Small World: An unhappy bit of history

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

“If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing,” Kingsley Amis, “Lucky Jim.”

A BNews critic wrote recently, “Henry was the Iranian Desk Officer for the State Department when we failed to support the Shah in 1978, 1979. Had we, many lives, dollars, etc. would have been saved.”

Annoying and ill-informed.

The Shah was a complete autocrat: He was responsible for his regime’s successes and for its ultimate failure. A diffident, insecure man at core, he was infected with megalomania when oil prices skyrocketed and Nixon and Kissinger bathed him with praise. When popular demonstrations broke out, he alternated between shooting people and promising a more liberal polity in the future. During the second half of 1978 when I was desk officer, conditions in Iran progressively worsened: marching demonstrators numbering over a million Iranians on religious holidays, the Central Bank, government agencies and oil facilities on strike, random shootings, martial law. Virtual chaos.

The Shah had a secret that we with our super intelligence didn’t know: he suffered from terminal cancer. He desperately wanted to pass his crown to his teenage son and dreaded a bloody transition. He had been supported by the United States his entire reign and knew nowhere else to turn, having lost touch with his own people. As the crisis deepened, he asked for tear gas. After some internal bureaucratic squabbling (before my time), it was provided. In terms of other “support,” no one even thought of sending American troops. When he asked for supportive rhetoric, he got it from the White House. When a contact with the Ayatollah Khomeini, his opponent, was planned, the White House vetoed it out of sensitivity for the Shah’s reaction. Think of any other kind of support we could have provided to him?

The Shah feared Carter even before the Georgian was nominated. Another liberal Democrat, just like Kennedy, he thought, who would try to push him to the left. In his campaign, Carter spoke of human rights and limits on arms sales; the Shah wanted nothing to do with either. After Carter took office, despite the president’s repeated efforts to assuage his fears, Iran’s sovereign was never sure of where he stood with Washington.

In Washington thinking, there were two stark choices for dealing with the revolution (we didn’t use that word) — the “iron fist” (a brutal crackdown) or liberalization. Carter’s national security advisor, Dr. Brzezinski, promoted the former view, considering the Shah an important component in the Cold War against the Soviets. Carter, believing he should not tell another leader how to run his country, declined to proffer advice to the Shah. I, earlier than most mid-level analysts, concluded that the Shah could not prevail in a war against his own people and the United States should prepare to deal with another, post-Shah, Iran. I did not think that Iranian soldiers would continue to shoot their own people. Troops would turn on their commanders. Ultimately, that was what happened.

Would it have made a difference to Iran’s future if Carter had offered “supportive” advice and told the Shah to (1.) crack down hard or, alternatively, (2.) ease up gradually? In my view today as then, either choice would have been futile. The former, bloodier, would be worse for a future recovery of an American position in Iran and a greater loss of “many lives, dollars, etc.” Iran, like many countries around the globe, was going to make its own decisions and go its own way — despite our coaching and preferred directions. Some of the choices Tehran made have been disastrous for them — i.e., the hostage crisis — and Iran has paid a heavy price.

Maybe, despite annoying critics, once the nuclear agreement is final, Iran and the United States can begin again slowly, gradually to move towards a more balanced and productive relationship. I hope the American Congress will lend its support to that effort.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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