Politics & Policy

Fall of the Shah

The price paid for the contradictions in U.S. policy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the late Peter Rodmans Presidential Command, examining a previous Democratic administration’s handling of a crisis in Iran.

When the shah stood with Jimmy Carter on the South Lawn of the White House for the welcoming ceremony for his state visit on November 15, 1977, mounted police in the distance were trying to contain a group of anti-shah demonstrators outside the White House grounds. Wafts of tear gas reached the South Lawn and the shah, the president, their wives, and other dignitaries found themselves mopping or rubbing their eyes to contain the tears. Carter saw it as an augury of the hostage crisis to come: “The tear gas had created the semblance of grief. Almost two years later, and for 14 months afterward, there would be real grief in our country because of Iran.” But the visit was an augury for a deeper reason — because what the president said to the shah during the visit reflected the contradictions in U.S. policy that would help bring that crisis about. In the public greeting on the South Lawn, Carter repeated the strong statements of U.S. solidarity with the shah and his country that every U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt had expressed. Once they repaired safely inside, after a larger meeting in the Cabinet Room, Carter took the shah aside to a small private room near the Oval Office and expressed his concerns about human rights in Iran; he urged the shah to consider reaching out to dissident groups and “easing off” on police actions against them. This kind of pressure from an American president on his internal policies was new to the shah; he responded politely but firmly that he would enforce his country’s laws.

As the domestic unrest within Iran grew to engulf the shah, this was to be the pattern of U.S. policy over the next 14 months — expressions of support, coupled with recommendations for political concessions to his opponents — a pattern that confused the shah and contributed to his hesitations; it had the same effect on the Iranian military, who we were expecting to be a stabilizing factor. In the context of the upheaval that was taking place, this U.S. posture was full of contradictions, reflecting divisions within the Carter administration and, in the end, a conflict within the president’s own mind.

The upheaval in Iran was the product of many causes and disparate forces. The shah failed to accompany the country’s rapid economic modernization with a political modernization that could have co-opted the middle classes into the system. He dealt harshly with his opposition. In 1953, when a leftist government that tried to topple him was itself toppled by the CIA, the shah enjoyed support from many key groups in the society, including the merchant class and the clergy. By 1978, his political rigidity had alienated them. Thus the revolution against him at first appeared to be a broad-based coalition embracing the merchants, students, and many moderate elements, in addition to the reactionary clerics; only gradually did it become clear that, as in Petrograd in 1917, vacuums are often filled by the most ruthless, the most disciplined, the most fanatical. And U.S. policy was helping create that vacuum.

There were two points of view in the U.S. government. One view, strongly held in the State Department, was, in essence, that the shah was a retrograde figure, that we should seize the opportunity to help effect a transition, and that moderate elements in the revolution represented a new order that we could get along with. The opposing view, represented especially by Zbigniew Brzezinski (and also James Schlesinger, whom Carter had appointed energy secretary), was that the shah was a strategic ally in a vital region and that if we undermined him, or the army, we were risking strategic disaster. Carter sided with Brzezinski for much of the period, determined to bolster the shah’s morale and his resistance to the revolutionary tide.

These reassurances were all the more necessary because the shah was highly susceptible to conspiracy theories. His foreign policy through his whole career had been grounded in the solid support of the United States; now he was in unfamiliar territory. From the beginning of the Carter administration he found U.S. policy to be “confusing and contradictory” and he assumed the worst. Henry Kissinger, visiting Iran as a private citizen in June 1978, found the shah convinced that Washington and Moscow were colluding to divide up Iran. Kissinger told him it was impossible. In September, the shah expounded the same theory to visiting Time correspondents, confiding to them his conviction that the CIA was backing the revolution. Unfortunately the head of French intelligence was telling the shah around the same time that the rumors that Carter wanted to replace him were true. And to his dying day he believed it was the American intention all along.

Despite the general view of the shah as a brutal dictator, his problem during this period was a weakness of will, exacerbated not only by these fears of American abandonment but perhaps also by the cancer that he knew (but we did not know) was killing him. During the summer and fall of 1978 he made concessions to his opposition and did not crack down ruthlessly; his police handled some protests brutally but only enough to inflame passions, not suppress them. The shah flirted with different political alternatives — either a coalition government that would seek to co-opt moderate elements from the opposition, or a military government that would restore his authority and allow him to reach out politically from a position of strength. Carter sent him a message in early November assuring him of U.S. support “without any reservation whatsoever, completely and fully,” whatever course of action he chose. Brzezinski conveyed the message to him personally by phone, because he and the president were concerned that the U.S. ambassador in Tehran, William Sullivan, and the State Department, were not conveying such clear-cut support in their own communications with the shah.

Other presidents, as we have seen, have had their frustrations with the State Department. What confronted and frustrated Jimmy Carter was a group of midlevel State officials intellectually and morally opposed to the shah on human-rights grounds, optimistic about America’s natural affinity with a revolution they continued to see as broad-based and reformist, and tenaciously bending the implementation of U.S. policy in their preferred direction whatever instructions they received from the president. Carter and Brzezinski were unable to impose their will on a determined Foreign Service, especially when Secretary of State Cyrus Vance acted as the spokesman and champion of the department’s view.

The shah in fact established a military government in early November, but it strengthened his position only briefly. A general strike began later in the month, and the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in exile, called for the shah’s violent overthrow. Carter and Brzezinski were still seeking to buck up the shah’s morale. Carter told Vance on November 10 “to be sure that the State Department officials below him supported my position — that the Shah should know that we are with him.” Brzezinski later wrote:

Sometimes the Shah expressed confidence that the military would get hold of the situation; on other occasions he would firmly state that he would not spill blood. Sullivan’s cables did not give one the impression that the American Ambassador was exerting himself to reinforce the Shah’s willpower.

