Goodbye to America’s Shah
Any regime considered by its attentive public to be an American creation, or at least dependent on the U.S., will be fundamentally fragile.
Americans must recognize two facts governing the situation in Iran. One is the breadth of support for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini among politically sophisticated intellectuals as well as millions of urban and rural Iranians who never before participated in the political process. The other is the complete absence among these same people of loyalty for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who is regarded as a traitor, a creation of American and British imperialism. In their view, the shah's regime reflected American interests as faithfully as Vidkun Quisling's puppet government in Norway reflected the interests of Nazi Germany in World War II. The shah's defense program, his industrial and economic transactions, and his oil policy were all considered by most Iranians to be faithful executions of American instructions. Ultimately, the United States was blamed for the thousands killed during the last year by the Iranian army, which was trained, equipped, and seemingly controlled by Washington. Virtually every wall in Iran carried a slogan demanding the death of the "American shah."
Reluctantly and belatedly, the American media and most Washington officials came to recognize Khomeini's great popularity and the discipline he exercises over his followers. The extent of Khomeini's support was manifested when a total of 8 million Iranians marched in peaceful and orderly ranks in different cities last December 11.
To be sure, there was a growing fascination in the media with this new and exotic world figure who gave interviews sitting on the floor of a modest house outside Paris, speaking with simple force and bluntness. But the Iranian feelings about a rapacious American policy implemented by a puppet shah were scarcely understood in the United States, which embraced the myth that the Iranian people had turned on a benevolent monarch who erred only in attempting to modernize his country too rapidly. American observers were bemused and angered by Iranian students who demonstrated against the shah in U.S. cities. Why did they engage in such pointless acts, some of which even damaged property, so far from their own country? The fact had not penetrated the American consciousness that Iranians believed the central direction for the shah's policies originated in Washington.
Americans must recognize two facts governing the situation in Iran. One is the breadth of support for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini among politically sophisticated intellectuals as well as millions of urban and rural Iranians who never before participated in the political process. The other is the complete absence among these same people of loyalty for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who is regarded as a traitor, a creation of American and British imperialism. In their view, the shah’s regime reflected American interests as faithfully as Vidkun Quisling’s puppet government in Norway reflected the interests of Nazi Germany in World War II. The shah’s defense program, his industrial and economic transactions, and his oil policy were all considered by most Iranians to be faithful executions of American instructions. Ultimately, the United States was blamed for the thousands killed during the last year by the Iranian army, which was trained, equipped, and seemingly controlled by Washington. Virtually every wall in Iran carried a slogan demanding the death of the "American shah."
Reluctantly and belatedly, the American media and most Washington officials came to recognize Khomeini’s great popularity and the discipline he exercises over his followers. The extent of Khomeini’s support was manifested when a total of 8 million Iranians marched in peaceful and orderly ranks in different cities last December 11.
To be sure, there was a growing fascination in the media with this new and exotic world figure who gave interviews sitting on the floor of a modest house outside Paris, speaking with simple force and bluntness. But the Iranian feelings about a rapacious American policy implemented by a puppet shah were scarcely understood in the United States, which embraced the myth that the Iranian people had turned on a benevolent monarch who erred only in attempting to modernize his country too rapidly. American observers were bemused and angered by Iranian students who demonstrated against the shah in U.S. cities. Why did they engage in such pointless acts, some of which even damaged property, so far from their own country? The fact had not penetrated the American consciousness that Iranians believed the central direction for the shah’s policies originated in Washington.
What was the basis for this perception of American control? Why has so little been done to counter that perception? And how has it affected the Carter administration’s ability to deal with the crisis in Iran?
One problem is that American diplomacy has seemed to be ignorant of Iranian history. Khomeini’s movement did not spring up suddenly and magically in the past few months; its roots lie deep in Iran’s ancient past. More clearly, it is a continuation of the movement for fundamental change that has been developing for over a century. From the late nineteenth century to the present day, religious and secular intellectuals, who were often in alliance with progressive bourgeois elements, have worked to bring Iran genuine independence, free institutions, and a revival of Islamic and Iranian cultural values.
The coalition’s triumphs included the withdrawal of a British tobacco concession in 1892, the constitutional revolution of 1906, the rejection of the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, the installation of the government of Mohammad Mossadeq in the early 1950s, and now the termination of the royal dictatorship in 1979. The composition of this movement has changed significantly over the years: In 1906 it consisted of a narrow religious and secular intellectual elite; in 1951 Mossadeq’s charismatic leadership brought liberal, nationalist values to it, although he reached only 10-15 percent of the population; by 1979 Khomeini’s popularity is pervasive, and the movement reflects a widely shared Islamic, humanist ideology.
