Gary Sick // All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter With Iran

01 Apr 1985


All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter With Iran

By Gary Sick

April 1985

Times Books; Random House

A former naval intelligence officer and National Security Council staff member provides a day-to-day account of the Iranian revolution, the hostage crisis, and America's failure to deal effectively with both.


Date: June 16, 1985, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 1, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By Stanley Hoffmann; Stanley Hoffmann, Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard University, teaches United States foreign policy.

IN the minds of many Americans, Iran stands second only to Vietnam as a disaster for American foreign policy. The fall of the Shah, America's most powerful ally in the vital Persian Gulf region, and the seizure of Americans whom mobs of ''students'' held captive for 15 months, together constituted a national humiliation of formidable proportions. As usual, it has led to a searing domestic debate about who is to blame. Was Jimmy Carter's human rights policy one of the main reasons for the Shah's demise? Could the Carter Administration have done more to stiffen the Shah's backbone and so prevent the triumph of the fanatically anti-American Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini? Should the United States, on the contrary, have put more distance between itself and the doomed Shah, and tried to ingratiate itself with the Iranian opposition? After the Ayatollah's victory, would Washington have been wiser to have denied the Shah's request for medical treatment in the United States? Could the hostages' release have been obtained sooner, by diplomacy or by force? Was the military rescue operation, in April 1980, a close miss or a predictable failure? Should the whole hostage crisis have been played down instead of being allowed to become a masochistic national drama?

Many of the principal actors have already given us their views in their memoirs. None has been as convincing, fair and balanced as Gary Sick in ''All Fall Down,'' his account of the Iranian crises of 1978-1980. Mr. Sick, a retired captain in the United States Navy and a specialist on Middle Eastern affairs, was the staff member on Iran in the National Security Council of the Carter Administration. He thus served as Zbigniew Brzezinski's chief assistant throughout the Iranian ordeal. It is well known that Mr. Brzezinski, Mr. Carter's national security adviser, and the State Department disagreed radically over the handling of these crises. M R. SICK, however, who can be very critical of the State Department, does not whitewash his own former boss. The title of the book conveys the spirit of his analysis perfectly. To sum up, there was little the United States could have done to avoid disaster: like the fall of China some 30 years earlier, events were beyond America's control. Nevertheless, nobody performed flawlessly, and the tragedy revealed some glaring American mistakes. Will we be able to learn from them? The crucial error was the unlimited commitment made by President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi in 1972, when they granted him full access to advanced American military technology; in exchange he agreed to play ''a principal role in protecting Western interests in the Persian Gulf region.'' Mr. Nixon's extraordinary plea to the Shah, ''Protect me,'' turned the United States into a dependent of the Shah rather than the other way around.

The Shah also pursued his very risky program of instant economic modernization that produced profound social and cultural dislocations without any political safety valve; opposition was suppressed and no potential rival was allowed any power. He took the initiative for OPEC's enormous increase of oil prices in 1973; the oil revenues thus obtained helped him order more weapons and launch more big projects. But within a very short time the boom was over, Iran was hit hard by the world recession, and austerity measures had to be imposed. Discontent, exacerbated by rising expectations, by the spectacle of the profligate and sycophantic court, by the evidence of corruption in high places and by the excesses of Savak, the secret police, was bound to rise.

It was at that moment, toward the end of 1976, that the Shah decided to liberalize his regime somewhat. This decision coincided with the election of President Carter but was taken for internal reasons (the Shah had known since 1974 that he was ill with cancer and wanted to secure his regime for his son). The Shah still did not intend to share, or of course abandon, power: he merely loosened some screws. Thus, the classical conditions for a revolutionary explosion had been created; Mr. Sick quotes the historian Crane Brinton, but Brinton had borrowed the idea from Tocqueville - it is when a government relaxes its pressure that old grievances and all the remaining abuses appear intolerable.

