Iran: Diplomatic Naïvete and Chaos

By:Franklin T. Burroughs, Ed.D.

The shah’s physical departure from Iran in January 1979 followed his mental and psychological
departure several months earlier. He had mistakenly saved the life of the very stubborn and revengeful Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and had sent him into exile rather than have him imprisoned.

The shah was ill and tired. President Jimmy Carter had ignored his attempts to develop a
dialogue, and his efforts at establishing a constitutional monarchy proved futile. He saw the writing on the wall and, little by little, accepted his destiny to wander the world in search of a safe haven.

The mistake of saving rather than eliminating, or imprisoning rather than exiling Ayatollah
Khomeini was made in the mid-1960s and involved at least two prominent individuals who later suffered at the hands of the Islamic revolutionaries and even the Central Intelligence Agency. On one occasion, the prominent and very learned Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, along with a leading bazaari (traditional businessman), participated in a meeting called to determine the fate of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah attended the meeting, which took place in the bazaar in South Tehran. After much debate, the meeting participants decided exile would limit Mr. Khomeini’s influence in Iran while saving his life. Those participants clearly showed their naivete and an underestimation of Ayatollah Khoemini’s determination to end the monarchy and establish an Islamic Republic. The Shah, of course, ultimately lost his throne, at least partially because of the decision not to eliminate or incarcerate the ayatollah.

Shortly after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Shariatmadari suffered an attempted assassination and was relegated to house arrest with few privileges until his death. The bazaari found it necessary to emigrate to the United States. Even after his emigration, he lost a great many assets that he had maintained in Tehran when he cooperated with the Central  Intelligence Agency in the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages.

I had the pleasure of working with both Ayatollah Shariatmadari and the gentleman from the bazaar and heard the story of the meeting regarding Ayatollah Khomeini several times. Both the Ayatollah and the bazaari ultimately regretted their decision to exile rather than incarcerate or even execute Mr. Khomeini.

After the departure of the Shah and the return of Mr. Khomeini, the U.S. Government displayed an unfortunate naivete in not supporting a coup d’etat proposed to Ayatollah Shariatmadari by members of the Iranian military fewer than six weeks after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. One morning around 2:00 a.m., Ayatollah Shariatmadari and I were sitting in his bureau talking, and suddenly there was a knock on the door. When the Ayatollah answered the knock, four military personnel entered the room. The Ayatollah inquired as to the purpose of their visit, and they clearly stated that at least part of the Iranian military establishment was ready to initiate a coup. In order for the coup to be successful, however, the military establishment felt they would need the Ayatollah’s blessing and support. The Ayatollah promised to consider their request and get back to them.

Ayatollah Shariatmadari asked me if I thought the U.S. Government would cooperate with him and the military in carrying out a coup. I promised him that I would attempt to discover the U.S. government’s degree of interest in such a maneuver. The Ayatollah’s request was turned down.

Some weeks following the U.S. refusal to work with Ayatollah Shariatmadari in undertaking a coup, a representative from the British Embassy approached me to see if I would ask the Ayatollah to intervene with the Islamic Government on behalf of the embassy hostages. I had to decline the request partially because of the negative response from the U.S. Government to Ayatollah Shariatmadari’s request for help and also because of my understanding of the tension that existed between the Shariatmadari and Khomeini camps.

In early 1978, President Carter visited Iran and proclaimed Iran “an island of stability in a turbulent corner of the world.” That proclamation temporarily uplifted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s morale, but following the visit, the Shah was unable to establish a dialogue with the President. What- ever message he sent to President Carter was basically ignored, and he finally went so far as to offer to abdicate in favor of the Crown Prince and establish a constitutional monarchy. His offer met with a very naive refusal by President Carter and the U.S. Department of State.

I am personally aware of the Shah’s efforts because I attempted to serve as his personal emissary to the White House. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, I had served as a consultant in various Iranian governmental agencies and had been active in the Ministry of Court. After I accepted the position of Managing Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Tehran, the Shah would graciously grant interviews intended to focus on U.S.-Iran economic relations and his views of the Iranian economy. It was during one of those interviews that the Shah paused while answering a question and inquired whether I would serve as his envoy to Mr. Carter. I, of course, agreed and the Shah outlined his proposal for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and the free election of a prime minister.

Through the U.S. Embassy, I made an appointment with the appropriate office in the White House prior to my departure from Tehran. I arrived in Washington, D.C. two days before the appointment and heard about no change of plans until the morning of the appointment. The telephone call I received that morning informed me I would not be meeting with President Carter or his representative but would meet with the Iran Desk Officer in the State Department. When I entered the office of the Desk Officer, I was told the U.S. Government was not interested in any proposal from the Shah. It was suggested I refrain from further attempts to deliver the Shah’s message.

The day the Shah physically left Iran proved to be far from a jubilation or celebration. It was one
of the most chaotic and destructive days I have experienced. The Chamber of Commerce driver and I got caught in the so-called celebration and observed gangs of men turning over cars, setting some of them on fire and wreaking other havoc. I was lucky that the mob didn’t detect that I was an American and left the chamber car untouched.

Various theories regarding the Islamic Revolution have been proposed, including Fara Mansoor’s contention that the revolution represented an attempt by the Central Intelligence Agency to destabilize the Carter Administration and insure the election of George H. W. Bush to the presidency by supporting Ayatollah Khomeini. Whatever the actual cause and the behind the-scene tactics, the Islamic Revolution has proved to be a product of naivete and misplaced expectations.