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Systemic Failure: Inside the U.S. government during a revolution in the Middle East

January 27, 2011

Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991) 179-180.

During most of 1978 senior officials of the Carter Administration had been distracted and preoccupied by other momentous and demanding developments: the Camp David peace accords with Egypt and Israel, strategic arms negotiations with the Soviets, normalization of relations with China. American policy had been based on the premise that Iran was a reliable ally and would be the Big Pillar in the region.  Out of deference to the Shah and because of the desire not to anger him, American officials had kept their distance from the various opponents of his regime, which meant that they lacked channels of communication to the emerging opposition.  There was not even any reporting to Washington on what the Ayatollah was actually saying on those by-now famous tapes.  Some in Washington insisted that the unrest in Iran was a secret, Soviet-orchestrated plot.  And, as always, there was the same question: What could the United States government do, whatever the case? Only a few American officials thought that the Iranian military could withstand the persistence of nationwide strikes and the defection of religiously minded soldiers.  Indeed, the last few months of 1978 saw a fierce bureaucratic battle over policy waged in Washington. How to bolster the Shah or assure continuity to a friendly successor regime? How to support the Shah without being so committed as to assure an antagonistic relationship with his successors, should he fall? How to disengage, if disengagement were required, without undermining the Shah, in case he could survive politically? Indecision and vacillation in Washington resulted in contradictory signals to Iran: The Shah should hang tough, the Shah should abdicate, military force should be used, human rights must be observed, the military should stage a coup, the military should stand aside, a regency should be established. “The United States never sent a clear, consistent signal,” one senior official recalled. “Instead of oscillating back and forth between one course of action and the other and never deciding, we would have done better to have flipped a coin and then stuck to a policy.” The cacophony from the United States certainly confused the Shah and his senior officials, undermined their calculations, and drastically weakened their resolve.  And no one in Washington knew how sick the Shah was…

So great was the lack of coherence that one senior official, who had been involved in every Middle Eastern crisis since the early 1960s, noted the “extraordinary” fact that the “first systematic meeting” at a high level on Iran was not convened until early November – very late in the day.  On November 9, William Sullivan, the American ambassador in Tehran, finally confronted the unpleasant realities in a dramatic message to Washington entitled “Thinking the Unthinkable.” Perhaps the Shah would not be able to survive after all, he said; the United States should begin to consider contingencies and alternatives.  But in Washington, where the bureaucratic battles continued to rage, there was no meaningful reaction, save that President Carter sent hand-written notes to his Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and Director of Central Intelligence to ask why he had not been previously informed of the situation inside Iran.  Ambassador Sullivan, meanwhile, came to the conclusion that the United States faced the situation in Iran “with no policy whatsoever.”

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