Iran: ” Better to Kill Thousands Now than Millions later” Saddam Hussein.

For past few weeks Ive been reading books on Iran, specifically those concerned with the fall of the Shah in 1978. The one below…. The Fall of Heaven is a gem..the best and most informative and readable of the many I have read. It also surfaces the total malfeasance among our officials charged with foreign affairs in that era, including specifically President  Carter, our ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, secretary of state Cyrus Vance, secretary of defense Harold Brown, National Security Advisor , Zbigniew Brzezinski ,  DOS Iraqi Desk officer, Henry Precht, and The National Security  Council Advisor  for the Middle East, Gary Sick., and lastly but by no means lastly, the head of US intelligence Ricard Helms, (who had once  been the ambassador to Iran). There was much blame to go around, which ,of course, no one accepted.



Reza Shah ( founder of the Pahlavi dynasty) with Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, his twin sister Ashraf and older sister Shams.

I was the Middle East desk officer in the Army Chief of Staff for Intelligence at the time, and a bit player in the Iran drama, but I was able to monitor the duplicity and  incompetence of the Carter administration in action as the No distribution ( NODIS)and limited distribution  (LIMDIS)top secret messages poured in from all sides. It is a funny thing but these type of messages  were supposed to be very limited in distribution but they were floating all over  Washington.  As the Army desk officer I was on the National Intelligence estimate (NIE) of 1978. It was that infamous intelligence document that stated that Iran was not even in a “pre-revolutionary stage.”  The CIA ran those intelligence estimates and the opinions of army, navy  etc, reps had very little weight  on the overall analysis. In those days if a bit player like me objected to a key point it was put in a footnote which was smothered by the main text. Anyway I did not object to anything and that made the task easier for marine major, seconded to the CIA, and running the show ( he was the assistant to a very redoubtable CIA officer whom I greatly admire) . Curious thing about military officers who get seconded to the CIA, DOS, NSC, etc they take on very officious, grandiose personas. They tend to affect  the dress  and mannerisms, of their  temporary  organization,

So not long after  a NODIS message came across my desk from Ambassador Sullivan, who in a couple of sentences, wrote that the game was up and the Shah was done, I was a surprised.  I was even more surprised that It did not seem to make much of a wave in DC at that time. Carter was off somewhere doing something, the big deal being  the Israeli-Palestinian “peace” negotiations. As usual the Washington foreign policy “experts” like those of today assume the only thing that really counts in the Middle East is an Israeli-Arab Peace pact of some sort. It is kind of a recurrent foreign policy sickness among a lot of Middle East “experts.”


Asraf with her father Reza Shah in exile in South Africa after being kicked out of Iran by the British because of his suspected German. sympathies in WWII

Anyway in reading the book, The Fall, of Heaven I was motivated to read  or reread the books by Graham Fuller,  ( a Sense of Siege and The Center of the Universe), a very interesting book by Ashraf Pahlavi, (Faces in  Mirror) , (the twin sister of the Shah,) Mission to Iran by Ambassador Sullivan, Robert Huyser’s Mission to Tehran, memoirs by Henry Precht, and many histories of Iran, especially those by Peter Avery and Joseph Upton. I also went back to the old standards, like  Christopher Sykes. In short I read everything I could get my hands on.


top pic.  The Shah with first wife Fawzia, sister of king Farouk.  with daughter Shanaz. bottom pic. The Shah with second wife Soraya. Fawzia could not take the boredom of Tehran, preferring Cairo. Soraya could not have children, so the Shah very reluctantly divorced her.