As for America's relationship to the Shah: ''Iran was the regional tail wagging the superpower dog.'' It was an unhealthy connection in three ways. First, the strategic importance of Iran was such that the new Carter Administration, despite the President's intention to curb arms sales and promote human rights, on the whole preserved the relationship established in the early 1970's. Second, one of the main effects of the American commitment to the Shah was the absence of contacts with the opposition, and the consequent stake developed by United States officialdom in the success of the Shah's breathless social and economic enterprise. Third, a deeply ingrained feature of Iranian political culture is the belief in conspiracy, and especially in foreign conspiracy. Thus the United States Administration had to be particularly careful, since every move or statement was bound to be interpreted in Iran as part of a deliberate, decisive plan. The result of all this, as Mr. Sick shows, was that Washington did not see much in Iran besides the Shah, whereas the Iranian officials, in turn, ''failed to comprehend the nature of the forces progressively tearing the country apart'' and ''instinctively took refuge in the wholly unrealistic expectation that they could or would be saved by some super power deus ex machina.''

All the conditions for disaster had thus been established. Trouble began in January 1978 - and took everyone by surprise. The Shah, who did not realize the depth of his predicament until September (when the armed forces fired at a religious rally in Teheran), now began to ask for expressions of American support and for advice - while still stating his determination to liberalize. The Americans, on their side, figured out earlier than the Shah that the situation was serious; but ''the immense responsibility of proclaiming a generation of U.S. policy bankrupt'' kept them from either appreciating how grave the threat to the Shah really was or daring to say that the virus was ''terminal'': indeed, any such statement, one feared, could make it so. It was not until the beginning of November, according to Mr. Sick, that William Sullivan, the previously complacent United States Ambassador in Teheran (and, clearly, Mr. Sick's bete noire), reported that the Shah had hinted he might consider abdication. Now the United States policy establishment realized at last that it was faced with a major emergency.

At that point, Washington had to operate with a triple handicap. First, as Mr. Sick puts it, the foreign policy process is best equipped ''to deal with chess-like questions'' that are amenable to rational control and incremental moves. It is much less capable of coping with hurricanes, when the ordinary rules of prudence can actually become disastrous. No bureaucracy likes to face the fact that there is no good alternative to the current course, should this course collapse; hence a tendency to cling to a stated status quo and to underestimate the threat to it - in Iran as earlier in Vietnam.

Second, the United States foreign policy machinery was overtaxed at the end of 1978: the last phase of the negotiations with the Soviet Union on limiting strategic arms, the normalization of relations with China, the need to move beyond the spectacular breakthrough in the Egyptian-Israeli conflict achieved at Camp David in September, all had to be dealt with simultaneously. The system was not capable of handling so much at once; as a result, the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, played only a limited role in the Iranian drama of 1978. Mr. Carter (partly because he must have realized the limit of America's power to calm the hurricane) ''did not engage himself actively in the day to day policy making'' and contented himself with ''establishing the outer boundaries for U.S. policy at key moments of decision.''

Third, and most important, as always happens in a democracy when disaster appears suddenly imminent, each person or faction had his own solution but no one had adequate information, and every ''solution'' was based on mistaken assumptions. The result was inevitable impotence compounded by feuding and confusion. Mr. Sick denies Ambassador Sullivan's assertions that he was left in Teheran without adequate instructions. But the record Mr. Sick himself describes shows that when the system, in Washington, quickly succeeded in defining a position acceptable to all the players - the White House as well as the State Department - it either told the Shah that the United States would support whatever he deemed useful (which he did not find too helpful) or else enumerated alternatives. One option, predictably enough, the State Department would openly prefer, whereas another would be stressed by the National Security Council. In addition, the lack of adequate intelligence led each player to seek his own private sources of information, or disinformation (Mr. Brzezinski relied on the Iranian Ambassador in Washington, who grossly overestimated his own importance), and to keep his thoughts, sources and memos from other players. M UCH of Mr. Sick's story is devoted to this internal struggle and to the strange alliances that were made and unmade as the situation became more desperate. The boldest suggestion for an active United States role, the plan offered in December 1978 by George Ball, a former Under Secretary of State, for the Americans to press for a transfer of power from the Shah (who would become a constitutional monarch) to a new government, was blocked by Mr. Brzezinski and Ambassador Sullivan and rejected by President Carter. Mr. Sick is rightly critical of his counterpart in the State Department, and of academics who believed that the revolution, if it triumphed, would be moderate, led by liberal, Westernized nationalists, and not by the Ayatollah, whose role would be solely spiritual.

