Lessons From America’s Support of the Shah

When reviewing the progression of U.S. policy toward Iran beginning in the 1960’s, I found that policies were implemented with a definite lack of comprehension concerning the Iranian internal situation, and without continued re-analysis and attention to the policies’ effects. The result of this, in effect, was a ‘dump and go’ type of phenomenon, in which changing U.S. strategic and foreign policy concerns would impose their influence upon Iranian affairs in irregular bursts, without consideration for long-term domestic effects in Iran.

In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration had concluded that containing Soviet influence in the Third World necessitated implementing far-reaching social and economic reforms. Since Iran’s position in the Middle East, specifically its location, oil resources, and growing political influence, was of vital strategic importance to U.S. security concerns, the administration began to pressure the Shah to implement a reform program.

This pressure came as a result of the belief by U.S. officials, noted in a report by the National Security Council in 1963, that the Shah’s evaluation of what was needed for the political stability of his regime “[did] not always coincide exactly with ours.” U.S. policy initiatives during this period, therefore, reflected an attempt to push Iran towards reform.

Direct, non-military aid to the Iranian government was terminated; furthermore, the basic strategy underlying the U.S. military commitment to Iran, according to the report, was to effect a redirection of Iranian attention…away from a reoccupation with military force expansion toward that which appeared to be the greatest threat to Iranian security- the insufficiency of economic development and internal reforms.

Even if such an appraisal was accurate, the administration’s policy approach lacked “a clear idea of how these reforms should be carried out, what the social repercussions would be, and how much potential there was for political disruption.” As noted previously in Part One, the Shah had initiated in 1960 a sweeping land reform program as part of a series of social and economic changes called the “White Revolution”. Under U.S. pressure, the Shah introduced further reforms, including the enfranchisement of women and a heavy promotion of Westernization, that would fundamentally alter Iran’s social and political structure.

With surprising foresight, the report addressed this potential conflict, noting the “complicated problem of how and by what means [the U.S.] can contribute to the success of the reform program and influence its direction.” Unfortunately for the Shah, however, the report spoke clearly about the dangers of direct U.S. involvement. “The U.S. is strongly identified with the regime and the reform program,” it explained, and the long-run success of the White Revolution “may well rest on the extent to which it is identified as an indigenous effort; to the extent that it becomes known as an American-dominated movement, it will lose popular appeal.”

Even more to the point, the report recognized that the Shah’s “single greatest liability may well be his vulnerability to charges by both reactionary and radical opposition elements that he is a foreign puppet.” In light of this, the attitude of the National Security Council was that “bloodless destruction by the Iranians themselves of an ancient and unprogressive system of land tenure and political monopoly is a good thing which we can only view sympathetically,” and it would not be in U.S. interests to intervene directly.

The result was continued U.S. support for Iran’s military expenditures, at that time 25% of total budgetary expenditures, especially since military forces at that time played “a key role in maintaining in power a progressive and pro-Western monarch.” [The U.S. in essence had demanded the Shah institute reforms, but did not monitor the long-term effects of those the Shah implemented. These would alienate the Shah from important sectors of Iranian society, especially the clerical and urban lower classes, who increasingly came to view the Shah and the U.S. as collaborators in destroying the traditional Islamic foundations of Iran.]

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