September 18, 1978

Dear George,

Thank you for including me in the September 7 meeting. As promised, here are comments on issues raised there.

Iranian Character - Alternate Leaders

At the meeting, a number of conclusions were drawn on the basis of sweeping assumptions about the Iranian character and its unchangeability. There are, it is true, well-known negative characteristics, in the Iranian personality such as cynicism, self-consciousness, and archaic individualism which are personally and socially negative.

These have been described over and over again by commentators on Iran, and more catalogued in [Marvin] Zonis' book, The Political Elite of Iran. (I hope that sometime soon you will be able to read the last chapter of this book -- only 11 pages -- if you have not already.)

Some of the speakers in the meeting seemed to think that the only effect of these characteristics is to strengthen the Shah. However, that is only part of the story, the importance of which is rapidly ebbing.

Iranians have always been intensely and unashamedly aware of these defects and now resent the way in which the Shah's method of rule reinforce them.

It is a cliche of both standard academic literature on politics in Iran (Bill, Zonis, Cottam, Binder, Jacobs), and of the common conversation of Iranians themselves, that the Shah's system of control and governance uses and depends on the failings in the Iranian characters, thereby strengthening them. The Shah himself admits as much in Mission for My Country.

This way of governing associates the Shah in the minds of Iranians with what they most dislike in themselves, continually generating profound and continuing resentment against him. It has done much to prevent him from being accepted (as he yearns to be by his people) as the supreme nationalist.

Furthermore, many Iranians believe that the same defects on which the Shah capitalizes politically also seriously retard economic development, education, social responsibility, and the growth of modern consciousness.

Their awareness of these vices, and the way in which the Shah plays on them, continually builds up a sense among aware Iranians that the Shah's regime anomalously seeks forced-draft economic modernization through profoundly reactionary governing methods which endanger the country's future politically and as a society.

This feeling is particularly strong among those groups -- businessmen, professionals, which could provide alternative leaders. The conventional wisdom is that such leaders are not to be found because those who might become leaders are co-opted or otherwise neutralized by the Shah's carefully playing on the Iranian personality. This is only partly true.

Iran has the normal (small) proportion that any nation may expect of brave, socially conscious and responsible men. Some of these men have found ways to live, and live reasonably well in Iran, outside but closely observant of the governing process, without losing their self-respect and sense of integrity.

There are also those, who, out of religious, political or professional principle, or for other reasons have openly opposed the Shah, such as the signatories of the Charter of 32, in actions which require considerable courage whatever the motives for them may be.

After the Shah, What?

Another feeling which underlines the current opposition is that the Shah's time in history was a real and important one for Iran -- which is now over. In this perspective, his system of government, which was necessary and important in pulling a fragmented people together and preserving their independence, now is seen as an obstacle to Iran's aspirations and the future development of all the important aspects of its national life.

This may seem obvious and academic, but it has a double importance. First, it is a main source of the Iranian sense of impermanence about the Shah's regime which several people at the meeting noted -- the feeling that the Shah "will not last my life time."

Second is the sense among a great many Iranians of all classes that there is nothing in their government except the Shah. This in turn comes from the perception that not only has he not established any structure of government which can survive a transition, but also that the monarchy as he conceives it, will not be acceptable to most Iranians when he goes, nor will any other authoritarian government which tries to rule in this style.
(This is one reason why I do not think a purely military takeover in succession to the Shah has much chance of stability or longetivity.)

This is why, in addition to the clear and pressing issues of human rights and rational development in Iran, continuing liberalization is so important to many Iranians and to us. The right kind of liberalization can make a start on a permanent framework for Iranian political life, and on some experience in using it.

Otherwise, whoever succeeds the Shah will have to reorganize Iranian politics and government from ground up, and to do it in the center of a whirlwind of domestic fears and unleashed emotions, and of outside pressures.

Sh'ism (sic)

The meeting may have left the impression that Sh'ism and Shiite clergy are innately and totally reactionary. In fact, Sh'ism's formal indifferences to politics make it possible for its devoted followers to support many different forms of government.

Sh'ism is inheritently (sic) nationalistic since it represents the adoption of Islam to the Iranians' desire to have a religion of their own not dominated by the Arabs. Furthermore, Sh'ism has a greater potential for adaptation and accommodation to new circumstances and governments than Sunnism because it holds that the Gate of Interpretation is still open, whereas Sh'ism in theory forbids theological interpretations not found in the Koran or the teachings of the Prophet.

The Shah's repression of religion in Iran has made Sh'ism's predominant groups dogmatic and conservative in the course of defending themselves, just as Roman Catholicism has become in Communist countries. Even so, I see Sh'ism as conservative socially, but with an inherent anti-authoritarian bias politically.

