When Patt Derian was first approached to head the State Department's human rights bureau, Warren Christopher, the deputy secretary of state, warned her not to expect to win every battle. But among the battle's Derian wanted to win most was one that would alter the cozy U.S. relationship with the shah of Iran, who ranked high on every list of chronic violators.
Derian's leverage came not only from the president's campaign promises, but also from the statute that says the human rights record of every country must be reviewed before it can be given aid or sold military equipment. This gave Derian the leverage to conduct a running guerrilla assault on the shah's huge arms request.
Derian used each opportunity to argue that the United States was proceeding further down the path of backing a repressive and unpopular monarch. pHer staff repeatedly said it was time to urge him to accommodate the opposition rather than repress it. Each time they were ignored. One by one, the weapon systems were approved based on the shah's security needs.
But in early 1978, as violence spread through this country, the shah requested tear gas for use against demonstrators. Derian decided to make a stand. The shah could buy it somewhere else.
Only the human rights bureau opposed the sale of the tear gas. Lucy Benson, the former president of the League of Women Voters and then the undersecretary for security assistance, favored it strongly. Not only had tear gas has been used in Washington against protesting Iranian students, she argued, but the shah should be supported in his fight against "the forces of right-wing repression which wanted to put women back in the veil."
Benson referred the matter to David Aaron, a deputy of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Aaron told Derian that Iran was a friendly country, and, repeating the argument that we had used tear gas on protesting Iranian students, he emphasized that as a nonlethal weapon, it would save lives.
Derian protested the inconsistent policy of refusing some countries police equipment while providing it for certain allies such as Iran, the Philippines and South Korea.
Aaron was unmoved. The 2,150 tear gas grenades were approved the next day.
Derian appealed the decision to Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance. Vance backed Benson; the shah would get his tear gas. But Derian got approval for instructions for the U.S. ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, to politely tell the shah that, although the United States was sure he did not know about it, his ban on torture was being ignored by some of his security forces.
No sooner had the instructions arrived in Tehran than Sullivan called to complain. It was neither the time nor the manner to push the shah. The shah was reining in SAVAK and was releasing political prisoners. He should be left to proceed at his own pace. And where was the tear gas? Certainly the human rights people would understand that tear gas prevented bloodshed. The shah's troops would use bullets if they didn't have tear gas.
The tear gas remained blocked by a bureaucratic snag.
On April 5, 1978, the battle over human rights between Derian and Sullivan opened on a new front Sullivan mentioned in a cable that he had told the acting Iranian foreign minister that "there was a 'hotline' between several Iranian dissident organizations" and such American groups as the Council of Churches. These groups were being told about incidents "often in exaggerated and distorted form." Sullivan suggested that such reports be checked first with his embassy.
Derian blew up at Sullivan's cable and complained to him that he was providing ammunition to the Iranian government to allege a conspiracy between Iranian dissidents and "American organizations being 'used' by Iranian dissidents to spread false information."
Sullivan responded that the Iranian government was concerned that "Americans were being misled by our common enemies." Sullivan said, "Frankly, any American organization that takes Iranian dissidents' views at face value without some attempt to check them out is being 'used'. . . ."
Derian observed to her staff that it was Sullivan who was accepting the shah's position at "face value," but she let the exchange drop for the time being.
As opposition confrontations with the shah's troops increased, Sullivan observed that the shah's new human rights considerations were interfering with reestablishing order. "The shah's new directives to his security forces, such as instructions to desist from torture . . . are disorienting . . .," Sullivan reported. "Those in charge of security . . . are . . . being prevented from using the time-honored methods of arrest, long imprisonment and manhandling -- if not worse -- to get at the threat."
The alternative to unleashing the military was providing the tear gas, which was still hung up by bureaucratic delays.
In the human rights bureau the tear gas question was reconsidered. Refusing it could backfire against the bureau. But there was no more bitter reminder of U.S. support for the shah than for demonstrators to find "Made in the U.S.A." on the spent tear gas canisters. dAgain the bureau moved to block the shipment. But, on Nov. 8, the State Department gave final approval to the shah's request for tear gas; Sullivan won his battle.
The next day, Sullivan informed State that it was time for the United States to change its position on the shah. It must consider the likelihood that he would fall and the United States would be isolated with a discredited dictator.