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A Secret Betrayal — Kurdish Refugees in Iran

Between 1961 and 1975, the relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqi government was especially tumultuous.  In 1961, the First Kurdish-Iraqi War, an attempt to create an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq led by Mustafa Barzani, began and soon escalated into a full-fledged war. It ended in a stalemate in 1970 with some 100,000 people dead or wounded. The Shah of Iran had supported Barzani and asked the U.S. to help, which it did. A Second Kurdish-Iraqi War soon followed, after the 1970 peace plan for Kurdish autonomy was not implemented.

In 1975 Congress, concerned by Watergate and possible illegal clandestine activities, created the Pike Committee to examine CIA effectiveness and its cost to taxpayers. It soon clashed with the CIA and the White House over access to classified documents. Although Congress voted to never publish the Committee’s report, copies were leaked to the Village Voice. The report noted, among other things, the Kurds had agreed to resume their war for autonomy against the Iraqi Government with support from the Shah of Iran and assurances from the United States Government that it would help as well.

It added that while Barzani often “expressed his distrust” of the Shah, he trusted the United States. It concluded the United States and Iran actually “hoped that our clients [the Kurds] would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally’s [Iran’s] neighboring country [Iraq].” Of course, “this policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting. Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise.”

After Iran and Iraq signed a border agreement, Iranian support to Barzani stopped and the revolt collapsed. Barzani told the CIA that, “Complete destruction [is] hanging over our head…We appeal [to] you…[to] intervene according to your promises.” Despite this, “the U.S. refused to extend humanitarian assistance to the thousands of refugees created by the abrupt termination of military aid.” Kurds then fled en masse to Iran, where many applied for refugee status in the U.S.

However, few people at Embassy Tehran were aware that the U.S. government had made a commitment to the Kurdish people. It was only after reading the Village Voice article, which had been forwarded to her from an Iraqi Kurd living in America at the time, that Vice Consul Sue Patterson realized what had happened. She then redoubled her efforts to getting Kurds to America. Patterson was in Tehran from 1974 to 1976 and was interviewed by William D. Morgan in 1989.


 “Go See Mrs. Patterson”

PATTERSON: This was the most memorable part of my work in Tehran….In 1975 the Shah and the leader of Iraq signed, quite unexpectedly, a border agreement. Prior to that, the Shah had been supporting the Kurdish rebels in their struggle against the Iraqi Government to try to get a more autonomous state. The Kurds had not wanted to undertake this struggle on their own, and the Shah had promised them assistance.

When the border agreement was signed, the Kurds were left out in the cold. Part of the terms of the border agreement were that Kurds on either side of the border had 120 days to get to whichever side of the border they wanted to be on. So there were many Iraqi Kurds who came into Iran because they did not trust the Iraqi Government to live up to the commitments it had made to Iran to ensure their safety. To my knowledge, there were no Iranian Kurds who crossed the border in the other direction.

In any case, there were many thousands of Kurds… over 100,000 Iraqi Kurds–who came into Iran during the time that was permitted. Many of those came without a desire to remain permanently in Iran. Some of those came perhaps thinking they would remain permanently in Iran, but then did not find a very welcoming atmosphere there.

They were kept in camps, by and large, at least those who were not able to find work or not given work permits to go out and seek work. Some of them felt that they could do better in another country. Many of them made their way to the embassy and said they wanted to go to the United States. At that point, they were referred to Mrs. Patterson, who was in charge of immigration.

They just presented themselves in their naive fashion, saying, “We want to go to the United States.” The guard at the embassy gate didn’t introduce them to me as refugees, but, in fact, I discovered after talking with them that they were. That was another difficulty, talking with them. In our consular section, there was language capability, in maybe 12 languages, but Kurdish was not one of them, unfortunately. That was a really difficult thing, because these Kurds, by and large, spoke no other language. Some of them spoke Assyrian, and a few of them spoke a few words of Farsi, but talking with them was extremely difficult.

Initially, with the first ones who came, it was very hard for me to even figure out who they were and what they wanted. But I struggled through because I liked the way they were. They were different from the Iranians just in their bearing and in the way they looked at me straight in the face. And as the numbers grew and grew–the first day I may have had one or two, and then before long, there were maybe 1,000 or more in all, with 20-30 coming every day….

I knew that under the definition of “refugee” at that time, there was a category for refugees in the Middle East, and the Kurds fell into that category. So I sent off cables to the State Department saying, “We have these people presenting themselves. They qualify under the definition. What should we do about them?”

The State Department had a difficult time in responding in part, because there were virtually no Kurds in the United States at that time. To my knowledge, there was only one. So there were no groups lobbying on their behalf, in the first place, and in the second place, voluntary agencies didn’t have any communities to tap into to find sponsors.

So the Department, first of all, had to make the decision as to whether we could free up some refugee numbers to help them. Secondly, once they decided positively on that, before we could begin processing them, they had to find voluntary agencies who were willing to find sponsors for them.

I was unaware at that time of all these processes that had to be worked out, and I wasn’t sure what was going on back in Washington. But I did know I wasn’t getting answers. So I sent off cables every week or two weeks, and had to tell these people, “Come back. We don’t have an answer. Come back.” So they did; they kept coming back. That meant that my problem never went away. Anyway, I persevered, they persevered, and eventually we did get a response from the Department, saying, “Yes, we have authorized this program”…

I would like to add that during this waiting time, my feeling was that we did not owe anything in particular to the Kurds. I thought it would be nice if we could help them because they did fall within our definition of refugees, but I was not aware of any particular commitment we had made to them.

