by Henry Precht
Thirty-five years since the Iranian revolution should be adequate time for aspiring Iran hands to turn a deaf ear to the “Death to America” chants from Tehran and the more polite “They can’t be trusted “ pundit wisdom from Washington. Perhaps, modestly and cautiously, we can draw a few lessons from those bad days for the present moment of hope.
First, what we didn’t know back then was a lot and it did hurt us. Our ignorance was profound. We didn’t know the Shah was condemned by cancer. Had we known, we might have treated him more as we did Marcos and less like, say, our toleration of the Greek colonels. Today’s question relates to President Hassan Rouhani’s political health, his physical health seemingly OK. Should we be nervous, i.e., should we act as if he were politically vulnerable? Or should we consider him in adequate shape to engage with our demands? If he faces trouble, can he be saved by respectful attention? Or should we write him off as a foredoomed aberration? The signs from Tehran incline me to believe that he is worthy of considerable political risk on our part.
We knew nothing about dealing with such a massive movement of millions of people in support of the revolution — a phenomenon rarely if even seen before on the globe. Nor did we have a clue about an Islamic government — another development never before achieved on earth. Today, Iran remains a dark zone. We can’t accurately assess the strength of the reform or conservative movements in Iran. How strong is Rouhani and how wide can he maneuver? I expect the White House is better at evaluating its American support for an agreement with Iran. But can it match Rouhani’s willingness to confront critics? We can only hope that authentic, balanced expertise on Iran is available and listened to in the White House.
Second, Washington 35 years ago was unable to address the crisis in Iran because (1) the White House, State Department and other agencies could not agree on an analysis of the reality in Iran and (2) hence could not settle on a sensible policy. The Shah looked westward for guidance; the West looked inward at domestic critics and commentators. The product was drift towards increasing danger. Today, the administration seems more intent on appeasing senators — whence the real threat — rather than educating its public and building unity.
Third, we appeared to think that because everything had always worked out for the Shah, everything would again swing his way. In our superior self-confidence, we ignored the revolutionary demand for “independence” from our sway. We, in our history with Iran, were a big part of our problem. We declined to shift off any initiative to Europeans who might have been more persuasive, who might have helped moderate the crisis. Today, we resist any move by allies to accelerate the pace of an accommodation with Iran, e.g., easing more sanctions.
Fourth, we grasped at other models to fashion a response to Iran. In some quarters of Washington, officials thought the Shah’s generals and their troops might crack down or even stage a coup when it became necessary. But the generals were appointed mainly on the intensity of their loyalty upwards, not their patriotism, creativity or soldierly virtues. Iran was not Pakistan or a South American republic. And its troops were from the same religious background as those fellows on the other side of the barricades. Today, we should at least question whether in their many sub-groups Iranians hold differing opinions on the nuclear question or are more — or less — willing to question the nature of the regime. Preconceived dogmatic certainties preclude realistic analysis.
Fifth, back in 1978-79 we worried that if we treated the Shah rudely, other autocratic friends — Saudis, Sadat, smaller fry — would get the idea that the US would willingly sacrifice them if it became hard-pressed. While it shouldn’t be necessary to learn a patriotic lesson from another’s revolution, America should always put its interests in front of those of smaller, loudly complaining buddies who are rarely totally satisfied with our behavior.
Sixth, Washington’s attention to the slowly, then quickly moving Iranian crisis was blocked by the enormous attention given to the Camp David peace effort with Israel and Egypt. One crisis at a time, if you please. Can Secretary of State John Kerry and the White House handle Iran, Palestine-Israel, Syria and Egypt, et al, at the same time? They must — in some fashion or another.
Finally, the Shah badly needed American advice or, rather, orders on dealing with his rebellious people. President Jimmy Carter, it was said, was confused by the conflicting advice he received and reluctant to take the responsibility of telling another chieftain how to run his country. So no one did. Tough love and courage are requisites of leadership.
Americans are not particularly good at history. We gather a few facts, stick with them, often creating a myth from out of date supposed truths. Now is the ripe time for opening up to changing realities in Iran, modifying myths and constructing a more hopeful future.