international analysis and commentary

The Islamic Republic, 40 years on: A conversation with Gary Sick


Aspenia online: In early 1978 President Carter congratulated the Iranian government, led autocratically by Shah Reza Pahlavi, for its role as an island of stability in the region. If this was the perception of a trusted partner that prevailed in Washington, were there also dissenting voices or at least more skeptical analyses?

Gary Sick*: No one has ever claimed responsibility for that phrase, which came to represent US lack of understanding of what was happening in Iran. I think President Carter either wrote it himself or perhaps improvised it. Certainly it was an exaggeration, but it accurately reflected not only the views of Carter himself, but also most of the European allies and others. The nations of the world had placed huge bets on the Shah as a stable and responsible leader who would take Iran into the modern community of nations. Foreign companies stood to make enormous profits from the Iranian market. So everyone was inclined to view the occasional demonstrations in Iran as merely growing pains, rather than evidence of a future existential crisis.

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on his throne, holding his scepter, in 1967


AO: In hindsight, what were the major domestic factors in Iran (both systemic and linked to key individuals)  that outsiders failed to notice or appreciate in the months before the revolution?

GS: A small library of books has been written trying to identify the true causes of the Iranian Revolution. The economic distortions caused by the Shah’s frantic pace of modernization are often blamed as the ultimate source of widespread dissent. But these are the same symptoms that afflicted many countries undergoing rapid modernization, notably the so-called Asian Tigers.

Most countries were able to manage these stressful changes. So the real question is why Iran, almost uniquely among these countries experiencing rapid and disruptive change, descended into revolution. The answer, in my view, is the personality and nature of the Shah himself. He had a mystical view of the bond between king and subjects that led him to equivocate in his response to popular demonstrations. At one point late in the revolution, General Azhari (who had been appointed prime minister in the military government) remarked to the American ambassador: “The country is lost, for the king cannot make up his mind.” Significantly, Ambassador Sullivan did not reveal that conversation until he wrote his memoirs years later. It ran contrary to the dominant perspective that the Shah was a strong, decisive ruler with a firm grasp of events. That view was widely shared not only in Washington but also in most world capitals.

Until it was too late, we comforted ourselves with the illusion that the Shah would handle the problem as he had on other occasions in the past. We had no better plan, and the prospect of an Iranian state collapse was almost too painful to contemplate. So the convenient fiction that the Shah would in the end use his enormous state resources to put down the rebellion prevailed long past the point of no return. It was not an unreasonable idea, but it failed to recognize that the Shah was an equivocal leader who was dying of lymphoma.

AO: Once the Shah left Iran in mid-January 1979, how likely did the various scenarios look from Washington? Was there a sense that moderate forces would emerge with the support of the military?

GS: There were many in Washington and elsewhere who believed what Ayatollah Khomeini himself was saying and doing. He promised an enlightened government with an emphasis on human rights and democracy. His first government was composed of secular but pious individuals such as Mehdi Bazargan and Ibrahim Yazdi who believed deeply in the promise of a free and democratic Iran. Khomeini himself, as promised, initially moved from Tehran to the holy city of Qom to demonstrate that he would be the conscience but not the ruling face of the revolutionary government. But in the end, Khomeini and his followers dismissed the moderates and established a clerical government. Later, Yazdi, on his death bed, said that if he had known what the revolution would become, he never would have served it (Source).

Khomeini and the interim prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan (Wikipedia)


AO: To what extent do you think the hostage crisis (since November 1979) was directly linked to the presence on the Shah on US soil for medical treatment?

GS: The hostage crisis was triggered by the Shah’s entry into the United States for medical treatment. The students saw that as a threat of his eventual return to Iran. Khomeini, however, was correct when he termed it the “second revolution,” because he used the crisis with the “Great Satan” to rid his government of the moderates and to rally support for his Government of God. In Iran, the hostage incident is now regarded as a footnote to the revolution, marked by a day of demonstrations and speeches once a year; but in the United States the effect can scarcely be overstated. The occupation of the US embassy in Tehran was the first foreign policy crisis broadcast live on television. Images of hostile, bearded young men shouting “Death to America” were beamed nightly into every living room in the United States for more than a year. Despite the forty years that have passed, that image of Iran as a nation of fanatics who hate America is still impressed on the American psyche. It helps to explain the intensity of anti-Iran sentiment in American politics.

