All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran
The Pride and the Fall: Iran 1974–1979
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.
Once the wheels began to turn in Washington, however, there was little inclination to avoid American involvement. America’s interests in Iran could hardly be defined in narrow terms. Moreover, in Washington and at the American embassy in Tehran, there were men and women who believed that America should take a hand in managing the crisis, in influencing the Shah, in laying out policy options for him, in mediating between him and his enemies, and, finally, in serving as broker for the transition to a successor regime.
Differences quickly emerged within the administration. At the State Department, Vance and his advisers opposed the use of force to quell the opposition. The prevailing view, as it evolved at various stages, was that the Shah should be encouraged to open up the political system, reach accommodation with the opposition, and hand over full powers to a civilian government. When the Shah’s power seemed critically threatened, elements in the State Department remained optimistic that a successor regime would be moderate, pro-American, and stable. Sullivan offered the view that Khomeini would probably play a “Gandhi-like role” in the new order.
At the National Security Council, however, Brzezinski was opposed to coalition governments, concessions to the opposition, or any dilution of the Shah’s authority. He believed that the Army should be encouraged to stage a coup. He preferred a military government that included the Shah to a military government without him; but he too came to view the Shah as an obstacle to decisive action and thought his departure would permit the generals to act. Brzezinski’s policy had, at least, a steely consistency. On February 11, 1979, even as the Pahlavi regime was collapsing and the revolutionary forces were making their final assault on army barracks and government offices, he had Sullivan sounded out over long-distance telephone about the feasibility of staging a military coup.
Such differences within the administration naturally helped to prevent a clear policy from emerging. That was not all. Sick is particularly incisive in describing the combination of hyperactivity and paralysis that overtook the administration in crisis conditions. Many officials had developed a vested interest in the view that the Shah’s regime was stable. Few were willing to conclude that the Shah was finished and to shoulder “the immense responsibility of proclaiming a generation of US policy bankrupt.” Direct American intervention and acquiescence in a policy of bloody repression were equally unpalatable alternatives. The result was division and breakdown of communications within the administration. Sick writes that each official developed a network of private sources of information and was reluctant to share information with others. This bred mutual suspicion and distrust.
Yet the measures actually adopted by the administration in Iran did not differ materially from those adopted toward the Marcos regime seven years later. A series of high-ranking officials and emissaries trooped to Tehran for yet another assessment of the situation. The administration issued statements of support for the Shah—invariably with advice to avoid bloodshed and continue liberalization. President Carter and Brzezinski telephoned the palace to bolster the Shah’s sagging morale. In response to the shah’s urgent requests for guidance, on at least two occasions, in early November and on December 28, high-level meetings in Washington produced statements of the American position for transmission to the Shah. These were presumably carefully written documents. But the results were invariably anodyne, for they came to little more than a listing, in some order of preference, of the choices already before the Shah: coalition government, a neutral government of elders, military government, a regency council, and—in the end—even the possibility that he depart.
The disarray in Washington is reflected in the different readings these messages produced within the administration, let alone in Tehran. The December 28 message was seen by Brzezinski as the administration’s clearest effort to get the Shah to take firm action and by Vance as an indication the administration would not support the application of force to retain the Shah on his throne. A proposal to send a special emissary for direct talks with Khomeini in Paris was considered, then abandoned, but not before all the parties in Iran, and the rest of the world, learned of the projected meeting.
In December, the President called in the distinguished former undersecretary of state George Ball to make an independent assessment of American, and Iranian, options. Ball was convinced the Shah could retain his throne only by transferring real power to a civilian government, accepting a constitutional role, and making a dramatic announcement to this effect. He thought that a council of respected notables might be named to select a new government. In one of the more bizarre episodes of the Iranian affair, American officials, whose knowledge of the current state of Iranian politics was at best limited, busied themselves in Washington drawing up a list of elder statesmen who might constitute a council of notables for another country. The Ball proposal was stillborn because the President decided he could not dictate policy to another head of state. A reluctance to be seen to intervene continued side by side with actions that could not but influence the thinking of the Shah and the opposition.
By early January, the Shah had named Shapour Bakhtiar, a moderate opposition politician, as prime minister and was preparing to leave the country. At the same time, the President decided to send to Tehran General Robert Huyser, an officer who had earlier dealt extensively with the Iranian military. His assignment was to keep the Iranian armed forces intact, to encourage the military chiefs to support the Bakhtiar government, and to prepare the Army for a takeover should the Bakhtiar government fail. Huyser arrived unannounced in Tehran on January 5 and began almost daily consultations with the top brass of the Iranian Army. The Shah by now had practically given up running his own country and was looking to the Americans to resolve his problems for him. Instead of sending General Huyser home, he acquiesced in these unauthorized contacts between his own military commanders and a foreign general.
By January, in an abortive attempt to secure the Bakhtiar government some breathing space, the administration had also established contact with the Khomeini camp in Paris. Hoping in some vague way to insure a smooth transition from the old order to the new and to keep the Iranian armed forces intact, it encouraged talks between the Khomeini people and Iran’s generals. Even without America’s intercession, secret contacts had already been established between the Army chiefs and the Khomeini camp. It was precisely these contacts that persuaded the military to declare its neutrality on February 11, 1979, preparing the way for the seizure of power by Khomeini’s forces.
