Champ’s Efforts To Free Prisoners Spanned 35+ Years
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) was not only an outstanding athlete, but a humanitarian, activist, and even somewhat of an unlikely statesman. Take, for example, his lengthy involvement with Iran...
Tehran, March 1977: The Shah and his wife are being interviewed for an ABC TV special by Barbara Walters, together for the first time. During her visit, their teenage son and heir to the throne, Reza Pahlavi, displays some of his cherished belongings. Among them is an autographed photo of a sports hero he has never met: African-American boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
1979: Two years later, a massive revolution sweeps Iran. Muhammad Ali gives a press conference at the United Nations headquarters on January 1st, and is asked if he, as a devout Muslim, would be interested in going to Paris to use his influence with Ayatollah Khomeini to help bring about peace in that “troubled land”. Ali replies that he would be “honored” to do something of that kind, but, as an uneducated boxer, he would consider it only after seeking advice from authorities and if the UN and the Islamic world were behind it.
On January 16th, the Shah and his entire family flee the country for the United States. Revolutionaries demand the U.S. return the Shah for trial, and on November 9th, 60 U.S. embassy personnel are taken hostage. The news catches fire all over the world.
On the sixth day of the ordeal, 37 year-old Muhammad Ali publicly offers himself in exchange for the 60 men and women held captive.
Encouraged by phone calls from constituents, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill approves of the proposal, and forwards the matter to the State Department. Their spokeswoman tells the media that they would welcome any help in freeing the hostages, but “Any move Ali would make would be on his personal initiative.”
Ali dismisses the idea of working through the State Department anyway, believing that any association with the U.S. government, a major object of Iranian rage, would discredit the sincerity of his mission. He tells AP that his presence alone might be helpful in reducing tensions: “If someone like myself could see the hostages and see that they are all right and bring back the word, it might cool off things.”
The backlash that Iranians will soon experience is foreseen by Ali. “This could force much hatred against Iranians who also are innocent”, he says. “If they don’t like the Shah, they shouldn’t suffer because of the Shah.”
Though he keeps his political opinions on the situation to a minimum, Ali does suggest that the U.S. allow the Shah to receive his cancer treatment, then be returned to Iran to face justice. “We are holding a thief that they want back in their country”, he says, adding that the Shah’s money should be returned to Iranians as well. He preserves his thoughts by keeping an audio diary, which includes his ongoing efforts to solve the Iran hostage crisis. The tapes have never been released.
That week, the revolutionaries reject Ali’s offer, saying there is no substitute for turning over the Shah. As a fellow Muslim, Ali remains hopeful that he can play some kind of mediation role in Iran. “I’m a hero there, they’re my brothers,” says the champ. Asked if he might be able to meet with Khomeini instead, Ali replies, “I don’t know, I don’t think so. They want the Shah and we’ve said we’re not going to give him to them.”
July 1979: Muhammad Ali announces his retirement from boxing.
December 1979: A concerned American from Honolulu, Mary Ann Morley, intends to fly to Tehran on Christmas day to hand deliver gifts, cards and letters to the hostages from her fellow Hawaiians. While in Hong Kong to obtain a visa, she learns that Muhammad Ali is in town, and locates him in his hotel to ask him to write a personal letter to the hostages. Ali agrees to meet her for breakfast, and composes a message on the spot.
Ms. Morley makes photocopies of the letter and succeeds in getting them to the captive Americans in Tehran. As hostage Richard McQueen, a State Dept. officer at the embassy, recalled in his 1981 memoir: “We couldn’t believe that Ali had taken time not only to write to us, but to send gifts as well; I was also amazed the militants gave them to us.”
May 1980: Muhammad Ali has come up with another idea for liberating the hostages. If the remaining Americans are released, he promises to stage his next fight against Larry Holmes in Tehran. It’s a grandiose vision, to be sure. “At this time in history”, says Ali, “as big as the Iran crisis is, as big as my boxing is, I think this will work out perfectly. It could be beautiful.”
Prior to the proposed fight, Ali plans to train in Iran for one month with his entire crew, because “Iranians have been wanting me to come to Iran for years.”
A spokesman for the State Department’s Iran Desk gives Ali the green light, advising “...if he thinks this could work, then he should apply to the Secretary of State for a waiver to the travel ban.” Once again, however, it never happens.
January 20, 1981: The hostages in Iran are freed.
PostscriptMuhammad Ali continued to attempt to insert himself in Iran-related affairs for years to come. In Feb. 1985, he flew to Lebanon in order to free four Americans and one Saudi last seen in Beirut. He also attempted, fruitlessly, to visit Iran and meet with Khomeini, hoping the cleric might have influence on the events, and resumed his mediation efforts later in the year.
In 1993, Ali came to Iran and Iraq to negotiate a prisoner exchange of combatants held since the Iran-Iraq War. And in a 2011 letter, he appealed directly to Ayatollah Khamenei for the release of two captured hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. He also attended a press conference calling for their release, attended by Bauer’s fiancee, Sara Shourd, who had been captured with them but later released.
Over three decades after the Iranian revolution, the former world champion was still immersing himself in world affairs. Despite his frailty due to age and advanced Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali offered to travel to Iran if his presence would in any way help lead to the release of the unjustly imprisoned hikers.
“Most Americans don’t know how warm and welcoming the Iranian people can be,” wrote the champ in his appeal. “One day, I hope I am able to return to Tehran to stand, greet and be among my Iranian brothers and sisters once again. Perhaps that day will come soon.”
Sources: The Associated Press (primarily), plus CBS News, Cox News Service, New York Daily News
• In March 2015, Muhammad Ali issued a statement calling for the release of imprisoned journalist Jason Rezaian, Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief. Rezaian has said that his captors treated him better immediately after this gesture.
• President Jimmy Carter and Muhammad Ali cooperated on an array of political activities. “As an extremely famous black Muslim, he had access to almost any world leader”, wrote Carter in his 2010 memoir White House Diary. “His only failure as a volunteer diplomat was that he was not permitted by Ayatollah Khomeini to come to Iran to discuss the release of our hostages.”
• On Dec. 21, 1977 a report originating in the Philippines indicated that Ali would defend his title against Ken Norton in Iran, which had supposedly pledged to put up $12 million for the bout. Probably just a rumor, and it obviously never materialized.
• According to a 1979 article in Intercontinental Press, Ali told an ABC TV reporter on Nov. 19th that the Shah, whom he compared to Nixon and Hitler, should be deported, because “...this guy is a criminal. Send this guy back.” I did not include it because I have not verified the comments.
A sign in a tea house in Iran announces that the fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier will be shown on TV there tomorrow, and that if Ali wins, tea and hookah will be on the house. Note the portrait of Queen Farah Pahlavi, the Shah’s wife, up above. Year unknown, but it was either 1971, 1974 or 1975!
Elvis Presley: “Can’t Sing”, Mossadegh: Red Dupe, Wrote Iowa Newspaper in 1956
Iran hostage crisis “not their fault” writes Cal Poly student of Iranian-Americans (1979)
The Shah of Iran, Jimmy Carter and Human Rights Explained by Satirist (Dec. 1977)
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”