 “I really felt like a patsy”

Subsequently, while we were processing these refugees, the one Kurd who was in the United States sent me a copy of the Village Voice, which had printed excerpts from the Pike [Committee] report. At that time, it became clear that we, in fact, had made a very serious commitment to these people…

The Kurds had agreed to resume their war for autonomy against the Iraqi Government with support from the Shah of Iran, but they did not really trust that the Shah would continue to provide his support. As it turns out, there concern was well-founded. So they sought the assurance of the United States Government that we would, in effect, guarantee that the Shah would continue to support them and that we would throw in a little support of our own.

According to the Pike [Committee] report, Henry Kissinger made this commitment to Mr. Barzani, who was the leader of the Kurds at that time….

I recall from the Pike [Committee] report, he instructed the CIA to carry out this covert operation. The CIA was opposed to it. They felt it was a misuse of the Kurds, because our goal was not really to help the Kurds win. We didn’t think they could do that, and even if they could, I guess we didn’t think it was desirable. The CIA maintained that unless our goal for the Kurds was honorable, it was a misuse of them, encouraging them in a policy that would be destructive for them, to resume this struggle against the Iraqi Government.

So the CIA did not undertake this activity willingly, but as I understand it, were ordered to do it. At a minimum, the Ambassador, Richard Helms, and the chief of station at that time were aware of the commitment we had made to the Kurds, a commitment the U.S. government was unable to keep. When the Shah decided to sign the border agreement with Iraq, his support of the Kurds stopped. Our guarantee that such a thing would not happen turned out to be of no value whatever.

When I read this article that my friend here in the States had sent from the Village Voice, I really felt like a patsy. The Ambassador and the chief of station left me alone to face the people we had sort of betrayed second-hand, without informing me of even the broad outlines of the background of U.S. government involvement….

At one point during this time, I ran across the chief of station in the parking lot, and he made a point of coming over to me and saying, “Sue, I want you to know I really admire what you’re trying to do for the Kurds.” I was kind of mystified by that comment. But when I read the Village Voice, I understood what he was talking about.

I can understand Ambassador Helms’ reasoning that I didn’t need to know everything, but it would have been helpful for me to put things into perspective if I had been aware of at least the broad outlines of our policy over the preceding two years to the Kurds…

In any case, I was overwhelmed at this point, and needed to get on with the program and make it work. The program got on its way. It was one of the most satisfying things that I’ve done in my career.

I had the help of an excellent man from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a British man named Leslie Goodyear. His principal function was to work with the Iranian Government representatives to get travel documents for the Kurds we accepted, get them permission to exit Iran, and work also with the German Government. We couldn’t issue the final refugee documents in Tehran; we did the pre-processing there. The refugees who were accepted went to Frankfurt for their final processing by the Immigration Service, so we had to work out the entry visas into Germany. Mr. Goodyear took care of that.

Q: We couldn’t have an INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] officer stationed in Tehran? 

PATTERSON: We could have and it was considered, I believe. But it was decided, for whatever reasons, that the processing would be handled in Germany. I think, in retrospect, it would have been more efficient to have the immigration officer come to Tehran… But at that time, to my knowledge, they didn’t send immigration officers outside of their permanent posts for refugee processing.

Q: For the remainder of your tour there, how many Kurds were processed? 

We had 750 numbers, and that meant one number per family. Most of the Kurds were young single men, but those that weren’t were old married men who had 12 or 13 children, so in all, there may have been 1,000 or 1,200 people we processed.

“With Help from the Only Kurd in America”

The other person who was very key to making this program work was a magnificent Kurdish man by the name of Shafiq Qazzaz, who had been a resident in the United States in previous years and was very fluent in English. He was very much wired into the Iraqi Kurdish community. He was able to not only talk to the people about what their desires were, what their professions were, but he also knew enough about the United States to be able to make some kind of assessment of who might fit in, who had the skill or the initiative or the guts or whatever to make it in the United States.

We had no guidelines, in contrast to most refugee programs, as to who we could take and who we could not take.

Our first priority was obviously people with relatives in the United States, but there wasn’t anybody in that category, because, as I say, there was only this one Iraqi Kurdish man in the United States. People who had been educated in the United States, that category didn’t help us either. So we were left, really, with the numbers to use for anybody…

By and large, they had no skills. So Shafiq did us all a wonderful service in culling through the people who wanted to come and figuring out who might best fit where, because there were other countries who had agreed to take some Kurds. The Germans agreed and the Swedes took a handful. In fact, there were several European countries taking from this group, although the U.S. took the largest numbers.

We started the processing in May of 1976, but we ran this whole program on a very short time frame, because the numbers expired at the end of June, due to the fiscal year. When we started the processing, we were not aware of that. I think it was the middle of June, when we got a cable saying, “Anybody who’s going to get taken has to get processed by the end of June.”

I was departing Iran on July 1, so it was a hellacious period. But it was work I did gladly, because I really believed that the Kurds were going to be good immigrants to the United States. I didn’t feel that about all of the Iranian immigrants who qualified…

I had an emotional investment in this program.