Who Lost Iran?

Debacle: The American Failure in Iran

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

Shah as Ayatollah Khomeini
Shah as Ayatollah Khomeini; drawing by David Levine

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…

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