By Rohan Alvanadi and Christine Emery, The Guardian, July 1, 2016
|An estiamted five million welcomed arrival of Ayatollah Khomeine from exile, Tehran, February 1, 1979|
A tempest in a teapot’ was how Gary Sick described the recent reports by BBC Persian’s Kambiz Fattahi on declassified United States documents on contacts with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iranian Revolution. As the official dealing with Iran in Jimmy Carter’s White House, Sick pointed out that these dealings with Khomeini have been public knowledge for decades and that the BBC’s ‘revelations’ added little to what we already knew.
Yet, the BBC’s claims have provoked outrage from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, who has called the documents a forgery and a British conspiracy to defame Khomeini’s memory. Conversely, for many Iranians who fled Iran after the fall of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the BBC reports confirmed the Shah’s claims in his memoirs that the Carter administration had abandoned him and paved the way for the victory of the revolution.
Many historians of modern Iran have commented on the ‘paranoid style’ in Iranian politics, a term coined by Richard Hofstadter in an essay on American politics. Iranians are not alone in subscribing to conspiracy theories, but their allure is deeply rooted in Iran’s experience of European exploitation and cold war superpower intervention.
Britain and the BBC Persian Service have a special place in such thinking, best captured in Iraj Pezeshkzad’s much-loved 1973 satirical novel, My Uncle Napoleon.
So, has the BBC really uncovered new evidence that President Jimmy Carter abandoned the Shah and helped usher in the Iranian Revolution? Or is this all just Iranian paranoia, fuelled by the BBC’s desire for a ‘scoop’?
In the first week of January 1979, there was an American plan to establish contact with Khomeini and gain his support for a managed transition to a post-Shah Iran. But the problem for the conspiracy theorists is that President Carter vetoed it.
At the time, the Carter administration was deeply split on what to do about the crisis in Iran, with many senior officials in denial about the Shah’s deteriorating position. The US ambassador, William Sullivan, had accepted the Shah’s demise and was planning a political transition and building bridges to the opposition. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor, had lost faith in the state department’s reporting on Iran and was open to the idea of a military takeover. Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state, was preoccupied by the SALT II and Egypt-Israel peace process, and recoiled at the idea of a coup: he advised that the Shah should either offer sweeping reforms or make way for a government of national unity.
But Sullivan had persuaded Vance to send an emissary to meet Khomeini in Paris. Theodore Eliot, a senior American diplomat who had served in Iran, was selected but at the last moment Brzezinski managed to persuade Carter to veto the meeting for fear that it might weaken the resolve of the fledgling government of Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar.
An incandescent Sullivan sent an excoriating memo to Washington on 10 January, calling this intervention a “gross and perhaps irretrievable mistake”. Vance had to persuade Carter not to fire Sullivan for insubordination.
Carter had not yet given up on the Shah or Bakhtiar. Brzezinski was deeply suspicious of the reporting coming out of the US Embassy in Tehran, believing it overly sympathetic to the Shah’s opposition. The relationship between Brzezinski’s staff in the White House and the state department’s Iran desk had broken down. Sullivan, meanwhile, pursued his contacts with the opposition and kept the full extent of his plans to himself. Few of his colleagues shared Sullivan’s optimism that Khomeini could be persuaded to cooperate with the military. In short, there was no coherent US policy for how to response to the Shah’s imminent departure.
When Carter’s foreign policy advisors gathered on 11 January, the majority accepted that the Shah was probably finished and Khomeini would almost certainly return and dominate the process of establishing an Islamic Republic. The United States would have to do what it could to rebuild its position in Iran.
Carter authorised a meeting between an American diplomat in Paris, Warren Zimmerman, and one of Khomeini’s chief aides, Ibrahim Yazdi. Was this the moment when Carter gave Khomeini the green light? It appears not.
When Zimmerman met Yazdi in Paris, rather than acquiesce to Khomeini’s triumphant return, he tried to persuade Yazdi that Khomeini should delay his departure. The Americans hoped to buy time for Bakhtiar’s government to succeed.
There was an element of blackmail in Zimmerman’s message. The US wanted to give the impression it was trying its best to prevent a military coup and that the ayatollah’s caution was vital. Zimmerman told Yazdi that “the left would be the only force to gain from a religious-military clash”. The records of these meetings suggest Khomeini’s camp feared a military coup and believed that the revolution would not succeed unless the US persuaded the Iranian military to allow him to safely return.
The Carter administration did not encourage the army to seize power and quash the opposition, but this hardly amounts to a conspiracy to topple the Shah and pave the way for Khomeini. The idea of a bloody military takeover was anathema to Carter, who had placed human rights at the centre of his foreign policy.
Moreover, not even the Shah supported a military crackdown, which he feared would lead to the disintegration of the armed forces and the end to any legitimacy for even a constitutional monarchy. Instead, Carter sent a military envoy to Tehran, General Robert Huyser, to encourage the Iranian generals to remain in Iran, keep the military united and support Bakhtiar’s civilian government.
After Khomeini’s return on 1 February and the collapse of Bakhtiar’s government on 11 February, the Americans were out of ideas and unable to understand a revolution led by a 76-year old cleric who wanted to establish an Islamic state. Like much of the secular opposition to the Shah, they did not expect religious seminarians to be able to run a modern country. They assumed that sooner or later more liberal secular elements of the revolutionary movement would come to power and pursue a foreign policy cognisant of Iran’s vulnerability to communist subversion and Soviet invasion.
For a brief moment, American officials were encouraged when the newly appointed prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, voiced alarm at the communist threat and requested secret intelligence briefings from US intelligence officials. These hopes were finally dashed, however, with the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and the resignation of Bazargan’s government.
Many criticisms can be levelled at the United States for the incoherence of its policy during the Iranian Revolution, but the idea insinuated by BBC Persian that there was a coherent US policy of abandoning the Shah and paving the way for Khomeini’s return is not supported by the documentary record. The Carter administration was slow to come to terms with the crisis in Iran, unable to agree on how to respond to it, and desperately hoped that some peaceful outcome that preserved US interests would somehow materialise.
But the United States is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Panic, confusion, infighting, and wishful thinking should not be confused with conspiracy.
Roham Alvandi is associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and author of Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 2014)
Christian Emery is lecturer in international relations at the University of Plymouth and author of US Policy in Iran: The Cold War Dynamics of Engagement and Strategic Alliance, 1978-81 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)