At the turn of the year, the shah agreed to appoint the Western-educated moderate opposition figure Shapour Bakhtiar as prime minister of a coalition government. By this time the mounting pressures were so powerful that Bakhtiar felt compelled to ask, as a condition of taking office, that the shah leave Iran. This was a measure of how far and how rapidly the ground had shifted. The shah hesitated, looking to the U.S. government for advice. Whereas the president’s view had been — and remained — that the purpose of any political concessions was to enable the shah to remain in power, the State Department was explicitly of the view that the possibility of a moderate pro-Western government, with army support, now depended on the shah’s removal. Carter continued to reject this and was infuriated by continued leaks to the media suggesting U.S. doubts about the desirability of the shah’s remaining in power.

The shah vacillated between departing, as Bakhtiar and the opposition were clamoring for him to do, and ordering the military to suppress the opposition by force. His will was clearly flagging. In early November, when Newsweek correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave had told him that some of his foreign supporters would back his use of military force, the shah wept. “There had already been too much violence, he said; he would not be the cause of more bloodshed.” In a meeting with Ambassador Sullivan on December 26, the shah asked Sullivan point-blank what the United States wanted him to do. Sullivan’s reply embodied all the ambiguity that Brzezinski was struggling to avoid:

Sullivan reported [that he had told the shah] that the United States supported his efforts to reestablish law and order. The Shah asked then whether he was being advised to use the iron fist even if it meant widespread bloodshed and even if it might fail to restore law and order. Sullivan reported that he responded by saying that if the Shah was trying to get the United States to take the responsibility for his actions, he doubted that he would ever get such instructions from Washington. He was the Shah and he had to take the decision as well as the responsibility.

Brzezinski, disturbed by this ambiguity, arranged a meeting of principals in the White House to agree on a tougher follow-up message. The upshot was a complicated cable that Brzezinski, in his memoirs, cites as a considerable toughening of support — while Vance, in his memoirs, hails it as a clear message to the shah that we would not support his use of the “iron fist” to maintain his throne. Within days, bowing to what he saw as inevitable, the shah agreed to leave the country, in effect embracing the theory that without him, the moderate Bakhtiar government and the Iranian military could better maintain a cohesive resistance to the revolution than they could with him.

Focus then shifted to the role of the military. Carter dispatched a senior U.S. military officer, General Robert Huyser, then deputy U.S. commander in Europe, to talk to the Iranian military. Huyser’s declared mission was to help the military retain their cohesion to support the moderate government and the possibility of long-term collaboration with the United States. But this assignment masked its own ambiguity: Did we want the military to take over by force if that was the only way to stop the revolution, or not? Brzezinski’s hope was that it would do so. But just as Sullivan never answered that question when the shah asked him point-blank, so Jimmy Carter never answered it when Brzezinski strove to move U.S. policy to this ultimate step.

Once the shah departed his country on January 16, 1979, the U.S. government was left with only the illusion of a policy. The momentum of revolution was irreversible (and perhaps had been for some months). Khomeini’s triumphal return to Iran swept away the Bakhtiar government, and eventually also the moderate elements in the revolution. The military — like the shah, waiting for some signal from Washington that never came — were paralyzed by the Huyser mission, not galvanized. They had no experience of politics and, without the shah, the lifelong object of their loyalty, they were directionless; and so the army, too, disintegrated under the pressure of events.

For the purposes of this book, the lesson to draw is the price paid for the contradictions in U.S. policy, the ambivalences that were never resolved. Through most of the period, Carter supported Brzezinski’s view of the strategic stakes involved and repeatedly complained of leaks from State that undermined decisions he had made. But in the Carter system, State controlled the implementation of policy. The White House never trusted the U.S. embassy to deliver categorical messages of support as the president intended, but the president’s efforts to enforce his wishes were sporadic — at one point in February 1979 he met with a group of midlevel State officials and castigated them for disloyalty and leaking — and Brzezinski did not have the bureaucratic clout to enforce them on the president’s behalf. Nixon’s option of simply excluding and bypassing State was not available.

A second problem was that Carter’s agreement with Brzezinski’s tough line went only so far. As we saw, the desire to nudge the shah toward political liberalization was built into the policy from the beginning. Toward the end, the painful question was whether to advise the shah, or the military, explicitly to use force. Brzezinski favored doing so but the president did not; it reached the point that Brzezinski thought he was annoying Carter by continuing to raise it or hint at it. In the end, Carter, who prided himself on his morality and had campaigned on the contrast he drew with his predecessors, could not stomach such a course. Certainly Ambassador Sullivan was right that the shah ought not to be shifting such a burden onto our shoulders, but he did. Normally it would be a truism that the shah’s survival ought to be more important to him than to us; in this case, however — especially after the nightmare the world has lived through for a generation since then — the truth of that proposition is not so obvious. Carter, in any event, took refuge in repeated public statements that we had no desire to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran. This was an evasion.

To condone or endorse a military crackdown has to be one of the most agonizing questions any president could face, given the opprobrium that would be heaped on the United States for whatever role it played. For a Democratic president it was probably an impossibility. Of the chief executives we are considering in this book it is easiest to imagine Nixon making such a decision. Nixon was no stranger to opprobrium; indeed he tended fatalistically to consider it part of his lot whatever he did. He and Kissinger could understand clearly what the strategic stakes were. Brzezinski and Schlesinger did as well. But in advance of events, as opposed to hindsight, one is relying on intuition, and they found it impossible to convince their president of consequences that might be avoided if their advice were taken. Nor, in fairness, could anyone have imagined the strategic enormity of what did ensue.

– Excerpted from Presidential Command by Peter W. Rodman, © 2009 by Peter W. Rodman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.