Since the Shah insists that he has left Iran only for a winter vacation, isn’t there some way for Carter to send him pictures of snowbound Chicago and suggest he try Tahiti? This billionaire refugee spells trouble. The US government has a weakness for lost causes and for persisting in monumental misjudgments. It took Washington seventeen years to recognize the Russian Revolution, and twenty-nine to recognize China’s. We still feud with Castro’s. Nobody knows how many billions were wasted over the last half century in these Canute-like operations, all of them sheer nonsense since there has not been a major revolutionary regime yet that didn’t end up anxious for trade and good relations.

Now there is Iran’s revolution and the air is full of hysterical metaphors about crumbling crescents, arcs, and northern tiers. Each episode of unwillingness to adjust to reality, like a recurrent paranoia, has poisoned our domestic policy, making the test of loyalty whether one piously believed in the existence of the latest bogey. Remember the China lobby and the gold with which the Kuomintang, after it fled the mainland, played a part in fueling McCarthy and McCarthyism. The wounds of that time in the State Department and elsewhere have barely healed.

“Who lost Iran?” may prove a new installment in the loony-bin soap opera of American politics. It could be virulent, especially if a new factor is added—the presence here, as directing impresario, of the Shah himself. The American public has a characteristically democratic weakness for crowned heads; socialites swoon over them and the common people love to read about them. The Shah is a crowned head with a difference—considerably more than a billion dollars and a prolonged expertise in US public relations—and he is flanked by an aide, Ardeshir Zahedi, skilled above all other Washington ambassadors in the caviar and canopy circuit.

The Shah can rally formidable friends. Some of our biggest banks, from Chase Manhattan down, may see his restoration as the one sure hope of ever collecting billions in shaky loans. Our arms industry considers him its favorite customer. The oil trust can boast, when indiscreet, that his very dynasty was its creation. He is the CIA’s baby; it brought him back from a similar “vacation” once before, and may try again. Hungry academia, which will do anything for endowments, discovered scholarly attainments in his twin sister. If the Shah himself is now here in person we may see him, too, showered with honorary doctorates come commencement time.

The political possibilities, with 1980 approaching, are heady. The GOP may be tempted to recruit its first king. An unofficial spokesman for the Shah, in alerting the press in Tehran to his imminent departure, indicated the dynamic political possibilities when he said the Shah blamed his downfall on Jimmy Carter’s human rights campaign. Despotism, it seems, is steadier. We should have learned by now, but haven’t, to keep out of Iran’s domestic politics, and we may get a parallel lesson soon in keeping Iran’s politics out of ours.

If Iran brings us a new witch hunt, we may expect a new twist. For the first time Islamic theology may make its appearance in American political controversy. Some local infidel may ask: If a fundamentalist Islamic regime is a menace to American security on the northern side of the Persian Gulf, how come we treasure as a pillar of our security a fundamentalist Islamic regime to the south of the Gulf? Answer: Easy, you unlettered camel-driver, the Saudis are Wahhabi but the Iranians are Shiite. Such exotic hairs are not too fine to be split by an Ayatollah like Reagan. It won’t be funny to see us make fools of ourselves again.

What if the new Iranian regime makes demands of its own as the price of restoring good relations and the flow of oil? What if it lays claim—as Khomeini has already indicated—to the foreign holdings and bank accounts of the Shah and the Pahlevi Foundation? This may be one reason the Swiss have already shut their doors to the Shah. What if Iran sues in our courts with evidence that these holdings are the fruit of royal larcenies? What if it demands the Shah’s return for trial on charges of plundering his country? What if it accuses him, as absolute ruler, with responsibility for untold tortures and deaths at the hands of SAVAK? What if there is an attempt at a military coup? What if someone in our military has been giving their military promissory notes of American help? What if the coup also bogs down in the tumultuous streets of Iran? Will we have a well-heeled royal Iranian lobby stoking it up here for armed intervention?

—January 17

Copyright © 1979 by I.F. Stone

This Issue

February 22, 1979