Who Lost Iran?

Debacle: The American Failure in Iran

by Michael Ledeen and William Lewis
Knopf, 256 pp., $14.95

In the spring of 1980, Michael Ledeen and William Lewis published an article in the Washington Quarterly describing the attempt of the Carter administration, in the second half of 1978 and early 1979, to work out a policy to deal with the rising revolutionary tide in Iran. They have now expanded their article into a book. It is well that they have done so. The story of what happened in Washington, as the Shah stumbled toward his Armageddon, is dramatic in itself and worth telling. Moreover, to a much greater degree than in the original article, the present book lays bare the underlying assumptions of the authors and the argument they wish to make about American foreign policy and its faults.

The American involvement in Iran was many-sided and complex. For more than three decades, the United States provided the invisible shield that was thought to protect Iran against subversion and aggression from its neighbor to the north. When the Shah left the country in 1953, America helped to restore him to his throne. The two countries were partners in CENTO and in a bilateral defense agreement. The United States trained Iran’s army, police, and gendarmerie and became Iran’s major arms supplier.

Until 1963, the United States gave considerable financial assistance to Iran. Americans advised Iranians on everything from rural development to central planning, from trade union organization to the organization of intelligence services. Beginning in the 1970s, internal stability, oil wealth, and a large military establishment permitted the Shah to return these favors and to become more of a partner, even if a junior one, in the relationship.

While the Arab states imposed oil embargoes, Iran took part in the OPEC price hike but continued to serve as a secure source of oil for the Western world. The country provided a huge market for American (and European) arms, industrial and consumer goods, joint ventures. When Britain withdrew its forces from, the Persian Gulf, the Shah became more active in security matters in the Gulf. At America’s behest, he prepared to supply arms to Somalia and helped crush the insurgency in Oman. Henry Kissinger later remarked that the Shah supported the United States on virtually every major foreign policy issue. These were also years, the authors tell us, when “the United States was party to the transformation of Iran into a virtual dictatorship.”

This intermeshing of American and Iranian interests made it almost inevitable that the United States would become involved in the Shah’s struggle in 1978 to retain his throne. But there was a second, less tangible, but perhaps equally important reason. Both in Tehran and in Washington there was a widespread conviction, rooted in historical memory and concrete experience (and also in fantasy), that the United States had the means to direct and determine the course of events in Iran. Much of this is described by Ledeen and Lewis.

The Shah, the authors tell us, believed that his survival depended on American support, and scrutinized every statement emanating from Washington for signs of waning commitment to his regime. When the movement against him gained momentum, he actively sought assurances of support from President Carter. He looked to the American ambassador in Tehran, William Sullivan (and his British counterpart), to tell him what to do, whom to appoint to ministerial office, whether to resort to military rule. He waited, as it turned out in vain, for Carter to unveil his “grand strategy” and rescue him from his difficulties. In the end, he remained convinced that the United States had actively worked for, or at least acquiesced in, his downfall.

The Shah’s senior officials, particularly the Iranian ambassador to Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi, attempted repeatedly to involve the Carter administration in efforts to save the Shah. Even members of the moderate opposition trooped to the American embassy in Tehran to reassure American political officers of the moderation of their cause and to persuade Washington to withdraw its support from the Shah.

In Washington, both those who believed the Shah must be given unqualified support and those who came to feel he could not survive as an absolute monarch, or survive at all, argued for some kind of American involvement in the management of the crisis. The national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, often supported by defense secretary James Schlesinger, favored urging the Shah to use the army and whatever force was necessary to crush the opposition. According to Ledeen and Lewis, they recommended a major deployment of American troops in the Persian Gulf region to support such an effort.

Ambassador Sullivan, convinced that the tide had turned in favor of Khomeini, tried to involve the United States in the actual process of negotiating the transfer of power with the generals, Khomeini’s lieutenants, and with the Shah himself. The State Department instructed an American diplomat to meet with one of Khomeini’s top aides in Paris to determine Khomeini’s attitude toward the armed forces. President Carter sent a special envoy, General Robert Huyser, with an ill-defined mission that included maintaining the armed forces intact, trying to assure their loyalty to the last prime minister appointed by the Shah, and at the same time keeping them in readiness—though the evidence here is in dispute—to lead a coup.

