Barry Rubin, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience in Iran (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

Nobody needs to be reminded of what Iran means to the United States. What China was in the first cold war of the early 1950s, Iran has become in the second cold war of the early 1980s — the country whose “loss” has legitimized a major right-wing retrenchment in foreign policy and hostility to those suspected of sympathy for third world liberation. The Iranian revolution dealt a substantial blow to US policy by removing the most active junior ally Washington had in the Persian Gulf region. It also had a subjective consequence, enhanced by the hostage affair: it aroused that willingness to deploy military forces in the third world which the Vietnamese had apparently tempered earlier in the decade. Just as the US defeat in China in 1949 led to US preparedness to intervene militarily in the Far East — in Korea, the Philippines and later Indochina — so the defeat in Iran in 1979 has opened the door for a new US military role in the Persian Gulf and surrounding countries.

The US public’s consciousness of Iran is a relatively recent one, born of the last months of the revolution and of the post-revolutionary turmoil in 1979 and 1980. This new awareness in the US, however, has taken a dominant tone of self-pity. Far from learning about US support for repression in Iran and drawing lessons which might preclude such crimes in the future, most public commentary urges future administrations to follow the same course, only more resolutely. The Iranian people have a far longer and deeper awareness of the US role in their country. Yet the very length and bitterness of the relationship leads to misconceptions on the part of the dominated people, exaggerates US responsibility for the course of events in Iran, and mistakes symbolic actions of national reassertion, such as the detention of US embassy personnel, for a real emancipation from the variant forms of foreign domination. The semi-colonial domination of Iran by Britain and the US has left a deep mark on the national consciousness of the Iranian people, among whom a belief of imperialist conspiracy has a special vibrant place.

Although they reflect real historical factors, such perceptions can have paralyzing and diversionary consequences. With nations, as with individuals, the psychological impact of past wrongs can continue to take its toll long after the wrongs were committed. These phantasms trap the victims even as they imagine they are liberating themselves from such entanglements. The task of establishing the accurate history of US-Iranian relations is not, therefore, merely a matter of validating some past facts, or of drawing up an anti-imperialist balance sheet. It is a key to deciphering the present critical situation in world politics and to liberating the Iranian revolution from myths which continue to afflict it.

Barry Rubin’s book is the first serious account since the revolution of US-Iranian relations and is likely to be the standard work on the subject for some time to come. Rubin charts the growth of the relationship from the first intermittent contacts early in the twentieth century through the establishment of a working state-to-state relationship in World War II and up to the revolution and the hostage crisis. He pays special attention to certain key periods. He describes how Premier Mossadeq tried and failed in the 1951-1953 period to win US support against the British. The book contains illuminating accounts of US policymaking under the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, and Rubin charts the explosion of arms sales following Nixon and Kissinger’s visit to Tehran in 1972. He has interviewed many of those making US policy during the revolution itself. He provides the first comprehensive account of this period and of the factionalism within the US state over Iran. In particular, he argues that any alternative US policy, of using an iron fist to crush the revolution, would have been impossible in the closing months of 1978, given the disintegration of the Iranian army. Among other things, he reports that the last head of SAVAK, Gen. Nasser Moqaddam, and the head of the Shah’s own special intelligence bureau, Gen. Fardust, were in touch with Khomeini for some time before the fall of the regime. At the same time he shows the considerable degree of decentralization and confusion involved in US policymaking, and the limits, as much as the powers, of US foreign policy in the Iranian context.

Intentions and Silences

Rubin’s book is well written, rich in detail, and, with a few small exceptions, factually accurate. [1] It weaves skillfully between the Iranian and US dimensions of the story. Yet the manner in which the story is told entails certain political implications. It is here that the difficulties with Rubin’s analysis arise. Rubin’s book makes it all the more likely that US public opinion will draw the lesson of repeating, with a vengeance, the Iran experience. The title itself is a manifesto of exoneration. It is not a misleading summary of the book and serves, in a stark fashion, to focus attention on the way in which his narrative tends to obscure several key incidents and aspects of the US relationship with Iran.

