In the turbulent world of the Middle East, there have been few islands of political stability that have been able to survive the storms of revolutionary change. Iran, with its political system directed by an absolute monarch and an enormous wealth of natural resources, has been widely viewed in the Western world as the most important such refuge in the area. American opinion leaders have long admired the sturdy consistency with which Iran has maintained its orderly existence, and in seeking a reliable partner and client state upon which to rest U.S. political and economic interests, American decision-makers chose to place their bets on Iran.

In 1978, however, opposition to the Shah of Iran's political rule took the form of a mass movement, and during the first eleven months of the year riots shook hundreds of villages, towns and cities. The estimated death toll resulting from these public displays was over 3,000 persons. The total casualty figures were four times this number. Martial law was instituted, and during the course of the year's disturbances, the Shah ordered his troops to fire on demonstrating crowds in Tehran. Whatever sturdy consistency has obtained in Iran up to now seems to have been shaken - possibly for good.

America knows astonishingly little about Iran. Other more visible issues have deflected much of our attention elsewhere. Turkey and NATO, Saudi Arabia and its stupendous oil wealth, and the always-explosive Arab-Israeli issue are three cases in point. The hundreds of thousands of Americans who have lived in Iran since World War II have seldom penetrated the glittering surface consisting primarily of north Tehran and its charming, well-to-do, English-speaking inhabitants. Occasional forays to Isfahan and the Shah Abbas Hotel, Persepolis and the gardens of Shiraz, and the resorts along the Caspian Sea have not served to sharpen our appreciation of the social, political, economic, and religious realities of the country. The American mass media's coverage of Iran has over the years been consistently sparse, superficial, and distorted. Major newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal have been especially weak in their reporting on Iran, misrepresenting the nature and depth of the opposition to the Shah.

Outside of Iran, there are three general opinions on the nature of the opposition to the regime. The Shah's opponents are said by some to consist of a small group of trouble-making Marxists supported in their treasonous activities by the Soviet Union and other radical regimes such as today's Libya. Others would maintain that Iranian opposition is dominated by a number of reactionary religious leaders who resent the Shah's modernization program, which emphasizes land reform and women's rights. A third position summarizes the Shah's problems in terms of an unholy alliance of these two extreme factions, which have joined forces with the sole aim of dismantling the present political system. This view has been presented in the past by the Shah himself, who has often referred to this alliance between "red and black" or, in more recent years, to an opposition labeled "Islamic Marxists."

These arguments undoubtedly contain some degree of truth. Leftist and radical forces are indeed united with relatively conservative religious leadership in Iran - often for quite different reasons - in opposition to the current regime. But there is a much wider and more important focus of opposition in the middle class and in the growing, increasing activist working class. The interaction among all these forces of opposition can only be understood in the context of the Shah's methods of rule and, above all, of the extremely serious social and political problems which he has subordinated to his economic and military programs. The official position of the Iranian regime today is to admit responsibility for a number of cancerous problems that are eating at the body politic. It remains to be seen whether the Shah has the will and capacity to perform the social and political surgery necessary to cure these problems.


Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi is, at this writing, the most important of the five major absolute monarchs left in the world. Undoubtedly one of the cleverest political leaders of this century, after nearly four decades of kingship the Shah is a leader of rare experience. Since his accession in 1941 he has survived two public assassination attempts (1949, 1965), numerous plots against his dynasty, a popular political movement led by the charismatic Prime Minister Mussadeq (1951-53), and the machinations of dozens of other wily politicians who have sought to loosen his grip on the controls of power. He has lost two prime ministers through assassination (Razmara in 1951, Mansur in 1963), and has thrice ordered his troops to turn their machine guns on demonstrators in the streets of his capital city (1952, 1963, 1978). He has had to overcome both an Allied occupation of his country and Soviet-supported separatist movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan in the 1940s. He has preserved Iran's independence in the international arena while promoting economic growth. The Shah's survival has also occurred despite venality that extends deep into his own family and despite grasping advisers who are long on greed and short on integrity. Never a Faroukian leader, though, he has worked overtime at his job and has consistently kept a schedule that has left him little time for relaxation.

The official Iranian governmental structure has long consisted of a shaky scaffolding of institutions built up around the person of the Shah. They have included a cabinet, a parliament (Majlis) and senate, and a political party system now in disarray. Over the years, Iran has experimented with a number of single and multiparty systems, the most recent examples being a system dominated by the Iran Novin Party (1963-75), and the mass Resurrection Party, dismantled during the political upheavals of 1978. The formal governmental structure and the individuals who have staffed its highest echelons have been determined and directed by the Pahlavi shahs. Majlis and senate elections have been controlled, while political parties have been invented and then imposed from above.

The blueprint of the government is the constitution of 1906-11. This document, which has very special meaning to Iranians, became a rallying point for the opposition to the Shah during the past year. The constitution declares that sovereignty rests with the people, that the executive, legislative and judicial powers be separate, and that individual rights be protected. According to Article 39 of the 1907 fundamental laws, the Shah is required in his oath as king "to be the guardian of the constitutional law of Iran, to reign in conformity with the established laws, and to promote and protect Twelver Imam Shi'ism." Mohammed Reza Shah has, however, ruled more as an absolute than a constitutional monarch, controlling the government in all its important phases.

