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Iran and the United States: What Went Wrong?

ISSUE:  Summer 1983
The United States and Iran: The Patterns of Influence. By R. K. Ramazani. Praeger. $28.95 cloth, $10.95 paper.
Mission to Iran. By William H. Sullivan. Norton. $14.95.
Inside the Iranian Revolution. By John D. Stempel. Indiana. $17.50.
The Destined Hour. By Barbara and Barry Rosen. Doubleday. $17.95.

Will the United States ever learn,” asks Professor Ramazani, “that without understanding the nature of the challenge posed by other societies we cannot bring our power and influence to bear on the pursuit of our foreign policy, no matter how worthy our goals may be?” A good question, and Iran raised it in acute form, as did Vietnam before it, and El Salvador is raising it anew. As Ramazani warns, one does not get very far in simply demanding: “Who lost Iran?” (or “Who lost Vietnam?” or “Who is losing El Salvador now?”), for the reciprocity of all international relationships is such that one might just as well ask in each of these situations: “Who lost the United States?” What went wrong is the real question, and both parties to a relationship incubate the answer.

These four books provide many clues. Professor Ramazani, a native Iranian, a longtime resident and citizen of the United States, and a political scientist steeped in Iranian history and psychology, has produced the more rounded and illuminating. He understands Iran as none of the American authors do, and he grasps what the responsibilities of a world power demand of policy shapers and diplomats. As his earlier books on Iran and its foreign policy have shown, he has a sensitive grasp of the cultural, psychological, and spiritual as well as the political and economic strings on which Iranian history has been played, some of which the foreign affairs establishment of the United States hardly glimpsed, much less understood. The other three books, authored by Americans who served in our embassy in Teheran, provide useful insights, mostly into U. S. misjudgments and maladroitness. William Sullivan was our last ambassador; John D. Stempel served as political officer from July 1975 to June 1979 and was thereafter posted in the State Department dealing with the mounting crisis; and Barry Rosen was the embassy’s press attache from December 1978, becoming one of the hostages eleven months later. His wife collaborated on The Destined Hour and relates poignantly what it was like to experience the ordeal as a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law, besieged by a media preying wolf-like on the drama and of course consumed with silly questions,

Ramazani points out that the Western concept of influence is basically secular, whereas “the secular and the sacred are largely inseparable in the political culture of most Third World states.” Sixteen years ago, in Anatomy of the State Department, referring to Third World countries, I put it this way: “Their problems are not simply political and economic—as we tend to think—but social, psychological, and spiritual as well. While we generously offer a certain amount of political tutelage and economic assistance, the hearts and minds of these people grope for something more. The focus of any civilization is not a hall of parliament or a locomotive or even a schoolhouse or a clinic: it is man.” A professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies was completely mystified by this. He knew of the Third World only what he had gleaned from printed materials. But it is a mystification, unhappily, shared by our diplomatic establishment, and it has no such excuse.

“Neither in pre-Islamic nor in Islamic Iran,” Ramazani warns, “have the concepts of power and piety been separable,” and even when there is no apparent consensus of what constitutes good and evil, the feeling about them can be profound and provide an integral ingredient of a nation’s psychology and reactions to foreigners who have a different value system and psychology. Not a few of our diplomatic failures come from our inability to recognize this and to educate our foreign affairs officers accordingly. This comes through clearly in Sullivan’s and Stempel’s books. They deal with the secular factors in our relations with Iran—our strategic interest, the military thrust of that interest, economic and social development and the like—underlining our exaggeration of the whole modernization process on which the Shah embarked and thus, in Ramazani’s words, “the influence of the modern-educated, secular, sociopolitical personalities” in Iran. Does that ring a Vietnam bell in anyone’s mind? “For all practical purposes,” Ramazani goes on, “the U. S. officials were cut off from the more traditional, and yet more influential, religious figures.” That this was likewise true of the Shah, Ramazani points out, and thus, in concentrating on that ruler our interest and concern, we compounded our error.