There are, first of all, certain silences in Rubin’s story. Any one or two might appear to be lapses, inevitable in such a crowded narrative. But their accumulation has a definite apologetic effect, such that at quite a number of crucial points US policy is placed in an unduly favorable light. Rubin’s account of the growth of US-Iranian relations in the 1940s, for instance, stresses on the optimistic hopes of the Roosevelt administration for Iran but underplays the importance of the security relationship established between the two countries. He does not mention the November 1943 agreement to supply military advisers to the Iranian gendarmerie. This US assistance made it possible for the Shah to use the gendarmerie against leftist forces in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan in 1946, a major turning point in modern Iranian history, of equal importance to the coup of 1953. The man who coordinated this policy in the 1940s, Col. Norman Schwartzkopf, was also a key conspirator in 1953.

Rubin’s account of the Mossadeq period also contains considerable indulgence. He points out that the conventional US view of Mossadeq as a communist tool, epitomized in Kermit Roosevelt’s Countercoup, is unfounded. He nevertheless advances the view that the “chaos” of Mossadeq’s period could have opened the door to the communists. He fails to note that this “chaos” was a product of the oil embargo against Iran by US and British oil companies. Had the oil companies accepted Iran’s right to nationalize its oil, there would not have been the crisis in the first place. Rubin also fails to tell us of the Tudeh role in the coup period itself, allowing the CIA operation to proceed without hindrance. The account Rubin gives of the coup itself is also incomplete: he fully notes the bribed pro-Shah civilian forces who demonstrated on August 19, but understates the far more important role of the military forces who staged a coup on that day. Most accounts of the CIA role in the events highlight the bribing of the civilian demonstrators. Yet it was the less publicized US link with the army which was vital in restoring the Shah to power. [2]

Rubin’s account of subsequent events is also deficient in significant respects. While he recounts the human rights violations of the Iranian secret police, SAVAK, he omits how the FBI and CIA together helped set up and train SAVAK from 1957 onward. Presumably there was some secret security agreement here which a bit of research could now uncover. The degree to which US personnel were cognizant of, and even involved in, SAVAK torture is also skated over. This is despite the fact that a number of other commentators, including former CIA analyst Jesse Leaf and UN official Sean MacBride, have made specific allegations on this score. [3]

Rubin rightly stresses the importance of the Iraqi revolution of 1958 in arousing alarm in Tehran, but he understates the degree to which the Iranian government proceeded then to intervene in Iraqi politics. By any accounting system one could devise up to 1975 the Shah did far more to disrupt the Iraqis than the Iraqis did to him. One can only suspect that throughout this period the destabilization of Iraq was carried out with the connivance of the US. We know it was in the final years, when the CIA and SAVAK collaborated in aiding the Iraqi Kurds. Rubin’s implication that Iranian intervention in Iraq was merely a response to Iraqi aid of Iranian Arabs is somewhat simplified: not only was the scale and scope of intervention extremely asymmetrical, but it would seem that there was an underlying US-Iranian strategic intention to disconcert and if possible dislodge a pro-Soviet regime in Baghdad.

Who Made US Policy?

Rubin’s account of the post-revolutionary period contains many interesting details, but there is, once again, an apologetic undertone when it comes to the events surrounding the seizure of the US embassy in November 1979. This concerns the role of US banks, and particularly Chase Manhattan, in precipitating a financial confrontation with Iran over allegedly unpaid interest payments on loans. As we now know, the great victors from the hostage crisis were the US banks, who were repaid their loans completely by the January 1981 settlement. How far they helped to precipitate the 1979 crisis in the hope that this would enable them to seize Iranian assets we do not yet know. But it is known how in early November the Chase Manhattan deliberately ignored Iranian instructions to pay interest on outstanding loans in order to justify a seizure of Iranian financial assets in the US and to prevent the Iranians from removing their assets from the US — an intention voiced before the seizure of the hostages. [4]

This aspect of the hostage crisis, important in the precipitation of the incident and in its resolution, receives no mention in Rubin’s narrative of November 1979. His account of the hostage affair shares the disequilibrium of judgment which affected most US commentators on the subject. He refers to the hostage takers as “terrorists.” If this currently modish term should be applied to the “followers of the Imam’s line” who held the US Embassy, then it should be applied with even greater force to a host of American officials. Their policies in Iran over 25 years or more reached far greater heights of illegal and criminal behavior than anything perpetrated by Iranians during the hostage crisis.

