigners wanting to leave Iran, all regularly scheduled flights in and out of Iran had been canceled. Fortunately, Pan Am and their voluntary crew risked flying into the heart of a Revolution to get us out.

We had been held up in the Tehran Hilton for three or four days after arriving in a bus convoy from Isfahan 280 miles south of Tehran. US and Canadian Embassies coordinated evacuation flights from the Tehran Hilton while the Islamic Guard provided ‘security.’ Word was that the Communist Youth Movement that helped Khomeini to power realized they were being betrayed and were attempting to attack the Tehran Hilton. A lot of windows had been shot out on the lower floors of the hotel and machine gun positions were placed around the hotel.

PalestinianMost members of the Islamic Guard had been street cleaners or taxi drivers before the revolution. They lacked discipline or any understanding of how to handle firearms. As a result, they were more of a safety hazard than security. It wasn’t until we arrived at the Tehran airport that we saw any real disciplined military. These paramilitary forces, however, wore distinctive black and white keffiyeh and must have been Shia PLO because Hezbollah did not exist until 1985. Perhaps more significant than the black and white keffiyeh were their prominent Arab noses.

By the time we boarded the Pan Am flight, we had been searched dozens of times. Even when seated on the plane, paramilitary with AK-47s in black & white keffiyeh walked up and down the aisles for one last passport check. The barrel of an AK47 caught my cheek as one of them passed by. I froze. Fearing any movement might provoke violence, I endured the gouging. Five minutes later, we were in the air. A loud cheer reverberated throughout the cabin and the crew broke out the booze.