In the mid twentieth century, US-Iran relations prospered. Many Americans celebrated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as a model king. President Lyndon B. Johnson pronounced in 1964: “What is going on in Iran is about the best thing going on anywhere in the world”.
During the 1970’s Iran’s Shah propelled Iran into becoming a dynamic middle-east regional power. The Shah implemented broad economic and social reforms, including enhanced rights for women, and religious and ethnic minorities. Economic and educational reforms were adopted, initiatives to cleanse politics of social upheaval were systematized, and the civil service system was reformed. When sectors of society rioted to demand even greater freedom, the Shah promised constitutional reform to favor democracy.
In the face of Soviet and fundamentalist Islamic pressures, constitutional reform remained on the back burner, as the Shah built what on paper was the world’s fifth or sixth largest armed force. In 1976, it had an estimated 3,000 tanks, 890 helicopter gunships, over 200 advanced fighter aircraft, the largest fleet of hovercraft in any country and 9,000 anti-tank missiles.
The Shah used Iran’s military might to address regional crises consistent with foreign relations goals of the United States. The Nixon and Ford administrations endorsed these efforts and allowed the Shah to acquire virtually unlimited quantities of any non-nuclear weapons in the American arsenal.
In accordance with the pleasant US-Iran relations then-existing, President Carter spent New Year’s Eve in 1977 with the Shah and toasted Iran as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world”. Nonetheless, between 1975 and 1978, the Shah’s popularity fell due to the Carter administration’s misguided implementation of human rights policies. The election of Mr. Carter as president of the United States in 1976, with his vocal emphasis on the importance of human rights in international affairs, was a turning point in US-Iran relations.
The Shah of Iran was accused of torturing over 3000 prisoners. Under the banner of promoting human rights, Carter made excessive demands of the Shah, threatening to withhold military and social aid. Carter pressured the Shah to release “political prisoners”, whose ranks included radical fundamentalists, communists and terrorists. Many of these individuals are now among the opponents we face in our “war on terrorism”.
The Carter Administration insisted that the Shah disband military tribunals, demanding they be replaced by civil courts. The effect was to allow trials to serve as platforms for anti-government propaganda. Carter pressured Iran to permit “free assembly”, which encouraged and fostered fundamentalist anti-government rallies. The British government and its MI6 intelligence agency also heightened the Shah’s precariousness. The government-controlled BBC presented Iranians with a dossier of twenty hour newscasts detailing the location of all anti-Shah demonstrations and consistent interviews with the exiled outcast Ayatollah Khomeini, making a religious scholar few Iranians knew about into an overnight sensation.
When the Shah was unable to meet the Carter Administration and British demands, the Carter Administration ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to stop $4 million per year in funding to religious Mullahs who then became outspoken and vehement opponents of the Shah. Unfortunately, the Shah’s efforts to defuse the volatile situation in Iran failed, despite the grant even of free and democratic elections. Confronted with lack of US support and unleashed Mullah fury, the Shah of Iran fled the country.
Subsequent to the Carter Administration’s ill-conceived foreign policy initiative, Iran is now a dungeon. Ayatollah Khomeini’s dictatorship executed the Shah’s prisoners, predominantly communist militants, along with more than 20,000 pro-Western Iranians. Women were sent back into servitude. Citizens were arrested merely for owning satellite dishes that could tune to Western programs. American diplomats were taken hostage, and the Soviet Union invaded Iran’s eastern neighbor Afghanistan as a result of this chaos, allowing it to secure greater influence in Iran and Pakistan.
The struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the defeat of this invading Superpower with help from the United States under President Reagan gave rise to the radicalization and emergence of Muslim zealots like Osama bin Laden. Moreover, within a year of the Shah’s ouster, Iran on its western flank was locked into the Iran-Iraq War, in which the U.S. sided with secular Iraq and its military dictator Saddam Hussein.
In retrospect, the Iran-Iraq War would never have occurred had Jimmy Carter not weakened the Shah’s regime. This conflict cost the two nations more than 500,000 lives, including thousands of Iranians killed by Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. The Iran-Iraq war triggered the rise of Saddam Hussein as a major power whose invasion of Kuwait was repelled by Desert Storm. The United States refrained from deposing Saddam Hussein in a continuation of the Desert Storm operation out of concern that the resulting “power vacuum” would be filled by Iran’s Ayatollahs.
Thus Jimmy Carter’s misguided implementation of human rights policies not only indirectly led to overthrow of the Shah of Iran, but also paved the way for loss of more than 600,000 lives, Iran’s rule by Ayatollahs, the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the mass murder of Americans and destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.
Slater Bakhtavar is president and founder of Republican Youth of
America, a frequent commentator and respected analyst on foreign policy
issues, and an attorney with a post-doctoral degree in International