The official view from Washington in the summer of 1978 held that the shah of Iran was successfully squelching domestic opposition with his campaign to liberalize politics, but on the ground in Iran the career officers of the U.S. embassy saw a conflicting reality.
From their street-level conversations with Iranians of all persuasions, the middle-rank diplomats described a deteriorating situation for the shah, a gloomy forecast that somehow never penetrated the official optimism that guided American policy.
"People believe that the shah does not know the breadth and the depth of popular discontent," consulate officer David McGaffey reported from Isfahan in June of 1978, nine months before the shah, Reza Pahlavi, was forced to abdicate his throne and many months before official embassy reporting fully reflected the ominous nature of events. "Ayatollah Khomeini is very powerful in the Isfahan bazaar. Many Isfahani religious leaders do not like him but feel they must support him since he has widespread popular support. There is also discontent among other modernists, i.e., investors, factory owners, workers."
Other diplomatic officers from other posts delivered similar reports. Their reporting, which proved far more accurate than the official assessments offered from Washington, is included in the hundreds of documents captured by Iranian militants after the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in November, 1979. These documents were later published in a series of 13 paperback volumes available in Tehran, 12 of which were made available by freelance journalist William Worthy and two colleagues who traveled there last fall. The 13th, independently authenticated by The Washington Post, was provided here by an Iranian source.
It remains for future scholars and historians to piece together a fuller explanation of why the warnings from embassy officers did not register fully on policymakers in Washington. One possible reason suggested by the documents was the belief that, sooner or later, the shah would apply sufficient force to intimidate both the secular and religious opponents and to restore his political credibility.
On June 5, 1978, the documents show, the embassy held a meeting of consulate officers from throughout the country.
McGaffey reported the rising opposition in Isfahan.
Michael Metrinko, later a hostage, "said Tabriz is 'a different country.' People do not speak Persian, and the history of Azarbaijan has always been one of separatism. City government has virtually ceased to exist due to constant transfers.... The University at Azarbadegan has only held four of its sixteen weeks of classes. The killing of students in early May turned the University staff against the government. Religion is a vital force in Tabriz, which is not a progressive city. Virtually the only entertainment that exists is through the mosque.... Social clubs and movies have been closed. Empress Farah (who is widely respected elsewhere) is despised even by members of her family, who claim the Tehran Dibas have ceased being Turkish. There is some belief the Shah is not fully informed about what has been unleashed in Tabriz."
"Metrinko noted it would be difficult to reimpose strict authority. There is some belief that conscript troops might not fire on Tabrizis if they believed people were rioting for religious reasons."
From Southern Iran, Victor Tomseth, also seized later as a hostage, "noted that a whole range of discontents arising from modernization are beginning to surface. Iranians claim modernization is taking away a sense of identity. If so, political liberalization has merely made manifest a process going on for some time."
"The principal officers agreed the U.S. is becoming, to some degree, a fall guy for Iran's problems," the report of the staff meeting continued. "The U.S. is supporting the Shah, hence religious ideologues attack the U.S. as a supporter of the government. Modernists believe the U.S. presence in Iran has pushed up rents and food costs.... At the moment, U.S. power is not respected and we are seen as a weak, indecisive nation....There are situations in which the U.S. could turn very swiftly into a scapegoat for Persian problems."
Similar detailed and accurate reporting on the rising opposition surrounding the shah continued through the summer and fall of 1978, but the official embassy cables signed by Ambassador William Sullivan still expressed optimism until late in the year. As violent demonstrations and strikes continued, surrounded by civil disorder and economic chaos, the shah finally left the country for good in January, 1979.
Through the decisive events of 1978, the central question for American officials was always whether to push the shah to adopt a more liberalized policy toward his political opponents or to crack down with force and quell the open dissent. The shah gradually loosened controls over political expression but the opposition demonstrations only became larger and bolder.
The turning point, most historical accounts agree, was the massacre in Jaleh Square on Sept. 8 when 20,000 dissidents gathered in south Tehran, a religious rally which became a protest against the newly imposed martial law. After an hour, the demonstrators were ordered to disperse. When they refused, army units fired into the crowd, killing at least 100 people. As the panicked crowd rampaged through the streets of Tehran, other military units and helicopter gunships chased them. In all, several hundred were killed and several thousand wounded.
The documents published in Iran reveal that the U.S. embassy might have encouraged the shah's government to proceed with its martial law enforcement, though without consulting Washington. This is suggested by a memorandum for the files written by John D. Stempel, a Farsi-speaking political officer, who described his meeting on the evening of Sept. 3, four days before martial law was imposed, with Darious Boyandor, a key assistant to the shah's new prime minister.