The Shah has ruled with the best talents of the lion and the fox. Wedded to no set of ideological principles, he has sought to overcome challenges to his person or his programs by shrewd political maneuver and calculated manipulation. Weaving, dodging, feinting, retreating, and attacking, he has emphasized survival by wit.

A man almost totally devoid of charisma and a figure unprepossessing in appearance and speech, he has tried to compensate for these limitations by establishing an aura of mysterious power about his person. Pictures and statues of the Shah are everywhere; shrubbery in public parks is clipped in the shape of the Persian script spelling out his name; over 75 different sets of Iranian postage stamps show the royal portrait; and millions of colored lights are strung throughout the country every year as a reminder of the Shah's birthday.

The Shah appoints and dismisses his highest governmental officials with blinding speed, maintaining a policy that fosters paranoid insecurity at the highest echelons of the system but very effectively keeps any individual from gaining too firm a foothold on the narrow Iranian plateau of power. There are examples of a minister, apparently enjoying the full confidence of the Shah, learning by the early morning radio that he is no longer a minister. A typical example occurred this past August when the talented and loyal Foreign Minister, Abbas Ali Khalatbary, was suddenly replaced in his post; Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua must have been surprised on August 29 at the Tehran airport by the absence of Khalatbary, who two days before had still been in charge of planning his visit.

When opposition forces become especially intense, the Shah seldom hesitates to discard members of his political team. The greater the discontent, the greater the numbers of dismissals and the more influential the politicians relieved of their duties. During and after the countrywide riots in the fall of 1978, those jettisoned included the Shah's trusted old confidant and physician/businessman General Abdol Karim Ayadi, Prime Minister Jamshid Amuzegar, Minister of Court Amir Abbas Hoveyda, Minister of Health Sheikholislamzadeh, ten-year veteran cabinet minister Mansur Rouhani, and Atomic Energy Organization head Akbar Etemad. Even the feared head of Iran's secret police agency SAVAK, General Nematollah Nassiri, was dismissed, and in early November dozens of other secret police agents were retired.

As part of his tactics, the Shah expertly coopts his opponents and absorbs them into his political elite. Many former communist party members and anti-Shah organizers abroad, for instance, have held important positions in the governmental apparatus. This political cooptation is one seldom-recognized reason for the continued proliferation of government offices, as well as for the explosion of new titles and posts within these organizations.

Intertwined with the cooptation of individuals is the cooptation of ideas. The Shah has written a book on revolution and has even quoted Lenin in his speeches. Over the last few years, he and his elite have displayed an uncanny ability to identify the key social and political problems and then to speak out against them in their public speeches. Between 1974 and 1976, the popular establishment catch phrases were attuned to the need to overcome all the social "bottlenecks" in order to better build an economic "infrastructure"; the slogans of 1977 and 1978 touched on considerably more sensitive matters and emphasized political "participation" and "social justice." Such public admissions of the critical problems are, of course, not the same as doing something about them. Nonetheless, the tactic has been shrewdly developed and has often served to outflank the opposition, which suddenly finds its demands appropriated by the regime. The entire process is institutionalized in the numerous investigatory groups and imperial commissions that are established by the Shah to hear the grievances of the people.

But there is much more to the fox-like side of Pahlavi rule, for the Shah does more than coopt individuals and ideas: he has consciously chosen to support selective programs of reform. This is what distinguishes him from most other monarchs of this century, and what opposition groups - especially those abroad - refuse to recognize and admit. The Shah has never hesitated to send his young people abroad by the hundreds of thousands to acquire the best education available, though fully aware of the political dangers that this policy poses to himself and to his dynasty. There has been a land reform program, and a war on illiteracy. Although the results of such programs reflect serious defects, a commitment has been made and certain positive results have been realized. An examination of the Shah's reform programs indicates overriding emphasis on industrial growth, technological progress and military development. Lagging far behind has been the selective social change referred to above. Political development has been completely ignored. What the Shah has done, in effect, has been to encourage enormous economic change and some social change in order to prevent any basic political change.

All of these tactics have been reasonably effective in deflecting and dispersing opposition over the years. They have not, however, been enough to assure regime stability. There are many individuals who are simply not cooptable. And as opposition has intensified, the Shah has never hesitated to take on the characteristics of the lion, recognizing that force is his ultimate means of control. Brief periods of relative liberalization have been separated by longer periods of crushing military and police control. Rule by force dominated Iran between 1954 and 1960, and again between 1966 and 1976. The riots and disturbances, followed by a crushing military response in late 1978, represent another swing back to force after several months of relative liberalization.

