In 1990, President Bush Sr. was tricked into taking a phone call from an impostor claiming to be the president of Iran. Today we revisit this classic hoax.
A Suspicious Call to the White House
In early 1990, 18 Westerners (8 of which were Americans) were being held hostage in Lebanon by groups thought to be influenced by Iran. When a questionable telephone call reached the White House claiming to be an Iranian official wishing to speak to President Bush Sr. about the hostages, the call somehow got through.
The story began with an unusual telephone call from an alleged Iranian official reaching the Oval office where it was answered by an unidentified staff member of the National Security Council. Claiming to be made on behalf of Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the caller wanted to schedule a call with President Bush in which the hostage situation would be discussed. Refusing to leave a call back number, the mysterious Iranian official claimed the Iranian president would call back at a specific date and time. According to a 1997 New York Times article, American intelligence traced the call to an important government office in the Iranian capital city of Tehran.
On the specific date and time that the Iranian official had set, another call came into the White House claiming to be from the Iranian president. This time, the caller spoke with the national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and a followup call was scheduled with President Bush.
A short time later, the scheduled phone connection was made between the individual claiming to be Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Bush. Reportedly, the two talked about the hostage situation through an interpreter for over a half an hour, and the fraudulent caller promised a special message that would be broadcast from Iranian radio.
The exact subject of the conversation has never been divulged, and it is not known exactly how or when White House officials determined the call to be a hoax.
Iranian Response to Prank Call
Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani scoffed at the hoax during a sermon broadcast over Tehran radio. Obviously, this was not the special radio message President Bush was expecting. The following is a quote from the sermon originally printed by Moscow-Pullman Daily News in March 1990:
“Iran’s stature in the world is so high that the strongest power in the world, and the greatest power on Earth, is striving to find an opening with your executive leader even through telephone wires… Can it be that such a global power, with all its intelligence capabilities, talks to a person it cannot identify? This is a strange occurrence… This shows the United States very much needs to talk with Iran, but, with God’s grace, it is deprived of this blessing…”
The United States Responds
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater responded to the sermon with the following statement:
“One day we hear moderate points of view, the next day we hear antagonistic ones… So our position remains steadfast: we want to do everything we can can to get the hostages out. The president will talk to anyone, any time.”
Several articles claimed that Bush was embarrassed by the prank, yet also acknowledged that the president and White House officials were skeptical of the call from the beginning. Numerous intelligence methods were used to check the call’s authenticity, but it was decided that the call should still go through in spite of the possibility of a diplomatic hoax. Apparently, Iran had used unusual approaches to communicate with the West in the past, and President Bush had a reputation for having a fondness for telephone diplomacy. These factors, along with a desire to resolve the hostage situation, likely enabled the hoodwink to be successful. However, presidential spokeman Marlin Fitzwater warned future would-be prank callers: “Let me make it clear… before people start calling the White House. All of these kinds of phone calls are checked out very carefully.”
Fitzwater used the debacle as a way to reassure hostage families that the president was sincere in attempting to secure their release. “…it’s important to the hostage families to know that President Bush’s policy is firm but he is personally committed to follow up every opportunity to get release of the hostages,” Fitzwater told reporters.
The perpetrator(s) of the hoax were never identified, yet the senior Bush administration admitted that the trick may have originated within a wing of the Iranian government.
In 1990, an impostor claiming to be the president of Iran managed to successfully speak on the phone with President Bush Sr. for over half an hour. Despite major security measures, the hoax was likely successful due to a willingness to resolve a hostage situation, Iran’s history of unorthodox communication, and Bush’s inclination towards telephone negotiation. The prank caller was never identified, but may have been carried out by a sect of the Iranian government.
Updated August 20, 2015
Originally published August 2014