Sick writes with considerable objectivity, yet he too has his bête noire. The villain of his piece—I employ the overused expression deliberately—is Ambassador Sullivan. Sick subjects Sullivan’s dispatches to a detailed, line-by-line scrutiny—a scrutiny which all other officials are spared. He suggests, among other things, that Sullivan failed accurately to convey Washington’s views to the Shah or the Shah’s views to Washington, that he opened contacts with the opposition without informing the White House, and that he was during the last three months of the crisis pursuing his own private conception of what should be done. Sullivan, he suggests, was working toward an unauthorized accommodation between the military and the Khomeini forces, and was “prepared to wait and watch as the shah went down for the third time” before putting his plan into effect. These are serious charges; it is surprising that they have remained publicly unanswered.
Wiser counsel, Sick believes, would not have permitted the United States to make great efforts to influence the course of the Iranian revolution, which “was proceeding according to its own rhythm and purpose.” Yet his book, like those by other American officials, suggests a question he does not ask: To what effect, after all, was this enormous expenditure of American effort?
The Shah had already lost his way, and conflicting signals from Washington no doubt helped to confuse him further. He was strongly disinclined to suppress the revolutionary movement by force, and the US, by and large, confirmed his own deepest instincts. He avoided negotiating with his most serious opponents, and the Carter administration, by injecting itself between the Shah and the Khomeini camp, made it easier for him to do so. The Army chiefs were unlikely to seize the initiative without the Shah’s express orders. General Husyer strengthened the natural inclination of the generals to sit on the sidelines. The Shah, by the end of December, was ready to abandon the throne: the administration gave him a push in that direction. In the end, the United States managed to earn the opprobium of virtually all the Iranian parties—the royalists, the religious radicals, the Westernized intelligentsia, even the moderates. A vast effort at crisis management yielded meager results.
Does the Philippines represent a strongly contrasting case? American officials had a much better grasp of Philippine politics. There was a larger reservoir of pro-American feeling there that could be tapped. Although President Reagan momentarily wavered, there seems to have been a considerable consensus in the administration and in Congress regarding Marcos; counsels were divided about the Shah.
In America’s handling of the two situations, however, the similarities are even more striking. In both Iran and the Philippines, the administration awoke to the need for reform only when a domestic crisis was already fully under way. The initial official reaction in both cases was to press for liberalization. Liberalization—elections in the Philippines, more freedom for press and parliament in Iran—opened up the political system without permitting any real transfer of power or responsibility. This exposed both regimes at their most vulnerable points. It is a rare regime that can survive full public exposure, especially in the full glare of American television, when there have been officially condoned corruption, political repression, and violations of the constitution. Liberalization, necessitated by internal conditions and encouraged by Washington, helped to undo both regimes. President Reagan proved as reluctant as President Carter to associate the United States with a policy of using the Army to bloodily repress a popular movement. In both cases, the US tried to save an old ally; in both cases, the point came when the US acquiesced and even encouraged departure—of the Shah from Iran and of Marcos from the Philippines.
If the outcome in Iran was bloody revolution and in the Philippines peaceful transition, the difference lies much more in the nature of the two crises than in the American handling of them. In Iran, owing largely to the Shah’s own policies, the moderate parties and their leaders no longer were believable political forces. Power, during the crisis, quickly passed to the radical religious elements. The streets were controlled by Khomeini and his lieutenants, and they wanted revolution, not reform. In the Philippines, the leadership of the opposition movement remained firmly in the hands of the upper middle class—industrialists, landowners, professionals—many of whom had been associated with the Marcos regime.
Significantly, in the Philippines the break in the military came when leading Army commanders switched sides from Marcos to the opposition camp. In doing so, they were joining men and women largely of their own social class. In Iran, by contrast, the top military leadership remained loyal to the Shah, and the break in the military came when the relatively low-ranking Air Force technicians joined in the revolt. This pattern of revolt by the lower ranks, who led and directed strikes and demonstrations and, in the end, seized control of the revolution itself, was repeated across the Iranian social and political spectrum—in government offices, banks, factories, and mosques.
Although rarely acknowledged in official American pronouncements or in the American press, the conflict in the Philippines, as in Iran, was not only over freedom, democracy, and honest government—although these were important issues. The conflict was also over access to jobs, economic resources, power, and privilege. In the Philippines, this competition has so far remained confined to elites from roughly similar backgrounds. Whether the poorer social groups that have become politically aroused and mobilized during the past few months will organize to secure their share of the national cake remains to be seen.
In Iran, the economic and social space separating the ruling elite and the groups mobilized and politicized during a year of strikes and demonstrations was considerably greater. Moreover, Khomeini and his followers in Iran had a radically different vision of how society should be organized. This is not yet the case in the Philippines. That is why the Philippine crisis was “manageable,” while the Iranian crisis was not. That is also why the Philippines—so far—has mainly experienced a dramatic turnover of elites while Iran has had a revolution.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Answer to History (Stein and Day, 1980), p. 13.↩
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Answer to History (Stein and Day, 1980), p. 13.↩