H-Diplo Roundtable XIX, 25 on The Carter Administration and the Fall of Iran’s Pahlavi Dynasty: US-Iran Relations on the Brink of the 1979 Revolution

George Fujii Discussion



Roundtable Review
Volume XIX, No. 25 (2018)
12 March 2018

Roundtable Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Roundtable and Web Production Editor: George Fujii
Introduction by James Goode

Javier Gil Guerrero. The Carter Administration and the Fall of Iran’s Pahlavi Dynasty: US-Iran Relations on the Brink of the 1979 Revolution. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-137-59871-4 (hardcover, $105.00).

URL: http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XIX-25


© 2018 The Authors.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Reading these four scholarly reviews of Javier Gil Guerrero’s recent study, I am mindful of the continuing question: Did Carter administration policy toward Iran really matter?

In spite of all the documents that have become available and all the memoirs, monographs, and articles that have appeared over the past almost forty years regarding the fall of the Pahlavi regime and the success of the Islamic Revolution, scholars still disagree fundamentally in their interpretations of that critical (on this at least they agree) period. These reviewers continue the debate. They conclude that the book is well written and a good read, but, beyond that, their opinions differ.

The most in-depth criticism comes from Barbara Zanchetta, who compares the Guerrero volume to her own recent study. Although she agrees that Guerrero has written a balanced account, she also believes he has not added much to what we already know. “It remains descriptive without any original interpretative angles.” She queries his characterization of National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski as “lacking charm…” More importantly, she challenges the notion that President Jimmy Carter pressed the Shah over the human rights issue. Rather, she writes, he asserted that “the security relationship with Iran took precedence over the concern on human rights.” Finally, she raises doubts about one of “the author’s central aims,” that is, trying to understand the “impact that Carter’s policies had during the Iranian Revolution.” Zanchetta believes that the United States and President Carter “were not actors in the process.” The revolution was largely “an internal Iranian affair.” She is certainly not the first scholar to make that argument.

In fact, Christian Emery’s review mirrors this and other of Zanchetta’s observations. Although he does not go as far in removing the Americans from the revolutionary process in Iran, he does conclude that Guerrero places too much weight on U.S. policy and that this is a “Western-centric approach.” “The shah lost the confidence of the Iranian people,” and the United States contributed little to that development. He agrees also that the book provides scant evidence that Carter brought significant pressure on the Shah in the interest of human rights. Emery questions the author’s use of solely U.S. primary sources to fathom the shah’s thinking. What exactly, he wonders, have recently released documents added to our understanding of U.S. policy during the revolution?

Matthew Shannon references the so-called Republican and Democratic narratives, which purport to interpret the coming of the Iranian Revolution—both assuming an important American contribution to that event. Shannon draws attention to the historiography on the subject and to specific works pursuing political motives—both right and left--in the post-Cold War period. Although he does not raise here any question about the significance or otherwise of U.S. policy, he does agree with Emery and Zanchetta that the administration did not push the Shah on human rights. In fact, if human rights had any impact on the weakening of the Shah’s regime, it was because of the ruler’s—and his opponents— misperception of what Washington intended. Shannon cites the need to consider human rights more broadly as a transnational movement composed most significantly of “non-state actors and organizations.” This would add another layer to revolutionary complexities.

Finally, Blake W. Jones presents the most complimentary review of the Guerrero study, praising this work as a “detailed narrative of events that is sorely missing in the literature.” He sees him as combining the traditional Democratic and Republican narratives, in which the Nixon-Ford punch to the Shah is followed by the Carter knock-out. Unlike the other reviewers, Jones cites Guerrero’s attention to internal “events that galvanized the revolution.” He praises Guerrero for “telling the Iranian side of the story,” and doing this by making effective use of memoirs and diaries from members of the Shah’s court. For Emery and Zanchetta, these same sources raise a red flag.[1]

Although Guerrero’s detailed narrative ends with the success of the revolution in early 1979, he briefly mentions the Hostage Crisis, a time when “a deep sense of bitterness against Iran took root among Americans” (193). This bitterness continues today. Thus, what he characterizes as the “End of an Era” (chapter 10) might more appropriately be viewed as the beginning of another; and this, sadly, has no end in sight.



Javier Gil Guerrero received a Ph.D. in History from the University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain and is Associate Professor Universidad Francisco de Vitoria (Department of International Relations), Madrid, Spain. In addition to The Carter Administration & the Fall of Iran’s Pahlavi Dynasty: US-Iran Relations on the Brink of the 1979 Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), Guerrero has published a number of article including “Propaganda Broadcasts and Cold War Politics: The Carter Administration’s Outreach to Islam,” Journal of Cold War Studies 19:1 (2017): 4-37. He is currently researching on the Persian Gulf policy of the Reagan Administration during the period 1981-1984.

James Goode is professor of history at Grand Valley State University. He has written several books on U.S.-Iran relations, including The United States and Iran, 1946-51: Diplomacy of Neglect (1989), The US and Iran: In the Shadow of Musaddiq (1997) and Negotiating for the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism and Diplomacy in the Middle East,1919-1941 (2007). He is currently completing a study of the Turkish Arms Embargo, 1974-1978.