Everyone agrees on one thing. The Shah was a weak Monarch, indecisive, rather remote, stiff, sometimes pretentious, but in the The Fall of Heaven he is also pictured as  a very decent man who cared about his country. He was a not a fighter, but he was not a coward. After all he has survived several assassination attempts. When the chips were down he could not bring himself to order his troops to fire on the rabble of communists Islamists, and ignorant urban mobs  demanding his  head. He backed away from blood shed and let events take their course.   On the other hand Ruhollah Khomeini comes across as a dedicated, Hitler -like creature with a obsession with power and a blood lust. He was distrusted and hated by many of his fellow Ayatollahs, including  his main rival,  Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari,  as well as Grand Ayatollah Musa Sadr,  and Grand Ayatollah Abol Qasem Khoi.  He was not popular with the peasants in the rural areas either who continued to trust in the Shah.   Khomeini actually conspired with his ally,  Muammar Gaddafi, to have Grand Ayatollah Sadr murdered by regime’s  security thugs. Shariatmadari was put in house arrest ,and later Khoi was murdered by Muqtada Sadr’s thugs ( ironically Musa’s son).   This is the same Khomeini  that Ambassador Sullivan termed a “Gandhi-like”  personage and Andrew Young, Carter’s ambassador to the  U. N.,  described as a “saint.”


For a while Iran was the model for the westernization of the Islamic world. Then reality set in.

The most fervent supporters of Khomeini were Western educated (?) youth from middle or upper class families , the urban middle class, and slum dwellers The most vociferous supporters were the Iranian students and their leftist allies in American universities. Living in Northern Virginia at the time and attending many conferences and seminars on Iran, every such event I went to was broken up by chanting Iranian  students shouting anti-Shah slogans. They had protests in the street and as it seems to always happen the Liberal Press took up their crusade by establishing in the publics mind that the Shah was an evil, rapacious tyrant surrounded by a corrupt family, especially his twin sister Ashraf, who undoubtably was not a saint, but also a very tough woman who tried to put backbone in the Shah. She was a an extraordinarily strong and resolute woman who could have run Iran very well on her own. I liked her take no prisoner style that comes out her autobiography.   Her detractors called her the “black panther” a sobriquet she apparently liked very much. She was instrumental in working with the  CIA to set up the coup in 1953 to oust the charlatan  Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, whom Ashraf depicted as a Machiavellian  genius: “an intellectual, a fanatical demagogue, a charismatic orator, and above all a consummate showman.” Mossadegh would frequently faint dead away while reaching for a crescendo  in his fiery speeches.


Carter with Ambassador Sullivan

As his urban followers began to melt away he increasingly hitched his wagon to the Tudeh ( communists) in Iran. Threatening the oil supply to the US and UK set the CIA on the path to assisting a coup to end his premiership. In reality the CIA had very little to do with it as Iranian military officers were the prime movers in the coup.


Ambassador Sullivan with the militants who brought down the Shah. As the author of the book  Fall from Heaven wrote, the intellectuals and students who brought down the Shah were building the scaffold they were later hanged from.

The Iranian students who formed a ring of adulation around Khomeini when he returned from Paris, formed the lawless Komitehs  that executed people on hearsay, plundering and destroying the legacy of the Pahlevi regime. In  return for their adulation, Khomeini later turned against them. One very active student leader that I actually watched lead a demonstration in down town DC,  Sadegh Ghotzbadegh,  was later executed by Khomeini. My understanding at the  time was that he was a Big Man on Campus at Georgetown. He also was the go between Khomeini and the the Palestinian Liberation Organization, bringing in weapons and munitions  for use against the Shah.  It is not a coincidence that the first visitor to Iran after the Khomeini takeover was Yasir Arafat.  It was a perfect storm  of the confluence of the “Black and the Red”  a term made famous by the Shah referring to the alliance of the Communists and Islamists.  Later, the Inner city Islamist thugs destroyed the  effete communist dilettantes  in a series of street battles. A lesson is there to be learned in our own country as we view the Islamists make common cause with “progressives.”

the shah and his queen

The Shah crowning his queen Farah

The shah was weak no doubt. Twice he was offered the opportunity to have Khomeini killed, once by his officers and once by Saddam who at that time hosted exiled  Khomeini in Iraq. Both times the Shah demurred.  In castigating the Shah for his weakness, we had our own  tepid leadership to answer for.  We also had a  very weak leader exposed  in this Iranian fiasco…. Jimmy Carter. He had no control whatsoever over his people in the government. Every official even remotely involved with Iran had their own plan for Iran. Most of the state department and the NSC were immersed in the “human rights” tar pits, admonishing the shah from using violent action against the mobs.  There was the totally naive belief that Khomeini was a man they could deal with.  Some thought he was just a figurehead for the Russians, and the communists. No one in the shakers and movers of Washington has taken the time to read Khomeini’s  doctrinal tracts in which his radical Islamist plans were clearly laid out.  It was the Ayatollah’s Mein Kampf.  Power, not Islam, was his religion, but scant attention was given to it.