The Shah directs a huge security system of intelligence forces, town and city police, a countrywide gendarmerie, royal guardsmen, and a large military establishment. Well informed militarily, he supervises all important aspects of his armed forces and personally approves all promotions above the rank of major. Loyalty to the person of the Shah is the primary basis for advancement and several cross-checking intelligence groups constantly gauge the loyalty quotient of all key military figures. The military academies stress the indispensability of monarchy to the well-being of both the country and the military itself.

The military is a privileged group in the society. Its members enjoy high salaries, numerous fringe benefits, and exorbitantly expensive modern facilities. With this kind of stake in the system, the armed forces have stood by the Shah. Until now, the key personnel in the security forces and the important middle-ranking army officers have remained loyal. Although there have been incidents of dissatisfaction and anti-regime plotting, they have until now been relatively rare. Despite this, the Shah has in the past not wanted to base his rule on force alone, preferring to balance coercion with calculated reform.

Between 1971 and 1976, the Shah's carefully blended tactics broke down. The fox disappeared and the lion appeared, in the form of a frightening secret police apparatus. A period of un-Persian rule by repression set in and a group of hard-liners in the intelligence organization took charge. The Shah, who was certainly aware of the nature of this rule, did nothing to stop the reign of terror, which included the systematic use of torture. Prisons were full and hundreds were executed. The religious establishment was attacked frontally.

This policy soon became a severe political liability to the Shah, as it helped give birth to an extensive terrorist movement whose members sought to overthrow the Pahlavi government. Violence became commonplace in the streets of Tehran, and well-organized guerrilla operations began to take their toll. In 1971, a powerful military prosecutor was assassinated after he sentenced 13 young Iranians to death. That same year witnessed a kidnapping attempt and an attack on the son of the Shah's twin sister. In 1972, the Deputy Chief of Police was assassinated. A year later, a plot to kidnap the Shah, the Empress, and the Crown Prince was uncovered in Tehran. Americans whom the opposition believed to be assisting the Shah's intelligence forces also became targets. In June 1973, an American military adviser was killed in Tehran. Two U.S. Air Force colonels were assassinated in May 1975, and in August 1976 three American employees of Rockwell International were killed by terrorists in Tehran. In response, the police resorted to still harsher methods, which merely hardened the dedication of the opposition. The vicious circle of violence was clearly whirling out of control.

In early 1977, partially coinciding with the beginning of Jimmy Carter's presidency, the Shah set forth a new policy, a program of liberalization that was to include an end to torture, a selective release of political prisoners, an attempt to introduce legal reform, and a loosening of tight censorship controls. As 1977 moved into 1978, the people of Iran quietly watched the exchange of visits between President Carter and the Shah. When no new policies finally emerged, the violence began. On January 9, 1978 nearly 4,000 religious students and their supporters began a demonstration in the holy city of Qum, demanding among other things that the absolute monarchy give way to a constitutional government. The march ended in bloodshed when troops killed dozens and wounded hundreds.

Occurrences since then do not support an optimistic political prognosis. December 1978, which coincides with the holy Shi'ite month of Moharram, should be an especially critical time for the Pahlavi dynasty. It is significant that Ayatollah Shariatmadari, a leading religious leader in Qum, predicted during the first week of September that the government would collapse in three months if it did not meet the constitutional demands of the religious leaders. Today, the Shah is obviously a scarred if not scared leader. The mass rebellion of 1978 left him visibly shaken. Reliable observers report him irritable, cynical, uncertain, and enormously insecure. And the challenges that he faces are unprecedented.


There is an inherent tension between rule by absolute monarchy and a growing, active middle class whose members seek to control their own destinies. Throughout the Middle East since 1952, this conflict has consistently been resolved in favor of the rising middle classes at the expense of monarchy. In Iran, political development has been deliberately sacrificed to economic growth. During the last two years, the Shah's private advisers and public ideologues have been issuing warnings about the neglect of politics. Leading journalist Amir Taheri wrote in October 1977 that Iran is entering a "political decade" and that "the fact remains that the government structure in Iran is still unprepared for meeting the exigencies of the political decade that lies ahead." In January 1978, an article appeared in Taheri's newspaper arguing that "the nation's political life cannot lag behind its economic and social achievements." After the stormy events of August and September 1978, Taheri described Iran as an "economic giant" and a "political dwarf." Today, there is no doubt that the Shah himself recognizes this problem, but it remains to be seen whether he intends to do anything basic about it.

Demands for freedom of speech, press and assembly have become more strident over the years. In the early 1970s, as I noted earlier, the regime instituted a reign of repression of such severity that it spawned a terrorist network of young men and women dedicated to the destruction of the system. The current state of martial law and military rule in Iran risks a return to the early 1970s. Meanwhile, the educated middle class continues to place a very high priority on basic individual freedoms and human rights.

A closely related area of grievance is the system of justice. The civil court system was for years completely controlled by the Shah who, through his Prime Minister, appointed the judges in the country. Chosen on the basis of loyalty to the person of the Shah rather than on grounds of legal competence and personal integrity, many of these judges have been mediocre at best. The Minister of Justice himself has usually been the most flagrant example of a political appointee and has lacked both legal qualifications and respect in the community. Judicial responsibilities generally allocated to civil courts have often been assigned to military tribunals. The Shah has occasionally admitted problems in his judicial system, and in the last two years he has begun to do something about it. He has, for example, met twice privately with William Butler of the International Commission of Jurists and has consented to real reforms, personally laboring over the details of judicial reform documents. Until these reforms are put into effect, however, the Iranian people will remain skeptical.

No society has a monopoly on corruption, and the Shah is quite right when he chides Western commentators for pointing fingers. This, however, does little to solve the problem in Iran, where corruption percolates outward from the very center of the system. Corruption is a constant subject of conversation in middle class circles in Tehran and a favorite topic of criticism by the religious leaders in their gatherings throughout the country. In mid-September 1978, the Shah announced that, three months before, he had issued a "code of conduct" for his entire family. In November, he ordered an investigation of the Pahlavi Foundation - one of the major repositories of his family's huge wealth. Besides this, he has initiated an anti-corruption campaign that has resulted in the arrest of several former ministers and royal advisers. But, as the Shah's critics are quick to point out, anti-corruption campaigns come and go in Iran, and many of them believe that radical surgery on corruption must begin with the royal family itself. Investigations that are suddenly proclaimed in moments of political crisis and then quietly wither into nothingness once control is reintroduced have only increased distrust by opposition forces.

The areas of health, education and administration are all in a state of malaise. Loyal, subservient and unimaginative politicians have filled the important ministerial posts in these areas, the Ministry of Health being especially weak. In 1970, for example, the then Minister of Health told me that the real key to solving Iran's social problems was to hold more seminars, that what was needed was more talk and less action. A more recent minister constantly denied that Iran had any serious health delivery problems. He was dismissed from his post in September 1978 and soon thereafter arrested on charges of corruption and abuse of office.1 A 1977 study of the Iranian educational system carried out by the Imperial Inspectorate documented the deplorable state of the field, pointing to severe shortages of teachers, the basic lack of facilities and the extremely low academic standards that characterize all levels of education in Iran.2

Administratively, the situation was summarized most recently by Amir Taheri, who wrote in mid-1978 that the public disturbances then spreading through the countryside were "due to an accumulation of discontent with tight control, overcentralization, lack of sufficient open debate and a general feeling that corruption and inefficiency together with arrogance have struck the bureaucracy." Quantitatively, Iran has an impressive record as new hospitals, schools and government bureaus have sprouted up in larger and larger numbers during the last 20 years; qualitatively, there is considerable room for improvement.

The Iranian governing elite's most serious recent tactical shortcoming concerns its policy toward the religious leaders. Unlike most Muslim Middle Eastern people, the Iranians are adherents of a minority sect of Islam known as Shi'ism, which traces its heritage back to Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. In Iran, the descendants of Ali represent a chain of charismatic leaders (imams), the twelfth of whom went into occultation in A.D. 940. The Shi'ite leaders today, known as "mujtahids," are representatives of this last imam and wield great spiritual as well as economic and political power. Since 1501 when Twelver Shi'ism became the state religion of Iran, the secular shahs have ruled partially in the shadow of the mujtahids. Iran has been the scene of tension between the secular and religious leaders ever since.

The leading mujtahids are generally men of great learning, integrity and popularity. They are renowned for the simplicity of their standard of living and are among the most democratically chosen grassroots leaders in the contemporary Middle East. Millions of dollars pass through the hands of Iran's top mujtahids every year, for they serve as social welfare agents throughout the country, accepting the religious dues of the faithful and then redistributing them to the needy. In short, the mujtahids are the guardians of social justice and morality in society. As one mujtahid explained to me: "The difference between the national political rulers and the religious leaders is not one of power but rather one of morals." In this sense the mujtahids are quite different from the masses of Shi'ite clerics or mullahs, some of whom are corrupt and espouse socially regressive policies.

The mujtahids have on occasion opposed a number of the Shah's reform programs. Although they deny this, specifically with respect to land reform and women's rights, there is little doubt that they feel threatened by the forces of modernization. Still, rather than attempting to reach an accommodation with the powerful religious establishment, the Shah's government chose to attempt to crush it. Recalcitrant mujtahids were harassed; some were imprisoned and others executed. The government took greater and greater control over the religious endowments, and the Shah appointed men of military background to positions of authority over the holy shrines in cities such as Mashhad. The religious presses were closed down and religious gatherings regularly broken up by security forces. These are some of the reasons why men like Ayatollah Khomeini (exiled in 1963) and Ayatollah Shariatmadari in the city of Qum have become leading voices of opposition to the Shah. In the case of 76-year-old Shariatmadari especially, it was partially a matter of self-defense; in his public statements in 1978, he pointed out that, among other things, the troops of the regime had entered his home and killed one of his followers before his very eyes.

Since the religious network provides a ready-made informal organization for opposition to the Shah's government, the mujtahids have been the natural rallying points for the masses who oppose the system - for whatever reason. The resurgence of Islam in Iran has been propelled by the return of the middle classes to religion. Young women by the tens of thousands have gone back to the black veil as a symbol of their discontent, while educated professionals have returned to prayer meetings in homes and mosques where the content of the discussion is heavily social and political in nature.

By August of 1978, the Shah was forced to reverse his campaign against the Shi'ite establishment. He sought to placate the rioting masses by opening channels of communication with the religious leaders, replacing key ministers and government officials with individuals more palatable to the clerics, and returning a measure of autonomy to them. The mujtahids refuse to accept these modifications, however, and call instead for a restoration of the constitution of 1906 and a new system of rule in which social justice and political freedom will prevail.

But, in the end, the educated, professional middle class is the greatest danger to the 2,500-year-old absolute monarchy of Iran. The opposition forces on the extreme Left and Right can perhaps be controlled and placated, but such is not the case with the educated middle class. Iranian census data indicate that this class has doubled in size between 1956 and 1976, leaping from six percent to 13 percent of the total employed population, and as more and more Iranians acquire modern higher education either at home or abroad, this class will continue to swell in size. When the merchants and businessmen are brought into the calculations, the middle classes in Iran now make up over 25 percent of the population - a very large middle sector for any developing society.

The members of the professional middle class are the ones who best articulate the grievances listed above. Their commitment and participation are absolutely essential to the Shah's attempts to modernize and rule his country, yet these are precisely the groups that are most alienated and whose demands fall on deaf ears. In the words of former Prime Minister Hoveyda, these are the "pseudo-intellectuals," those whom the Shah himself has viewed with disgust as the cynics and "negative people." They are also the foreign-trained engineers and scientists who do not return to Iran, the physicians who return but then refuse to stay, the professional administrators who passively oppose a system they despise, and the teachers who use their positions to undercut a government they consider unresponsive to their needs. An analysis of the social background of several hundred active opponents of the regime apprehended, imprisoned or executed by the Iranian police between 1972 and 1976 indicates that well over 90 percent were young men and women of this professional middle class.

Considering the size of the opposition, one is led to wonder how the Pahlavi political system has survived. First, there is the enormous natural wealth of the country. Unlike some of his former monarchical colleagues in countries like Egypt and Afghanistan, the Shah has had the resources necessary to maintain his family's ascendancy. But not even the salve of economic growth and nearly $100 billion in oil revenues that accrued to the Iranian government between 1974 and 1978 kept social and political sores from festering. When a host of economic problems converged in 1978, trouble erupted.3

The Shah has also enjoyed external support and direct outside intervention at critical points during his rule. The most often cited example occurred in August 1953, when U.S. intelligence forces helped plan the overthrow of Prime Minister Mussadeq and thus assisted the Shah to regain his throne. A more recent and much less dramatic example occurred in September 1978, when President Carter took time off from his historic Camp David meetings to telephone his support to the embattled Shah.

The Soviet Union's inconsistent and imperialistic foreign policy toward Iran has rendered it curiously impotent with respect to influencing the Iranian scene. On the one hand, the Soviet Communist Party has long condemned "the Pahlavi tyrant," while, on the other hand, the Russian state has entered into more and more economic cooperative ventures with the Shah's Iran. This schizophrenic policy has been "supported" by a Marxist-Leninist theory that badly distorts the internal social realities of Iran, focusing unyieldingly on the Iranian proletariat and misreading the revolutionary potential of the professional middle class. All this has occurred against a backdrop of deep distrust of the Iranians toward the Russians, who have a long history of imperialistic designs on the Iranian homeland. The Shah's rule, therefore, has not been as seriously threatened over the last three decades by the huge neighbor to the north as might otherwise be expected.

Yet another reason for the Shah's longevity is an element of politics stressed long ago by Machiavelli - luck or fortune. The Shah has not only miraculously survived assassination attempts but has also walked away from natural accidents, including a serious plane crash. It is no wonder that he carries an admitted mystical belief in his mission and personal invincibility.

Today the Shah of Iran rules from behind bayonets. Surely he cannot control his sophisticated population by brute force indefinitely. Too many Iranians stepped forward in the 1977-78 period to criticize the regime in general and the Shah in particular. Too much blood ran in the streets of the cities. The military may have the temporary capacity to control the major cities but without any base of popular support it will be unable to run Iran's economy and administrative system. Strikes, sabotage, terrorism, passive resistance, and civil rebellion of many varieties will continue. Liberal gestures combined with a gradual relaxation of military rule may not succeed either. Instead, the future survival of the Shah and his dynasty may rest on his ability to put aside piecemeal gestures and to introduce a dramatic and fundamentally new political policy.

