In retrospect, the collapse of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the rise of a radical Islamic regime in his place have to be classed among the great strategic disasters of American foreign policy in the latter half of the 20th century.
Was this debacle inevitable, or could the U.S., under President Jimmy Carter, have taken effective action to prop up our ally?
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to Carter at the time and about all this he wrote something quite wise in his memoirs:
I felt strongly that successful revolutions were historical rarities, that they were inevitable only after they happened, and that an established leadership, by demonstrating both will and reason, could disarm the opposition through a timely combination of repression and concession.
But, of course, despite the efforts of Brzezinski and others serving Carter, the shah did not succeed in disarming the opposition, either via repression or concession. In the end, the Persian king of kings was toppled by an Islamic revolution, and after this happened, it too became “inevitable” when we look back at it.
Could the U.S. have kept our ally in power by some means? History cannot be rewound to answer that question (except perhaps via Hillary Clinton’s favorite television show, The Time Tunnel). But what can be demonstrated to an absolute certainty is that decision-making in the U.S. government in that period was catastrophically disordered.
To see such a demonstration one need go no further than an essay by Gregory Treverton in a fascinating new book, Dealing With Dictators: Dilemmas of U.S. Diplomacy and Intelligence Analysis, 1945-1990, which paints a devastating portrait of Carter’s handling of the Iran crisis in the last months and days of the shah’s reign.
Thanks in no small measure to his own cutbacks in the realm of human intelligence, Carter and his subordinates were driving blind in the dark. But even with their partial grasp of what was transpiring, they were wholly unprepared to act in a coherent way. Carter himself was caught between the imperatives of his much vaunted human-rights policy and his recognition of Iran’s vital strategic position. Evidently unable to reconcile the two in his mind, he zigzagged.
Thus, at a state dinner in Tehran in 1977, Carter toasted the shah for his “wisdom,” “judgment,” “sensitivity,” and “insight.” The Iranian leader, said the U.S. President, was “an island of stability” in the Middle East.
Two years later, when the going got rough, and the shah’s survival hung in the balance in the face of massive demonstrations and strikes, Carter was asked whether the shah could survive. His response was a case study in vacillation, timorousness, irresolution, and indecision:
I don’t know. I hope so. This is something that is in the hands of the people of Iran . . . . We personally prefer that the shah maintain a major role in government, but that is a decision for the Iranian people to make.
These words, writes Treverton, were taken by Iranians both inside the government and in the opposition “as an indication that the United States intended to dump the shah.” Try as Carter might to have his subordinates correct this impression, a “stream of clarifications and restatements issued over the following days in Washington could not change that reading.”
Carter’s words plunged the shah himself into a “deep depression.” Six weeks later he was gone. We are still dealing with his successors. The stakes in Iran were enormous back then. With nuclear weapons now entering the equation, they are even higher today.
To read about the destructive effects of a nuclear weapon, click here.
To read about how Jimmy Carter bungled the Iranian hostage crisis, click here.
To learn more about what I think about Jimmy Carter, and what he thinks about me, click here.
To read about why Jimmy Carter is our worst ex-president, click here.
To learn about peanut farming in the United States, click here.