Former U.S. ambassador to Iran William H. Sullivan has charged that "U.S. policy formulation broke down" due to cross purposes in the highest councils of the Carter administration during the crucial weeks when the shah's rule was collapsing and a new Iranian regime was being born.
In a Foreign Policy magazine article, Sullivan attributed most of the difficulty to the intervention and influence of presidential assistant Zbigniew Brzezinski. The former ambassador depicted Brzezinski as having torpedoed a series of his recommendations from the scene intended to encourage an orderly transfer of power from the falling shah to successors acceptable to the ayatollahs as well as the armed forces.
The White House national security adviser, moreover, was described explicitly or by inference in Sullivan's account as backing the use of military force against the Iranian revolution in inappropriate or impossible circumstances. Sullivan strongly suggested that Brzezinski wanted the shah to suppress the revolution with troops late in 1978, despite the assessment of Sullivan and the State Department that the monarch would not do so.
Brzezinski was depicted as asking about a military coup at a late point in the succession sequence which Sullivan did not date in the Foreign Policy article but which he has dated elsewhere as Feb. 11-12, 1979. This was after the departure of the shah from Iran, the triumphant arrival from exile of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was amid the breakup of the shah's chosen successor regime and the Iranian armed forces.
In the midst of growing turmoil, Sullivan wrote, "I received a telephone call in the clear over the international circuit from Washington relaying a message from Brzezinski who asked whether I thought I could arrange a military coup against the revolution. I regret that the reply I made is unprintable." In another account, published by Robert Shaplen in The New Yorker, Sullivan said the coup message from Brzezinski was passed to him in a telephone call from Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Undersecretary of State David D. Newsom.
A spokesman for Brzezinski, Alfred Friendly Jr., said the White House foreign policy adviser has seen an advance copy of Sullivan's account. "The article is self-serving and factually inaccurate, but now is not the time to conduct a public debate on its details," the spokesman said. He declined to comment further.
According to Sullivan's account, by November 1978 -- two months before the final departure of the shah from Iran -- "Brzezinski began to make his own policy and established his own 'embassy' in Iran . . . in the person of Ardeshir Zahedi, the shah's ambassador to Washington." He added that Zahedi reported daily to Brzezinski via an overseas telephone line that could be monitored by the Soviet Union.
Sullivan depicted Zahedi as "a romantic in a very Persian way" engaged in plotting strategy with a pathetic remnant of figures from the past. The shah, according to Sullivan, lacked confidence in his own -- and Brzezinski's envoy: "he continually told me to warm Washington not to pay attention to Zahedi because he did not understand the current situation."
Such words from the monarch, coming through Sullivan, "served only to deepen the divisions and heighten the suspicions that beset Washington at the time," the article said.
The Foreign Policy article is by far Sullivan's most extensive public statement of his views and recollections of U.S. policy in Iran during the turbulent weeks of late 1978 and early 1979. His portrayal of intragovernmental disarray, however, is similar to that in several earlier accounts which covered much of the same material but did not name Sullivan as their source.
Sullivan, now president of The American Assembly, a private study group on national issues, retired from the Foreign Service in June 1979, two months after returning from Tehran, following a career spanning three decades and many controversial posts.
Sullivan said in the article that he decided to resign his post early in 1979, several months before he actually returned from Tehran, in the context of "increasingly acerbic" messages from Washington including one message casting "an insulting aspersion upon my loyalty."
The former ambassador said nothing in the article of his first year in Tehran, beginning in mid-1977, when he is reported to have been deeply skeptical of the seriousness and effectiveness of the shah's opposition. Sullivan, in this period, was widely considered a strong supporter of the shah.
Sullivan's article includes a one-sentence attack on "those of State [Department] who were so strongly opposed to the shah because of the human rights abuses of his regime that they wished to see him collapse no matter what the consequences for the United States or its allies." These officials are not named. Sullivan indicated they were not dominant in State Department thinking, but that their viewpoint undermined the credibility of State in high policy councils.
Sullivan's article did not explicitly criticize President Carter or Cyrus R. Vance, who was secretary of state during the fall of the shah. However, the article is replace with complaints that policy divisions in Washington resulted in conflicting instructions to the Tehran embassy or, due to bureaucratic deadlock, "the absence of any instructions whatsoever."
By late December of 1978, wrote Sullivan, internecine squabbling in Washington was such that "any sensitive message I sent, no matter how highly classified, that digressed from the views of the National Security Council staff would appear, almost verbatim, in The New York Times." For this reason, according to Sullivan, he shifted from classified cables to secure telephone as his means of communication with the State Department.
Sullivan's account, which is episodic rather than comprehensive, focused in greatest detail on a chain of events starting with his conclusion, as conveyed to Washington in a message of Nov. 9, 1978, that the military government appointed by the shah four days earlier represented "the last chance for the shah to control the revolutionary process."
In order to protect U.S. interests in the event of the shah's collapse, according to Sullivan, he suggested that the U.S. consider steps to "broker an arrangement" permitting the Iranian armed forces to remain intact under a government which had the blessing of Khomeini. Sullivan reported that he never received a reply to "this fundamental message" but that "it soon became apparent that my views were no longer welcome at the White House."
In the absence of instructions to the contrary, Sullivan recounted, he began to explore "ground rules" under which the Iranian armed forces and the Khomeini camp could come to terms with one another.
As a result of these discussions, "detailed understandings were reached between the armed forces and revolutionary leaders in Tehran," according to Sullivan. The arrangements included the departure from the country of "a number of senior officers" and "a transfer of allegiance of the remaining armed forces . . . in a way that would have preserved their integrity."
In order to obtain confirmation of Khomeini's acceptance of these terms, the former envoy wrote, he proposed -- and Vance approved -- the dispatch of "an authoritative emissary" from Washington to consult Khomeini in Paris. The embassy was to have been Theodore Eliot, inspector general of the Foreign Service, who was experienced in Iranian affairs and could speak Farsi.
"An urgent nighttime message" from Washington in the first week of January 1979 informed Sullivan that the Eliot mission had been canceled and that Carter had directed that the shah be so informed. Sullivan protested, to no avail. When he told the shah that the planned emissary to Khomeini would not be sent, Sullivan recalled, the monarch "reacted with incredulity and asked how the United States expected to influence 'these people' if it would not even deal with them."
Sullivan wrote that from his vantage point, "the United States, on the eve of the shah's departure, was left with no policy." He added that, "I overlooked the Brzezinski factor. It appears that he had a plan in mind" -- the mission of Gen. Robert Huyser to maintain the loyalty of the Iranian military of the ill-fated transitional government of Shahpour Bakhtiar.
Terse instructions from Washington ordered Sullivan that U.S. policy was to support Bakhtiar "without reservation," he wrote. Sullivan protested that Bakhtiar's regime was "a chimera that the shah had created to permit a dignified departure" and would be swept away by Khomeini. In Sullivan's account, he warned that blinding the Iranian armed forces to Bakhtiar would bring a disastrous confrontation with the revolution that "would result in the disintegration of the armed forces and eventually in the disintegration of Iran."
Sullivan was sharply instructed, he recounted, "to support Bakhtiar no matter what reservations I had." At that point, he wrote, he decided to resign. He added:
"However, I still was responsible for protecting about 15,000 remaining Americans in the face of enveloping chaos. I therefore quenched my Irish temper, sent my wife out of the country, prepared for the worst, and delayed my resignation until after the anticipated holocaust."