When I arrived in the Middle East in 1979, I didn’t realize how momentous that year would be. As it turned out, 1979 became one of the most important years in recent history.
At the outset, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran to take power after decades in exile, removing a key U.S. ally in the shah. Only a few months later, American diplomats would be taken hostage in the embassy, a siege that would last for 444 days and severely weaken President Jimmy Carter and the country. I remember having to convince the foreign editor of Newsweek that I should travel to Iran to cover the story. He didn’t think it would last longer than a day or so!
In July 1979, Saddam Hussein, the strongman behind the dictatorship in Iraq, finally took control of the government, literally murdering his way to the top. It was the first story I covered after arriving in the Middle East. Hussein walked into a cabinet meeting, and, with the help of some associates, shot many of those who attended.
In one of the most misguided policies in U.S. foreign policy, the government decided to back Iraq in its later war with Iran, providing weapons and financial aid that emboldened Hussein and led to wars in the 1990s and 2000s.
I broke the story about the secret weapons deal between Iraq and the United States for ABC News and got dissed by my fellow journalists until the Egyptian government finally confirmed my account a week later.
In another boneheaded foreign policy endeavor, the United States decided to arm the rebels in Afghanistan against Soviet forces, which had invaded in December 1979.
Maybe this policy was worse than the one in Iraq. It’s a tough call. Those rebels included Osama bin-Laden and his band who came back to haunt the United States in a number of terrorist attacks culminating in 9/11.
Also, in 1979, the United States policy wonks didn’t understand how much antipathy existed toward the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. It seemed to make sense to have the largest Arab nation cut a deal, but most Arabs saw Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a traitor. Ultimately, the Camp David accords led to the assassination of Sadat, the growth of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups like the Islamic State, and many other radical shifts that continue throughout the Middle East.
Forty years may seem like a long time ago, but the repercussions of 1979 are still creating chaos in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere.