Nixon and the Shah of Iran
Diplomatic cables released via wikileaks reinforce the perception that the Nixon administration was too cozy with the Shah of Iran. While few cablegrams dating from the 1970s are included in ‘cablegate,’ three released so far originate from the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, including a strongly worded message in February 1972 favoring shipment of F-4E fighter planes for the Shah.
The cable is highlighted on wikileaks here.
Shah Reza Pahlavi had been placed back on the ‘Persian’ peacock throne in 1953 by the CIA, after his people ousted him in favor of a better-qualified political opponent, Mohammad Mossadeq. The head of a repressive regime widely credited with looting the country and enriching his own family, supported in power by the fearsome SAVAK, secret police, Pahlavi re-styled himself ‘shah’ after ancient (undemocratic) tradition.
By the early 1970s, the secret police in combination with other forces had entrenched a dictatorship criticized by international human rights organizations. Within a few years, the Shah, increasingly unpopular, was ousted by revolution rather than by peaceful process, bringing down allies and supporters with him. Everyone knows what happened when the Shah was allowed entry into the U.S. for medical treatment by President Jimmy Carter, fueling Iranian suspicions of another U.S.-backed takeover in the offing. Incidentally, the minimal actual spycraft going on in the U.S. embassy in Iran was later reported as “routine, prudent espionage conducted at diplomatic missions everywhere.”
The hostage crisis is associated with Carter as Watergate is associated with Nixon; news outlets do not always remind readers and viewers of longer causes. (I had to send evidence, documents, to readers unaware that presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush had supplied Saddam Hussein with money and weapons, when I wrote about the issue during the lead-up to invading Iraq.) Anyway, Nixon became yesterday’s news when he resigned rather than face impeachment, and the Watergate scandal used up all the oxygen for reporting on Nixon.
Instant amnesia about the mistakes and misdeeds of a previous administration did not begin yesterday. The fact remains that Nixon and Jerry Ford, his Vice President who became president, gave aid and comfort to the Shah in a degree not emphasized in Peoria. “SUBJECT: ACCELERATION OF F-4ES FOR IRAN”:
“GENERAL AZIMI, MINISTER OF WAR, ON INSTRUCTION OF SHAH ASKS THAT WE TAKE ANOTHER HARD LOOK AT F-4E PRODUCTION LINE IN ORDER ACCELERATE DELIVERY OF ONE SQUADRON OF F-4ES TO IRAN IN 1972. REQUEST REFLECTS SHAH’S INCREASING CONCERN OVER SOVIET AMBITIONS IN AREA AND ESPECIALLY THREAT SHAH SEES TO IRAN OF FRIENDSHIP TREATY UNDER CONSIDERATION BY IRAQ AND USSR. SHAH RECOGNIZES PROBLEMS THIS POSES FOR US BUT IS TURNING TO USG WITH THIS REQUEST TO GIVE IRAN HIGHER PRIORITY ON FA-4E PRODUCTION SCHEDULE BECAUSE HE REGARDS US AS MOST DEPENDABLE FRIEND. END SUMMARY
ACTION REQUESTED: COUNTRY TEAM RECOMMENDS US REVIEW F-4E PRODUCTION LINE AND RESPOND FAVORABLY TO SHAH’S REQUEST FOR 16 F-4ES IN 1972 FROM WHATEVER SOURCE MAY BE AVAILABLE.”
As with the Reagan and Bush administrations, the short story here is that a repressive regime shopping for advanced aerospace and military technology did not want long for wares. Like Saudi Arabia later, and with the same fatal potential for blowback against American interests, the Shah got what he wanted and more.
The longer saga dating from the Nixon administration, and the flip side of the same coin, is Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s continuing inability, or unwillingness, to understand what domestic unrest in Iran actually meant. On Aug. 22, 1972, they received what might be called adequate warning. The cable from the U.S. embassy in Iran begins,
“SUMMARY: FOLLOWING ASSASSINATION OF GENERAL SAID TAHERI, BOMBING AND OTHER TERRORIST ACTIVITIES HAVE CONTINUED TO INCREASE. SAVAK MAINTAINING ITS POLICY OF WIDESPREAD PREVENTIVE ARRESTS AND, WHILE THIS RUNS RISK OF HEIGHTENING RESENTMENT AMONG POPULACE, OFFICIALS SEEM CONFIDENT THAT GUERRILLAS ARE ON THE RUN. WE ARE SKEPTICAL ABOUT THE OFFICIAL OPTIMISM AND FEEL THAT SANGUINE PUBLIC STATEMENTS AND THE GUERRILLA REACTION THEY USUALLY PROVOKE MAY FURTHER ERODE CREDIBILITY OF SECURITY ORGANS IN MIND OF PUBLIC.