It is in many ways an extraordinary story, with elements of Greek tragedy, as events moved, seemingly inexorably, toward the destruction of that all-too-flawed central character, the Shah. On the whole, it is a story that Ledeen and Lewis, with their focus on American foreign policy making during this period of crisis, tell with clarity and generally with concision. By ending their account with the taking of the American hostages at the embassy in Tehran in November 1979, they have produced a well-rounded book. They had access to some new official documents and interviewed a large number of the people involved.

But the authors did not set out to write Greek tragedy. Instead, they wished to depict a “debacle,” a “failure,” of American foreign policy. They have a case to argue; alternative policies to offer. In doing so they tend at times to be repetitious. Intent on allocating blame, they fall back at times on polemic. They ascribe to both Iranians and Americans actions and views for which the evidence is far from complete; many of their statements will, with reason, be questioned and disputed.

The authors set forth their aims in the introduction:

This book was written with a political purpose: we wanted to produce a case study of a major event that would help explain why we currently find ourselves in such grave difficulties…. The causes for the failure are not unique to the Carter administration. The Iranian debacle points to a general crisis of American policy-makers of both parties, and of those elements of the professional bureaucracy involved in the process.

They thus view the American failure in Iran as part of a deep malaise in American foreign policy in general. They believe there are lessons to be drawn from the Iranian case, which they set out in a concluding chapter. In this sense, the book also addresses itself to various issues in the current debate on American foreign policy, such as United States support for authoritarian regimes, human rights, the deployment of American power abroad, and the uses and abuses of intelligence gathering.

The authors believe that the Iranian “debacle” was due in part to a failure of intelligence, a misreading of the nature of the opposition movement and of the character of the Shah. Ledeen and Lewis argue persuasively that Ayatollah Khomeini and his movement were persistently misunderstood. Few knew of, or took seriously, Khomeini’s Islamic vision. There was a widespread desire to believe that opposition to the Shah was by definition constitutionalist and progressive. Such views of Khomeini were reinforced, the authors tell us, by academics, some of whom met with him in Paris and returned with glowing reports about the movement’s moderation.

Others persisted in believing that, no matter what Khomeini’s own views, the middle-class moderates of the Iranian opposition would emerge on top. These ideas, it should be added, were widely shared by the Iranian middle class itself. And these misconceptions, Ledeen and Lewis argue, strengthened a willingness among officials in Washington in late November and December to countenance the departure or deposition of the Shah because the alternative did not appear forbidding. The United States, it was believed, could “live with” Khomeini.

At the same time, when opposition to the Shah broke into the open in 1978, the conventional view in Washington was of a decisive, strong-willed monarch, fully master of his country, and certain not to permit any opposition movement to spin out of control. But the truth, Ledeen and Lewis write, was that the Shah was weak and vacillating. He was incapable of facing crises alone. “Throughout his reign, he exhibited a disinclination to face problems unsupported by advisers, both internal and external.”

The misreading of the Shah’s character led to the complacent belief in Washington throughout much of 1978 that the monarch was capable of handling the revolutionary crisis and that further pressure on the regime on the human rights issue would not shake or unseat him.

In addition to these failures of analysis, the authors find that the handling of the Iranian crisis suffered from weak presidential leadership. The president’s human rights campaign unnerved the Shah, who in any case “searched for hidden conspiracies and Machiavellian cunning, where often there were none to be found.” Carter’s uncertain handling of crises in Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere reinforced his fear that the United States was about to abandon him.

The president is accused, moreover, of never having developed an Iranian policy; his administration “did not know what it wanted to happen in Iran, and therefore was unable to bring the instruments of foreign policy to work for an acceptable outcome.” The weakness of presidential leadership was reinforced by deep divisions within the administration on the Iranian question: between those who believed the Shah should crush the opposition and those who argued he should be encouraged to compromise with it; between those who felt the Shah should be supported at all costs, and those who felt nothing could be done to save him.