Christian Emery is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Plymouth. He is the author of US Foreign Policy and the Iranian Revolution (Palgrave, 2013) and several academic articles and book chapters on U.S.-Iranian relations. He completed his Ph.D. at Birmingham University and was a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Blake W. Jones is an Assistant Professor of History and Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Ohio Valley University in Vienna, WV. He completed his Ph.D. from Arizona State University and has written about the foreign policy of the Carter administration in Diplomatic History and The Companion to Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. His research focuses on role of religion in Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, especially in areas that experienced conflict driven by religious nationalism.

Matthew Shannon is an Assistant Professor of History at Emory & Henry College. His first book, Losing Hearts and Minds? American-Iranian Relations and International Education during the Cold War, is under contract with Cornell University Press and is forthcoming in 2017. His original research has also been published in Diplomatic History, International History Review, and The Sixties. He is currently researching and writing a second book that explores the ways in which American understandings of Iran changed during the decades surrounding the Iranian Revolution.

Barbara Zanchetta is Lecturer in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the Department of War Studies of King’s College London. She is the author of The Transformation of American International Power in the 1970s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) and the co-author of Transatlantic Relations since 1945 (London: Routledge, 2012).


The fall of the Pahlavi regime in 1979 was a major blow for America’s Cold-war strategy and set in motion one of the most enduring confrontations in contemporary international relations. In his new book, Javier Gill Guerrero reopens the debate on whether the Carter administration should shoulder some of the blame for this calamity. In a nutshell, Guerrero suggests that it should shoulder a lot. Over 10 chronologically organised chapters, Guerrero provides a meticulously documented account of U.S. policy making. It concludes that Washington’s reaction to the Iranian revolution suffered from a destructive combination of high-minded moralism and indecision. Guerrero’s criticisms mirror those of the so-called Cold War realists, most notably Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who lambasted what they saw as President Jimmy Carter’s misguided obsession with the Shah’s human rights record. As Guerrero notes, “the implicit conclusion of this narrative is that both President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford would never have allowed mistrust to cloud relations between Washington and Tehran and would have decisively backed the Shah against revolutionary forces, pre-empting his ousting and the chaos that ensued” (xvii).

This book joins an established body of scholarship that is broadly critical of U.S. decision-making during the Iranian revolution. Guerrero does a good job of describing the dominant personalities in the Carter administration. The story is familiar and the author takes the reader through the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment and traces the origins of the well-known tension between National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s ‘Cold War Internationalists’ and President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s ‘Post-Cold War Internationalists’ (6-7). Guerrero charts the Shah’s growing unease with Carter, whom he blames for insisting that the Shah placate an opposition that seemed to grow bolder after every concession. The book describes how U.S. officials, particularly in the State Department, never really thought that the Shah’s rule was under serious threat and saw continuing liberalisation as the best way to overcome what opposition he faced. Unable to provide consistent direction to the Shah, Carter praised him as an ‘island of stability’ but, when opposition to his rule surged, he delayed making the decision to back him to the hilt or look for other options. As Guerrero puts it: “In the face of the Shah and Carter’s paralysis, the Iranian opposition snowballed, growing steadily larger and more radical” (xxiii).

By chapter eight, the book vividly describes the reports from U.S. diplomats amidst chaotic and violent scenes in Iranian cities. By chapter nine, U.S. Iran policy is presented as being in full panic mode, with Carter’s senior advisors weighing up two competing options: a reforming government of national unity, or a full throttled military coup. In truth, neither Carter nor the Shah ever considered the second option (much to Brzezinski’s chagrin) and chapter ten shows U.S. policymakers trying to reconcile themselves to the fact that the Shah was finished. The book concludes by describing how Carter failed to either protect the Bakhtiar government or establish links with Ayatollah Khomeini, the unassailable leader of the revolutionary movement. The epilogue briefly reflects on the legacy of the collapse of U.S.-Iranian relations but this book is fundamentally an analysis of the fall of the Pahlavi regime.

It is worth summarising the counter-narrative to Guerrero’s critique. It holds that the damage had been done under Nixon and Ford.[2] Under the Nixon Doctrine, the Shah was given carte blanche to spend what he liked on U.S. arms. The problem was that this did not appear to result in any extra leverage over his domestic policies or, most critically, his oil policies. Infuriated by the Shah’s determination to maintain high oil prices at a time when high inflation was pushing the U.S. economy into recession, Ford colluded with the Saudis to boost production, driving down prices and crashing the Iranian economy.[3] Ford thus unwittingly created a perfect storm of declining living standards and political instability that created a fertile ground for revolutionary politics. The underlying assumption to this narrative is that the Shah was his own man and the revolution was not within America’s grasp to either prevent or shape. Carter thus inherited a flawed policy that was structurally entrenched.

