A Big Bungle

All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran

by Gary Sick
Random House, 366 pp., $19.95

The Pride and the Fall: Iran 1974–1979

by Anthony Parsons
Jonathan Cape (distributed by Merrimack), 160 pp., $15.95

William Sullivan
William Sullivan; drawing by David Levine

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…

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