Only a bold stroke designed to open the system and to introduce political participation founded on the Iranian constitution may succeed at this late date. Perhaps a nationwide referendum or plebiscite should be publicly announced by the Shah and implemented as soon as possible. The plebiscite could be developed to determine the future essence of the Iranian political system and the very place of the Shah in that system. Or, free and fair elections scheduled for June might be moved up six months. The current Cabinet might be dismissed to be replaced with individuals of integrity, independence and experience. There are many such individuals in prison or in self-imposed exile in their homes as well as among the active opposition abroad. The backbone of the new political system could be provided by the National Front - a progressive-nationalist coalition of opposition groups composed of individuals of middle class background. This system would have to enjoy the tacit support of the mujtahids, although they would never participate directly in the formal governmental structure. Finally, the highest level culprits of corruption might be called to account for their misdeeds. If this should include members of the royal family, then they deserve the same punishment as that accorded anyone else. Political tactics such as these may seem drastic and risky, but the alternatives increasingly appear to contain even greater risk. The retention of a measure of influence by the Shah, the survival of his family, and the well-being of Iran are at stake.


The political fate of Iran is of critical importance to the national interest of the United States. Sharing a 1,600-mile border with the Soviet Union, Iran has long stood as a shield against the spread of communist influence into the Persian Gulf region. In recent years, the Shah has indicated his willingness to utilize his expanding military machine in support of the status quo throughout the region, for example, by his intervention in Oman in support of the Sultan's regime and his aid to Somalia in its war with Ethiopia. In this way, American policy in the area is promoted by the Shah without any need for direct U.S. intervention. In an interview with Newsweek magazine in January 1977, the Shah reminded the United States of that fact: "Do you want several more Vietnams? In Vietnam, you had only 550,000 American boys. But the Persian armed forces have more than that, and they are not smoking grass."

At least as important as these strategic considerations is the West's economic interest. Although less than ten percent of America's oil imports actually come from Iran, Europe and Japan have a critical dependence on Persian oil, and America's longtime protégé, Israel, currently depends on Iran for over 70 percent of its petroleum needs. From an American point of view, the reliability of the Iranian supply is an even more critical consideration. Iran, after all, did not participate in the 1973 oil embargo. Finally, in the councils of OPEC, Iran holds an important swing position on the question of pricing. If the Shah chooses to side with the price hawks, then there is an excellent chance that oil prices will increase significantly; if he decides to take a more moderate stance and to ally Iran with the Saudis in holding the line against higher prices, there will be no such increases. This is exactly what happened in January 1978.

Numerous other mutual economic interests tie America to Iran. The Shah pays premium prices for American military goods, with sales since 1972 amounting to a staggering $14 billion. At a time when increasing payments for foreign oil have contributed to a worsening balance-of-payments ledger, this kind of recapture of funds is not an insignificant economic factor. Also, hundreds of American banks and businesses are involved in Iran, and their financial well-being is increasingly influenced by events in that country. Today, over 41,000 American businessmen, diplomats, technical and scientific experts, military advisers and their dependents live in Iran, and Iranians reside in the United States in even greater numbers, at least 30,000 of them students.

Within the United States, the Shah has implanted a very sophisticated public relations organization. In 1976, concerned by shifting American public opinion toward Iran, the leadership there hired a major American polling organization to gather data on the attitudes of prominent Americans toward the Shah and his government. Numerous influential Americans formerly stationed in Iran as military advisers, diplomatic officers, intelligence leaders, and industrial contractors are today in charge of consulting firms, research institutes and business organizations, all plugged directly into Iran. Many of these figures visit the Shah personally whenever they are in Tehran, and some have better access to him than the official American diplomats stationed there.

Although Iranian opposition voices distort the situation when they claim that the Shah's rule continues only because of American support, there can be no doubt that the United States has been a major factor in the preservation of his throne, partly or mostly because of an entrenched, uncritical national policy position in Washington concerning Iran that stresses the need to continue "amicable" relations with the Shah. Advocates of this position have been very visible and influential in the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the White House, and to a lesser extent in the Department of State. Although this position has not gone unchallenged in any of these settings, it continues to enjoy easy prominence for reasons other than the Shah's skills and salesmanship. Enormous emphasis has been placed on the merits of the Shah while denying until very recently the existence of a serious opposition to his rule.

From the point of view of the American national interest, the time is long past to raise some fundamental questions about the future. The very importance of Iran to the United States suggests that Washington policymakers ought to be concerned about the attitudes toward America of any possible successor regime to the Pahlavis, and how to help shape these attitudes favorably. If time is not on the Shah's side, is it prudent to continue to support him fervently to the very end? Is it politically wise to help him buy a few more weeks, months or even years of time? What has been American foreign policy toward Iran in the past and what might it be in the future?

Since 1971, the U.S. image in Iran has slipped badly. As leading spokesmen of the burgeoning middle classes and Shi'ite religious organizations were harassed, jailed and physically attacked, the United States sent ambassadors to Iran of obvious military and intelligence background. Meanwhile, back in the United States, members of the Iranian royal family were feted and honored for their contributions to "human rights" and "humanitarian services." In Iran, these kinds of occurrences, like the effusive praise of Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford for the Shah and his programs, were carefully noted by the middle classes, whose members began to shift the blame for their predicament from the Shah to the United States. The complaints of opposition voices who had long been labeling the Shah a puppet of the United States began to fall on receptive ears. For the first time in decades, American officials became the targets of Iranian terrorists and the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was transformed into a fortress.