But he is equally and just as persuasively critical of Mr. Brzezinski's fixation on the idea of a tough military government beating down the revolution. Indeed, martyrdom made the hurricane stronger. The Shah, as long as he remained in power, refused to take responsibility for a bloodbath, and after his departure, despite American exhortations about the need for the military to preserve its cohesion, the army, which the Shah had carefully organized so that it would not become a political force, began to fall apart and to go over to the revolutionaries. Nor is Mr. Sick any kinder to Ambassador Sullivan's own plan for an accommodation between the moderate revolutionaries and the army, for the success of which, as he shows, none of the conditions (such as the Ayatollah's consent) existed.

The fact is that there was no way to avoid or divert the hurricane. The Ayatollah pursued, implacably and successfully, a course of total intransigence and deliberate confrontation. It paid off beautifully against a stumbling Shah and a demoralized army, and also insured first the subordination and later the emasculation of the moderates. The Shah, for far too long, played his usual game of refusing to appoint really independent ministers (civilian or military), until he had no other choice but to leave. And Washington, torn by the feud between those who hoped for a stable, liberal Iran after the Shah and those who feared that the victorious revolution would veer to the left and end in a Communist takeover, completely failed to understand the irrelevance of Western models of revolution and the possibility of a religious, antimodern ''popular revolution lead-ing to the establishment of a theocratic state.''

The problem of wrong assumptions continued to plague, and indeed dominate, the second Iranian crisis, that of the hostages. Before the seizure of the United States Embassy in November 1979, there was the illusion that the moderate government of Mehdi Bazargan was in firm control and should protect the embassy, even after the Shah's arrival in the United States for medical treatment. After the hostages had been taken, there was excessive optimism about the effectiveness of the American effort to mobilize world opinion against Iran and of the different forms of pressure (mainly economic) adopted by Washington: ''As it happened, Iran's capacity to manage near total chaos was greater'' than the Administration expected. The skill of the Ayatollah in manipulating the hostage question again and again in order to weaken or discredit the moderates, to deflect discontent and to obtain the kind of regime he had wanted (and announced) all along was underestimated many times. O NCE again, frustration bred division. Secretary Vance and the State Department objected to plans for the use of force. Mr. Brzezinski, always the activist determined to win, favored the study and enforcement of military options. The hawks finally had their day. An increasingly exhausted Secretary Vance, whose policy of diplomatic accommodation with Moscow and avoidance of the use of force in the third world had been discredited by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was overruled when he opposed the military rescue operation favored by Mr. Brzezinski (and Mr. Sick). Mr. Carter, acutely aware of the failure of his diplomacy in the hostage crisis, had become increasingly impatient for action. Mr. Sick, critical of Secretary Vance's ''unwillingness to act in the face of provocation,'' interprets the collapse of the rescue operation as a failure of technology and as ''a failure of military execution, not of political judgment or command.''