The authors, confident they know what the United States should have done, do not perhaps sufficiently appreciate the difficulties that must have confronted officials in Washington attempting to work out a coherent American policy against the background of the increasingly anarchic situation in Iran. But in what is probably the best part of the book, Ledeen and Lewis are able to show vividly how a consistent policy was at every turn aborted by internal division and an inability to agree on an analysis of the Iranian crisis.

The White House and the State Department seemed to speak with two voices. The Shah was told both to liberalize and to stand firm. Messages to the Shah from Brzezinski to take a hard stand were tempered by the State Department; State Department advice that he concede some power to the opposition was nullified by officials of the National Security Council. A proposal to send a high official to see Khomeini was approved by Carter, then canceled. These uncertainties in Washington only deepened the Shah’s own vacillation and paralysis.

Yet one weak president, faulty intelligence, and differences among officials do not yet amount to a “general crisis” in American foreign policy, at least not in the sense implied by Ledeen and Lewis. After all, a weak president can be replaced by a stronger one, intelligence analysis improved, bureaucratic divisions healed. The authors suggest that the malaise runs deeper, is a kind of structural fault, and that it can be attributed to the world view of those they variously describe as the “foreign policy establishment” or the “American policy-making community.” (Whether such a community really exists, this reviewer is unqualified to say. In fact, the authors seem to be talking of President Carter, some White House aides, and State Department officials.) The failure of intelligence analysis itself, they believe, is rooted in the skewed ideological orientation of this “establishment.”

Ledeen and Lewis argue that President Carter, along with the “stars of the new Carter firmament,” came to office with ideological baggage that made them particularly ill-equipped to deal with the Iranian crisis. They were determined to reverse what they considered to be the wrongheaded realpolitik policies of the Kissinger era. They clothed foreign policy in the cloak of morality. Their slogan was not only “no more Vietnams,” but also “no more Pinochets,” for they felt that “the United States should steer away from close working relationships with dictatorships, whether friendly or hostile.” They believed the United States could not, and should not, forcefully project its power abroad.

A centerpiece of this approach, the authors find, was the human rights policy, which they believe was ill-conceived, inconsistently enforced, and exerted most pressure not on America’s totalitarian enemies but on friendly authoritarian regimes that were “heavily dependent on continued American support.” The human rights policy, moreover, posed “immense practical and abstract problems,” in part because it required “systematic meddling” in the internal affairs of other countries. In the Carter executive branch there were also an “impressive number of officials hostile to the Shah.”

The authors draw on the ideas of Professor Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, to make a distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.

The first are not only repressive but create political structures that eliminate all possibilities for the development of freedom. The second are often heavily repressive, but are designed to perpetuate the rule of a single individual or group, rather than to establish a durable system that will withstand any and all initiatives for change.

The United States, they argue, should no doubt be prepared to exert considerable pressure, when the opportunity presents itself, to urge its friends to move toward democracy. “But when the United States is faced with a choice between a productive alliance with a dictator or loss of security destabilizing another government, it should be mature enough to accept temporarily the former, with all its obvious discomfort.”

This is certainly not an unreasonable argument in itself. It has, from the authors’ point of view, obvious implications for American policy toward the Shah. But before examining how such a policy, in the Ledeen/Lewis approach, might have been applied to Iran, it is necessary to look at their analysis of the situation in Iran under Mohammed Reza Shah.

In dealing with Iran, the authors appear to be on somewhat less familiar ground. They make small mistakes of fact. In a kind of potted history of Iranian monarchy, and in remarks on Shi’ite Islam, they make generalizations of breathtaking sweep. But no matter. Their analysis of the Shah’s system of rule is informed, stringent—and devastating.

The Shah, they tell us, had for thirty-odd years managed to exclude from power all leaders who might have developed independent bases of support and almost all who might have given him independent advice. By concentrating power in his own hands, he made it inevitable that he would be held responsible for the excesses of the royal family, the abuses of the secret police, the doings of the government, and the fortunes and misfortunes of all classes of people.