Gen. Said Taheri was the head of prisons. The embassy clearly saw the downside of ongoing repressive tactics and a government crackdown:
“SAVAK AND OTHER SECURITY ORGANS ARE PROCEEDING WITH A WIDESPREAD AND, WE HEAR, NOT VERY WELL TARGETED ROUND-UP OF SUSPECTS, AIDED BY LISTS OF NAMES AND OTHER DOCUMENTS FOUND IN DWELLING OF A RECENTLY SLAIN TERRORIST LEADER. POLICE NETS, WHICH ARE REPORTEDLY HAULING IN THE INNOCENT WITH THE GUILTY, HAVE EXTENDED AS FAR AFIELD AS ISFAHAN WHERE A NUMBER OF SUSPECTS WERE ARRESTED TWO WEEKS AGO.”
The telegram, signed by Ambassador Joseph S. Farland, goes on,
“COMMENT: WE CONSIDER IT MORE LIKELY THAT TAHERI WAS PERSONALLY TARGETED DUE TO HIS DIRECT INVOLVEMENT IN ANTI-GUERRILLA ACTIVITIES. MOREOVER, SKILLFUL MANNER IN WHICH ASSASSINATION CARRIED OUT, REQUIRING CAREFUL PLANNING AND RECONNAISSANCE AS WELL AS DEFT EXECUTION, APPEARS TO INDICATE THAT THOSE INVOLVED WERE MUCH BETTER TRAINED THAN AVERAGE TERRORISTS, SOME OF WHOM HAVE BEEN BLOWN UP BY THEIR OWN BOMBS.
IT IS POSSIBLE THAT NUMBER OF GUERRILLA INCIDENTS WILL BEGIN TO TAPER OFF, BUT WE DO NOT SHARE SADRI’S CONFIDENCE THAT HIS TACTICS AND THOSE OF SAVAK CAN COMPLETELY HALT TERRORIST ACTIVITY. IN FACT OVER REACTION AND TOO ZEALOUS A REPRESSION BY SECURITY ORGANIZATIONS SEEM AT LEAST AS LIKELY TO RECRUIT NEW GUERRILLAS AS TO STAMP OUT OLD ONES. IN ADDITION WISDOM SEEMS QUESTIONABLE OF SECURITY OFFICIALS MAKING PUBLIC PRONOUNCEMENTS ABOUT BREAKUP OF GUERRILLA GROUPS AND PREDICTIONS OF THEIR DEMISE. WE RECALL THAT THE LAST SUCH ANNOUNCEMENT LAST JANUARY WAS FOLLOWED BY SERIES OF EXPLOSIONS ON US-PROPERTIES AND OTHER SITES IN TEHRAN. IN OUR VIEW SUCH PUBLIC DECLARATIONS RUN RISK OF INCREASING CREDIBILITY GAP AND RESENTMENT ON PART OF PUBLIC WHO LIKELY BE INCREASINGLY APPREHENSIVE OF INDISCRIMINATE ARRESTS THAT DO NOT SEEM TO BE STAMPING OUT TERRORISTS.”
Unlike the situation addressed by the previous cablegram, this one includes no quick fix. It is to the ambassador’s credit that he is not ginning up U.S. shipments of more weaponry to the Shah at this point. But it is hardly likely that a major course correction would be requested in such a message, and major course correction was the only way to salvage American interests in Iran in the 1970s.
The next cablegram from our man in Iran is yet more pessimistic. On March 4, 1975, Ambassador Richard Helms—who went to Iran from CIA–sent a devastating assessment by cable to Washington:
“SUBJECT: IRANIAN RESURGENCE PARTY CREATED BY SHAH:
SUMMARY: CREATION OF IRANIAN RESURGENCE PARTY ANNOUNCED BY SHAH MARCH 2 IS MOVE TO SEEK BROADER SUPPORT FOR MONARCHY AND THE SHAHPEOPLE REVOLUTION. ALL IRANIANS OF VOTING AGE ARE EXPECTED TO EXPRESS ALLEGIANCE TO NEW PARTY OR RISK BEING VIEWED AS OPPONENTS OF SHAH AND EVEN TRAITORS WHO SHOULD LEAVE IRAN OR GO TO PRISON. SHAH EXPLAINED IRAN’S RETURN TO SINGLE PARTY SYSTEM AS NECESSARY BECAUSE QTE SHAMEFUL UTTERANCES UNQTE BY SOME IRANIANS SHOWED NEED FOR IRANIANS TO CLOSE RANKS IN EFFORTS TO ACHIEVE QTE GREAT CIVILIZATION, UNQTE AND BECAUSE OPPOSITION PARTIES HAD FAILED. ELECTIONS SCHEDULED FOR SUMMER WILL APPARENTLY BE HELD, BUT IT IS NOT CLEAR HOW THEY WILL BE ORGANIZED. NET RESULT IS TO MAKE IRANIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM LESS FLEXIBLE. INTERNATIONAL REACTION WILL PROBABLY RANGE FROM INDIFFERENCE TO CHARGES OF INCREASED TOTALITARIANISM. SHAH APPARENTLY PLANS TO CONTINUE ACTIVE INVOLVEMENT IN DAILY POLITICAL AFFAIRS. THIS IS CONTRARY TO EARLIER SUGGESTIONS
THAT HE MIGHT BE MOVING GRADUALLY TO CONFINE HIMSELF TO BROAD POLICY GUIDANCE AND LEAVE IMPLEMENTATION TO GOVERNMENT.
To be continued