The external powers most involved in Iran, at first Russia and Britain and now the United States and the Soviet Union, have seen this conglomerate movement as destabilizing and hence a threat to their precarious modus vivendi. Each has feared that the other would take advantage of any chaos to establish its own pre-eminence. Grimly aware of this attitude, Iranian governments often pursued a policy of "negative balance" in order to preserve at least a modicum of national sovereignty.
Some Iranians were always prepared to try to exploit great-power rivalry for their personal interests. But until the 1950s, the tendency was to believe that the American people and government were genuinely sympathetic to Iranian yearnings for national independence. This positive image resulted primarily from the services of private Americans, particularly W. Morgan Shuster, the financial adviser, and Samuel Jordan, a missionary educator who symbolized American generosity. Their services actually had no official U.S. government sanction, but a reading of American diplomatic correspondence through World War II does demonstrate that
U.S. officials in Iran were for a time generally favorable to Iranian national aspirations and understood Iran’s sensitivity to foreign intervention.
Except for the far left, which always interpreted American policy as a reflection of capitalist interests. Iranians assumed the United States would be the protector of Mossadeq’s regime, whose philosophy was liberal, democratic, and nationalist. However, once U.S. pre-eminence in the Western camp was established, the American government responded to Mossadeq just as British administrations had responded to earlier manifestations of the same impulses. Blind to the liberal nationalism of the movement, an American administration dominated by the Dulles brothers and reacting to a wave of anti-Communism intervened in collaboration with a group of Iranian rightists. Apparently, although Mossadeq was supported by the bazaar and most of the middle class, Washington perceived him to be revolutionary enough to be a destabilizing influence, and destabilization in any country bordering on the Soviet Union was thought to be the first step toward Communist subversion.
The American -British -Iranian rightist conspiracy to overthrow Mossadeq succeeded in spite of itself. The initial effort on Aug. 16, 1953, failed, and the shah fled Iran in unseemly haste. But then, throwing aside any pretense of non-involvement, American Ambassador Loy Henderson openly orchestrated continuing coup efforts. The unconcealed American involvement in the removal of Mossadeq, who had come to symbolize Iran’s search for national dignity, denied the successor regime any legitimacy. The widespread awareness of the American role in aborting nationalist leadership is the basis for the distrust of U.S. policy in Iran today.
The ensuing regime was not the royal dictatorship of the shah, but the repressive regime of General Fazlollah Zahedi, a tough one-time collaborator of Nazi efforts in Iran (and the father of Ardeshir Zahedi, the shah’s former foreign minister and his last ambassador in Washington). The Iranian and foreign planners of the coup had not considered the shah temperamentally suited for absolute rule. As prime minister and strong man of Iran, the elder Zahedi set up an internal security system (with full American help), which subsequently became the basis for the shah’s control. Zahedi presided over the negotiations with a foreign oil consortium that led to the reopening of Iran’s refineries, eventually providing the income for the shah’s modernization programs. But Zahedi gained a reputation for brutality and corruption, and he lacked either the inclination or the ability to construct a strong personal basis for support. In 1955 the shah dismissed him, and the royal dictatorship was an established fact.
At that point the shah could have dissociated his regime from the Americans and the British. His reluctance to participate in the coup was a well-advertised fact, and Zahedi bore the onus of an unpopular oil agreement. To dissociate, however, the shah would have had to attract supporters of Mossadeq into his government and allow them some freedom in policy making. He likewise would have been forced to adopt a stance of nonalignment. Instead, he fully associated his regime with American foreign policy and accepted continuing American aid in constructing a formidable internal security apparatus. By 1960 he had become the symbol of American domination of Iran.
U.S. policy entailed almost total support for the shah throughout the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Not incidentally, these were the years of seeming stability in Iran. The coercive control apparatus, especially SAVAK (the security and information agency), convinced the Iranian people that it was omnipresent, omniscient, and entirely ruthless. It was generally accepted in opposition circles that the number of political prisoners was in the range of 50,000-100,000, and there were detailed and convincing reports of brutal torture. Iran’s military was nearly half a million strong, and its equipment was becoming the best that money could buy. For all but the committed core of opponents and each year’s crop of student-aged activists, the regime appeared invulnerable. The Iranians, the power behind this apparatus giving instructions to everyone, including the torturers, was the U.S. government.
These were years of great economic growth in Iran. From 1963 until the oil price escalation of 1973, inflation was minor, and many Iranians enjoyed a substantial growth in real income. Land reform drove many peasants to the cities, and agribusinesses absorbed the most productive agricultural property. But employment was high, and the swelling population of the cities was absorbed in the industrial work force. Education and health services were expanded, and the infrastructure rapidly developed.
