Six Lessons from Iran’s Revolution

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.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. Ignorance in Washington D.C. What else is new? Always good to read what those who have been there, have to say. Myths, ah, yes, that seems to be the direction that the U.S. has led these many years. So many experts, so little real understanding. # 5, the only small fry that snivels & whines to date, is the supposedly only friend of the U.S. in the M.E. I will ad to the mix here, that it doesn’t look like the so called experts in Washington, have learned anything, judging from the mess that’s the M.E. today. Let’s hope that the light bulb finely shines brightly and the powers to be have changed course, realizing the enormous stakes at play, not satisfying any egos, to the detriment of the M.E./U.S./World/Iranian population.

  2. Yes, now is the time for the US to accept the existence of the Iranian government and work with it towards greater stability in the Middle East, economic development, etc. Provided a deal with P5+1 is achieved.

  3. From the article: “Iran was not Pakistan”


    Actually Pakistan is going through much worse right now, with the military there being in a much more dangerous and confusing situation. A slow and steady civil war is eroding the writ of the state and it will not be much longer before there will be a catastrophic state failure there (something Iran never experienced). And let’s not forget here, that US was unwilling to help the liberal government of PPP, in Pakistan since it is a leftist party.

    And yeah, Iran’s story with regard to US and UK can never be complete without the loud mention and condemnation of operation ajax and US support for Saddam in his war against Iran. Every action has a reaction. It is as simple as that.

  4. Thank you for those comments. Henry Precht’s analysis of Iran is usually on the mark, but always worth reading!

  5. The US also gave support to Iran, during its war with Iraq.

    Pakistan’s dangerous condition owes a great deal to the inability of the government to address the problem of uncontrolled population growth. Egypt has the same problem.

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