Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran (New York: Random House, 1985).

Warren Christopher et al, American Hostages in Iran: The Conduct of a Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985).

Together with the defeat in Vietnam in 1975, the Iranian revolution of 1979 constituted one of the greatest setbacks to US interests in the Third World since the triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949. The consequences and controversies of that revolution are still very much alive; its outcome appears as yet uncertain. But the debates in the US on Iran’s ensuing drama and the hostage crisis provide suggestive insights into the formulation of US foreign policy, and into the “lessons” drawn from the defeat of the Shah.

Several of the major US actors have already published their accounts in memoirs devoted wholly or in part to the affairs of Iran: President Jimmy Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, White House aide Hamilton Jordan and the US ambassador to Tehran, William Sullivan, have all penned their observations. [1] The last-minute US envoy to Iran, Gen. Robert Huyser, is about to publish his own recollections. (Perhaps the most prominent and involved person not to have come out in print is Henry Precht, the State Department Iran desk officer who became a scapegoat for the “loss” of Iran. After Sen. Jesse Helms blocked him from assuming the junior ambassadorial post in Mauritania, Precht was dispatched to a position in the Cairo embassy.) The analysis by Gary Sick, Brzezinski’s deputy in the National Security Council, is by far the most informative, because of his special involvement and because he has waited long enough to weigh the accounts of others.

Memoirs represent a continuation of bureaucratic politics by other means, and the material on Iran is no exception. The question of who lost Iran has in many cases outstripped that of why Iran was lost, let alone why and how it was “had” in the first place. Essentially, the bureaucratic combatants fall into two camps. The “hawks,” represented by Brzezinski and earlier by the worthless tome of Michael Ledeen and William Lewis, Debacle, argue that Iran could have been “saved” by pursuing a harder line. Either Washington could have instructed the Shah to crack down on the opposition in late 1978, or, if he had lacked the will to do so, he could have been replaced by a hardline military regime that would, with US support, have done the job properly. This “Option C” was not carried out, so the hawks argue, because faint-hearted liberals in Washington and in the person of Ambassador Sullivan in Tehran blocked any such move. The result was that the Shah, lacking clear guidance from Washington, allowed things to slip. By January 1979, when the crisis had reached full pitch, the opposition had pushed the Shah and the army so much onto the defensive that they could not halt Khomeini’s onslaught.

The alternative, dovish position likewise tries to second-guess history, but from a different standpoint. As represented in different ways by Vance and Sullivan, this camp argues that Khomeini could have been blocked had the US moved early or decisively enough to find a replacement for the Shah and to promote democratization in Iran. Sullivan argues that overtures to Khomeini were vetoed by Brzezinski. Behind all the criticism of what happened during the revolution itself lies the added charge that a different policy pursued then could have avoided the November 1979 hostage crisis.

Gary Sick’s analysis supports neither of these positions, but does introduce a number of major questions underlying the US decisions during this affair. First, he reveals how little high-level attention Iran commanded until near the very end. The first White House meeting of the National Security Council on Iran was held only in November 1978, well after the revolution had gathered force. Preoccupation with the Camp David discussions and preparation for the arrival of China’s Teng Hsiao-ping the following January were more important. From then on crisis discussions did take place at the highest level, but amid a welter of personal, departmental and logistical conflicts.

Secondly, US political intelligence on Iran was virtually nil. The CIA concentrated only on Soviet penetration of Iran and got its internal material from SAVAK. Jesse Leaf, a former CIA Iran desk officer who resigned in 1977, told me that the analysis side of the CIA had only two people who knew Persian, neither of whom had in all likelihood ever been to the country.

Thirdly, despite close ties to the Iranian regime at many levels, the US government was simply not aware of what turned out to be a crucial factor in the decomposition of the Iranian regime, namely that the Shah had become weakened by cancer. In revolutionary situations, the failings of a key individual in the oppressor group can be as important as the willpower and vision of an individual among the oppressed: If Khomeini served as a Lenin or a Mao, the Shah lost all decisiveness in the final months, joining the ranks of Louis XVI and Nicholas II. Yet US policymakers never realized this, and thus failed to assess the extent of paralysis of the Iranian state.

Fashionable Militarism

The question posed by the hawk-dove argument on Iran, and by Sick’s study, is whether and up to what point counterrevolution was possible in Iran. All revolutions require structural, i.e., objective and profound, causes. In Lenin’s famous pair of conditions, the oppressors must no longer be able to rule in the old way, and the ruled can no longer go on being ruled. But important and necessary as these objective conditions are, they do not remove the importance of subjective factors — political organization, leadership, judgment, timing. In this sense, revolutions are not inevitable and can be prevented.