For this reason, in an Iran in which there is freedom of religion and religious organization and practice, and freedom to express religious convictions politically, I would expect that, as in Turkey and Israel, there would be one party devoted to conservative religious positions, particularly on social issues, and a number of other parties across the political spectrum to which devoted persons would belong without much sense of violating their religious beliefs or being opposed by their religious leaders.

Next Steps

The consequences of what has been described in this letter are that Iran is a country with very considerable economic development which is acutely underdeveloped politically. Iranians are totally and painfully aware of this.

This means that we have only two realistic possibilities to choose between. These are the turbulence of a country dynamically trying to work out its own permanent form of government, or the turbulence of a people struggling with regimes which do not understand or consciously reject the process of trial and error in achieving a lasting polity.

If the Shah can bring himself to tolerate turbulence in the search for permanent structure of government and the emergence of such a government which would have real power of its own, two things he has never been able to do in the past, then progress can begin while it is still in power.

Accordingly, [President] Carter's emphasis on continued liberalization in his recent telephone call to the Shah was right on target. We must consistently press for liberalization with the Shah so that Iranians, seeing this, will at least give some credence to the idea that we mean it and that we will be similarly insistent with future regimes.

If the Shah really does proceed with free elections, political parties, a freer Majles, and a freedom of political expression, he will begin to secure his country from its almost total political underdevelopment and hope of a reasonably stable future after him.

This outcome would make up in some degree for all of our indiscriminate support to the Shah in the past, and offer Iran the best long-term chance to be a viable nation able and willing to play the role we hope for it in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, however, intermittent repression is much more likely, making it quite possible that the Shah will be removed in the next decade by assassination, coup, or irrestible (sic) population pressure. The best possible future government for us in these circumstances would be one dominated by an alliance between civilians and younger military officers.

The worst would be a regime dominated by senior military officers. This is, however, the one we may be most likely to get initially, although I think there is a possibility of a move directly to civilian government which would have a good chance of success.

If a military government of older officers emerges, at first there will be strong public and private pressures on us to embrace it unreservedly. These pressures must be resisted fiercely. Such a government would not last. It would be rent by internal factionalism and strongly opposed by civilians and younger officers. Its leaders would not know how to rule except by repression.

It is extremely likely that younger officers and conscript soldiers would not shoot fellow Iranians to keep reactionary generals in power. Above all a very great majority of Iranians regard such a regime certain to be much worse than the Shah's. It is therefore critically important that we are never seen as encouraging such a regime, no matter in what straits the Shah finds himself, or what chaos initially succeeds him.

In the meantime, we must use the present episode, even if the Shah weathers it, to get it firmly established among ourselves that our need to know and understand Iran's internal political developments now permanently outweighs any damage we may do to the Shah, or to our relations with him, by being seen to be making our own independent assessment of those politics.

Indeed, his awareness that we are doing this may well add weight to our encouragement of continued liberalization. At the same time, our identification with the Shah, particularly through such public events as arms sales and public statements should be discreetly but constantly cut back as far as it is consistent with our not being perceived as simply abandoning him.

Finally, it may be that some of the following actions have not yet begun. If so, I think that they should be started immediately:

A. Top priority must be given in both the [U.S.] Embassy and CIA to reporting on internal events and domestic politics in Iran. You know what is needed here far better than I, and we both know the excruciating difficulties of doing this.

It may be worth noting that the consulates should be given the mandate and resources necessary to get fully involved in this. Access is much easier outside of Tehran and many of the significant activities are going on where the consulates are.

B. There should be regular and systematic consultation with the academic community. Many academics have been calling the shots on Iranian politics much more accurately than we have. There are many unused resources here to use them, and these men and women should know that the advice is needed and wanted.

This consultation, which should deeply involve ICA, should also include regular monitoring of publications. The materials so covered ought to include PhD theses. Many on Iranian matters noted in the American Political Science Association Journal appear to cover in depth matters on which we are particularly ignorant.

The Middle East Institute should be regularly tapped for its resources to Iranian studies. The American Institute for Iranian Studies based at the University of Pennsylvania and which apparently has been almost ignored by us is a very important resource.

Academics who have worked in Iran on other disciplines, such as at Harvard's Iranian Center for Management Studies, should also be regularly conferred with.

C. Either through academics or directly, discreet contact should be established with Iranian exiles and their organizations in the US. For example, what do we know about the newly-established Committee for Human Rights in Iran which is apparently the American arm of the Charter of 32 group?

D. [Department of] Commerce should be asked to assist in contacts with American businessmen, many of whom are remarkably perceptive and who frequently have unusual access.

I would be glad to talk over with you how these consultations might be organized. It will not be easy to overcome suspicion of us among private American groups interested in Iran, especially academics.

This has been a long letter. I hope it is useful. Please use it in any way that you wish. Please also let me know whenever there is any other way I can be helpful. Good Luck!


John Washburn

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