This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Lesley Stahl traveled to Iran towho was elected in 2021. It is the latest interview with an Iranian head of state to air on the broadcast, which has covered the geopolitical situation in Iran for almost five decades.
From Mike Wallace's memorable interview with Ayatollah Khomeini just days after the Iranian Hostage Crisis began, to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad telling Scott Pelley he was "like a CIA investigator," here are some of the highlights of 60 Minutes' Iran coverage.
1974: Oil and the Shah of Iran
In early 1974, the Arab oil embargo had been causing gas shortages across the U.S. for months. Arab and Iranian oil producers had cut exports to countries that supported Israel in its 1973 war with Egypt and Syria, and the embargo was driving up prices and stretching lines of cars waiting to fill up at gas stations.
In February 1974, 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace traveled to Tehran to film his first interview with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. In a candid conversation, Wallace asked the Shah, or "king" in Farsi, about the inflated oil prices. He pointed out that, while cars in the U.S. were lined up for miles, Iran's oil profits were set to go up by 400 percent. The oil companies, the Shah responded, were becoming rich because of manipulation, but for Iran, the money simply amounted to the country's "natural wealth."
Wallace also asked Pahlavi about corruption in the Iranian government and visions of God the Shah had as a child. When Wallace asked Iran's leader why he was willing to speak so frankly, Pahlavi responded that it was because he was not afraid of his people.
"It's not a political campaign," Pahlavi said. "I'm not going to look at the polls tomorrow to see if I am two degrees higher or lower. And that's because this confidence exists between me and my people. They trust in me; I trust in them."
1976: The Shah and the question of torture
Mike Wallace returned to Iran to interview Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi each of the next two years. In the 1976 conversation, Pahlavi's characteristic candor was again on display.
The Shah told Wallace he was committed to a secure Israeli state but insisted the Israelis return the Arab lands they had taken in 1967. That effort, Pahlavi said, was hindered by the "Jewish lobby" in the U.S., which he claimed pressured newspapers, banks — even the U.S. president.
Wallace then asked the Shah about his secret police force, SAVAK, an organization akin to the FBI and CIA combined, which had a reputation for brutality. Wallace asked if SAVAK tortured its detainees.
"Not the torture in the old sense of torturing people, twisting their arms and doing this and that," Pahlavi responded. "But there are intelligent ways of questioning now."
1978: Trouble brewing in Iran
One year before the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran, Mike Wallace returned to Iran in November 1978 to report on the troubling trajectory in the country. Rioters were trashing and burning Tehran in opposition to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, while the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, arrested the major opposition figure who was about to call on Pahlavi to leave Iran to make way for a democratic Islamic state.
"There is discontent across the entire spectrum of the population of Iran," Wallace said.
As thousands of mostly young Iranians marched in the streets, Wallace reported, they shouted, "Down with the Shah! Death to the Shah!" The protesters burned the headquarters of the National Iranian Gas Company but spared the U.S. Embassy, which was being protected by Iranian military police. It was one of the few buildings in Teheran being heavily guarded, suggesting that the Shah was grateful for the support President Jimmy Carter had offered him.
Though they had spoken numerous times before, Pahlavi this time refused an interview with Wallace. Instead, Wallace spoke with other Iranians, including Javad Alamir, a wealthy businessman and politician. Alamir spoke about the abuses committed by SAVAK and the rampant corruption plaguing the country's economy.
"What is so horrid about the Shah? It's the terrible thing that has happened in Iran during the last quarter of century," Alamir said. "We had the worst repression known in the history."
1979: The Ayatollah interview
In early 1979, the Shah left Iran and went into exile, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed control of the country. Although the Shah never officially abdicated, the Iranian population voted in a national referendum on April 1 to become an Islamic republic and to make Khomeini the country's supreme leader, effectively replacing the Shah's secular authoritarian monarchy with an anti-Western theocracy.
In October 1979, the Shah entered the U.S. to receive cancer treatment, and in response, Iranian militants on November 4 seized the U.S. Embassy and took more than 50 Americans hostage. Exactly two weeks after the Embassy takeover, Mike Wallace interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini from the holy city of Qom and asked Khomeini if the hostages would continue being held if the Shah was not brought back to Iran.
"The 35-million population of Iran want this, and we must investigate why the population wants the Shah returned. And unless he is returned, the hostages will not be freed," Khomeini said.
To secure the interview, Wallace had agreed to ask only the questions the Ayatollah had agreed to beforehand. But as he sat across from Khomeini and the cameras were rolling, Wallace made a gamble to ask questions that had not been approved.
To start, Wallace quoted Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, who had called Khomeini a "lunatic" and "a disgrace to Islam." Khomeini's translator hesitated to repeat the question, so Wallace asked it again. Khomeini countered that Sadat "compromises with the enemies of Islam," referring to the 1978 Egypt-Israel peace accords, and asked Egyptians to overthrow Sadat just as Iranians had pushed out the Shah.
The Ayatollah, however, refused to answer when Wallace asked what might happen if President Carter refused to return the Shah to Iran.
1980: Explaining Iranian animosity
On March 2, 1980, the American Embassy staff had been held for 120 days, a number that would eventually stretch to 444 days. At the time, almost four months after the U.S. Embassy was first overtaken, Mike Wallace filed a report for 60 Minutes to examine why many Iranians believed the U.S. was complicit in the Shah's perceived wrongdoings. Why, Wallace wanted to know, do so many Iranians endorse holding 52 Americans hostage?