AO: You have described the subsequent events (in the course of 1980) related to the alleged contacts between members of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign team and the Iranian government as “tangled and murky”. How would you summarize the main points of disagreement between your view of those events and the alternative view (including the official findings of a Congressional investigation)?

GS: We know there were secret contacts between the Reagan campaign and Iran, but we do not have a reliable account of what was agreed between the two sides. We have circumstantial evidence of election tampering, but no smoking gun. I hope the full truth – whatever it may be – will come out before all the participants are dead.

AO: Forty years on, how do you see the prospects for a peaceful, mostly endogenous evolution of the Iranian regime, given the historical legacy and its current level of popular support?

GS: There will be regime change in Iran, but I suspect that it will come in its own good time from within Iran by the people of Iran, not from the outside. Present US policy is based on the premise – false, I believe – that a little push from the outside will bring down the regime. Although the Islamic Republic has lost most of its original appeal as a “Government of God”, it understands how to preserve control. The rulers of Iran today are largely the same people who successfully led the revolt against the Shah. They are unlikely to make the same mistakes he did.

Ironically, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (the 2015 JCPOA) and the imposition of “maximum pressure,” although it does harm to Iran’s economy, plays to the strength of the hardliners in Iran who have long opposed any engagement with the West and who in many cases profit directly from the smuggling trade and black market operations that inevitably accompany sanctions. Iran has chosen a strategy of the long game: abide by the terms of the JCPOA, cultivate support from Russia and China, and attempt to split Europe away from the United States, while waiting for an end to the Trump administration. This strategy of strategic patience has its costs and uncertainties, but it is regarded in Tehran as preferable to a confrontation policy that might lead to war.

A pro-government rally in Mashhad, in January 2018


AO: Today’s Iran seems to behave on the basis of calculated geopolitical ambition (especially in its neighborhood), not just self-preservation and fear of outside interference. If we look at foreign policy, how much do you think is negotiable from Tehran’s perspective?

GS: President Trump has always insisted that his Iran policy is intended to drive Iran back to the negotiating table, where he is confident that he can get a better deal than Obama, specifically on the issues of Syria, Hezbollah and ballistic missiles, in addition to the nuclear case. At least for now, Iran has decided that it will not go back to the negotiating table under duress. So Trump may not have an opportunity to test his negotiating skills.

It is worth noting, however, that John Bolton and Michael Pompeo, Trump’s principal advisers on foreign policy, have been very explicit in their comments before taking office that their objective is not negotiation but the overthrow of the Islamic regime in Tehran. Pompeo’s official demands of Iran as the price of negotiation are in fact a definition of regime change. Also, when Pompeo was director of the CIA, he turned the Iran file over to a specialist on covert action; and when he got to the State Department he created an Iran Action Group to coordinate all elements of an anti-Iran policy throughout the U.S. government. The Trump administration’s alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE is founded on a mutual hatred of Iran. In the past six months there has been an uptick in bombings by dissident Arab and Sunni groups in the south of Iran, and the US government is quite openly encouraging opposition forces in Iran.

There seem to be two parallel policy tracks being pursued in Washington. The President himself seems genuinely to believe that the object of the game is negotiation. His advisers, however, appear to be pursuing a policy of regime change. Both Bolton and Pompeo, before assuming their present positions, openly expressed themselves in favor of bombing Iran. A covert action campaign to overthrow the present government in Tehran could indeed result in such an outcome.

That, it seems to me, is the cardinal issue that should concern all of us.



*Gary Sick, former advisor to presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, is now executive director of Gulf/2000, an international research and documentation project on political, economic, and security issues in the Persian Gulf.