To be sure, a successful rescue would have been a domestic and external triumph. Mr. Sick blames the failure of the rescue mission on the military for their ''can-do'' spirit. But in an earlier passage he notes that the intense personal commitment of Washington policy makers to the hostages, their sense of guilt about having left these men and women exposed, led to ''a strong impulse to do something, almost as if action was a necessary end in itself. . . . Given the mood of the time . . . the one course of action that would have been impossibly difficult for the government would have been to do nothing at all.'' And yet he himself concludes that ''doing nothing was in fact the wisest course of action,'' since the United States could do little to affect events (beside threatening retaliation if the hostages were tried or harmed) and since the release of the hostages depended on internal Iranian developments. Indeed, downplaying the crisis might have resulted in ''political damage-limitation'' for Mr. Carter. But the President, to whom Mr. Sick, throughout his book, pays a very moving and convincing tribute, was not that kind of leader: ''Not only was Jimmy Carter prepared to take risks, but he almost seemed to court political danger on issues that he thought were important and when he believed he was right.'' In the first Iranian crisis, he had remained relatively aloof because he had, rightly, judged that the storm was beyond control and that the fate of Iran had to be settled by the Iranians. In the hostage crisis, he ''identified himself closely with the fate of the imprisoned Americans.'' Both stances were going to be held against him, insofar as - by Nov. 4, 1980 - both seemed to have led to humiliating fiascos.

Gary Sick draws no general lessons from his cool, sharp and restrained analysis, but some cannot fail to come to mind. They all have to do with the limits of American power. First, there is the danger of ''can-doism,'' whether it takes the form of misplaced activism or of blaming statesmen for having failed to act tough in hopeless cases.

Second, the Iranian affair is one more episode in the long story of America's inability to cope with major revolutions abroad. Although each one shows some features common to all - a suddenly disoriented leader, a divided and disaffected elite, the convergence and radicalization of previously dispersed or hidden oppositions - each revolution differs from the others and should be understood in its own terms. And yet, the record - China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua - shows America - in its dread of Communism - frantically looking for an impossible ''third force,'' or whistling in the dark in the hope that good Western liberals will ultimately triumph. It also shows a deep reluctance to accept the idea that revolutions are, indeed, manmade hurricanes that Washington for all its might cannot stop or master once they begin to blow.

Third, this inability to control events, despite the national impulse to try, points to the need for the United States to dissociate itself in time from regimes that court disaster by destabilizing themselves. As Mr. Sick shows, it was not Mr. Carter's timid human rights policies (never aimed at Iran) that undermined the Shah, it was the Shah. L ESS grandiose expectations about American power, less reliance on troubled allies, and a more modest definition of American interests and possibilities would be essential, not only to stop courting defeat abroad, but also because the neglect of limits strains the complex and fragmented American policy machine to the breaking point (Mr. Sick provides many startling examples of this). It also leads to domestic disillusionment and incites familiar orgies of recriminations and witch hunts. This is a point often made by George F. Kennan, among others. If all those pleas for intelligent restraint have not been heeded yet, it is because of the deep and persistent tension between the conviction that there is little the United States cannot do in behalf of its global mission - a conviction still strongly held in Washington and in many parts of the nation - and the equally formidable intellectual and institutional obstacles that so often curtail the effectiveness of American foreign policy. KEEPING THE SHAH HAPPY Writing about the Iranian crisis and the American hostages, Gary Sick decided to stick close to the facts but to use storytelling techniques. ''I realized that the actual participants were larger than life,'' he said. ''How could I have invented more 'fictional' characters than Ayatollah Khomeini, the Shah or Jimmy Carter?''

Mr. Sick, who is 50 years old and works on the Ford Foundation's foreign policy programs, was in London when he was interviewed. As Captain Sick, he served in the Navy for 24 years. Even before he retired, his compass pointed toward a book. The Navy sent him to Columbia University where he earned a Ph.D., writing his dissertation on superpower politics. Armed with military and academic credentials, he got a job with the Secretary of Defense, then moved to the National Security Council during the Ford and Carter Administrations. Mr. Sick became the principal White House aide on Iran during the revolution.

''Basically, my job was to figure out how to keep the Shah happy,'' he said. ''I got quite a postgraduate education in Iranian politics for four years. A week after President Carter offered a toast in Teheran calling Iran 'an island of stability,' things blew up. Since I had an unparalleled vantage point at the White House, I felt that I had almost an obligation to set it all down in a book.'' - Herbert Mitgang