Whilst Guerrero clearly would disagree with this line, he never really takes these arguments on. Nevertheless, this book deserves considerable praise for the unrivalled depth of its sourcing from U.S. declassified documents. Scholars of U.S. foreign policy and U.S. policy in Iran will benefit from its detailed description of the perceptions and interactions that informed the Carter administration’s decision-making. That said, the book’s strength is in its descriptive detail, not in its presentation of an original or revisionist argument. The book is a tad descriptive and the line of argument can get lost within the granular description of various reports and policy meetings. Also absent is any deep consideration of what should have been done differently or the likely consequences of alternative courses actions. There seems to be an implicit criticism of Carter’s refusal to countenance a military coup or harsh crackdown (170) but it is never really stated clearly whether this is what should have been done or, if so, when. It is deeply unfair to compare Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Bashar al-Assad in Syria or a Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, yet the tragedies in Syria and Libya do provide a horrific lesson about what can happen when dictators try to meet protest with overwhelming force. As such, there is something troubling about criticising Carter’s preference for the Shah to pursue democratic reform and not simply smash the opposition. Given that Guerrero acknowledges a widespread mode of thought in Iran that blamed the U.S. for whatever course of action the Shah took, the book should have discussed the long-term consequences for U.S. interests in the event that the Shah had ceased trying to appease his critics and double down on authoritarianism and violent suppression of dissent.

In my opinion, the book therefore overstates its case and places too much weight on U.S. policy for the Iranian revolution. Guerrero does not really explain why the majority of Iranian people lost faith in the Shah and were willing to invest their hopes for a better future in Khomeini. The idea that revolutions ultimately succeed or fail because of what advice or material support Americans offer is a rather Western-centric approach to explaining revolutionary moments. The Shah lost the confidence of the Iranian people and failed to smash the opposition due to a variety of factors aside from doubts over American support, primarily his failing health and his concern that if he did not offer some concessions to the opposition his son would inherit a repressive state that could not endure in the long term. A severe economic crisis limited his ability to improve living standings or give the middle classes a stake in supporting his regime. Reforms in the judiciary and reductions in the use of torture may have been as much due to pressures from world opinion, and particularly organisations such as Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, as to pressure from the United States.

Furthermore, the book is not exactly bristling with evidence that Carter actually brought serious pressure on the Shah. Disapproval, perhaps, but he had only symbolically trimmed arms sales, barely mentioned human rights in his bilateral meetings with the Shah, and never publically rebuked him. When the Iranian people observed an exchange of visits between Carter and the Shah, but little in the way of liberalising policies, it seems they not unreasonably concluded that little real pressure was being put on the Shah to reform. Indeed, Guerrero documents the disappointment of many leading opposition figures. As 1977 moved into 1978, this strengthened the position of those arguing that the opposition’s only recourse was to ramp up anti-government violence. For these reasons, one could equally argue that Carter’s failure to criticise the Shah inadvertently encouraged an upsurge in opposition violence, which was inevitably met with increasing state-repression.

Guerrero relies heavily on the memoirs of leading political figures in the Pahlavi regime for the Iranian perspective on the causes of the revolution.[4] He uses them as evidence for his claim that Carter’s distaste for the Shah’s human rights record ultimately undermined the Shah’s confidence. The cynical might point out that blaming Carter’s attempt to encourage democratic reform happens to justify the continued existence of a monarchy that conferred enormous privilege largely by virtue of its members’ birth or political connections.

Another problematic tendency is to read the Shah’s thinking through the prism of U.S. primary sources. At times his actions are reported to be concessions to Carter or the result of U.S. pressure, but with the Iranian side of the narrative absent, the evidence is simply the interpretation of the Shah’s actions by U.S. diplomats. If one argues that U.S. policy makers were not reading the Iranian situation correctly, as Guerrero seems to, it is difficult to accept that new U.S. documents are the best sources for revealing the impact of U.S. policy on Iranian politics.

On a related note, it would have been useful for Guerrero to have summarised exactly how these newly available documents change our understanding of U.S. policy during this period. Some critical episodes in the book, like the Huyser mission, are still based primarily on memoires that are over thirty years old. The description of other parts of the story, for example the clandestine meetings with members of the Shah’s opposition, seemed fresher. One also wonders why the author only managed one interview when many central figures are still available to researchers.

To conclude, Guerrero deserves enormous credit for the quality of his writing and the book’s value as a comprehensively documented account of U.S. policy during the Iranian revolution. The book definitely adds to our understanding of U.S. thinking, and will help to convince those who have long felt that Carter’s policy was naïve and inconsistent, but I am not quite convinced that it forces us to radically rethink our understanding of what led to the fall of the Pahlavi regime.


Iran continues to be a cause of significant consternation in American politics and foreign policy debates. The 2015 Iranian nuclear arms agreement provided fodder for President Donald Trump to criticize former President Barack Obama and the Democrats during the 2016 presidential election. Trump declared that the agreement was a bad deal and has claimed that Iran is violating its terms. While Trump and others in his administration have condemned the deal, the 2015 agreement seemed like a welcome thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations, which have ranged from nonexistent at worst to strained at best since the fall of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. However, prior to 1979, the United States and Iran enjoyed a much closer relationship whereby the Shah’s regime was an important Cold War ally against potential Soviet intervention in the Middle East and a supplier of oil to Israel, the other major American ally in the region.

