This week marks the 35th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, the popular uprising that successfully deposed the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Shah had ruled the country since September 1941, after Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran and forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi.
While myriad commentaries lamenting many of the consequences of the revolution have recently filled opinion pages of mainstream news outlets, very few provide any sort of context for why the Iranian people sought to overthrow the Shah in the first place. Even fewer detail the United States’ own culpability in the Shah’s reign, from planning the 1953 coup that ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh to backing the quarter-century of brutal tyranny that followed.
The Pahlavi regime’s reliance on the United States as its benefactor and arms dealer was no secret. The Shah’s Organization of Intelligence and National Security, known by its Persian acronym SAVAK, was created in 1957 with the help of American and Israeli intelligence agents and acted as the dictator’s personal secret police force, tasked with suppressing dissent and opposition to the monarchy.
As early as 1963, a report from the U.S. National Security Council noted that “it must not be forgotten that the Shah’s greatest single liability may well be his vulnerability to charges by both reactionary and radical opposition elements that he is a foreign puppet.”
Below are slightly-edited excerpts from an October 2012 article that appeared on my blog, Wide Asleep in America, covering much of the forgotten (or, at least, often ignored or obfuscated) history of American support for the Shah:
While between 1950 and 1963, the United States provided $829 million in military assistance to the Shah, in addition to $1.3 billion worth of new weapons systems, funding grew exponentially when Richard Nixon (who, as Eisenhower’s Vice President, had visited Iran shortly after the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne and was convinced of the Shah’s suitability as a regional policeman for U.S. interests in the Middle East) took office as President 15 years later. In the words of Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, describing an agreement made between the American president and the Shah of Iran in May 1972, “we adopted a policy which provides, in effect, that we will accede to any of the Shah’s requests for arms purchases from us (other than some sophisticated advanced technology armaments and with the very important exception, of course, of any nuclear weapons capability).”
Between 1970 and 1978, the United States bankrolled the Shah’s massive military buildup, agreeing to sell Iran $20 billion worth of sophisticated and powerful weaponry, including 80 F-14s, 169 Northrop F-5E an F-5F fighter planes, 209 McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, 160 General Dynamics F-16 fighters, 202 Bell Ah-IJ Cobra helicopter gunships, 326 troop-transporting helicopters, and 25,000 antitank missiles. At the time, Massachusetts Congressman Gerry E. Studds called the arms transfers “the most rapid buildup of military power under peacetime conditions of any nation in the history of the world” and journalist Michael Klare wrote, “Never…have arms transfer played such a central role in U.S. foreign policy as they did in Iran.” By the time the Shah was overthrown by the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. had already delivered at least $9 billion worth of armaments.
Throughout the 1970’s, Iran was the leading recipient of American weapons in the developing world; and by the end of the decade, thousands of American civilian contractors, trainers and advisers were working closely with the Iranian military. It has been reported that “[i]n total, during the 1970s Iran spent about 27 percent of its budget on the military and more than one-third of these purchases came from the United States” and that “[b]etween 1973-1978 Iranian military orders averaged $3.2 billion per year, representing on average 28 percent of all U.S. foreign military sales worldwide.”
As late as 1977, President Jimmy Carter, speaking at a New Years Eve state dinner, called the Shah’s Iran “an island of stability” in an otherwise turbulent Middle East. The American president declared, “This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you,”and later claimed, “The cause of human rights is one that also is shared deeply by our people and by the leaders of our two nations.”
Noting the “irreplaceable” friendship between Iran and the United States, Carter stressed, “We have no other nation on Earth who is closer to us in planning for our mutual military security. We have no other nation with whom we have closer consultation on regional problems that concern us both. And there is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship.”
Carter said this at a time when in Iran, under the Shah, “dissent was ruthlessly suppressed, in part by the use of torture in the dungeons of SAVAK, the [American and Israeli-trained] secret police,” Time magazine reported after the revolution, adding:
The depth of its commitment to the Shah apparently blinded Washington to the growing discontent. U.S. policymakers wanted to believe that their investment was buying stability and friendship; they trusted what they heard from the monarch, who dismissed all opposition as ‘the blah-blahs of armchair critics.’