The Shah, who had reduced his generals and top officials  to a coterie of ineffectual ciphers, (with a few exceptions) kept waiting for someone to bail him out,  but from the US he received a bewildering melange  of contradictory messages. “Ziggy”  Brzezinski was advising him to turn loose his army on the mobs, the CIA was still viewing the situation as  redeemable,  advocating caution,  the Iranian DOS desk officer, Precht wished the Shah all the worst. Precht was the deputy  chief of Mission in Cairo when I served there in 1981-82. A rather prickly individual, he was bitter about not being rewarded with an an ambassadorship.   Precht in his later remarks denied his animus toward the shah but that doesn’t stand up well. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his deputy,  Warren Christopher  focused on sharpshooting the Shah’s handling on the precarious  situation, mouthing pious platitudes about “human rights.”General  Robert Huyser , the deputy commander of EUCOM, was sent to Iran to ………. well….. he was never quite sure,  except tell the Iranian generals that a coup to establish a military government was looked upon unfavorably by the Carter Administration.

But perhaps the gravest  problem was the Ambassador  William Sullivan. Sullivan had completed a number of years in tumultuous assignments in Southeast Asia and was hoping to serve a final tour in Mexico where he had a home. Instead he was sent to Iran, a place with which he had no expertise, and from his book, did not care much for the shah or Iranians in general.  In his book he wrote about the “unfailing rudeness of the average Iranian merchant and clerk.” Nor did he find the American embassy personnel much to his liking, complaining that most of them avoided average Iranians,  “… for the most part they attempted to emulate the the international jet set…. “. Nor was he happy with DOS in Washington saying that they ignored President’s Carter’s instructions, “They continued to grind out their position papers, some of them totally at  variance with the Presidents position.” Nor did the DOS  put much stock in Sullivan’s reporting. Sullivan was a rather crusty gentleman and did not allow any messages out of the embassy that disagreed with this assessments that basically depicted that all was well. …until the very end.

Later Sullivan also railed against President Carter, telling General Huyser that Carter’s decisions were “stupid.” Basically as the end approached, Sullivan wanted to negotiate with the Islamist leaders himself and was incensed that Carter chose to go through the French in Paris. In fact one of Carter’s retinue of know nothings,  Hodding Carter, was bartering with Paris Islamists  tacitly offering the Shah as a prize. His telephone calls were intercepted by us.  ( Not in any book, my personal knowledge) It is doubtful the President condoned that but in the Carter Admin everybody was doing his own thing.


Ashraf with her brother Reza Ali and sister Shams

Sullivan had no empathy with the Shah and as the end approached, he began bartering with Khomeini people to usher in a transition government.   He vigorously opposed a military takeover and somehow believed that the Khomeini thugs would carry out their promises to enter softly and gently. He was not getting any instructions from a fractured and inept DOS. Ayatollah   and the other Khomeini minions  repeatedly lied to him but he was naive to an astounding degree. The DOD and CIA was out to lunch as well. As the Shah’s government crumbled, a bunch of Middle East specialists in the Pentagon, including me, were assembled and told the DOD was finalizing a plan to send American military advisors to Iran to help train the “new” Iranian army. The primary reaction of the attendees was disbelief. It died a quick death, happily,  or those advisors would been among the hostages held at the Embassy in Tehran. It was obvious that the Secretary of Defense,  Harold Brown was as clueless as the rest of the Carter cabinet.


As Christopher Sykes once wrote, “The Persians are remarkably vain, and they think so highly of their barren desert country they cannot conceive of any power failing to covet it”.