Javier Gil Guerrero seeks to explore the impact of U.S. foreign policy under President Jimmy Carter on the final years of the Shah’s regime. His book is unique in its intensive focus on U.S.-Iranian relations from the beginning of Carter’s administration to the announcement of American recognition of the new revolutionary government on February 16, 1979. While many other scholars have covered some of the same ground, they have largely done so as part of larger works on Carter administration foreign policy or examinations of U.S.-Iranian relations.[5] Others have examined this period as a prelude to the Iranian hostage crisis, an event that captivated the attention of the American public and the energy of Carter and his staff.[6] The Carter Administration & the Fall of Iran’s Pahlavi Dynasty is an attempt to examine this critical period in depth and on its own terms.

Guerrero frames his work around competing historiographical interpretations of the period that he classifies as Republican and Democratic narratives. According to the more traditional Republican narrative, Carter is responsible for the demise of the Shah because of his vacillation and unwillingness to support a crackdown that could have continued to prop up one of America’s most important allies in the Middle East. The alternative Democratic narrative attributes the collapse of the Shah’s regime to the policies of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford years that fostered economic crisis in Iran due to massive arms purchases from the U.S. and secret American collaboration with Saudi Arabia to increase production and lower world oil prices (the principal source of Iranian revenue for buying expensive American military hardware). Thus, according to these revisionists, Carter could not have done much to prevent the revolutionary outcome in Iran.[7]

Rather than identifying with either the traditional Republican or alternative Democratic narrative, Guerrero combines insights from both interpretations. He contends that “If Ford’s dealings with Saudi authorities on oil exports severely compromised the Shah’s stance, Carter’s actions finished the job…Only by taking into account the combination of both of these slights can the revolutionary process be satisfactorily explained” (xxi).

The book begins by assessing the broader contours of American foreign policy during the Carter administration such as the focus on human rights and the limits of American power. This chapter also describes the major players of Carter’s foreign policy team including Vice President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, CIA Director Stansfield Turner, and UN Ambassador Andrew Young. Although some of the aforementioned players are not prominently featured throughout the rest of the book, Guerrero effectively illustrates some of the competing agendas and conflicts among the administration’s senior foreign policy officials, especially the feud between Brzezinski’s National Security Council and Vance’s State Department.

After setting the American context, Guerrero turns his attention to detailing the long-term circumstances in Iran that ultimately led to the success of the revolution. For instance, the Shah’s White Revolution sought to modernize Iran through economic reforms, such as land redistribution, and social changes, such as the expansion of women’s rights. However, these reform measures created unmet expectations among ordinary Iranians when most of the extraordinary oil revenues of the early 1970s were spent on sophisticated U.S. military hardware and lavish celebrations involving the royal family. Upon Carter’s election as president, the Shah was very apprehensive due to the Democratic candidate’s statements about human rights and limiting arms sales, the two issues that form the primary focus of the next chapter on early interactions between the Carter administration and the Shah’s regime. The Shah felt concerned and insulted by Carter’s criticism of the human rights abuses of his government and the President’s hesitance to continue the Nixon-Ford pace of arms sales to Iran.

The tension between Carter and the Shah was somewhat alleviated by the Shah’s November 1977 state visit to the United States, an event most remembered for the tear gas being used to disperse anti-Shah protesters drifting over to the White House lawn and causing the American and Iranian dignitaries to do their best to restrain their tears. Guerrero then explains how Carter’s quick reciprocal visit to Tehran on New Year’s Eve was more a product of scheduling convenience rather than any genuine affection for the Shah. However, Carter’s hyperbolic New Year’s Eve toast to the Shah’s regime left a deep positive impression on the Iranian monarch, one that may have contributed to his own indecisiveness during his struggle with handling revolutionary protests.

Guerrero then profiles Aytaollah Ruhollah Khomeini, his ideology, and the events that galvanized the revolution, most notably the publication of an article accusing Khomeini of being an agent of Communism and Western imperialism and the state-sanctioned violence against protesters. He notes several structural factors that hindered U.S. appreciation for the new troubling developments in Iran: a summer leave for Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan, the preoccupation of Carter and his senior staff with the negotiations of the Camp David Accords, and the rotation of personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the Iran desk at the State Department. Moreover, he echoes the concerns of many post-mortems on the fall of the Shah by pointing out how U.S. intelligence services relied on reports from Sāzemān-e Ettelā'āt va Amniyat-e Keshvar (SAVAK), the Shah’s secret police, and had little contact with members of the Iranian opposition. With the American long-term preoccupation of anticommunism and securing oil supplies, the U.S. was caught off guard by the success of the opposition and the radical nature of Khomeini’s theories on Islamic government.