Wallace began by explaining that the CIA had orchestrated the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and reinstalled Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the Shah. Furthermore, a classified Senate Foreign Relations Committee report confirmed that the CIA had helped the Shah set up his secret police, SAVAK. The CIA had provided the Shah money and training for SAVAK.
Wallace spoke with Max McCarthy, a former three-term Democratic congressman who had been press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in 1976. When McCarthy saw the indifference of the American diplomatic establishment in Iran to the torture committed by SAVAK, he resigned in protest.
"That was a very prevalent idea, giving the Shah what he wants…" McCarthy said. "He was our pillar in the Persian Gulf, and we built our whole security on this one man."
1997: President Hashemi Rafsanjani
In 1997, Mike Wallace again traveled to Iran to report on the situation in the Persian Gulf country. He interviewed President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was eight years into his term and rarely spoke with Western journalists.
At the time, President Clinton had imposed a U.S. trade embargo on Iran. The White House believed that that Iran was intentionally ruining the Mideast peace process, and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich had called Iran the most dangerous nation on Earth.
For U.S. officials, the biggest concern was that Iran's nuclear program was intended to build a nuclear bomb. Rafsanjani insisted, in a refrain that would be repeated by Iranian leaders in the future, that his country only wanted nuclear energy.
Wallace asked Rafsanjani to swear on Allah that his country was not in pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
"Swearing is not needed. Those who swear are the ones who want to lie," Rafsanjani said. "We are not going after the nuclear bomb or biological weapons or chemical weapons."
2007: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
In September 2007, 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley traveled to Tehran to interview President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ahead of his planned trip to the UN General Assembly in New York. Ahmadinejad had angered many the prior week by requesting to visit ground zero when he was in New York.
In the interview, Pelley pressed Ahmadinejad about his country's nuclear program, which seemed determined to continue enriching uranium, even though the United Nations Security Council had demanded that it stop. Ahmadinejad claimed Iran only wanted nuclear energy, but the White House under President George W. Bush said Ahmadinejad was pursuing a bomb.
"In political relations right now, the nuclear bomb is of no use," Ahmadinejad said. "If it was useful, it would have prevented the downfall of the Soviet Union. If it was useful, it would have resolved the problems the Americans have in Iraq. The time of the bomb is passed.
When Pelley continued to ask Ahmadinejad specifically about whether he would pledge not to test a nuclear weapon, Ahmadinejad got defensive, telling Pelley he was acting like a CIA interrogator.
"This is not Guantanamo Bay," Ahmadinejad said. "This is not a Baghdad prison. This is not a secret prison in Europe. This is not Abu Ghraib. This is Iran. I'm the president of this country!"
2015: President Hassan Rouhani
In summer 2015, Iran signed a landmark accord with six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany. The agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), curtailed Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting certain economic sanctions. That September, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft traveled to Tehran to speak to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the deal.
"Some groups and political parties may be against it, but the governments of the world, all together, welcomed this deal," Rouhani said.
Through the JCPOA, Iran was required to ship 98 percent of their enriched uranium out of the country, lock up thousands of centrifuges, close its bombproof enrichment facility at Fordow, disable its heavy water reactor at Arak, and submit to rigorous international inspections. Opponents of the pact in the U.S. argued that the U.S. had given away too much for very little in return from Iran. The opposition in Iran was also intense, including from the head of the Revolutionary Guard.
Since the deal, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei had continued to refer to the U.S. as the "Great Satan," a throwback to the days of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Kroft asked Rouhani if he had the same view of the U.S.
"The enmity that existed between the United States and Iran over the decades — the distance, the disagreements, the lack of trust — will not go away soon," Rouhani told Kroft. "What's important is which direction we are heading. Are we heading towards amplifying the enmity or decreasing this enmity? I believe we have taken the first steps towards decreasing this enmity."
President Trump later withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018.
2021: Inside the Iranian ballistic missile attack
At the beginning of January 2020, Iran and the U.S. were pushed near the brink of war. The conflict began when President Trump ordered an American drone strike that killed Iran's most powerful general, Qasem Soleimani. It ended six days later with an Iranian ballistic missile attack against U.S. troops in Iraq. CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reported on the tense time for 60 Minutes the following February.
As Martin reported, Soleimani had orchestrated attacks which killed more than 600 U.S. troops during the American occupation of Iraq. According to Marine General Frank McKenzie, Commander of U.S. forces In the Middle East, Soleimani was planning to do it again. Until that point, the U.S. had been reluctant to go after Soleimani for fear that killing him would only provoke more Iranian attacks.
In response to Soleimani's death, Iran launched 16 ballistic missiles from three locations. Five missed, but 11 landed at Al Asad airbase in Iraq, where 2000 U.S. troops were stationed. Prior to the attack, the base had scrambled to evacuate more than 50 aircraft and 1000 troops before the missiles hit. But the base still had to be manned.
Remarkably, no U.S. troops were killed.
Martin asked General McKenzie what might have happened had the base not evacuated. General McKenzie estimated that the base might have lost 20 or 30 airplanes and 100 to 150 U.S. personnel. That situation, he said, would have been very different: "David, we had a plan to retaliate if Americans had died."
for more features.