Sullivan’s memoir is in many ways a melancholy one, revealing many of the basic flaws in our diplomacy. The ambassador was not an Iran or even a Mideast specialist, but, as a competent, experienced, analytical generalist of 32 years of diplomatic service, eight and a half of which had been as an ambassador, he tried to see to it that his briefings and conferences in Washington and New York were the best he could crowd into the time allowed, and he supplemented these by reading on his own. Weak-kneed colleagues in the State Department nearly denied him a meeting with President Carter, who had passed the word he could not meet with every ambassador. Discovering Sullivan was not going to see the President, Zbigniew Brzezinski, appalled, promptly arranged a meeting.

During this process of preparation, Sullivan began to have questions and doubts concerning our policies, the magnitude of our presence in Iran, and the Shah’s own policies; but when he arrived in Teheran and quickly perceived the inadequacies of the embassy staff and tried to correct them, he had minimal success. The State Department, starved for years of funds, personnel, and managerial competence and still preferring the rotation of officers to profundity, could not come up with the kind of people needed. As Sullivan worked hard but futilely to correct staff deficiencies, many of his nagging questions and doubts continued, contributing to a mounting sense of frustration.

As both Sullivan and Stempel point out, most of the embassy officers were serving in Iran for the first time, could not speak Farsi, and lacked both the contacts and personal equipment to come to grips with what was going on. One gathers they did little or no traveling, although Rosen, who had previously served in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, did. The consular posts were likewise inadequately staffed and equipped to serve as observation, evaluation, and politico-cultural outposts. Even the local staff of the embassy, consisting largely of Armenian Christians, contributed to the mission’s isolation. Sullivan felt acutely that he was being asked to function too much as an alien in a critical situation demanding the keenest possible understanding of the local scene. Moreover, as he tried to pick his way through the prickly Iranian thicket, he should have had the closest possible communication with the State Department and the White House; but Washington, confused, divided, and not altogether trustful of its own ambassador, in spite of having selected him for his experience and judgment, often ignored his advice and requests for instructions. This, of course, was a recipe for disaster. When Washington finally awoke to the magnitude of the crisis, it was as clumsy as late in its reactions. It and the embassy were living in two different realities, just as were, in large measure, the embassy and Iran. To an ambassador who considered himself trapped by a “whole cascade of frustration,” it must have seemed that the White House was exclaiming with Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire: “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” The exasperated ambassador, knowing no magic was possible and stung by acid cables originating from Brzezinski, including one in particular which he considered insulting, turned sour. His responses to the amateurish Carter administration acquired a tone which Carter in his memoir says “bordered on the insolent.” That wise French diplomat of the 18th century, Frangois de Callières and Abram de Wicquefort before him, in the 17th century, had some sage advice on the importance of diplomats maintaining their cool no matter what the provocation, but de Callieres, de Wicquefort, and other wise old birds are not required reading in the training of our diplomats.

Through his well-seasoned resourcefulness, Sullivan achieved some familiarity with Iran and was able to establish a relationship with the Shah capable of bearing a considerable traffic of advice had the Carter administration been up to generating it. In reporting on his meetings with the Iranian ruler, the ambassador presents interesting observations of the monarch’s moods, motivations, and limitations but far from as profound as Ramazani’s. What Sullivan and other Americans perceived as the Shah’s “megalomania,” for example, Ramazani warns us lies deep in Iranian history and psychology and helps as much to explain the Ayatollah Khomeini as the Shah. Without depth of comprehension, there is not much wise advice a foreign government can generate or influence it can exert.

Sullivan throws light on General Huyser’s last-minute mission to Teheran to provide Washington with an additional view of the Iranian army and its possible role in the denouement of the crisis. He is unable to explain Washington’s decision to cancel Theodore Eliot’s trip to Khomeini’s headquarters in France. Although Sullivan himself had recommended it, Washington did not deign to keep the ambassador informed. Ramazani’s perspectives, indeed, suggest that the move would have done no good had it succeeded, just as Huyser’s mission was a useless, belated stab at the situation.

Concentrating on the period from 1977, Stempel tells us the what rather than the why of the developing crisis and without that why his book becomes not an Inside but the Outside of the Iranian Revolution. As thoroughly and conscientiously as the external detail is elaborated from 1977 on, what went wrong proves elusive. This is all too typical of the kind of reporting which American embassies do, suffocating the State Department with an avalanche of journalistic reporting which duplicates much of what is available in the New York Times and the Washington Post. This explains in part Washington’s failure to comprehend Iran: it simply got lost in the woods. Stempel quotes one highly placed Washington official as saying as late as 1980: “We are still looking for the forest.” Quite so.