"The Prime Minister and others...were becoming concerned that there was no sense of give within the opposition," according to Stempel's memo. "The religious and other figures felt they had the government on the run and would press for concessions or demand changes which would be impossible," Boyandor told Stempel. "Violence...might continue."
"What happens if the 'crunch' comes?" Boyandor wanted to know. "What would be the United States Government's attitude toward the reestablishment of order by force?" Up to that point, Iranian armed forces had been under orders not to engage the demonstrating crowds.
Stempel said he "pointed out that the so-called 'American emphasis' on human rights had not, contrary to the opinion of many, advocated chaos instead of public order. Speaking personally, I said the government would be sympathetic towards efforts to establish public order if taken within the context of a system which offered ample opportunity for political participation."
Stempel told Boyandor that the U.S. embassy "understood that the prime minister had in effect taken the lid off a very difficult situation. We were hopeful that the government will do what is necessary to limit unrestrained force to maintain order. The better the political case for the use of force, the easier it would be for Iran's friends abroad in Europe and the U.S. to defend it."
This was the first time the shah's government had requested a U.S. endorsement for the use of force. Stempel wrote that he was confident his reassurances would "reach senior levels in the Prime Minister's office."
Stempel, now director of the State Department's operations center, declined to comment on the document. Four days after his meeting with Boyandor, the Iranian government's key advisers to the prime minister met and agreed that the shah should impose martial law.
After Jaleh Square, ambassador Sullivan met with moderate members of the shah's regime, senior military officers and others, trying to determine the mood and direction of the Iranian government. In his own cable, Sullivan said one minister hoped that "the United States govt could play a key role in current situation. Perhaps we had more influence with Shah than the govt did. We should act to use that influence."
Senior military officers, on the other hand, were pleased with the outcome, Sullivan reported. "In the course of detailed discussion, however, they display real nervousness about future course of events. They expect terrorism, sabotage, and industrial strikes. They were clearly shaken by the size and organization of the demonstrations."
"As for the Shah,...I found him tired and unhappy, but considerably more spirited than he was a week ago. He displayed considerably greater sensitivity to the deaths that had occurred than did his foreign minister. He persists in saying that he sees the Soviet hand in all the demonstrations and disturbances that have taken place. At the same time, he says that 'past mistakes' must be corrected."
"He is eager for some public expression of U.S. support for him, for his regime, and for his program," Sullivan's cable says. "He has a more coherent plan of action than he earlier displayed. He categorically eschews any suggestion that he will abdicate or flee the current situation. On the other hand, he does not minimize the problems he faces. He realizes that martial law may force his opposition underground and into acts of terrorism and sabotage. He is concerned that a wave of industrial strikes may be in the offing. He appreciates that the image of martial law will be offensive to many internationally, including the United States.
"The net impression I derive from these several interviews is that the establishment in Iran is badly shaken by recent events," Sullivan reported. "There is still a strong element, not only in the military, but also in the cabinet which favors the return to a harsh, authoritarian role to suppress the opposition. There is, at the same time, a significant group in the leadership that believes repressive action will not work and that the time is overdue for actions which will meet legitimate grievances.
"The Shah, in the past few weeks, has played a Hamlet-like role, without asserting his influence in either direction. He seems, as of today, to have recovered some of his former confidence and to have resumed control of governmental action. He is convincing when he says that he has sided with those who want reform and we can expect him to attempt to carry out those changes."
After Jaleh Square, President Carter did renew his full support for the shah. He interrupted his peace negotiations with Egypt and Israel at Camp David to call the shah with a message of support.
Within days, according to the documents published in Iran, consul Tomseth was reporting that anti-American sentiment had increased rapidly, "often taking the form of, 'We have nothing against you personally, but Iranians dislike Americans because 1) you keep the shah in power, 2) American weapons kill our people, 3) you are a bad moral influence on our children, 4) you do not respect Islam, 5) you have caused inflation and shortages, etc.' Several people, out of genuine concern for individual Americans they know, have advised that they leave Iran quickly lest something happen to them."
On Sept. 21, 1978, Sullivan was still forwarding an optimistic analysis to Washington: "An air of calm has been restored to the cities...but the Shah and the govt face enormously complicated...task of establishing its leadership, creating some sense of confidence in govt itself, and achieving a popular consensus for its policies." This would require some convincing move "to liberalize and broaden its base so that responsible political groups with democratic ambitions can play a role in the processes of govt. At the same time, it must placate the many who have lent themselves to a leadership which has called for the overthrow of the current regime."
On Oct. 19, Sullivan's reporting continues upbeat, noting that "while it is too early to make definitive predictions, there are encouraging indications that the Iranian crisis may have passed a fever point and opened some prospects for its constructive resolution."
