All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran
The Pride and the Fall: Iran 19741979
The recent debate over American policy toward the Marcos regime in the Philippines echoes the earlier debate over American policy toward the crumbling regime of the Shah of Iran in 1978 and 1979. There are important and generally overlooked differences in the two situations; but there are also striking parallels. Like the Shah, Marcos was an American ally finally in trouble with his own people. In the Philippines, as in Iran, Washington was faced with the difficult task of fashioning a policy to deal with domestic upheaval in a country with which it was intimately connected.
These parallels were not lost upon American commentators in the dying days of the Marcos government. “The Philippines: Another Iran?” was the headline of a Newsweek cover story on November 4, 1985. In Congress and on the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, the Iranian experience served both as an example of the catastrophe that follows when the US pressures an autocratic ally for untimely liberalization and as an example of the catastrophe that follows when it does not do so.
For obvious reasons, the fall of Marcos has not led to the recriminations or the finger pointing within the administration that followed the fall of the Shah. On the contrary, the Philippines is being hailed as a crisis deftly handled. But it is early in the day, and the Philippines story is hardly over. The factions in the new ruling coalition have yet to work out their differences and they have yet to respond to the aspirations of the vast urban constituencies mobilized for the overthrow of Marcos. But however Washington’s handling of the Philippines comes to be judged, Iran has gone down in the books as a crisis bungled on a grand scale.
The fall of the Shah has already been the subject of considerable soul-searching on the American side. Former president Jimmy Carter, his secretary of state Cyrus Vance, his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his ambassador to Iran William Sullivan all tried to justify their own policies in their memoirs and asked whether the fall of the Shah might have been averted or rendered less calamitous to American interests.
American handling of the Iranian crisis is the subject of an important recent book by Gary Sick, a former member of the National Security Council staff under President Carter and the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution. The value of his account lies in the insight it provides into policy making in the White House and the State Department under crisis conditions. The book can be read with profit in conjunction with the spare, lucid, and elegantly written memoir by Sir Anthony Parsons, the British ambassador to Iran between 1974 and 1979. Parsons brings to the Iranian crisis a perspective strikingly different from that of his American allies.
Parsons arrived in Iran on the eve of the oil boom that earned Iran undreamed of wealth and undreamed of disaster. He left nearly five years later, just one week ahead of the Shah, when the world created by that oil wealth was already in shambles. He too writes to exorcise the ghosts of the Iranian experience. He also asks himself if he might better have foreseen the coming crisis, helped avert it by being franker in his advice to the Shah, or limited the damage to England’s interests by giving different advice to his own government.
For Sick, as for Brzezinski, the Shah’s Iran was a linchpin in American security strategy in the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia, and the Shah’s fall was a disaster for Western strategic interests. Parsons does not dwell long on these matters. His memoir reminds us, rather, how little great-power interests entered into England’s calculations in Iran where, at least until 1953, Britain was a force to be reckoned with in the domestic politics of the country.
His assignment, when he took over the Tehran mission, was to give priority to the promotion of British exports. The commercial section, he writes, became “the core of the Embassy.” The embassy itself was organized principally as an agency to promote British commercial interests. The British Council, normally a cultural organization, concentrated on the commercial aspects of English language instruction and on the sale of British educational materials and services. “Even the service attachés…were primarily occupied not in the collection of military information about the Iranian armed forces, but in servicing our defence sales programme to Iran.”
The political section of the embassy was consequently small, and reporting on internal political conditions, if important, was nevertheless a “subsidiary activity.” Parsons did not wish to arouse the Shah’s already deep suspicions of England and thus to jeopardize Britain’s economic opportunities in Iran by seeming to take too eager an interest in domestic politics. Parsons makes no claim for prescience. He assumed that regimes in the Middle East were always at risk, but he did not think the Shah was threatened. Nevertheless, he was made uneasy by the crass materialism of the boom years, the sycophantic adulation of the Shah, the degree to which the Shah seemed out of touch with his people, and the Shah’s failure to respond to the political aspirations of the middle classes and the intelligentsia.
He restrained any temptation to discuss these matters with the Shah, again out of concern for Britain’s economic interests. The Shah, he believes, would not have listened anyway. “You know His Majesty’s definition of a dialogue,” he quotes the former prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, as remarking: “It is—I speak, you listen.” When political conditions further deteriorated, Parsons toyed with the idea that the ambassadors of all Western industrial states and Japan might make a collective démarche to the Shah on the internal threats facing the regime. He abandoned the idea as impractical. Economic competition among these countries was fierce, and an indiscreet remark about internal conditions by one ambassador, even at a private meeting, might easily be exploited for economic advantage by half a dozen others. parsons’s advice to the British businessmen was in line with this limited-involvement, economics-first approach: “Sell where you can and do not invest unless you cannot sell without doing so. If you have to invest, keep it to the minimum.”
