Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Fall of the Shah - One of America's Worst Foreign Policy Blunder

I have always believed that one of America's worst foreign policy blunders was its failure to support the Shah of Iran and defeat Islamic extremists back in 1979 - obviously the Vietnam War and the Iraq War may take the prize for the worse blunders, The Iraq War proving that nothing had been learned from the Vietnam fiasco.  Now a new book, "The Fall of Heaven,” by Andrew Scott Cooper, looks at the Shah and argues that much about the Shah was misinterpreted and that the United States and many in the media were duped and played for fools by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his fellow Islamic extremist revolutionaries.  From the fall of the Shah forward in time the Islamic fundamentalist in Iran have helped spread Islamic terror across the Middle East.  Ironically, Iran's regional arch rival, Saudi Arabia, has funded the same spread of terrorism.   I just received the book today, but a review in the Washington Post looks at the book and some of its disturbing findings. Here are excerpts:

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, known as the shah, has always been portrayed as both ruthless and craven — the last emperor of Iran who fled on the eve of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Nearly four decades after his death, a new book offers a more sympathetic, nuanced portrait of him and the dynasty he was born into. In “The Fall of Heaven,” Andrew Scott Cooper uses newly declassified U.S. documents from the Carter administration, interviews with the shah’s aides and revolutionary leaders as well as his own research in Iran to make the case that the shah has been misinterpreted, reduced to “a bloodless enigma.” Cooper, a Middle East specialist and the author of “Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East,” offers a convincing narrative about who the man was and the dynamics that led to his downfall. The shah came to power in 1941 after the British and the Soviets forced his father, Reza Pahlavi, to abdicate in his favor. He survived two major political upheavals, and by the early 1960s, oil wealth enabled him to modernize Iran. Religious leaders, however, accused him of Westernizing the country. Communist and nationalist activists criticized him, saying he distributed wealth and power among the ruling elite. His secret police grew more repressive, seeking to end opposition but instead alienating students and intellectuals.
The seeds of the shah’s downfall began in 1977, Cooper argues, after Saudi Arabia flooded markets with cheap oil. The shortfall in Iran’s oil revenue, combined with a drought, forced dissatisfied laborers to flock to larger cities, looking for work. The shah introduced political and social liberalization to ease the mood, unaware, Cooper notes, that his policies provided religious extremists with a context to mobilize the masses against him. According to Cooper, by the time he left the country in January 1979 the shah had, by his reforms, reduced his role to that of a constitutional figure­head. A series of missteps, economic disruptions and miscalculations by Western powers, as well as a well-funded opposition, crippled the shah’s efforts to save himself.
 Most shocking perhaps were the deceptive tactics the opposition used to demonize him. Cooper claims, for example, that Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, a nationalist-left activist who deposed the shah with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and later served as the first president, told him how they manipulated the Western media’s coverage of Iran. The revolutionaries “studied western journalists’ reporting methods, fed them story ideas, steered them toward sympathetic interviewees, and supplied them with the revolutionary movement’s facts and figures,” Cooper argues, citing Bani-Sadr. This led to the publication of grossly inflated numbers of activists jailed and executed by the shah’s secret police. The figures, Cooper says, helped provoke anti-shah sentiments and were not corrected, even after Red Cross inspectors investigated and rejected the claims. Revolutionaries themselves, the book notes, have since refuted the numbers. To bolster the impression that the shah was bent on murdering his people, the opposition initiated violence and blamed it on the shah. In the year before the victory of the revolution, the Islamists burned hundreds of private businesses, including cinemas, Cooper writes. The most brutal attack came in August 1978, when 430 men, women and children were burned to death at Rex Cinema in the southern city of Abadan — the worst arson since World War II. The inferno was intended “to destabilize and panic Iranian society,” Cooper argues. It also successfully fanned the flames of hostility toward the shah across the country.  The culprit, . . . was Hossein Takbalizadeh, an Islamist linked to a local Khomeini underground cell who was eventually tried and convicted of murder by an Iranian court after the revolution.
 The arrival of William Sullivan, U.S. ambassador to Tehran, in the summer of 1977 was not good news for the shah, Cooper contends. “He showed little or any sensitivity to the unique pressures that the shah faced at home by supporting U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East . . . . Sullivan continued to dismiss worries by moderate religious leaders — including opponents of the shah — over the consequences of the shah’s departure, arguing that their fears “were not very coherent or well reasoned.” It was only in the shah’s final days in Iran, Cooper concludes, that “Ambassador Sullivan received crucial intelligence suggesting that he might have backed the wrong horse after all.”
 Until the end, “nationalism was like a religion” for the shah, Cooper argues. Over nearly four decades, the shah transformed a backward, poverty-stricken country into a powerful one with the most educated workforce in the Middle East. This sober narrative will resonate with many Iranians — including myself — who lived under the grim conditions Khomeini introduced after the revolution. As other countries in the Middle East are going through similar transformations and vying for political reform, Cooper reminds us of the ability of power-hungry leaders, capable of manipulating people’s desire for change, to build even more brutal and unaccountable systems.

I have always seen parallels between the fall of the Russian imperial dynasty to the Bolsheviks and the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty to  Khomeini and his thugs.  In each case the revolutionaries who claimed to represent the people once in power unleashed a blood bath of repression and set back the respective nations by decades.  And like Lenin, Khomeini had been exiled instead of executed as, in my view, he deserved.  The Bolsheviks referred to Nicholas II as "bloody Nicholas," yet then went on to murder millions - tens of millions if one counts Stalin's famines in the early 1930's to wipe out wealthy peasants.  Khomeini depicted the Shah as a wanton murder, yet it was his own regime that oversaw a vast bloodbath using, of course, religion as a justification.

The Shah's real sin in the eyes of Khomeini and his faction was that he was modernizing and westernizing Iran and in the process weakening the power of the "holy men" and the hatred and ignorance they represent.  America should have fully supported the Shah and assisted in stamping out Khomeini and his fellow Islamic extremist.  Had that been done, much of the horrors since 1979 might have been avoided. 
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, in 1954


Candide said...

Having some personal first hand familiarity with Iranians during that period, you neglect to point out that this despot had a secret police force that terrorized his people. This was not simply a good man in a bad situation. And he did not simply fight religious fundamentalism in his country. He was widely hated by liberals there for his oppressive dictatorship as well as the religious. And while the argument can be made that what followed was worse than what preceded, it should be noted that this was NOT a benevolent leader of Iran.

Michael-in-Norfolk said...

I by no means believe that the Shah was a totally benevolent ruler. But at times, the choice is between the lesser of evils and with a longer term view. Far more deaths have occurred under the Islamic Republic than ever occurred under the Shah. Moreover, rather than modernizing the country, expanding rights, especially for women, the Islamic Republic strives to impose Medieval religious belief on all citizens. The question remains this: if the U.S. had backed the Shah and the Islamic extremist had been crushed, might so many horror that have plagued the Middle East and elsewhere due to the cancer of Islamic fundamentalism been avoided.

Candide said...

And the choice was not ours to make. The US interfered in keeping this man in authority for years, and when his people overthrew him, Iran turned on us with a vengeance on America as well. Our tendency to meddle in these foreign affairs should have been a warning to Shrub that his Iraq adventures were unlikely to end well, either.

Michael-in-Norfolk said...

I completely agree that George W. Bush and Emperor Palpatine Cheney learned nothing from the Iran disaster or from the Vietnam War fiasco. I recall seeing the movie "The Fog of War" with a former law partner who had served in the military in Vietnam after Shrub had launched the Iraq fool's errand and his remark was "it is Vietnam all over again, did we learn nothing?"