(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

In February, 1979, millions of Americans sitting in front of their television screens were shocked to see the American Embassy in Tehran being besieged by a mob of angry Iranian demonstrators and were cheered by the calm courage of Ambassador William H. Sullivan in the face of this mob. In November of the same year, after the departure of Ambassador Sullivan, Americans were further jolted by the news that the remaining Embassy staff members had been taken hostage by Iranian militants. The resulting hostage crisis, which aroused a new burst of reflexive patriotism in Americans from all walks of life, was not settled until the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as President in January, 1981. Since that date, the Iranian revolution has vanished from the front pages of American newspapers; this does not mean, however, that it is no longer a subject of controversy.

During the period 1977-1979, the ruler of a country hitherto regarded as a staunch American ally fell from power and was replaced by a new regime, one which proved to be hostile to the United States. Most Americans found the entire sequence of events to be extremely baffling. Why did the government of the Shah of Iran, once seemingly so stable and so powerful, collapse so suddenly? Why was this seemingly progressive, although undoubtedly authoritarian, monarchy overthrown by an outburst of popular wrath, only to be replaced, not by Western-style parliamentary secular liberalism, but by a new type of theocratic despotism under the Ayatollah Khomeini? Finally, why had such an enormous fund of hatred against the United States been built up during the regime of the Shah?

Because the Iranian revolution is a relatively recent event, it is still impossible for definitive answers to be given to all of these questions. In Debacle, Michael Ledeen, the executive editor of the The Washington Quarterly and William H. Lewis, a professor of political science at Georgetown University and a former State Department official, focus their attention on one aspect of the Iranian revolution: the relationship between the United States and Iran. Relying heavily on interviews with sources whose anonymity they have protected, and supplementing these with articles by contemporary scholars and journalists, the authors provide an account of Iranian/American relations from the inauguration of Jimmy Carter to the beginning of the hostage crisis. Unfortunately, however, this approach to the history of the revolution sometimes obscures as much as it enlightens.

To be sure, the domestic reasons for the collapse of the Shah’s regime are by no means completely neglected: these are summarized for the reader in the first chapter, and in various passages scattered throughout the book. By his extension of the rights of Iranian women, his expropriation of clerical lands in the course of his land reform program, and his public exaltation of Iran’s pre-Islamic past, the authors point out, the Shah made irreparable that breach between the monarchy and the Shiite clergy that had already begun to appear during the reign of his father. The authors make clear that the Shah, by insisting on a personal autocracy, and by refusing to restructure his government to give the educated and the able greater voice in decision-making, lost the allegiance of the very group that might have been expected to most strongly support the monarch’s headlong drive for modernization: the Western-educated middle class. They show how the Shah’s program of rapid economic development and military expansion, begun in the mid-1970’s, imposed unbearable strains on the economy, arousing resentment against the Shah among both the poor migrants to the big cities and the established class of bazaar merchants. Although they admit the “notorious excesses” of the Shah’s secret police (SAVAK), the authors portray the Shah not as a ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrant but as a weak-willed, indecisive ruler, one who, when the crisis came, flinched from the massive bloodletting necessary to restore order.

The authors did not intend, however, merely to write a history of the domestic politics of Iran. They are interested primarily not in the failure of Iranians to create a stable democratic government, but in the failure of American diplomacy in Iran. In their attempt to deal with the latter subject, the authors sometimes slide from reasoned argument into shrill polemic.

Some of what they have to say, no doubt, is interesting and informative. In the early 1950’s, the authors make clear, the Shah had been highly dependent upon the United States: the covert operations of the Central Intelligence Agency had played at least some role in 1953 in the overthrow of the Iranian nationalist demagogue Mohammed Mossadegh, which enabled the Shah to return to power after a brief exile in Rome. By the mid-1970’s, however, the traditional dependence of the Shah on the United States was matched by a growing dependence of the United States on the Shah: the authors provide hitherto unrevealed data on the Shah’s activity in the fight against Soviet influence not only in the Middle East but also in North Africa and, after the military Marxist revolution in Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa as well.

The evidence that the two authors give of confusion within the ranks of Administration policy-makers seems to be both convincing and compelling. During the crucial period from September, 1978, when anti-Shah riots became uncontrollable, to January, 1979, when the Shah left the country, Zbigniew Brzezinski of the National Security Council persistently advocated a hard line, at times suggesting that the Shah be urged to use as much military force as necessary to restore order; Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, on the other hand, regarded the Shah himself as the major obstacle to the resolution of the...

(The entire section is 2383 words.)