His policies antagonized the merchants of the bazaar and the clerical community, two of the most influential groups in Iran. He did not have the support of the old National Front politicians, the intellectuals of the left, the students, or the urban proletariat. He created a new middle class, but “the Shah’s system provoked the new classes because they were excluded from power.” His single party, Rastakhiz, was a joke. The trappings of cabinet government and parliament were “a gigantic farce or a masquerade.” Moreover, the policies pursued in the boom years of the early 1970’s created vast demographic dislocation of populations, exacerbated the inadequacy of social services, and stoked resentment against the large American and foreign community.

Intent on preventing the emergence of challenges against himself from within the army, he had developed a system in the armed forces that “portended serious difficulties should either an internal or external crisis arise. It was difficult to imagine the armed forces acting as a cohesive unit.” This was to prove an important element in the paralysis of the armed forces in January and February 1979, when the Shah quit the country and left the armed forces to decide for themselves what attitude to adopt toward Khomeini and his followers.

The Shah, moreover, had terminal cancer and was acutely aware that time was not on his side. Throughout 1978, as the opposition massed in the streets, he stuck to the view that his son would not succeed to the throne if the monarchy came to be associated with excessive bloodshed. He thus remained reluctant to authorize a more severe suppression of the opposition.

The Shah, Ledeen and Lewis tell us, was far from a great modernizer: “…he lacked the political wisdom to make the structural reforms in the polity that his industrial and educational innovations required.” He failed to provide for the integration of the new classes. The authors are right to stress this point. Indeed, they believe that had the Shah created new political institutions, “the revolution could have been avoided altogether.” But they seem not to appreciate how extensive were the political changes that would have been necessary or how much diminution of royal power they would have required.

The authors are probably correct in writing that the Shah’s regime was not as ruthless as was sometimes suggested and certainly not as ruthless as some other regimes in the region. But they fail to understand that the brutality of the Shah’s secret police and the arbitrary nature of his rule became increasingly unacceptable to his own people. The mosque sermons and pamphleteering literature of the revolutionary year suggest that the paraphernalia of suppression, including torture, were an important element in mobilizing opposition to the Shah.

The authors, however, come close to suggesting that the Shah’s system of government contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Commenting on the Shah’s system of divide-and-rule they remark: “In the end, the system destroyed itself through mistrust and paralysis.” Noting the powerful forces set in motion by rapid economic development and various reforms, they state: “a chain reaction was produced, which promised a profound transformation of Iran while also pointing toward the severe limitation or even destruction of the monarchy.”

Here the authors suggest a fairly sophisticated analysis, in which problems of immense complexity were facing the Shah on the eve of the revolution. When the authors write that “Khomeini’s triumph was certainly not inevitable—it could have been prevented by different means at various times throughout the late 1970s,” we assume the various “means” would somehow deal with these deep-seated issues. Yet when Ledeen and Lewis attempt to suggest an effective response by the Shah and the United States to the rising domestic opposition in Iran, we find that these recommendations ignore the depth and seriousness of the problems they had earlier acknowledged.

The authors believe that the Shah, quite simply, should have applied the “iron fist.” He should have deployed his troops and used force to crush the opposition movement. Moreover, since the vacillating Shah was not capable of such action, Washington should have “insisted” that he use his army. It is President Carter’s signal failure that throughout the year of revolution he “shrank from such a solution.”

In retrospect, it would have been amazing had Mohammed Reza mustered the act of will required to sanction force. For him to have done so would have required the strongest possible support and guidance from the government of the United States.

Other observations underline the powerful attraction the idea of a “military solution” exerts on the authors. The Shah, unlike his father, they repeatedly tell us, lacked one essential quality: ruthlessness. The Shah “lacked the ruthless instincts necessary for effective rule”; “he rarely evinced the cruel streak of his father”; “he had no stomach for the kind of unholy war that would have been necessary to bring the Shi’ites to heel.”

