Legacy of the Shah haunts the Carter Administration

by SLATER BAKHTAVAR July 11, 2014

It can be argued that the nation of Iran is one of the most misunderstood in the world, particularly by those in the West. Often thought of as just another suspect Middle Eastern country, it is widely feared as at best a rival, and at worst, a home for terrorists. What many Westerners fail to realize is that tension with this ancient, venerable civilization is a relatively recent phenomenon, largely brought about by a very recent change in its government structure.

Having existed as a united political entity for some 2600 years (and reaching even further back into time as a series of disparate kingdoms), Iran has been governed throughout its history by a monarchy. In fact, in 1971, the people of Iran came together under the Shah Mohammad Reza to celebrate over two millenia of monarchic rule since Cyrus the Great reined in 550 BC. Even when great upheavals have deposed sitting Iranian kings, from Alexander the Great's toppling of what was then the Achaemenid Persian Empire in 330 BC to the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941, Iran has recovered and resettled into its familiar style of administration. It is an historical anomaly, then, that the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution saw Iran's sitting Shah removed in favor not of a succeeding secular monarch, but a religious theocrat in the form of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Given the not-inconsiderable tension often felt toward Western civilization by Middle Easterners strong in the Islamic faith, it is not altogether surprising that the West's relations with Iran have soured since this event took place.

Indeed, under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza, Iran and the United States enjoyed what was generally a close, friendly relationship. The Shah was an open admirer of Western culture, and had a tendency to enact laws and enforce customs inspired by that hemisphere (sometimes, it should be noted, to the umbrage of his own people). In turn, the United States offered military and economic aid to Iran, an important ally at the time. The Americans even stood up for their friends after World War II, when the Soviet and British powers that had occupied Iran sought to divide it according to their personal (mostly oil-related) interests, while the US demonstrated genuine concern for the nation's stability moving forward in a post-war world.

Naturally, of course, relations have not always been ideal, and this is perhaps best (and most unfortunately) exemplified by the administration of American President Jimmy Carter. While officially remaining warm towards the Shah, Carter failed as Iran's ally. He was in the habit of accusing Mohammad Reza - and even issuing "polite reminders" on the matter - of human rights violations,  allegations which have been made morally suspect by recent American history. While the Shah did use the powers of a king to imprison those opposed to him, his favored targets for this action were communist sympathizers during the cold war and Islamic fundamentalists in a religiously turbulent region. Islamic Fundamentalists, it should be said, who were responsible for terrorist bombings in Iran, and Communists who, left unchecked, threatened to topple the Shah. Carter seemed unsympathetic to these realities, demanding that the Shah release imprisoned terrorists. It is interesting to contrast the actions of the United States now - or rather, since September 11, 2001 - with those of Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza, and to note that there is surprisingly little contrast at all. Meanwhile, current American ally Saudi Arabia is guilty of funding and supporting various terrorist groups - including the infamous al Qaeda - and of hosting terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden during part of his life. One wonders what Carter's opinion of this behavior would have been, considering his harsh words for Iran, which has never supported even a single terrorist organization under the Shah and was truly engaged in its own War on Terror at the time.

Truth be told, it was principally the Republican party in the United States that saw the value of Mohammad Reza as an ally and treated him with warmth, respect, and friendship. Prominent Republican President Ronald Reagan, who held office from 1981 to 1989, spoke favorably of the Shah, calling him "a stalwart ally" and criticizing Jimmy Carter's attitudes towards him. Another Republican President, the well-known Richard Nixon, who sat from 1969 until 1974, openly praised the Shah. Hosting the Shah at a dinner at the White House, Nixon referenced a visit he had made to Iran in the aftermath of World War II when he said, "When I left Iran, I knew it would make it...particularly because of the personality and the strength and the character of the man who is our honored guest tonight." For his part, the Shah returned President Nixon's friendship, supporting him during the Watergate scandal and becoming the frequent target of American media in return. The Shah also appreciated the Republicans in general, using his considerable wealth to fund their party during elections.

Iran's history in the 1970's - and its current state today - would perhaps be very different had the Carter administration shared this Republican sentiment towards the Shah. Instead, Carter's incessant undermining of Mohammad Reza, particularly through the aforementioned demands to release terrorists, as well as insisting on open media and free assembly, contributed greatly to the success of the Islamic Revolution that ended the Shah's rein and replaced him with a fundamentalist theocrat. It is ironic that most of those calling for the Shah's ouster were secular leftists, yet Carter threw his support behind the first Ayatollah, whom he warmly called a "man of God" like himself.

This clueless treatment of the complex nation of Iran, and the revolution that flourished partly because of it, has led to the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This new entity already has a record of human rights violations that would make all the Shahs blush, is suspected in the support of terrorism, and has taken a strong anti-US (and generally anti-West) stance, all in contrast to the warm relations that typified Western interaction with the Shah. None of this need be the case, for Iran is not a typical Middle Eastern nation. It is the only country in the region whose population is majority Persian by ethnicity, as opposed to the Arabs who so often harbor religious hatred for the United States. It is only natural that Iran should be friend and Ally to the Americans, not their foe, and to assist American interests regarding peace between Israel and its neighbors.

The situation is not hopeless. Demographically, Iran's population is dominated by young people under the age of 30, a group that tends to be progressive and free of fundamentalist religious myopia. Driven by these open-minded people, the future holds the possibility that Reza Pahlavi, son of Shah Mohammad Reza, may himself one day come to power. This would result in a new, constitutional monarchy for Iran similar to those seen in many modern countries today, including Denmark, Spain, Japan, and even England. It is no place of the United States nor the West in general to force such a change, which is rightly left in the hands of the Iranian people, but with support for technological advancements that elevate the minds of the populace and cause them to question whether absolute religious rule is just, we can hope to eventually arrive at a new dawn for the great, ancient nation of Iran.

Slater Bakhtavar is an attorney, journalist, author and political commentator. He is author of “Iran: The Green Movement”.


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