This touches upon a general question of central importance in evaluating the whole course of US policy in Iran: Who really made that policy? Rubin’s account focuses on government decisions. This is a legitimate choice, yet in so doing he precludes judgement on how non-governmental organizations inflected US policy from the 1940s onwards. It is hard to believe, for example, that US oil companies did not have some role in influencing US policy toward Mossadeq, conscious as they must have been of how they could get a footing in what had until then been a British preserve. The hints to this effect are left rather vague. His account of the links between arms companies and US officials in the 1970s focuses on the dual loyalties of specific individuals, but does not confront the question of how far US policy as a whole was responsive to business interests. It is quite right to disaggregate US government policy and show how, even within one government department, there were differences of opinion. It is equally important to establish what the unifying themes of US policy were, and to see how a major capitalist state formulated and implemented its policy in Iran.

Rubin’s underlying view, that US policy “was often paved for the United States with good intentions, coupled with exceedingly bad judgment,” is hard to sustain. Leaving aside the role of business interests, whose concern was profit, not good intentions, Rubin slides over the delicate matter of all those Americans at the center of policymaking who benefited from the Shah’s largesse. [5] Most important of all, he occludes what was the central intention of US policy, to maintain a brutal right-wing dictatorship in power. This was the underlying logic of US policy from 1946 onward, entailing the 1953 coup, the creation of and support for SAVAK, the cover-ups on repression and torture, and the frantic, belated attempts to derail the revolution.

The relation between Iranian policy and the more general issue of US policy towards the USSR is central to the whole story. Here again Rubin implicitly endorses a conventional US view. The USSR is charged with “aggression” in Iran in 1946 when in fact, as Rubin himself shows, the Russians pulled their forces out of Iran in that year and abandoned the Iranian left to its fate. The passivity of the Tudeh during the 1953 coup owes not a little to advice it received from Soviet authorities not prepared to confront the US in Iran at that time. Rubin implies that the US-Iran defense treaty of 1959 was a response to prior Soviet hostility towards Iran. In fact, the reverse was the case: the treaty of March 1959 precipitated the increased level of Soviet criticism of the Shah. Far from indicating aggressiveness in the region, Soviet policy towards Iran throughout this period was one of restraint and indeed of willingness to collude with the Shah on a range of political issues. Throughout, Iran’s role as a forward position in the US global deployment against the USSR is understated. There is no mention of the secret US electronic monitoring stations along the Soviet-Iranian frontier which were, as it later transpired, an important link in the US system of monitoring Soviet military activities.

There is, inevitably, much that is still obscure about the course of US-Iranian relations. The revolutionary authorities in Iran have not helped much in this regard. They missed a golden opportunity to cast light on the past by failing to publish the documents now in their possession from the US Embassy and the Shah’s Foreign Ministry files. In September 1980 reports surfaced of a secret State Department compilation of 60,000 pages of US government documents covering US-Iranian relations from the 1940s onward. According to one account, “If its supporting documents were aired, every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Mr. Carter would be subject to severe criticism.” [6] Other participants and observers in the events of 1978-1980 will no doubt be pushing their accounts forward, and will add further details to those already available. [7]

Two underlying questions are of special relevance to those concerned to support the liberation of the Iranian peoples. The first concerns how far it is possible to talk of one single US policy, of a “US imperialism,” and what the effects of that imperialism were. At one extreme we have a demonological picture of a unified US policy able to determine events in Iran almost at will. This is the “Great Satan” view, in its left and right varieties. At the other we have Rubin’s account, with its fragmented decisio -taking, limited ability to influence events, and its “good intentions.” Neither are adequate; both are self-serving.