In the remaining three chapters, Guerrero provides a blow-by-blow account of how the Carter administration responded to the growing unrest in Iran from mid-October 1978 to the revolution’s ultimate triumph in February 1979. One constant during this period is that the Shah refused to launch a crackdown on the dissidents unless he received explicit approval from Carter. The Shah had instituted a series of liberalization measures, motivated by a mixture of hoping to maintain friendly relations with Carter and his own sense of enlightened despotism, but these reforms only convinced the opposition to press for more concessions. Guerrero argues that the Shah did not want to roll back the liberalization program that he instituted to gain Carter’s trust, so he would not authorize repressive measures without Carter’s approval or at least his willingness to share the blame if a crackdown did not work. As the situation continued to deteriorate, Carter and his team tried to develop moderate alternatives to replace the Shah such as a reconciliation government that would include opposition members or a Regency Council that would develop a new form of government. After Khomeini directed opposition leaders to reject any offer of compromise, the situation grew more desperate and the time for a middle-of-the-road solution passed, so Brzezinski urged that Carter approve a military takeover in Iran that would protect U.S. interests in the region. Ambassador Sullivan, Secretary Vance, and other State Department officials stridently opposed Brzezinski’s military suggestion while Carter held out hope that the new Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, would succeed in maintaining order.

In shaping his narrative, Guerrero uses a wide variety of sources, including the declassified papers of the Digital National Security Archive, the shredded documents reassembled by Iranian militants who captured the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, National Security Council files from the Carter Presidential Library, and oral history interviews conducted by the author and the Harvard Iranian Oral History Project. One of the most significant strengths of the book is the emphasis on telling the Iranian side of the story rather than just what was going on at the White House or Foggy Bottom or the American Embassy in Tehran. As one can imagine, access to Iranian archival material is extremely difficult to achieve, but Guerrero effectively incorporates published memoirs and diaries of the Shah, members of the royal court, and military leaders to demonstrate how Iranian officials perceived and reacted to U.S. policies and decision making.[8] For example, the Shah’s desire to maintain a close relationship with Carter drove his unwillingness to use repression as his regime was crumbling and while he received implicit encouragement for such action from Brzezinski.

Guerrero concludes with an epilogue, covering the history of U.S.-Iranian relations in ten pages, a whirlwind tour from the hostage crisis to the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement. However, it likely would have been more effective to return to the interpretive framework of the introduction and to have surveyed the significance of the all the evidence presented in the preceding chapters. The Republican and Democratic interpretations described by Guerrero in the introduction provide an interesting framework to begin the study, but one that would have been more powerful had the book focused on how certain episode of his narrative led him to synthesize the competing perspectives. Ultimately, The Carter Administration & the Fall of Iran’s Pahlavi Dynasty provides a detailed narrative of events that is sorely missing in the literature and will be tremendously useful for scholars seeking to understand the event that fundamentally reshaped U.S.-Iranian relations and how its effects continue to reverberate in the present.


Javier Gil Guerrero is the author of one of the most recent histories of U.S. decision-making during the Iranian Revolution. Guerrero focuses on the Jimmy Carter administration’s policy response to Iran ‘on the brink of the 1979 revolution.’ Guerrero’s first five chapters set the stage for the later, more dramatic events of 1978 and 1979. Chapters 1, 2, and 5 look at President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy team and introduce readers to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Chapters 3 and 5 analyze two episodes that defined Carter’s first year in office: the debate in Washington over arms sales and human rights, and the respective visits that the Shah and Carter made to Washington and Tehran in late 1977. The next two years unfold in the second half of the book amid a revolutionary tide that washed away Imperial Iran and brought about the Islamic Republic.

Guerrero frames his argument by engaging with a theme that has received considerable attention recently in online forums, namely narrative construction in U.S.-Iran relations.[9] The author identifies two American narratives that he calls “republican” and “democratic” (xx).[10] To Republicans, Carter’s talk of human rights created mistrust between the White House and the Shah for the first time since John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Meanwhile, Carter’s detachment from his administration’s Iran policy contributed to American inaction and the Shah’s indecisiveness. Carter inherited a sturdy ship, so this yarn suggests, and he drove it into an iceberg. This narrative is problematic, not the least because it offers a short-sighted view of a much deeper, complicated binational relationship. To Democrats, President Richard Nixon’s ‘blank check’ and Gerald Ford’s oil policies both hastened the Shah’s downfall and ensured the United States a special place in Iran’s revolutionary discourse. This narrative assumes that Carter inherited a sinking ship; but it also remains fixated on the Shah’s downfall and less focused on the Carter team’s attempt to manage the crisis (xviii-xx). Guerrero has a nuanced understanding of these narratives, and his thesis is that a combination of “Ford’s economic slight” and “Carter’s political slight” explains the “revolutionary process” (xxi). He thus combines the “republican” and “democratic” narratives into one.

Guerrero does a fine job explaining how various government stakeholders and subsequent pundits marshalled these narratives – particularly the Republican one – to explain the policy failure of the revolutionary years and challenge the “post-cold war internationalism” (6) of American liberals in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. To make his case, the author presents evidence to demonstrate that various government officials and agencies criticized Carter because he “gave up Iran without firing a shot” (189). Thankfully he did not, but Guerrero skillfully shows how these commentaries remain part of the current discussion on Iran and Democratic foreign policies: “Some recent books on Carter’s role in the Iranian Revolution have been written with an eye on the present and used as a weapon against successive democratic administrations” (xxv). Unfortunately, the author does not analyze these books, whose titles reference Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama and contain phrases such as “world chaos,” “I accuse,” and “to hell in a handbasket” (199n. 18).[11]