In Iran the Americans made the same mistake we made in Vietnam ( and maybe in Iraq) we  basically made the Shah totally dependent on American domination of his decision-making. He became totally dependent on the US as his moral big daddy.  When the fickle Carter crowd  all but disavowed him when he needed them the most , he became  mentally and spiritually paralyzed.  His advancing Lymphoma was a big factor as well. It is ironic in that Carter had, just prior to there revolution, bathed  the Shah’s regime in the most lavish of praise.  In a speech in 1978, Carter in a dinner with the Shah  said, “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah ,  is an island of tranquility in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”

The Western power elite and many in the main stream media bought lock stock and barrel,  the propaganda of the Khomeini movement. The shah was painted as a blood thirsty  tyrant, his family corrupt, especially his twin sister Ashraf, who was accused of every depravity known to mankind……. and this narrative was largely accepted uncritically by the Western press. Even today in Hollywood, as seen in the movie Argo, ( surprise, surprise it won an Oscar)  the Shah is depicted as a corrupt despot, and, as always in the style of Hollywood lefties,  his  “brutal”regime is pictured as the reason  for the savagery of the Mullah regime.  Queen Farah sent a long letter to the producer, Ben Affleck pointing out the inaccuracies, and lies, but went it unanswered.   No surprise there either!! The movie reminded me of another award winner , The Killing Fields, in which Sam Waterson,  the star attributes the genocide of the Cambodian people by their  communist rulers , to American bombing. It drove them crazy he said.


Farah vs. Jackie? Farah wins hands down!!! Not only lovely but a powerhouse  fearless leader.

No story about that era of Iran could go without mentioning the fact that in Iran at the time there were about 50,000 Americans there, most living in the Tehran environs.  These folks, many  with families, were not sent to Iran to have tea and make friends with Iranians. They were there to maintain equipment, assemble Bell helicopters, train Iranian troops. And as might be expected  there were a high percentage of “ugly Americans” among them. Probably the worst were teen age Americans who went out of their way to mock and humiliate Iranians from their school busses on the way to the American school in the center of Tehran. The Iranians hate all foreigners, and at the top of the hate list were the Americans. Of course that did not stop thousands of Iranians fleeing the Khomeini regime moving to California. Nor did it stop a number of the Khomeini regime officials  sending their kids to school there.

Finally there was good story about this era and that was the three women in the Shah’s life that mattered. ( His first wife Fawzia was well liked but did not like the Court life in Tehran.) The three were  his twin sister, Ashraf, second wife Soraya, and most importantly the third wife and queen, Farah. Everyone around the Shah knew that his  twin sister exercised tremendous influence on the Shah, and many were nervous when she was not around, because he looked for her approval on most decisions. She was a jet setter, society queen,  with some suspicious real estate dealings, and had shed three husbands, but she was tough and did not back away from confrontations with the Islamists.

Princess Soraya, was also a strong woman, as well as beautiful, who basically told her husband to get some backbone and fight back when he went into exile the first time during the short premiership of Mossadegh. His precipitous flight that time was a warning to his closest associates that he was always a flight risk.


Top.The shah with crown prince Cyrus ( still out there waiting for the Mullah regime to fall). Bottom:Ashraf with son who was later murdered on the streets of Paris.

But it was Queen Farah who should be held up as a Woman in the Margaret Thatcher mold. She was fearless, driving straight into crowds protesting against the Shah, fighting back against scurrilous accusations with anger and spirit ( one example that was in the Western press…she bathed in milk every night, etc.) She went to see the grand ayatollahs that hated Khomeini, ( most did)  pleading for their help. They were too scared to do anything.  One in particular was Grand Ayatollah Khoi, of Iraq. Instead of support she got a lecture on her unIslamic mode of dress. Betrayed by his closest friends, by the Carter administration, by most of his generals,  becoming a pariah, persona non grata, to the Western leaders all anxious to suck up to the Khomeini regime, she stuck with a rapidly declining Shah.  Buried in Cairo, as Sadat was one of the few leaders who accepted him, Farah visits his tomb every year.

This era in Iran should be a case study  of how to screw up  a developing country but there are too many sacred cows involved to ever let that happen.

Pics are from Ashraf Pahlavi book Faces in a Mirror..



About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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