Most of the industrial growth was geared to satisfy expanding consumer demands. Automobiles began to choke city streets. University-educated Iranians returned from study abroad — in some cases from political opposition — and were enticed into the system by high salaries and the promise of influence. It asks a great deal of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the foreign service, and the business community that they should have realized this apparent stability was a surface phenomenon that concealed fundamental fragility.
This fragility was even less likely to be detected as Iran met the Nixon Doctrine ideal: an Asian government ready and anxious to be the regional surrogate for American interests. True, there were incongruous elements in the shah’s policy-the purchase of Soviet trucks and artillery, for example. In fact, Soviet-Iranian relations were friendly through much of the royal dictatorship and included substantial economic and industrial cooperation.
But the shah was careful to protect U.S. interests as well. Although he initiated the increase in oil prices by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973, he nonetheless proclaimed his determination to assure the security of vital oil shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. He took steps to stamp out radical movements such as the rebellion in the Dhofar province of Oman. In addition to supporting the rightist cause in Lebanon, he joined with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in encouraging a hopeless rebellion of the Kurds in Iraq. Most important, after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the shah strengthened ties with Anwar El-Sadat in Egypt and gave full support to American peace efforts in the Middle East. Even the oil price rise could be forgiven considering the shah’s generous purchase of American arms and his contracts with U.S. corporations.
The expectation that Iran would act as a "trip wire" in the event of a Soviet invasion, giving the United States time to prepare to meet the attack, may have been unrealistic. Nonetheless, the shah was of vital importance to the United States as a regional stabilizer. Little wonder that under Kissinger, as under Lyndon Johnson, all contact with the opposition was broken off; Washington was not about to risk annoying a faithful friend.
There were other, less successful aspects of development in Iran. The income gap between the rich and the poor was enormous, reflecting the regime’s preference for the wealthy and the large economic enterprises. Corruption was pervasive and exquisite in form, and the royal family was possibly the most enthusiastic participant. Agricultural productivity faltered seriously, causing Iran to become a heavy food importer. Land speculation drove housing prices beyond the reach of even reasonably well-salaried Iranians. Trade unions were tightly controlled.
Meanwhile, the shah was squandering up to a third of a one-generation oil income on arms for which few Iranians could see any conceivable security need. Public distrust of the military was deepened by the regime’s coddling of the armed forces. The shah’s foreign policy seemed to serve two interests: the shah’s needs for grandeur and the imperial designs of the United States.
Three schools of opinion emerged in Iran during the period 1963 to 1977. First, among the security forces, the newly rich, and a technocratic core, there was genuine enthusiasm for the shah and his dream of an Iran with the domestic prosperity and world influence of a West Germany. Second, there was a large acquiescent majority that resented the regime, its corruption, and its foreign domination but saw no alternative to surviving and even profiting within the system. (With strangers, this group was careful to give the impression of supporting the shah.) Third, there was an opposition group that held a deep conviction that the shah was a traitor, a faithful servant of American and Western capitalist interests, and a man who tyrannized and brutalized his own people, willingly replacing Iran’s own rich national and Islamic culture with a Hilton-style Western import. Iranians holding the third view comprised much of the liberal intelligentsia, activist youth, and a growing proportion of bazaar and religious leaders.
After the oil price rise of 1973, Iran’s economic growth rate soared, but so did inflation. Great fortunes were amassed by the favored few, but for the salaried majority, real income increased very little or even declined. By 1977 there was a predisposition for revolution. The only group with any influence that mingled with the distressed masses was the priestly class, and in many mosques sermons became increasingly open in their criticism of the shah.
The popularity of Khomeini — a man who, unlike most Iranians, had opposed the regime consistently, courageously, and with simple dignity — surged, as did interest in the writings of Ali Shariati. A sociologist and deeply devoted Muslim, Shariati extolled the virtues of Islam and called for Islamic social activism to bring justice to the masses and an end to despotism and tyranny. Exiled to London in 1977, Shariati died unexpectedly a few weeks later and his followers have attributed his death to SAVAK.
A Deadly Rhythm
It was at this critical point that the newly elected American president, Jimmy Carter, proclaimed the centrality of human rights in American foreign policy. Given the Iranians’ conviction that the United States could exercise ultimate control in Iran, Carter’s advocacy of human rights aroused intense interest, even excitement. Opposition elements quickly tested to see if the boundaries of freedom were being broadened. The first attempts were cautious, in the form of open letters that scarcely mentioned the shah. Clearly uncertain about Carter’s seriousness of purpose, the shah acquiesced in these activities and made a few moves of his own toward liberalization.
But by the fall of 1977, opposition activities had developed a momentum. Criticism moved ever closer to the shah, and a group of prominent Iranians formed the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights and Liberty, a coalition representing a broad sweep of Iran’s non-Communist opposition that quickly became the focal point of demands for fundamental change.