Such commitment to the belief in the Shah’s “stability” and inevitable longevity was evidenced in many U.S. intelligence assessments at the time. For example, as Jeffrey T. Richelson recalls in Wizards of Langley: “A sixty-page CIA study completed in August 1977, Iran in the 1980s, had asserted that ‘there will be no radical change in Iranian political behavior in the near future’ and that ‘the Shah will be an active participant in the Iranian life well into the 1980s.’
That same year, renowned Iranian poet and author Reza Baraheni, writing in The Nation, directly addressed American influence and intervention in Iran, in service of the Shah’s oppression. Noting the “Americans who are working in Iran for the Shah or his Americans allies,” Baraheni explained, “They train the Shah’s army, police and SAVAK (the horrendous secret police); they teach Iranian armed personnel how to apply methods of counterinsurgency, how to interrogate arrested men and women; and they instruct the Shah’s intelligence networks in modern techniques of surveillance.”
The Americans in Iran, Baraheni wrote, “die for the Shah of Iran, for his intelligence network, for his SAVAK and for the interests of the big corporations; in sum, for the perpetuation of the Shah’s hegemony over more than 34 million people. The 31,000 Americans now in Iran are at war with the people of that country, if not actually and openly, at least potentially and secretly.” In fact, American support and control in the Shah’s Iran was so ubiquitous, Baraheni revealed, “Any state in the United States is more independent from the federal government than Iran could hope to be from the State Department, the Pentagon, or the big corporations.”
A mere eighteen months before the revolution began, the Inspector General of the U.S. Foreign Service concluded, “There is no effective internal challenge to [the Shah’s] leadership.” Another CIA report from mid-1978 and entitled “Iran After the Shah,” affirmed that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘prerevolutionary’ situation.”
As Time pointed out in its January 7, 1980 report:
Even after the revolution began, U.S. officials were convinced that ‘there is no alternative to the Shah.’ Carter took time out from the Camp David summit in September 1978 to phone the Iranian monarch and assure him of Washington’s continued support.
Popular street demonstrations against the Shah’s rule became frequent throughout Iran in 1978 (as was the killing of protesters by government forces) and, eventually, many cities were placed under martial law. During a peaceful demonstration in Tehran on September 8, 1978, government security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing and wounding hundreds.
Nevertheless, that very month, the U.S. State Department expressed its confidence that the Shah would retain his control over Iran, though perhaps without “the same position of unquestioned authority he formerly enjoyed.”
At the same time that nationwide strikes spread throughout bazaars, banks, the oil and gas industry, newspapers, customs and post offices, mining and transportation sectors, as well as most universities and high schools, an “Intelligence Assessment” released by the Defense Intelligence Agency declared that the Shah “is expected to remain actively in power over the next ten years.”
As the Shah’s position continued to weaken, there were many in Washington who encouraged more brutal tactics to put down dissent and restore the monarchy to unquestioned authority and stability. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, was an advocate of this “iron fist” approach. As recalled by Henry Precht, the State Department’s Iran Desk Director at the time, Brzezinski and others were advising the Shah “to send troops out and shoot down as many people as necessary and bring an end to the rebellion once and for all.”
On October 27, 1978, as the revolution surged, the CIA issued another report, this one suggesting that “the political situation [in Iran] is unlikely to be clarified at least until late next year when the Shah, the Cabinet, and the new parliament that is scheduled to be elected in June begin to interact on the political scene.” Still, U.S. Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan maintained, “It is our destiny to work with the Shah.”
Shortly thereafter, on November 2, 1978, President Carter wrote in his diary, “The shah expressed deep concern about whether to set up an interim government, a military government, or perhaps even to abdicate. We encouraged him to hang firm and count on our backing.” Four days later, he wrote, “Over the weekend, I sent the shah a message that whatever action he took, including setting up a military government, I would support him. We did not want him to abdicate, which he had threatened to do. He is not a strong leader but very doubtful and unsure of himself.” (White House Diary, p. 257-8)
Going so far as to consider empowering the Iranian military to stage a coup to save the Shah’s reign in early 1979, Carter insisted, “We are sticking with the shah until we see a clear alternative.” (p. 272)
Just a few weeks later, in the face of a massive popular uprising representing the end of millennia of monarchy in Iran, the Shah and his wife Farah fled Iran in early 1979, never to return. They flew to Egypt, where they received a warm welcome by Anwar Sadat.