The argument on Iran is, however, mistaken on both sides. The Brzezinski “Option C” group underestimates the degree to which the revolution had weakened the Iranian armed forces from top to bottom. They had cracked by late 1978, and, while some officers could have caused bloodshed and terror, they could not have retained power for long. The hawks make no attempt to evaluate the forces behind the revolution and the degree of political organization that Khomeini could rely on. Much of the hawkish argument about Iran is in fact a more general one about the exercise of US power, the fashionable militarism of the late 1980s that is as irrelevant in Iran as it turned out to be in Lebanon. It obscures the fact that what really enabled the Iranian revolution to occur was not just the paralysis of the Shah’s regime, but the inability of the US to intervene directly or to back up an Option C-type solution. The logistical problems of distance, and the scale of the Iranian opposition, were too large. US political will was lacking. Most important, and rarely noted, was the fact that Iran borders the USSR. US intervention in Iran would have provoked a Soviet response, with grave consequences for the US force in Iran and probably broader international complications.

The liberal, dovish view underestimates the political goals of Khomeini and the deep hostility to the US in Iran. Some of this hostility was a fictive kind, based on the conspiratorial bent of Iranian political culture. But some was a direct historical result of the role the US had played in Iran since World War II — organizing the 1953 coup, sustaining the torturers and plunderers of the Pahlavi court, and orienting Iran’s foreign policies to suit US strategic interests. The idea that a discussion with Khomeini in Paris, or a timely ditching of the Shah in 1977 or 1978, could have changed the ultimate outcome of the revolution is baseless. The great failing of the liberal position, one reproduced in Sick’s account, is the refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of Iranian grievances against the US. “Anti-Americanism” is perceived as a pathology, an irrational or Soviet-inspired stance on the part of Iranians, or Nicaraguans, rather than as a nationalist and class response to decades of US imperial policy. [2] The point Sick concedes in assessing the revolution, that no US policy could have saved the Iranian regime after mid-1978, is correct: Brzezinski, Sullivan and the rest were dancing on an imperialist Titanic. The hawks and iron fisters underestimated the strength of the revolution, the liberals the deep hostility to the US within the revolutionary movement.

The revolution was an event of great historical and international significance. The hostage affair, which lasted from November 1979 to January 1981, was an occasion for enormous invective and drama but was, in retrospect, of secondary importance. Some dozens of American diplomats were detained in unpleasant and harrowing circumstances, but they all returned home safely in the end. The US did not go to war with Iran, and in the final settlement, detailed by Warren Christopher, the Iranian revolution became the first in history to pay all its debts. The most important aspect of the hostage crisis is one virtually ignored in the Christopher volume, namely its place within Iranian domestic politics. It was used and promoted to discredit the “liberals” like Bazargan who wanted an accommodation with the West. It also served to channel nationalist sentiment onto a convenient target. In diverting the Iranian people from more important problems — of democracy, economic management and social reform — it served as an “anti-imperialism of fools,” a diversion from reality that cost the Iranian people dearly.

Internationally it contributed to the stoking up of the terrorism mania that Reagan so well exploited in 1980 and since. The crisis served, moreover, to run the US state and business communities through a maneuver that deterred other Third World challengers, namely the seizure of Iranian assets. The details of this process are discussed in a number of chapters of the Christopher book: As much as desert war training in the Mojave, this financial action against Iran has served as a deterrent to other Third World states in the conflict with the hegemonic center of capital. The Arabs, in particular, took note. [3]

Iran and Vietnam

In the current formulation and implementation of the Reagan Doctrine, the lessons of Vietnam are much extolled. The US should have “gone to the source,” i.e., invaded North Vietnam. Washington should only undertake military operations when there is a clear political determination to sustain the campaign over a long period. Above all, success in counterrevolution requires firm domestic political support. Much of policy toward Central America today is based upon the lessons, real and imagined, of Vietnam, and the deviousness and incoherence of Reagan’s policy are in part a result of the need to support counterrevolution while not enjoying, or not yet enjoying, sufficient domestic support.

The lies and scares, the alarms about PLO, Libyan and Iranian fighters in Nicaragua, are part of a campaign to generate support. The underlying function of the Kissinger Commission was not to formulate policy for Central America — after all, Kissinger knew nothing about the region, and the Reagan administration can perfectly well formulate policy on its own without bringing in counterrevolutionary retreads. The purpose of the commission was to strengthen the constituency of support within the US. But US policymaking in the Third World is equally haunted by Iran and by the lessons of this epic defeat. Some retrospective analysis has focused on the strains of economic and social change, and the mistake made by many in assuming the Shah could halt political change as he transformed the country socioeconomically. Insofar as the Iranian case drove a further nail into the coffin of “modernization theory,” one of the most banal ideological constructs of the post-war world, it served a useful function: but the lesson that socioeconomic change produces political upheaval was hardly new, given 1789, 1917 and all that.

