The chief spokesman for the deposed shah of Iran today condemned the conduct of Panamanian doctors who treated the former monarch as "inhuman" and criticized the White House for an allegedly callous attitude toward a desperately ill U.S. friend.
"They didn't even take the shah's feelings into consideration," complained Robert Armao, an attorney and public relations specialist who was hired in December 1978 to improve the monarch's image abroad as he was falling from his throne and now serves as his spokesman and adviser.
Five days after a critical operation here to remove the shah's spleen, Armao ended the long-term silence of those around Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to give his version of events surrounding his departure from Panama on March 23.
U.S. and Panamanian officials have said that the shah could not be persuaded to stay in Panama, despite their assurances that his urgently needed operation could be performed at a high-quality hospital by U.S. surgeons.
In an interview today, however, Armao charged the Carter Administration with playing a "pressure game" that he said violated the spirit, if not the letter, of understandings reached last December at Lackland Air Force Base Hospital in Texas as Pahlavi was about to leave U.S. territory for Panama.
"In my 37 years [on the throne] I did everything in my power to help and assist my allies," Armao quoted the shah as saying in reflections on the administration's attitude. "How much more can I take? I am a sick man."
Armao also said there had been no direct contact between the shah and either former secretary of state Henry Kissinger or David Rockefeller, the New York financier and friend of the shah.
Those reports apparently arose in part because Armao's New York public relations firm was put on a retainer by the shah's twin sister, Princess Ashraf, on the advice of the late governor Nelson Rockefeller. Armao said he had worked for Rockefeller, whose brother David was a good friend of the Iranian imperial family.
Ashraf continues to pay Armao's fees, he said.
Armao said the shah's mood became "low, disgusted" as his American doctors contended with the offended pride of Panamanian doctors and officials who felt that the operation should be performed by local surgeons and as White House aides dickered with Pahlavi's New York lawyers over where the operation should take place.
"The poor man was ill, desperate," he added. "All he wanted was to get his surgery and go home."
The problem was that the shah had no home. Among the understandings with the House House, however, was a U.S. agreement to readmit the shah to the United States if, in the assessment of the administration, an emergency existed that required treatment in a U.S. hospital.
Armao declined to say whether any of the shah's advisers or friends specifically asked the White House to readmit him to the United States for his spleennectomy. But he strongly suggested that the reason why the monarch himself did not demand admission was that he had been made to understand in advance that it would be denied, on grounds the operation could, in the White House view, be performed safely in Panama.
In addition, he said, the shah was reluctant to press the administration for readmission because of unwillingness to add new complications to efforts to free American hostages held by Islamic militants in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, occupied when Pahlavi was first admitted for treatment in a New York hospital last fall.
But despite U.S. concerns, the shah had decided a full week before his March 23 departure that he must leave Panama to receive adequate medical care for removal of his dangerously swollen spleen.
His decision grew from discomfort at false reports of his arrest in Panama, an impending extradition request by Iran's new government and, most of all, refusal by Panamanian doctors to allow the shah's American surgeon to perform the operation in Panama's Paitilla Medical Center, Armao said.
Panamanian authorities, he said, also had made it clear that if the shah went to Gorgas Hospital, a U.S. military installation in Panama, he would not be readmitted into Panamanian territory to resume his exile there. Armao said the administration's failure to ensure use of the Gorgas facilities constituted a violation of the promises made at Lackland in December.
Armao made it clear the shah has not openly criticized the administration within earshot of his aides. But members of the shah's immediate family, particularly Princess Ashraf, are known to have expressed bitterness at U.S. treatment of the monarch. Armao strongly indicated that the shah himself feels let down by the nation that was once his strongest and closest ally.
A week before the shah left Panama, Armao said, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's wife, Jihan, had in a telephone call to Pahlavi's wife, the Empress Farah Diba, renewed Sadat's longstanding offer of refuge in Cairo. eThe shah decided to accept it, and the departure was set.
The shah was resolved to leave Panama, Armao said, chiefly because of incidents between his U.S. surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey of Houston, and Panamanian doctors. The Panamanians were concerned that their ability was being put into doubt by DeBakey's assignment to carry out the surgery, he said.
At one point, doctors at Panama's Paitilla Medical Center sarcastically called the eminent Texas physician, who had traveled there to examine the shah, an "itinerant surgeon." At another, guards wearing pistols refused DeBakey access to the shah's room at the hospital.
Dr. Carlos Garcia, the personal physician of Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos, also criticized an Iranian woman doctor traveling with the shah's family, Armao said, and in one meeting shook his finger and shouted complaints that Panamanian medicine was being slighted by the shah's insistence that DeBakey do the surgery.
These arguments followed a series of earlier disputes between the shah's staff, particularly Armao, and Panamanian officials assigned to guard the monarch in his refuge on Contadora Island, Armao said. The Panamanians resented his efforts to bring costs under control -- the shah's stay running up a six-figure price tag each month -- and believed he was blocking their access to the shah's wealth for investment in Panama, he added.
For these reasons, Armao had left Panama in early January. He returned only after the shah's health deteriorated dangerously in early March, and the talk of an operation on his spleen began. Armao said the shah himself had not been involved in the bickering with Panamanians, and that Torrijos apparently was not fully aware of what was being done in his name by lesser Panamanian officials.
But it was against this backdrop of rancor that Armao and the shah's personal physician, Dr. Benjamin Kean of Cornell University, along with some of the shah's other aides, reached the decision to advise the shah to leave Panama for the operation.
Once the shah decided to accept Sadat's offer, Armao said, "the pressure game started."
When the U.S. and Panamanian governments were informed, U.S. Ambassador Ambler Moss and Torrijos moved quickly to try to reverse the situation. U.S. officials urged DeBakey to accept their assessment that the operation could be carried out in Panama, Armao said.
"They didn't bend," he added of DeBakey and the others on the shah's medical team. "The shah didn't want them to bend."
This version of events differs somewhat from that presented by U.S. and Panamanian officials, who have said that, following a March 20 visit to DeBakey in Houston by White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, he agreed to perform the surgery in Panama.
The White House entered into negotiations with the shah's New York lawyer, William Jackson, a partner in the prominent firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy. On the evening of March 20, Jordan, an acquaintance of Torrijos, arrived in Panama to handle the discussions in person. At the end of the week, he was joined by White House counsel Lloyd Cutler.
Armao said the discussions in Panama centered on U.S. desires to have the shah remain in Panama for his operation, and what had become the shah's firm determination to leave for Egypt. There was no request for entry into the United States, he said, although he acknowledged that Jackson had handled much of the discussion earlier in the week in New York.