Guerrero demonstrates convincingly how these narratives originated at the time and why they continue to be relevant, but he missed an opportunity to root his work more firmly in what is now a four-decades-old body of post-revolutionary literature on U.S.-Iran relations. One book that comes immediately to mind is Michael Ledeen’s Debacle. While the book has little value to historians, it shows how individuals connected to President Ronald Reagan’s national security team interpreted their Democratic predecessor’s handling of the revolution.[12] One could look to the more nuanced work of James Bill and Richard Cottam for examples of the Democratic narrative.[13] And while Guerrero hints at the equal if not greater importance of Iranian narratives (xxii), he does not consider books like Ali Ansari’s The Politics of Nationalism in Iran to assess how American and Iranian narratives intersected, diverged, and produced competing interpretations of the revolution.[14] Still, Guerrero’s evidence conforms to his thesis about the Ford-Carter slights.

Yet if human rights was the essence of the “political slight,” it had less to do with any actual push from the administration–despite the appointment of Patricia Derian as human rights chief and the presence of a group of young, critical State Department officials (32-36). Rather, it had more to do with the Shah’s perception of Carter and the Democrats in Washington more generally. “Many Iranians,” Guerrero quotes Iran Country Director Charles Naas in saying, “saw the Carter human rights policy…as a signal that we were weakening in our support of the Shah. And that was absolutely not the purpose, but the Iranians read it that way” (35). Moreover, if one attributes the revolution in part to human rights, the frame has to move more extensively outside of the policy realm; that frame would include a systematic investigation of the congressional concerns about human rights in Iran before Carter’s election (32-33) and moving beyond mere recognition that the most consequential rights activists were non-state actors and organizations (33-34). The human rights network was transnational, rooted in the cosmopolitanism of Washington, Paris, Tehran, and everywhere between. Many of the anchors of that network went on to assume positions of leadership in Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s provisional government in 1979. Here one sees a sharp divergence between Guerrero’s traditional diplomatic approach and other methodological perspectives rooted in transnationalism and the history of America and the World.

In the second half of the book, Guerrero draws upon a range of U.S. sources to present the series of mistakes that Carter and company made during the Shah’s final months in power. The intelligence agencies failed to grasp the severity of the situation, with the CIA reporting in August 1978 that Iran was not “in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation” (93) and the Defense Intelligence Agency predicting the following month that that the Shah would remain in power well into the 1980s (108). Around the same time in Tehran, Ambassador William Sullivan did not notice “any acceleration in the pace of political activity or any accentuation in the campaign of dissidence and disorder” (96), only to reverse course in November 1978 and urge a White House in disbelief to begin “thinking the unthinkable” (139). In Washington, Guerrero documents National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s routine manipulation of the bureaucratic process (142, 147) and Carter’s lack of interest in Iran before the moment of crisis was upon him (99, 104).

Taken alongside Andrew Scott Cooper’s controversial analysis of the Pahlavi dynasty’s “fall from heaven” and Christian Emery’s monograph on the “engagement” of 1979, Guerrero’s work is an important contribution to the new generation of scholarship on the Iranian Revolution that offers archive-based explanations for a revolution of local, regional, and international significance.[15]


I would like to thank H-Diplo for giving me a chance to review Javier Gil Guerrero’s interesting book. The fall of the Shah’s rule in Iran is a crucial turning point for both the evolution of regional events and of American foreign policy. The Carter administration’s response and reaction to the Iranian revolution remains controversial due to the inherent complexity of the events and, also, because of the importance of the U.S. interests at stake. Guerrero’s book is thus a welcome addition to the growing literature on this crucial topic. The author sets for himself a rather ambitious goal in the introduction, when he asserts that this “book is an attempt to provide … comprehensive, nonpartisan and systematic research on the impact that Carter’s policies had during the Iranian Revolution in light of recently available archival resources” (xxv).

The book is structured both thematically and chronologically, with the first chapter introducing the Carter administration’s foreign policy and the second outlining the Shah’s rule before and until 1977. The rest of the chapters reflect the chronological evolution of events, from the beginning of the Carter administration to the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 marking, as Guerrero eloquently titles the last chapter, the “end of an era”–i.e. the end of America’s close relationship with Iran. The book is well structured and the narrative flows smoothly.

The key strength of this book–and in this respect the author is successful in the task he set for himself–is, indeed, its effort at non-partisanship. Accounts of Carter’s involvement or non involvement in Iran in the critical years and months leading to the revolution have tended to fall into the ‘blame trap,’ mentioned by Guerrero in his introduction, depending on which political camp one tends to side with. Fortunately for him, and for readers interested in history rather than political distortions of history, Guerrero distances himself from this approach and provides a balanced account of these complex events.

The first chapter–“Between Idealism and Realism: Carter’s Foreign Policy”–provides a relatively standard account of the administration’s tensions, exemplified by the competing visions of National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. It also underlines President Jimmy Carter’s intention to distance himself from the Nixon and Kissinger era, an argument that is again in line with most accounts on the Carter era. While the narrative is detailed and interesting, it does not add much new information to existing books on the Carter administration. There are, also, a few slightly ambiguous claims made, which seem not to be grounded on scholarly sources–i.e. that Brzezinski, unlike Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “lacked charm and did not have a relaxing and humorous way of appearing before the public and the media.” (6) I wonder what the author means here, as Kissinger is not usually portrayed as ‘relaxed’ in his interactions with the public and media, and I would, on the basis of my personal acquaintance, dispute this description of Brzezinski’s lack of charm. Also, I wonder what Guerrero means when he defines Averell Harriman as the then “head of America’s foreign policy establishment.” (12). While, obviously, Harriman was an influential voice, he did not have an official role and can hardly be called the “head” of an “establishment.”