The key lesson of Iran concerns the management of revolutionary crises. This is not a matter of committees, intelligence and procedures in Washington: The myopia that hits almost all who cluster along the Potomac often puts such administrative details at the center of the debate. Rather more important is the question of handling the client regime in such a way as to prevent it being overthrown in the face of such challenges.

The lesson of Iran was — and this is crystal clear: Get rid of the dictator, keep the regime. Both liberals and hawks sought to maintain the Iranian state while easing out the Shah. It was the close identification of monarch and state, and the illusions this created in Washington, which prevented the United States from formulating a clear alternative strategy; and the organized strength of the opposition made any maneuver to save the regime all the more difficult.

In at least three revolutionary crises in US client states since 1979, Washington has implemented what appears to be the Iranian lesson: The dictator has been dismissed and the state that supported him preserved, often with comic opera turns of loyalty in the final hours. [4] Thus Numayri, Duvalier and Marcos have all been neutralized and spirited into exile. But the state apparatus of Sudan, Haiti and the Philippines have remained in place. This strategy has required some unleashing of the masses and a measure of political freedom. The payoff has been that the client state, for the time being, persists, allowing Washington to perform the preposterous role of a champion of change. In all of these nations, as in Iran, the people themselves, often at great cost in life and suffering, sustained the challenge to the old US-backed dictatorship, but this is conveniently forgotten.

Dismal Doctrines

Iran prompted a significant shift in US strategic deployments, particularly towards the Third World. Counterrevolution and the exclusion of rivals — not defense, economics, or “freedom” — occasioned the dismal “doctrines” to which US presidents have given their names: Monroe for Latin America and the Caribbean; Truman for Greece and Iran; Eisenhower for the Arab world; Nixon for Indochina and elsewhere; Carter for the Gulf. Now we have the Reagan Doctrine, a recipe of state-backed terrorism against revolutionary regimes. The US has not attempted military subversion of Khomeini — the regime is too entrenched and the strategic risks are too great. The Iranian revolution defeated the Nixon Doctrine in west Asia by destroying the policy of relying on “regional influentials.” Here the Carter Doctrine prevails: the buildup of US forces in the Gulf, and more generally Southwest Asia, to fill the gap left by the defeat in Iran.

Any assessment of “the lessons” of the two Iranian crises would not be complete without a word on the consequences of US policy toward this former ally itself. On the surface, the US is implacably hostile to Khomeini and has not forgiven or forgotten the hostage crisis. Tehran is one of the select capitals of the world — along with Pyongyang, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Aden, Tirana, Tripoli and Luanda — with no US diplomatic representatives, accredited or disguised. Yet as Sick carefully points out, Iran remains a country of vital concern to the US. By not intervening during or after the hostage crisis in any significant way, Washington has kept its options open. Sick takes pains to show that any serious military action against Iran was ruled out once the Russians intervened in Afghanistan in December 1979. The US did not then, and does not now, want to encourage Iran to improve its relations with the USSR. Like the USSR, it supports Iraq in the current phase of the Iran-Iraq war — with economic aid, diplomatic support and satellite intelligence data to monitor Iranian troop movements. But also like the USSR, it seems to permit and so encourage other states to send some arms to Iran — Syria, Libya and North Korea in the case of the USSR, Israel, China and Pakistan in the case of the US.

It was in Iran, during the Azerbaijan crisis of 1946, that the first Cold War began. Today Iran remains a country of great concern to both the US and the Soviet Union, not because of its oil but because of where it is. Neither will easily allow the other to reestablish a position of dominance there. For these reasons, Iran remains squarely within the cross-currents of international tensions.


[1] Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith; Cyrus Vance, Hard Choices; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle; Hamilton Jordan, Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency; William Sullivan, Mission to Iran.
[2] I suggested a similar criticism of Barry Rubin’s Paved with Good Intentions, in MERIP Reports 98 (July-August 1981).
[3] The hostage crisis did have one interesting byproduct, namely the publication in dozens of volumes of documents found in the US embassy. There seems little doubt as to their authenticity although some involving clerical officials in contacts with the US embassy have been removed.
[4] The brunt of the right-wing second-guessing on Nicaragua is precisely that such a policy to remove Somoza was not pursued there. See Shirley Christian, Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Iran and the Reagan Doctrine," Middle East Report 140 (May/June 1986).

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