This hands-off policy notwithstanding, Parsons in 1978 became an unwitting participant in the Iranian crisis and in the personal drama of the Shah as he struggled to comprehend the calamity that was fast closing in on his dynasty. As is clear from his own memoirs, the Shah was convinced that, for reasons he could not fathom, his two closest Western allies were plotting his overthrow. He did not consider his own people capable of organizing the vast demonstrations and strikes that became endemic in 1978. These were therefore the work of the CIA. He could not conceive that an aged cleric could, unaided, become the leader of a vast popular movement. Ayatollah Khomeini must therefore be a creature of the British. “The people,” he told Parsons, “are saying that, if you lift up Khomeini’s beard, you will find MADE IN ENGLAND written under his chin.”
Yet the Shah’s feeling toward England and America remained equivocal. If he saw them as his nemesis, he also viewed them as his potential saviors. He was eager for their advice, desperate to know what they wanted of him. He looked to the CIA station chief in Tehran for information about political developments in his own country. presumably to appease the wily British, he named as his last prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar, a man he considered an Anglophile and an agent of British Petroleum. He remained convinced that his Western friends had “some plan in mind, some grand conception,”* both for him and for his country.
Parsons, along with Sullivan, found himself summoned to royal audiences, sometimes several times a week, at which the Shah sought his advice. Like Sullivan, he did not hesitate to give it. Parsons had no instructions from his government. The views he expressed were his own; he urged the Shah to accept them as such, although the Shah no doubt believed he was hearing the considered views of the British government.
Parsons felt that the Shah made a grave error in choosing to liberalize the regime at the end of 1976, at the very moment when the economic boom had gone sour and the government was in disarray. But once the great anti-Shah protests had gathered momentum in 1977 and 1978, he thought the Shah should allow press and parliamentary freedom and hold elections. He was skeptical of the efficacy of imposing a military government on the country and remained steadfastly opposed—and advised against—any attempt to crush the opposition movement by brute force. He came generally to favor attempts to form a coalition government with members of the moderate opposition or to transfer power to a transitional government of respected elders. By December 1978, he was convinced that the regime had shot its bolt, that victory by the Khomeini forces was inevitable, and that various loyalist and American schemes to prevent this eventuality were doomed to failure. He says he kept England clear from involvement in such schemes.
Parsons made his views readily known to the Shah. One imagines that he did so, as he writes, with feeling but with detachment. There is no hand wringing here over “who lost Iran,” for Parsons does not assume that Iran was England’s to lose. Nor does Parsons agonize over lost opportunities. He assumes that by the early autumn of 1978 the Shah’s chances were strictly limited and that outside interference could only have made things worse. “Overall,” he writes, “I believed that we were faced with a peculiarly Iranian crisis and that the only hope was for the Iranians to work it out for themselves, whatever the result.”
In retrospect, Parsons would also not have altered England’s close association with the Shah’s regime. Commitment to the Shah assured England secure oil supplies, stability in the Persian Gulf, and a lucrative export market. These benefits would have been jeopardized had England adopted an equivocal attitude toward the Shah. “To sum up,” he writes, “we gambled on the Shah, and for many years, our gamble paid off. I have no regrets on this score.”
Parsons does not consider whether the fixation on profit might have its less commendable aspects. He does not ask if the participation of British firms, along with American and European firms, in the heedless scramble for lucrative contracts between 1974 and 1978—and the corruption that on both the Iranian and the Western sides tainted much of this enterprise—played a role in the fall of the Shah. But one might note, in passing, that the “gamble” has continued to pay off. The revolution notwithstanding, England remains one of Iran’s major trading partners. Its commercial relations with Iran have not suffered since Khomeini came to power. Parsons’s views are worth recording because they put into sharper focus the quite different “crisis management” mentality that dominated among American policy makers. Washington too failed to foresee the crisis of the Pahlavi dynasty, underrated its seriousness when it came, and gravely misjudged the nature of the successor Khomeini regime. As late as August 1978, when riots had already exploded in dozens of Iranian cities, a CIA study concluded that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘prerevolutionary’ situation.” Ambassador Sullivan, like his British counterpart, thought the situation sufficiently under control to leave Tehran that summer for an extended holiday. It was not until early November, just ten weeks before the Shah’s departure, Sick reports, that the administration convened its first high-level policy meeting on Iran.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Answer to History (Stein and Day, 1980), p. 13.↩
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Answer to History (Stein and Day, 1980), p. 13.↩