But adequate staffing of overseas posts, as Stempel insists, is as important as adequate education of officers. Too lean a staff will, almost of necessity, without very strong guidance from a thoroughly knowledgeable ambassador, focus on the obvious. The size of our Foreign Service has been progressively cut back in recent decades. By 1973, the 21 political officers Embassy Teheran had had in 1963 had been reduced to six, where it remained until the revolution. “Desk duties,” Stempel points out, “took up an increasing percentage of time for those remaining,” with a “greatly reduced capacity to get the kind of in-depth information required for accurate analysis.” Among other things, less time could be spent on dissident contacts and the embassy’s emphasis shifted to what was “considered to be more important—the government’s development program.” Precisely Ramazani’s point.

As though these factors were not enough to spoil the broth, the Carter administration added ingredients of its own. In addition to a brash, doctrinaire adviser on national security affairs in the White House, there were appointed to that adviser’s staff people like him, with no firsthand knowledge of Iran and no overseas diplomatic experience. They guessed, conjectured, hypothesized, and gleefully espoused the cause of the dissidents. The administration endowed the human rights cause with the bureaucratic prestige of a full-blown office in the State Department and appointed as its head a person whose only background was with the civil rights movement in this country, all aglow with zeal but lacking any knowledge of other cultures. Moreover, the newcomers—except Hamilton Jordan—had great disdain for the diplomatic establishment and felt that anyone who had served in Embassy Teheran must be tainted with the Shah’s megalomania. The resulting schism in Washington between those interested in supporting “a loyal regional ally” and those mainly concerned with holding high the banner of human rights all but paralyzed decision making and helps to explain why Sullivan could not obtain the guidelines and responses to his suggestions which he so badly needed. Confronted by this confusion, Stempel says, both the Iranian establishment and the dissidents backed off from Embassy Teheran, thereby compounding the problem. It is on this aspect of the Iranian revolution—the Washington confusion—that Stempel’s book is most illuminating.

Rosen, by contrast, has a real feel for Iran, which began with his tour there as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English at the National Police Academy and deepened on his return to the United States through Persian-Iranian studies in graduate school. This is why, seven months after he arrived in Teheran as the embassy’s press attache, his superior wrote (this does not come from Rosen): “Mr. Rosen quickly established himself as one of the most knowledgeable Americans on the Iran scene at the Embassy. . . . His presence here has been extraordinarily beneficial. . . . Even the most rabid anti-American publications made time for him. His command of the language, his deep knowledge of Persian history and culture, made him a welcomed participant in frank discussions about the U. S. -Iran relationship. My only regret is that he was not assigned here a year or two earlier.” My regret is that he was not assigned there a decade or two earlier, and many more like him, and then transferred to the Foreign Service Institute to help prepare other officers for the subtleties of Third World societies. Typical of Rosen was that, after his hostage experience ended, he resumed his Persian-Iranian graduate studies.

While Rosen’s time as a free diplomatic officer was limited, his perceptions as set forth in his book are all that his superior implied. They are also suggestive. For example, the cadets he taught as a Peace Corpsman, he noticed, feared nothing so much as losing their dignity. Does not this say something of the Shah and his vacillation over tempering his absolute rule with concessions to the dissidents?

A country like Iran, inviting authority, requires a wise ruler who can distinguish between authority and suppression. It also requires wisdom on the part of other governments which would deal intelligently and sensitively with it. Ramazani suggests that the Shah was caught between a rock and a hard place—between a nation in thralldom to a centuries’ old pattern of character and emotions and elements of that nation which wanted a modern state. Perhaps this dilemma was unresolvable, but one wishes that both sides to the U. S. -Iran relationship had been more senitively aware of the dilemma and more perceptive, skillful, and resolute in their approach to it. The probability of failure may be high in the effort to modernize Third World societies, but all parties should bring to it all the resources of learning, wisdom, and skill they can muster. As in the case of Vietnam so in that of Iran, the lesson is there if we would only take the time and pains to learn it. One must hope we will do so before finding ourselves in one more critical situation which may just be—if we handle it with disdain of profundity—the last we will be called upon to face.


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