Chapter 2–on the Shah and Iran up until 1977–nicely sets the background on the leadup to the revolution by focusing on developments in Iran at the beginning of the Carter administration. The author rightly points out how the “United States failed to grasp the extent of Iran’s economic problems and the discontent among the population.” (24). These claims are substantiated by numerous archival documents, , though the author only cites a portion of those available. Guerrero also underlines how Carter was not the Shah’s preferred presidential candidate, also a well-known fact, and that the Iranian ruler worried about Carter’s insistence on human rights.

However, I disagree with Guerrero’s argument when he claims that Carter “did nothing” to reassure Iranian concerns (27) and, most importantly, with his account of Vance’s May 1977 visit to Tehran (27-28). While the author repeatedly underlines Carter’s insistence on human rights and his intention to break from the past on arms sales, other scholars and the ample evidence consulted for my book[16] point to the exact opposite. Instead of pressing Iran on its poor human rights record, American officials chose to emphasize the tentatively more liberal path undertaken by the Shah in the months preceding Carter’s inauguration. These encouraging–though very limited–signs allegedly justified Carter’s choice not to press on human rights issues. In reality, as pointed out by the President’s chief adviser on Iran, Gary Sick, more tangible concerns dictated the U.S. policy line: “the overriding consideration for US policy was to ensure that the cooperative relationship that had been developed over nearly four decades would be preserved and that Iran would remain a strong, reliable and friendly ally in the vital region of the Persian Gulf. The importance of the security relationship was paramount–even if that relationship should require some accommodation in the areas of human rights or arms limitation.”[17] Consequently, and contrary to what Guerrero asserts, during his first year in office, President Carter signaled his intention of maintaining a tight relationship with the Shah. This line was conveyed by Secretary Vance during his May 1977 visit to Tehran, during which the “strong desire to continue very close ties” with Iran was emphasized. And, specifically, Vance stated that the President’s “new policy of restraint” designed to reduce arms transfers was a long-term objective and was not designed against any one country.[18]

The crux of the problematic American-Iranian relationship–which rotated around the Shah’s demands for arms sales and American restraint in supplying them–is dealt with in Chapter 3. The author again places great emphasis on Carter’s human rights policies, and how this element created tension with the shah thus, supposingly, inducing greater U.S. restraint compared to the past. I would again point to the evidence consulted in my book to assert the opposite: the security relationship with Iran took precedence over the concerns on human rights, leading Carter to embrace more continuity than change in his dealings with the Shah.

Interestingly, and paradoxically, Guerrero himself concludes the chapter by acknowledging that ultimately the sale of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircrafts was approved (and that the Iranian ruler obtained what he wanted, yet again). In fact, 1977 was the biggest year in U.S.-Iran arms sales (47). While it is hardly disputable that the Shah may have had a tighter and more comfortable relationship with Nixon and Kissinger, the pattern of having to contain Iranian demands to match American interests was by no means characteristic only of the incoming Carter administration. Even during the first years of the Nixon administration, the Shah’s demands had created tensions within the U.S. political and military establishment, leading to restraint in some aspects.[19] Carter’s human rights policies, therefore, did not have as big an impact on the American-Iranian relationship as Guerrero seems to suggest.

In a slightly confusing manner, Guerrero shifts away from his previous insistence on the importance of human rights in Chapter 4, which ends with Carter’s 1977 visit to Tehran. In his reconstruction of this visit, Guerrero rightly underlines that the President expressed unequivocal support for the Iranian ruler. He justifies Carter’s stance by referring to the President’s own recollection in his memoirs, in which he claims that his commitment to human rights had been stressed during the Shah’s visit to the United States, which had taken place only a month before. It is rather obvious, however, that the President would place emphasis on this element in his memoirs. This claim is not validated by another other source. And, in any case, the crucial question of why President Carter so openly endorsed the shah on New Year’s Eve of 1977 remains unanswered in Guerrero’s narrative.

Chapters 5 – on Khomeini and on U.S. failure to understand the importance and implications of his rise to influence–6–on Iran’s growing unrest–and 7–on the unfolding of the revolution–are meticulous and detailed, yet very readable. Here Guerrero rightly places great emphasis on America’s inability to understand the phenomenon that became the Iranian revolution. While his account is accurate and interesting, it does not add any particularly new insights. It remains descriptive, without any original interpretative angles.

Chapters 8 and 9 focus on the second half of 1978, and on the heated internal debates taking place in the United States, once the awareness of the seriousness of the instability in Iran had finally reached the highest levels of the administration. Guerrero highlights the divisions and opposing views that hampered an effective American line of action thoroughout the crisis. Despite the fact that some of the boldest claims made rely on memoirs[20]–in general, I found a slight over-reliance on this type of source–these chapters, because of their level of detail, make an important contribution to literature on this topic.