The men around the Shah whom the authors seem most to admire, such as the late court minister, Asadollah Alam, apparently possessed this “ruthless” quality. Alam’s death in 1977 is described as “one of the most significant events” of this period, presumably because the Shah thus lost the guidance of the man who, as prime minister, forcefully crushed the uprising following Khomeini’s first arrest in 1963. Many Iranians, however, regarded the prominence of men like Alam in the court, with their questionable financial dealings and their encouragement of the Shah’s autocratic tendencies, as a source not of royal strength but of the Shah’s vulnerability. Ledeen and Lewis fail to bring us close to such a man as Alam, either in court politics or in his personal ventures.

The implicit faith of the authors in the rightness of the military solution raises a number of questions. The argument that force, applied at American urging and insistence, could have saved the Shah runs counter to the authors’ own analysis of the nature of the Shah’s difficulties. They paint a picture of a country in which social and economic dislocations were severe, grievances against the Shah deep, support for the regime thin, resources for dealing with a determined opposition limited, the army lacking in both cohesion and spontaneous loyalty to the Shah.

They describe a Shah who was weak and vacillating, unwilling to use force and unprepared to share power, cracking under pressure. To suggest, in the face of this analysis, that deploying the full force of the army to save the regime might have been possible, and that it would have worked, seems implausible. It appears implausible also to suggest that a decision taken in Washington could have resolved problems that, on the authors’ own evidence, were largely Iranian in nature and rooted in the structure of the system created by the Shah.

There are other problems with this approach. It is true that the full power of the army was not everywhere and in all instances unleashed against the opposition during 1978, in the sense that the troops were not always permitted to fire at will on the demonstrators. But it is inaccurate to suggest that the army exercised “maximum restraint.” Troops were present at all the major demonstrations, many of which turned into riots. The toll in lives of the demonstrators was often high.

The opposition to the Shah has tended greatly to exaggerate the casualties resulting from collisions between troops and demonstrators. Ledeen and Lewis tend to underestimate them, or to ignore them altogether. On “Black Friday,” September 8, when troops fired on largely peaceful demonstrators in Tehran, the casualty figure was considerably higher than the official figure of around 100 dead that the authors quote.

Not only did troops almost consistently fire on demonstrators, but in many cases, both early and late in 1978, they treated the demonstrators and rioters with great brutality. This happened, for example, in Mashad, Qazvin, and Najafabad in November and December. In Najafabad, troops pulled people out of their homes and shot those they considered opposition leaders. None of this seemed to blunt the opposition movement.

While military rule was administered with moderation in Tehran, this was not the case elsewhere. The role of martial law in Isfahan, under General Naji, was harsh; but the resistance was no less intense in Isfahan than in Tehran. The authors compare the Shah’s reaction to the 1978 demonstrations unfavorably to his firm response to the 1963 explosion. The two sets of collisions, while offering striking parallels, are not strictly comparable.

The 1978 demonstrations involved a much broader spectrum of social groups. They were geographically more extensive. The ground had been more thoroughly prepared by mosque sermons and political pamphleteering. The disillusion with the regime was more widespread. The tactics employed by the opposition in 1978 were far more sophisticated. Could troops have shot down dozens, or hundreds, of middle-aged men simply for climbing onto rooftop terraces and crying, “God is Great!”into the December night?

In fact, much of the evidence points to the unsuitability of the army for the task of dealing with political protest and agitation. The troops were untrained for crowd control. They were not immune to the taunts of the demonstrators and, along with their officers, often acted in undisciplined ways that resulted in unnecessary injuries to people in the streets.

Such casualties only fed the public anger. The opposition practice of widely disseminating photographs of the crushed skulls and bloodied bodies of those shot by the troops had a significant part in inflaming public opinion and drawing more and more people into the opposition camp. The Shah was presumably aware of this.

In 1963, a firm response fairly quickly snuffed out the rioting. The astonishing feature of the 1978 demonstrations is that protestors, in town after town, kept returning to demonstrate and protest. It was perhaps this phenomenon that so unnerved the Shah and explains his remark to Ambassador Sullivan that he had tried repression and it did not work. The spirit of revolution was abroad in towns, hamlets, and offices; and the army was stretched thin in the attempt to maintain control.