Since the end of the Kennedy presidency, the Shah has out-politicked American leaders. This is not surprising, since he has been a skilled foreign policy strategist. He has personally known every American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and over the last 30 years has made 11 official visits to the United States. When Jimmy Carter became president, the Shah was prepared. As he told Business Week: "Carter looks like a smart man. He wants to be a winner. I like the way he took his time in picking his Cabinet, slow and studied. Besides, we have many friends in the U.S. Congress, and from what they tell us, I think we can cooperate with the Carter Administration."

With the inauguration of Jimmy Carter and the initiation of a program of liberalization in Iran, the middle classes sensed a major shift in U.S. policy toward their country. Operating under what they mistakenly considered an American protective umbrella, they raised their voices against the regime and waited for the President to come to Iran. In his 1978 New Year's Eve visit to Tehran, Carter only briefly and casually mentioned the subject of human rights, in the process outdoing past presidents in his praise of the Shah. Upon leaving, he fondly told the monarch: "I wish you were coming with us."4 Stunned and embittered by Carter's performance, the moderate opposition groups turned more sharply than ever away from the United States. President Carter can in no way be blamed for this year of violence in Iran - but neither can he be praised for doing anything to help avert it. What he did accomplish was to further alienate those groups and classes in Iran who spent the year fighting the Shah.

The American diplomatic and intelligence mission in Tehran, one of whose tasks it is to remain au courant with things Iranian, has had a most undistinguished record for many years. The ambassadors and deputy chiefs of mission have, until very recently, been more concerned with confirming Washington's stereotype of Iran than encouraging their diplomats to develop a true understanding of Iranian society. One ambassador routinely warned his diplomats to beware of contracting the deadly disease he termed "localitis." A more recent ambassador was appalled at the Embassy's ignorance of Iran, but in his brief stay he failed to improve the situation. Few American officials have had the linguistic fluency, intellectual curiosity, personal fortitude or occupational time to pierce the crust of Iranian society. When it is occasionally done with a flourish, as when, for example, an official "makes a migration" with a tribal group, it is talked about in Embassy circles for years.

An examination of the Embassy's invitation lists over several years indicates that the same old faces and families have long encircled the American diplomatic community. Speaking impeccable English and often presenting themselves as dedicated voices of the opposition, these members of the social elite have helped shape the official American image of Iran since the mid-1950s. This kind of insulation from the forces actually at work in the country has grown worse over the years, partially because U.S. diplomats pass their "contacts" on to their successors.

In the past 15 years, there have usually been one or two individuals resident in Tehran who have successfully moved out into the society at large, but the reporting system is such that the analyses of these officials have often been smothered or distorted by the political counselor or ambassador over whose signatures these reports must reach Washington. It is no secret in the Foreign Service that Tehran has been the professional graveyard of several fine Foreign Service Officers.

Although State Department officials seldom deny this assessment, they do point out the real difficulties involved. How can American officials in fact get in touch with opposition forces in a country where they are first and foremost representatives to the government in power? How can Foreign Service Officers with a minimum of training in the language, history and culture of Iran be expected to develop communication with Persian-speaking groups and classes? In such a labyrinthine society, how is it possible for a person to really understand anything in a typical tour of only three years? These are certainly legitimate queries, but they should not become stock excuses for an unfortunate state of affairs. With the sensitive nerve endings of the American foreign policy-making system deadened this way, it remains impossible to transmit accurate signals to Washington. And when Washington has its own petrified view, the opportunities for any new perspective on the situation are slim indeed.


There is a popular assumption that any successor government to the Shah would be irretrievably anti-American or inevitably pro-Soviet. Although this assumption gains greater credibility the longer the United States unquestionably supports the current regime, it must not stand unchallenged, for it entails serious policy implications.

As the opposition pressures become increasingly unbearable and the economic and administrative infrastructures begin to crumble in the face of incessant violence and sabotage, the Shah may choose to abdicate in favor of his 18-year-old son, Crown Prince Reza, with Empress Farah as Regent. Although this scenario does not appear to be a likely one, this form of government would have to be backed by the military, primarily the more conservative general officers. In the long run, however, the most probable alternative if the Pahlavi dynasty should be destroyed by force and violence is that a left-wing, progressive group of middle-ranking army officers would take charge. Authoritarian rule from the Left would in this instance replace monarchical absolutism of the Right.

Other future political possibilities include a right-wing military junta, a liberal democratic system based on Western models, and a communist government. The first alternative seems, in the long run, more and more unlikely as mass opposition grows and expands. The second is even less probable, given Iran's long history of absolutist-authoritarian rule and the anarchic forces unleashed during the last year of discontent. The communist option also lacks credibility. Communism is anathema to the Shi'ite religious leaders as well as to the masses of Iranian people. Iranian distrust of Russia is deeply rooted in history, and Soviet foreign policy toward Iran has been unimpressive. The political future of Iran would at this point seem to involve either a continuation of some kind of Pahlavi rule or a government led by a radical-progressive military group. There is still an excellent if somewhat diminishing chance that an Iran directed by such a group would desire very close relations with the United States.

