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Who Lost Iran?

Debacle: The American Failure in Iran

by Michael Ledeen, by 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.

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