The inadequacy of a “military solution,” given the complexity of the situation, is perhaps also reflected in the vague phrases with which the authors discuss it, both when paraphrasing officials and speaking of it in their own words. Brzezinski, we are told, believed the Shah should be “encouraged to do whatever was necessary to preserve control of the country.” When Brzezinski spoke to the Shah on the telephone on November 3, he told him he could “take whatever measures he deemed necessary,” or words to that effect. Again, we are told that Schlesinger and Brzezinski believed the Shah must be shown that the United States wanted him “to fight for his throne with all the weapons at his disposal”—a view which the authors themselves deem an appropriate one.

One suspects that the vagueness of these formulations stems from a failure to think through the implications of using the “iron fist.” Decisions to unleash the army were perhaps easier to take in Washington than to implement in Tehran, in view of the real situation in the streets. The authors point out that the Shah’s piecemeal and largely token concessions to the demands of groups in opposition only whetted their appetites. But they never give serious consideration to the possibility that the Shah might have avoided disaster by following a different policy. He might have arranged—as several elder statesmen were urging him to do—a real transfer of power from the crown to parliamentary institutions in the summer or very early fall of 1978.

The authors have other difficulties in preserving a consistent perspective. For example, they sound caustic about American officials who believed that “the Shah was the problem.” Yet their own analysis points precisely to that conclusion. They believe that the human rights campaign was unsatisfactory because it required “systematic meddling” in the affairs of other countries. Yet the solutions they propose for the Iranian crisis would have involved “meddling” on a vast scale.

They recognize that the Shah’s huge armaments program was out of control and was producing severe problems. Yet they appear to treat attempts by officials in Washington to limit arms sales to Iran as a sign of hostility to the person of the Shah. They argue that the United States should have been better informed about the Iranian opposition. Yet like the Shah, they disapprove of American diplomats who maintained contacts with the opposition.

Their admiration for the “ruthlessness” of such politicians as Alam is oddly juxtaposed with their warm words for the “distinguished reformers…, men of remarkable talent and integrity” who for a period held high government posts in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ledeen and Lewis mention three such officials by name. One is the Plan Organization chief, Abol Hassan Ebtehaj, who was relegated to the political wilderness by the Shah because he spoke out against corruption and arbitrary rule. Another, Hossein Ala, lost his post as court minister because in 1963 he dared to urge the Shah to call off his troops—just as Alam was being properly ruthless in having the troops shoot down the demonstrators. The third, Ali Amini, incurred the Shah’s wrath for suggesting the monarch should reign and not rule. Statesmen like Amini were not against the monarchy. But they did not believe the Shah could survive simply by reinforcing his autocracy and refusing to share power.

The authors, moreover, are critical of Carter because “he did not insist upon the modernization of political structures in Iran, when that would have defused the revolutionary explosion.” Yet their account suggests they are equally unhappy with those American officials who, over a period of many years, urged that the United States pressure the Shah to do precisely that.

These instances are cited not to emphasize anything so simple as “inconsistencies” in the account, but to underline the ways in which the complexity of the issues in Iran, and in the American-Iranian relationship, leads to shifting perspectives. And while the guidelines for American foreign policy the authors propose in a concluding chapter seem eminently sensible, these do not provide a formula that could apply as neatly to the Iranian crisis (and other crises) as the authors would wish.

The Carter human rights campaign unnerved the Shah and encouraged the moderate, liberal opposition. But it was only one element in a complicated situation, and its importance to the mass of the population and to their clerical leaders was probably less than the authors suggest. The explosion in Qum in January 1978, which sparked off the revolutionary movement, in fact occurred without any perceptible reference to Carter’s human rights campaign. Subsequent riots and demonstrations fed on internal issues, particularly the ones raised by aggrieved religious and economic groups.

The human rights issue mattered to a small minority among the professional middle class. For the mass of the people, who had come to expect a degree of corruption and autocracy from their leaders, the issues were expressed in different form. The Shah ultimately lost his throne not because he failed to get support in Washington but because he lost the support of his own people. He was overthrown not because he violated a Western concept of human rights but because he violated what in the eyes of large numbers of Iranians were the acceptable limits to tyranny and arbitrary rule. That is a very different matter.