The Iranian economic and military infrastructures are American in design. Any successor regimes to the Pahlavis will need U.S. technology, markets and continued military advice and materièl. Furthermore, there will be Soviet pressures that Iranian nationalists will want to resist. Any new government will not want to trade overwhelming American influence for Soviet intervention. Even at this late date, the United States need not fear that a future government in Iran will necessarily be antithetical to American interests, but current policy can clearly influence the future shape of this important relationship.

What might be done? What are the U.S. policy options? Realistically, the two extreme positions must be dismissed. Certainly, continued blind support for the Shah only promises eventual disaster. Any sudden shift to destroy his rule or even to help hurry along his demise also seems ill-conceived. But there are a limited number of possible intermediate policy alternatives:

1. The Shah should be encouraged to continue to open the system up. There is no turning the clock back at this point. Since one likely alternative is the violent destruction of his regime, he might truly have to share power. Perhaps some kind of plebiscite or "new order" might be implemented. Is it unthinkable for the Shah to terminate his dynasty and to become the country's first president? The time for clever political maneuvering and rule by brute force is past. The Shah has recently indicated his willingness to continue reform, and American leaders should press for the deepening and widening of this policy. They will have to do better, however, than the Carter Administration did at the beginning of 1978.

2. Aside from this pressure at the very highest level, the United States might best let the Iranians sort out their own destinies. In the violent months that lie ahead in Iran, the United States ought to indicate its intention of staying out of any showdown. Presidential cheerleading by telephone or threats of military intervention of any kind can only be counterproductive to long-term American interests.5 Future Middle Eastern Vietnams must be avoided. In this context, it is essential that American decision-makers realize that Iranians read much into the slightest word or gesture made by any U.S. official concerning Iran; theories abound these days in Tehran concerning what Washington has in store for Iran. This grossly exaggerated view of American influence runs deep in Iranian thinking and carries with it the need for a special sensitivity on the part of U.S. leaders.

3. The enormous, indiscriminate and unprecedented military sales to Iran must be slowed and rethought. Are there political considerations that might be more significant than economic justifications? Just what level of armament does Iran need to defend itself? What are the chances that these arms could fall into the hands of an anti-American group? Might not this extremely close military cooperation increase the chances for direct American intervention in Iran?

4. American representatives in Iran need to get in touch. They must be better prepared and assisted in cracking out of the thick ring of unrepresentative Iranians who come down from their villas to explain confidentially what is right and wrong in their country. It is not so much a question of contacting the opposition as of getting to know the religious leaders and the members of the middle classes: the journalists, the poets, the lawyers, the students, the teachers, the middle-level bureaucrats, the respected provincial leaders and especially the middle-ranking army officers. These are the groups who will lead Iran in the future.

Iran deserves a new and deeper look, and events there require us to develop a future-oriented policy. Dare we not rethink our understanding of the Iranian people while at the same time reassessing our national policy toward them?


1 In an extensive interview published in a 1977 issue of a leading Persian newspaper, this minister systematically denied a long list of charges criticizing the health system. He concluded the interview by stating that 98 percent of the people's complaints were unfounded. Rastakhiz, October 10, 1977, p. 19 (in Persian).

2 Imperial Court, Imperial Inspectorate for Education and Research, "A Report Prepared for the Tenth Conference Analyzing the Educational Revolution," August-September 1977 (in Persian). This critical study focused on developments in the field of education between 1973 and 1977.

3 Iran's recent economic problems are many and severe. They include runaway inflation, an agricultural growth rate of less than three percent per annum, an embryonic industrial infrastructure, a widening urban-rural income distribution gap, and a serious lack of skilled labor and technicians. A symptom of and contributing factor to the problem is the enormous flow of capital from Iran. In September 1978, informed Tehran bankers conservatively and publicly estimated the magnitude of capital flight to be over four billion dollars a year. In August, the Shah himself indicated his alarm and described those of his countrymen who were sending their resources abroad as "chicken-hearted." For analyses by Iranian economists documenting some of these problems, see the articles by Firouz Vakil and M. H. Pesaran in Jane W. Jaczq, ed., Iran: Past, Present and Future, New York: Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, 1976.

4 This was widely reported in the Persian press. At the banquet held at Niavaran Palace on the evening of December 31, 1977, President Carter stated in his prepared address: "Iran under the great leadership of the Shah is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you."

5 The large and visible American presence in Iran makes it easier to justify U.S. military intervention in the case of some kind of violent showdown. The Shah is certainly not unaware of this consideration. During the upheaval of 1978, the opposition leaders instructed the demonstrators not to harm or attack any Americans in the country. By late November, however, incidents of anti-Americanism had increased significantly.

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  • James A. Bill is Professor of Government and Associate Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Politics of Iran and co-author of Politics in the Middle East, to be published early in 1979.
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