Why Peace Corps Left Iran

By Sheldon J. Fleming


            There has been a lot of speculation as to why the Peace Corps Iran program shut down.  With the events in 1978/1979 nobody can deny that the program had to leave; the only question is did the program leave a year too soon.

            At the reunion that I was fortunate enough to attend in Austin, I was asked by many people why we left.  Being the son of the last County Director Quentin Fleming, I remember the events very well.  Besides my own recollection and those of my father and identical twin brother, I also have the benefit of being in possession of my father’s hand written journals.  My father had the habit of keeping a detailed daily journal which of course also contains the events regarding the decision to leave Iran.

            To understand how the decision to leave was arrived at and to put it in proper context, it’s critical to note that Iran completely changed after OPEC.  Volunteers who were in Iran prior to OPEC would not recognize post OPEC Iran.  Having visited with countless volunteers in Austin last year it was very apparent that the pre-OPEC volunteers experienced a completely different Iran.

            My family arrived on March 5, 1974 just after OPEC and just before the massive flood of new found oil wealth really hit the country.  For the first 3 or 4 months in Iran it was the “traditional” Iran (or should I say magical Iran).  But with the money pouring in came a change in attitude and a massive influx of foreigners chasing the money.  And this was not the traditional old school ex-patriot group.  This was a lot of unsophisticated lower economic workers coming to Iran trying to chase a fast dollar.  Picture the ugly American on steroids.  And for most of these people it was the first time that they had been outside the United States.  In the summer of 1975 the Shah instituted a series of economic reforms trying to curtail the runaway inflation and new found money, and you could really feel the tension starting to grow.

            I graduated from the Tehran American High School in the summer of 1975 (High School graduation at the American Embassy Compound) and stayed on a year with the family before we all returned to America.  During that year I traveled extensively with the volunteers, and was basically adopted as a little brother by many of them.  They were very kind and generous to me, and also spoke openly in front of me.

            One night in 1975 when my family was sitting around the dinner table a discussion was taking place about the volunteers numerous complaints about what they were facing.  Being a teenager, I made an offhand comment at the time that “well, if the volunteers are so unhappy why don’t we just leave?”  My dad sat back in his chair and paused for a minute and then commented that maybe we should . . .

            The next day he went into the office and spoke with Ed Thomas, the then current Director.  It was Ed’s last week in country before my father took over as Director.  My father discussed it with Ed Thomas who agreed that, based upon the change in circumstances in the country that it was time that the program withdraw.  However, Ed strongly believed that the ultimate decision really should be made by the Volunteers themselves so my father ended up putting it to a vote of the Volunteers.

            During the end of 1975 the respective programs (TEFL, Vocational Education, Agriculture and MPW-Municipal Public Works) had their yearly conferences.  At each of those conferences the question was put to them and based upon the overwhelming vote of the volunteers the decision was made to leave.

            In January 1976 the NANEAP Sub Region (North Africa, Near East, Asia and Pacific) had a conference, which was held in Kathmandu Nepal.  The meeting was held at the Tara Gaon Hotel Village.  On January 10, my father met with Peace Corps staff from Washington, D. C. and discussed shutting the program down.  This was new territory for the Peace Corps as they had not walked out of a country before.  Yes, they had been thrown out of countries before (Columbia 2 times and we were at that time back for a third time), but actually leaving on its own was different.

            Contained in my father’s journal are his notes from his meeting and the reasons presented to Peace Corp Director John Dellenback for leaving.  Among the reasons were:

Volunteer’s vocal complaints that we should not be in Iran.

Rise in the national per capita income, and the new disparity of salaries between PCVs and hosts.

PCVs getting local job offers at high salaries enticing them to leave the program.

Life styles of the expatriates.  (Again, this was the Ugly American in the tens of thousands flooding Iran.  From about 12,000 in 1974 to over 35,000 in early 1976 and increasing).

The host government wanted only highly skilled volunteers, and also wanted to first review prospective PCV biographies and the ability to reject volunteers.

High attrition of volunteers.

Feeling by many volunteers that their “work benefits the government or rich, and has no impact or an adverse impact on the poor”.

That last factor is perhaps the most telling.

            On January 13, 1976 my father was notified by John Dellenback that the formal decision to leave had been made.  Everyone was to be out of country by June 30th.  As my father was simultaneously also the Director for the Bahrain program (he would fly down there once a month for a week to monitor the program) he was free to transfer volunteers and staff from Iran to Bahrain.  Ambassador Richard Helms was to send a formal letter to the Government of Iran notifying them of the decision to leave.

            I have heard speculation that the reason why we left was that either people felt Iran (after OPEC) was too wealthy and should not be getting such a “gift” from the American people or that Iran was not making its host country contributions.  The reality is that my father raised the host country’s contributions in response to the OPEC increase in the price of oil, and the Iran and Bahrain country contributions were by far the two highest paying country contributions of any Peace Corps programs anywhere.  The programs were almost paying for themselves.  My father recalls a funny incident which happened in the summer of 1977, a year after the program was closed.  He received a frantic call from the American Embassy in Tehran regarding hundreds of thousands of dollars that had just been sent over to the Embassy and they were trying to figure out what it was for.  It was the final host country contribution for Peace Corps Iran.  While the government was paying it a little late, they did pay every single penny they pledged to pay to the program.

            In short, we left Iran because times changed from when we first arrived in Iran, and we wanted to leave on our own terms and gracefully so that we would be welcomed back in the future.  Times have changed since then and hopefully the program will return back in the not too distant future.

Quentin Fleming, the last Peace Corps Director in Iran, in his Tehran office.