‘The Crisis’: Reading the Future in Tehran

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

February 27, 2005

For most of the last 50 years or so, the United States has neglected the Muslim states of the greater Middle East. Neglected not in the sense of ignoring them—we certainly have been forced to pay attention—but in the sense of doing painfully little to help them develop economically, politically and socially. We have rarely applied much pressure to the autocrats of the region, nor have we been willing to invest significant economic resources or political clout to make it more attractive for them to liberalize.

In the coffee shops of the Middle East, where only conspiracies are believed and the simple truth is considered naivete or duplicity, America’s motives are invariably assumed to be malicious. The conspiracy theorists are nearly always wrong. But there’s no question that our neglect has contributed to many of the area’s problems.

Sept. 11, 2001, was not the first time this neglect cost us dearly. There were plenty of other dates before it. The first was Nov. 4, 1979. On that day, 300 zealous Iranian college students stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 66 American marines and diplomats hostage in a crisis that would last over a year. (Three of them were trapped in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and 14 would be released for different reasons in subsequent months.)

The story of the origins of that crisis should by now be disturbingly familiar. The United States backed a friendly autocrat, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who repressed his people. The result was tremendous popular animosity toward him, and toward the United States for being his ally. When the pressure reached the bursting point, America was as much a target of Iranian furor as the shah himself. For nearly a year after his fall, Iranians looked for a way to lash out at the United States, until those 300 college students showed them how.

In truth, in Iran as elsewhere in the Middle East today, America’s sins were principally those of omission, not commission. Of course, the Eisenhower administration had toppled the popular government of Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 — an event that has reached mythic proportions in Iranian minds. Thereafter, however, the United States paid little attention to what the reinstalled shah did. The Kennedy administration pressed him to reform, and got some traction for a brief time. But during the Johnson and especially the Nixon years, Washington simply stopped caring how the shah ruled. This was little understood by Iranians, who believed the United States was manipulating every development in their country.

Our painful experience with revolutionary Iran should teach us that there are other threats from America’s neglect of the Muslim Middle East besides Osama bin Ladin and Al Qaeda. In the midst of a new war on terror, it is worth remembering the anger and frustration that Americans felt during those 444 days, when we first found ourselves attacked by an adversary who hated us with a fury we did not understand, motivated by beliefs we did not understand and pursuing a logic we did not understand. The danger that we face today is that the past could be our future if we are not willing to try to help the Middle East progress—though slowly, very slowly, because haste could cause the same kinds of problems we are trying to avoid.

For those looking to remember and reassess that awful day of Nov. 4, 1979, David Harris, the author of ”Dreams Die Hard” and other books, has provided a marvelous place to start. His new book, ”The Crisis,” is quite simply terrific to read. Harris is a master storyteller, and ”The Crisis” ranks with Mark Bowden’s ”Black Hawk Down” and Robert Kaplan’s ”Balkan Ghosts” as a work of engrossing nonfiction.

Given the fact that the hostage crisis was a 444-day ordeal, this is an extraordinary feat. To date, the best accounts (Gary Sick’s ”All Fall Down” comes immediately to mind, though it is now almost 20 years old) have been illuminating and thought-provoking. But like the crisis itself, many of them required considerable stamina to plow through all of the wrong turns and dead ends.

Harris has done his homework on a topic that defies quick familiarity. He traveled to Iran and interviewed some of the players on the other side. He has also benefited from both the relative thaw in relations between Tehran and Washington after Mohammed Khatami’s election to Iran’s presidency in 1997 and the publication of memoirs by virtually everyone involved on the American side. However, what ultimately makes this book so enjoyable is Harris’s ability to sustain a reader’s interest through the entire affair.

He does this in part by concentrating on a handful of key personalities—President Carter, the shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr (Iran’s first president) and Sadegh Ghotbzadeh (Iran’s foreign minister). All are fascinating men, and Harris does a superb job sketching their portraits. He has an eye for the revealing detail—like the shah’s appetite for Lufthansa stewardesses (as compared to the austerity of Khomeini’s daily routine). And he displays a deft touch in evoking images, like the ”two obsidian hedges” of the ayatollah’s eyebrows.

Harris no less deftly interweaves the experiences of the hostages, the student terrorists, the officials of the Carter administration and the few Iranians who actually recognized the damage the crisis was doing to their country. He captures the vicious feuds within the Carter administration in a way that even the participants themselves would probably admire. Then there are the minor, but no less intriguing characters he vividly portrays—like Christian Bourguet and Hector Villalon, who tried to broker a deal between Washington and Tehran; Robert Armao, recommended by David Rockefeller to take care of the shah in exile; and Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s young chief of staff, who played an overlooked role in the crisis.

To be sure, Harris has paid a price for making his book so readable. Much editing was required, and some of what got left on the cutting room floor was important. Nowhere, for instance, is there mention of Gen. Robert Huyser, who was sent to Iran by President Carter immediately after the fall of the shah to persuade Iran’s armed forces either to support the liberal government he left behind, or to stage a military coup if that failed. For many Iranians, Huyser’s mission was the single most important American act of the entire imbroglio.

Similarly, the two Iranians Harris concentrates on during the latter parts of the book—Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh—were the two who understood what was best for Iran, but lost the lethal internal political battles. Although it was the ”bad guys” who ultimately triumphed, ”The Crisis” has little to say about them. That’s unfortunate. The bad guys are important not only because they still rule in Iran, but because we run the risk that other autocrats in the Middle East will be replaced by equally fanatical Islamists. That’s the problem with America’s approach to the Middle East over the past five decades; in ignoring the hardest of the problems, we have often missed what is most important. And as David Harris’s admirable book warns, what we ignore can come back to bite us—hard.