The issues raised concern the very manner in which we analyze US foreign policy and its impact upon the Third World as a whole. The challenge which this poses is not merely empirical (what happened) but also conceptual (what categories and theories are useful to discuss the forces determining policy of the advanced capitalist states). It concerns the validity of the term “imperialism” in the current age. Those who argue the traditional view that imperialism simply held back the development of the productive forces in Iran must face some difficulties in analyzing the Iran of 1979: It was the contradictions produced by over a decade of intense capitalist development which provoked the revolutionary upsurge of 1978. Similarly, any positing of a single “imperialist” force acting upon Iran cannot be sustained. What is impressive about the history of US policy in the last year of the Shah’s rule is the chaotic character of decision making, the departmental factionalism, and, ultimately, the lack of control which the US had over events. The Iranian revolution challenges not just the theories of the right, but also those of the left, concerning the nature of anti-imperialist movements, the character of imperialist policy, and its execution.

The second question concerns the relevance of the past to the future. Iran may not be “lost” forever. One can only assume that if an appropriate moment arises the conservative forces in the Middle East, supported by the US, will attempt to reverse the verdict of the Iranian revolution and reestablish a pro-Western repressive regime there. It hardly needs to be said that the disunity and diversionary concerns of the present Iranian leadership are paving the way for such a turn of events, just as the disunity and organizational weaknesses of the nationalist and left-wing forces in the early 1950’s paved the way for the 1953 coup. The history of US-Iranian relations is by no means over. The “good intentions” which played such a powerful role in the past will at every opportunity exert their influence on events in the future.


[1] The Reza Khan coup took place in March 1921, the attack on the communist forces in the north in October 1921; Nasser did not “install” the republican government in North Yemen in 1962, it came to power in a military coup; the strikes began in October 1978; the British Embassy was not burnt, only an outhouse. The account of the revolution underplays some important turning points, particularly the September 4 and 7, 1978 demonstrations in Teheran and the February 10-11, 1979 rising in Tehran which finished off the Bakhtiar government.
[2] The director of the US Military Assistance program in Iran at the time, Maj. Gen. George C. Stewart, told a Congressional committee how substantial assistance was given to the Iranian army in preparation for the coup (quoted in Robert Engler, The Politics of Oil, 1961, p. 206).
[3] Jesse Leaf later claimed that SAVAK had been trained by the CIA using World War II German interrogation textbooks (New York Times, January 6, 1979). Sean MacBride’s statements are detailed in an article co-authored by Karl Kaplan and myself in The Nation (March 1, 1980).
[4] For details of how the Iranians were alleged to have defaulted see Claudia Wright in Inquiry (April 7, 1980), and Eric Rouleau in Le Monde (June 20, 1980).
[5] Rouleau, Le Monde (June 19, 1980) names, among others, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Spiro Agnew, William Rogers, Larry MacDonald and Gerald Ford. Rubin’s treatment of this matter is rather too cursory since he uses an extreme argument about the bribery of US officials to wipe the slate clean altogether. There obviously was a major influence-buying operation which helped obscure the more ugly aspects of the Shah’s regime.
[6] Scott Armstrong, “Secret Study Tells US-Iran Story,” International Herald Tribune, September 20-21, 1980.
[7] The right-wing revisionist account of Iranian events is given in Michael Ledeen and William Lewis, Debacle: The American Failure in Iran (New York, 1981). This was well reviewed by Shaul Bakhash in the New York Review of Books, May 14, 1981. He shows how the facts marshaled by Ledeen and Lewis fail to sustain their polemical conclusion, that a hardline US policy would have worked. Another recent publication is Yonah Alexander and Allan Nanes, eds., The United States and Iran: A Documentary History (Frederick, MD: Aletheia Books). Although this contains some interesting materials, it is marred by a lack of any sustained commentary to illuminate the documents, and by its failure to print any materials that might be deemed critical of US policy in Iran. There is, for example, nothing on the US role in 1953. Material on human rights is taken from the statements by State Department officials. It basically serves to confuse. See also the series of six articles by Scott Armstrong in Washington Post, October 1980, and Eric Rouleau, “Les Etats-Unis et l’Enjeu Iranien,” Le Monde, June 17-20, 1980.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Exonerating US Policy," Middle East Report 98 (July/August 1981).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This