At first there was little appreciation on any side of the dangers resulting from the shah’s half-hearted efforts to advance the state of political freedom in Iran. The truth is that the shah simply could not afford genuine liberalization of Iran in 1977. The opposition Iranian press published in Europe and the United States was saying precisely what a free press in Iran would have said about the regime-that it owed its allegiance to a foreign power, was corrupt and unconcerned with social justice, was wasting precious oil income on unnecessary arms, and the like.
As long as the regime appeared invulnerable, the large majority of Iranians avoided saying these things openly. But as economic distress grew and the regime began to appear vulnerable, more and more Iranians showed their disenchantment. When the security forces proved unable to deal with the rioting in Tabriz in February 1978, a mass migration to the banner of Khomeini began. By the summer of that year, virtually all of the formerly acquiescent section of the population had joined the core opposition. The shah was left with the officer corps as his only substantial base of support.
The effect of the Carter administration in Iran was unquestionably catalytic. But that was also both inadvertent and innocent. Cut off from any direct contact with the opposition, U.S. government analysts were denied exposure to attitudes that were beginning to characterize the majority of Iranians. U.S. policy in late 1977 suggests Carter feared that any significant pressure on the shah to liberalize would be seriously destabilizing. The opposition was explicit in soliciting American support of its campaign for political rights, but the U.S. government failed even to acknowledge its existence.
When Carter traveled to Tehran in December of that year, he ignored a brave statement by 29 opposition leaders and remarked only on the shah’s faithfulness, his stability, and his popularity. Within weeks four of the signatories of the statement were attacked by government agents and several were arrested. After hundreds of Iranians had been shot down in the streets by American-equipped soldiers, Carter took time off from the Camp David summit to telephone a message of support to the shah. This destroyed any lingering hope Iranians had placed in Carter. Thus, although his human rights advocacy contributed to destabilization of the royal dictatorship, Carter not only received no credit, he was considered grossly hypocritical.
The American role in the rapid deterioration of the shah’s position was, however, relatively minor. Primary responsibility rests with the shah’s own erratic responses. Reacting to diverse pressures, advice, and impulses, he followed a deadly rhythm. Liberalizing concessions were succeeded by acts of brutal suppression, then dismissals of loyal if blundering civilian and security officers, followed by more liberalizing concessions. The shah seemed variously weak, vicious, disloyal — and ultimately mortally vulnerable.
By the end of 1978 American policy had few options. Uncomfortably aware that every act of repression was attributed to the American embassy and shocked at the momentum of disintegration. American officials were deeply divided in their analyses. Dissociation now from the shah, even in a most subtle form, would only accelerate the process of disintegration. Even so minor an act as making contact with the opposition could induce panic in the shah, who feared a CIA move to replace him. Some policy makers, who viewed the situation from a cold war perspective, suspected that the Soviet Union was somehow orchestrating the entire crisis, building up to an Afghanistan-style coup. But even if the assessment were correct — and it lacks empirical support — there was no self-evident remedy short of encouraging a military coup, and that with no assurance of success. Such a step would no doubt have resulted in a brutally repressive regime, attributed entirely to the United States.
At a more knowledgeable level, there was a willingness to consider the prospect of an Islamic republic, with Khomeini lending legitimacy to a prime minister and cabinet. While they hoped this might lead to a stable government interested in a vigorous trade relationship with the United States, Europe, and Japan, sensible policy makers were acutely aware that the transition period would be dangerous at best, and there was little U.S. policy could do to make it less so. To Iranians, American policy was all-powerful. In reality, by the time the crisis was well developed. American influence was minor.
Is there a lesson to be learned from this case? And can American governmental institutions learn the lesson? The answer to the first question should be yes, to the second, almost certainly no. Iran is a dramatic example of the fruits of cold war interventionist policies in strategically vital Third World countries. The royal dictatorship in Iran has its counterparts throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, in governments perceived by important sections of the public as loyal executors of U.S. policy. Regimes such as those of Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, and King Hassan of Morocco are similarly denied nationalist legitimacy, and they are parallel in vulnerability.
The lesson of Iran is dearly applicable elsewhere: Any regime considered by its attentive public to be an American creation, or at least dependency, will be fundamentally fragile. An effective remedy to cold war-initiated policies requires a dissociation strategy, conducted in a period of domestic stability that is designed to counter perceptions of American control. But as the flight of 15 unarmed F-15s to Saudi Arabia illustrates, the United States is more prone to dramatic gestures of association than to dissociation. The case of Iran argues that American policy makers are least likely to challenge comfortable if unsupportable assumptions during a period of stability: They will concern themselves with the internal vulnerability of such a regime only when that vulnerability becomes utterly undeniable and catastrophic.
More from Foreign Policy
China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance
Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.
The Taliban Are Breaking Bad
Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.
Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.
What the Taliban Takeover Means for India
Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.