After noting a number of danger points before the general elections scheduled for June, Sullivan deemphasizes early reports about Khomeini's strength: "In the meantime, the Khomeini star seems to be waning. His public statements in France have suggested the fuzzy, archaic nature of his political perceptions. The fact that he is far away and in a Christian country may be eroding his influence here. The ayatollahs of Gom seem to feel a greater sense of self-confidence and are in the process of negotiating an understanding with the govt, which would entail their allegiance to the Shah."
Military leaders "make no secret of the fact that they believe the shah is making too many concessions," Sullivan continues. "They would prefer a far tougher course of action, arresting 'dissidents' and insisting upon a greater respect for 'law and order.' They plead this point of view constantly with the Shah."
As late as Oct. 25, Sullivan was still suggesting how the mechanics of a successful liberalization strategy might work. At this time back in Washington, Iranian ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi and others were pushing the White House to urge the shah to crack down, according to previous accounts. Their inquiries appear to be the subject of a cable to the embassy from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.
The cable was titled "Looking Ahead."
"We are beginning to hear influential, outside voices here assert that Shah's policy of political concessions has proven mistaken and that he should turn to program of cracking down on dissidents. Believe it would be timely and useful if, without referring to this message, you could give us your best assessment of consequences/outcome in short and long term of a policy of seeking to restore order by using force to return strikers to jobs and to keep demonstrators off the streets.
"Presumably associated with such a policy would be a clamp down on the press and universities and arrests of large numbers of secular and religious oppositionists. (We hear that security agencies believe opposition can be quelled by only 400 key arrests.) Please include an analysis your estimate of loyalty of army and other security forces under conditions of tight controls over extended period and probable reaction of groups within Iranian body politic. You might also consider public reaction if elections were to be postponed.
"Realize that you have given us your views and answers to these questions in various cables, but believe bringing it all together in one normal distribution...message could be quite helpful."
During that week, Sullivan had asked his embassy personnel to seek out a broader range of people. In one meeting, two Iranian journalists put it simply: "Khomeini is a crucial factor and has more influence over the masses than the Shah....His thinking is representative of what most Iranians believe."
By Oct. 30, these findings were relayed to Washington as an abrupt shift in public opinion. The cable was again entitled "Looking Ahead: Shifting Iranian Public Attitudes" and, as instructed, made no reference to Vance's cable the week before.
"Events of past month, particularly past week, have led to clearly discernible shifts in attitudes regarding Shah and GOI government of Iran among many groups of Iranians. Such changes, while significant in the short run, are especially important because they foreshadow changed ways of thinking and believing about politics in Iran.
"Most important currents are: a) renewed questioning of Shah's effectiveness and legitimacy, particularly by groups which heretofore have given at least tacit allegiance (and usually much more) to Shah and government; b) growing belief among all segments of society not directly involved in government that the regime carries too much baggage from past to be able to successfully restore order or provide for transition to freely-elected government; c) realization among middle class modernizers that both religious forces and communists have much more organizational capacity than most imagined; and d) rapidly spreading feeling that present GOI will not be able to compromise with religious leadership and that alternative is likely to be military government and rather sooner than later..."
"Even if order is restored shortly without a move to military government, most Persians feel Shah must do better to survive. For first time in two decades serious coffeehouse thought is being given to other possibilities.
"Lack of direct action thus far by those who do not oppose Shah and by many who do generally reflects one assumption from past that remains: there is no viable alternative to Shah. For this reason, even many oppositionists thus far remain willing to live with him, albeit as the lesser of evils. However, this assumption too is coming under increasing challenge."
There are few cables from the final 10 weeks of the shah's troubled reign among the published documents. But, according to informed sources, this memo was the precursor of a major shift in embassy reporting. According to informed sources Sullivan began unsuccessfully urging U.S. contact with the Khomeini entourage in Paris in order to ensure a smooth transfer of power to the regime which might follow the shah's departure.
One cable from the last day of 1978 shows Sullivan still responding to inquiries from Washington about whether the shah is really in trouble. Asked for the views of his diplomatic peers in Tehran, Sullivan responds: "French position is and has been for some time that 'Shah is finished.' They feel the sooner he leaves the better....German ambassador seems somewhat more optimistic. He feels it is possible Bakhtiar government might succeed if Shah temporarily withdraws and names Regency Council."
The Sullivan cable closes soberly: "Common view among all colleagues is that law and order situation is out of everyone's control and that primitive vandalism is on the rise throughout country, with very heavy overtones of xenophobia. There is therefore general consensus that situation is fast approaching anarchy."
Special researchers Jan Austin, Michael Meyer and Malcolm Byrne assisted in preparing this report.