A trip back in time: Jimmy Carter and the Iranian Revolution (Part III)
[Parts I and II.]
For anyone who was alive at the time and old enough to pay attention to the news, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Jimmy Carter and the Iranian Revolution is the hostage crisis that occurred less than a year after the installment of the Khomeini regime. We watched, impotently, as America was brought to its knees by a bunch of anti-American Iranian kidnappers and a US President who seemed powerless to do anything about them. And the incident wasn't a short one, either, lasting a Biblical-sounding 444 days.
Carter did do a few things about the crisis, it's true. He froze Iranian assets in the US and halted oil imports, as well as trying diplomacy. In desperation, about six months into the mess, he approved a half-baked and doomed rescue attempt that ended in tragedy and more humiliation for the US (see here for my post about this incident). In the final ignominy for Jimmy (but a relief for the nation), the hostages were freed on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration.
Here's more about Carter's reasoning and the strategies behind it during the hostage crisis:
As winter turned to spring, and negotiations failed to produce a deal, frustrated Americans demanded stronger action. "No one can know how much pressure there was on Jimmy to do something," Rosalynn Carter recalled. "I would go out and campaign and come back and say, 'Why don't you do something?' And he said, 'What would you want me to do?' I said, 'Mine the harbors.' He said, 'Okay, suppose I mine the harbors, and they decide to take one hostage out every day and kill him. What am I going to do then?'"
Based on that evidence, I'd prefer Rosalynn to have been in charge. Carter's mindset was zero tolerance for even the possibility of a hostage being killed. His basic orientation was pacifist, and the hostage crisis revealed him to the world as an ineffectual and timid leader. By extrapolation, his role implied that the United States was the same. And, for the moment at least, it was.
It's easy to pay attention to dramatic events such as the hostage crisis, which thrust themselves into nearly everyone's consciousness in a way that could hardly be ignored. It's much easier, however, to ignore the more subtle, far less widely-covered events that led up to the Shah's downfall and Khomeini's rise, events in which President Carter played a large role as well.
Perhaps, as I wrote yesterday, no policy of the Shah's in his final years in power could have stopped the steamroller of discontent with his policies and the increasing support for the mullahs. After all, the Iranians knew what they disliked about the Shah, and there was something with which everyone could find fault. The Shah was brought down by an unholy and bizarre alliance, a trio made of three groups with beliefs that utterly contradicted those of the other two-- civil libertarians, socialists, and totalitarian Islamists. Each group had reasons to dislike the Shah, and each of them calculated that they'd be the only ones left standing in the end. But there was room for only one winner, and that turned out to be the mullahs.
So maybe Carter's pre-Revolutionary policies towards the Shah weren't all that important in bringing about the latter's downfall. Or maybe they were. What were those policies?
First, a bit of background. The Shah had been a staunch ally of the US for his lengthy reign (see this for some background. Yes, it's Wikipedia, but it seems fairly straightforward and quite detailed). A particularly complex (and controversial) event in US-Iranian relations involved the Shah's cooperation with the Eisenhower administration in a 1953 coup (or, to be technical, a counter-coup) against Mossadegh, the elected Prime Minister of Iran who was suspected at the time of being a Communist sympathizer .
The Shah lived in what's known as a "rough neighborhood." This meant that, in order to implement the modernization of Iran, he felt he needed to be harsh in dealing with the opposition. Jimmy Carter was dedicated to the cause of spreading human rights throughout the world, and he decided to put pressure to bear on the Shah to expand civil liberties and relax his policies towards those in his country who were against him.
Carter threatened the Shah with cutting arms shipments, and in response:
The Shah...released 357 political prisoners in February, 1977. But lifting the lid of repression even slightly encouraged the Shah's opponents. An organization of writers and publishers called for freedom of thought, and 64 lawyers called for the abolition of military tribunals. Merchants wrote letters requesting more freedom from government controls. Some people took to the streets, perhaps less fearful of being shot to death, and they clashed with police. A group of 120 lawyers joined together to publicize SAVAK torture and to monitor prison conditions. Dissident academics formed a group called the National Organization of University Teachers, and they joined students in demanding academic freedom. Political dissidents started disseminating more openly their semi-clandestine publications.
As events spiraled out of control, there were demonstrations throughout Iran. Police reacted harshly, and many protestors were killed, which led to more demonstrations and more deaths, which led to--well, you get the idea.
A genie of dissent had been unleashed--a valid one, because there was much to protest. But as things escalated, and the Shah eventually lost the support of the army and the police (a turning point), few seemed to be prescient enough to predict what forces would replace his regime--not what was hoped for, but what was likely to do so. There were only three choices, and two of them--the mullahs and the Marxists--could reasonably be expected to be far more repressive than the Shah.
Jimmy Carter was probably sincere in wishing that his pressure on the Shah would lead to greater civil liberties, not fewer. But if so, it was one of the gravest miscalculations in history. Be careful what you wish for.
On New Years Eve of 1977:
President Carter toasted the Shah at a state dinner in Tehran, calling him "an island of stability' in the troubled Middle East....Did the Carter administration "lose" Iran, as some have suggested? Gaddis Smith might have put it best: "President Carter inherited an impossible situation -- and he and his advisers made the worst of it." Carter seemed to have a hard time deciding whether to heed the advice of his aggressive national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who wanted to encourage the Shah to brutally suppress the revolution, or that of his more cautious State Department, which suggested Carter reach out to opposition elements in order to smooth the transition to a new government. In the end he did neither, and suffered the consequences.
Even after it became known that the Shah was suffering from cancer, President Carter was reluctant to allow him entry to the United States, for fear of reprisal against Americans still in Iran. But in October, when the severity of the Shah's illness became known, Carter relented on humanitarian grounds. "He went around the room, and most of us said, 'Let him in.'" recalls Vice President Walter Mondale. "And he said, 'And if [the Iranians] take our employees in our embassy hostage, then what would be your advice?' And the room just fell dead. No one had an answer to that. Turns out, we never did."...
No, they never did. And soon the whole world knew it.
[ADDENDUM: Here's an interesting--although perhaps biased from the Right--look at how Carter contributed to Khomeini's rise. Note something that caught my eye: the role of our old friend Ramsey Clark (second from last paragraph in the "Iranian Voice" piece). Note, also, the role of the State Department.]