The concluding chapter narrates the departure of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in early 1979. Guerrero is right in underlining that the United States remained hesitant and ambiguous, ultimately neither giving the green light to support a coup to reinstate the Shah, nor sending a strong signal of acceptance of the revolution.

Overall, the book’s key strenghs are its effort at objectivity and its detailed coverage of complex events. Without diminishing these strengths, however, I conclude by pointing to three main shortcomings. First, while in a purely chronological sense the choice of ending the book with the departure of the Shah may have been logical, the narrative ends abruptly, leaving the reader to question such a choice. The first embassy takeover in February 1979 is cited, but the link to the later takeover and consequent hostage crisis is only mentioned in the epilogue. Here the author does state that by November 1979 the moderate elements of the revolution had been purged, but the differences between the two episodes and their implications deserved more ample coverage, especially due to the impact, both symbolic and substantial, of the hostage crisis in determing the ‘end of an era.’ Moreover, the epilogue tries to cover too much ground, thus becoming too simplistic and general.

Second, and from my perspective, most importantly, the book does not give enough importance to the security dimensions of America’s relationship with Iran. The Carter administration inherited a tight alliance solidly grounded on the Shah’s pro-Western credentials. This alliance was based on the common objective of containing the expansion of Soviet influence in the region. The Soviet Union, and therefore the ‘Soviet dimension’ is mentioned only once (if I am not mistaken, on 138). This was, instead, the crucial element that influenced Carter’s stance, both before the revolution–as he chose to underscore the tight relationship with the Shah despite his questionable human rights record–and as the unrest unfolded, i.e., during the events that are the crux of this book. The preoccupations with alledged Soviet penetration into the Persian Gulf had a huge impact in determining the Carter administation’s misreading of the Iranian revolution.

Finally, as a consequence of this shortcoming, the book is neither comprehensive, nor systematic. The failure to link the regional developments with the overall evolution of American foreign policy, along with an only cursuory mention of the Carter doctrine and the adjustment of policy that ensued, hampers its ambition of comprehensiveness. Consequently, the book fails to grasp the bigger picture and, far from providing a systematic vision, simply captures various snapshots of important moments. But what broader impact did these have? In other words, why is it important to study and understand American policies towards Iran of the time?

Ultimately, I would question the significance behind one of the author’s central aims: understanding the “impact that Carter’s policies had during the Iranian Revolution” (xxv). The United States and President Carter were not actors in the process, which was, for the most part, an internal Iranian affair whose roots and origins by far predated the 1970s. The potential impact that Carter’s policies might have had on the unfolding of the revolution is, in any case, far less important than the impact that the revolution actually had on the remaking of American policies, both towards the region and more globally. However, this aspect unfortunately remains outside the scope of this book.


I feel deeply grateful to H-Diplo for holding this roundtable review of my book. That is why I would like to begin thanking Thomas Maddux and the editors for all they have done to put this roundtable together. I would also like to express my gratitude to Professors Christian Emery, Blake W. Jones, Matthew Shannon, and Barbara Zanchetta for reviewing my book. As an academic who has barely begun his academic career, it is gratifying that well-known scholars of established expertise on the subject matter have taken the time to read and assess my work. It is even more important to note that the book has not left them indifferent.

It is uplifting to see that each of the four reviewers found important things to compliment in my book and that the general tone of the reviews is positive and constructive. Yet, I do not wish gloat about the positive comments, but to answer to the thoughtful critical comments on my book. It is the criticism one finds in the reviews that merits a conscientious response. That is why I need to answer the comments made by Professors Zanchetta and Emery. With this decision I do not mean to slight the reviews of Professors Shannon and Jones: I very much appreciate their efforts, but since they provide little if any criticism of the book I have no objection to any of their comments.

The Iranian Revolution is an exciting subject. Not surprisingly, given its importance and the fact that it still influences (and poisons) U.S.-Iran relations (or, to be more precise, the relationship between Iran and everyone else), the Iranian Revolution has drawn the attention of many scholars. Thus, any book on the subject can easily draw the attention of academics, journalists and policymakers. The perils are that perhaps too many books have been written on the subject, and more studies will be published once the archives located in the United States and Iran become fully available to researchers. That is why I strove with my book to present a worthy addition to the large mass of literature on the subject. Reading the reviews, I think I have largely (albeit not completely) succeeded in doing so.

Zanchetta acknowledges the ambitious goal I set for myself in writing this book, yet she feels that I have fallen short. Her first reservation has to do with my assessment of the impact of President Jimmy Carter’s human rights agenda on the Shah’s Iran. She is absolutely right to state that Carter himself never publicly denounced the Shah for human rights violations in Iran. Yet, that was not the case with the new officials that Carter brought to the State Department. Obviously, none of them (except perhaps for Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patricia Derian, who, during the worst weeks of the Iranian revolution declared on a TV interview her sympathy for the demonstrators)[21] ever spoke on the record to the press but they certainly helped Amnesty International and other organizations to have their voices heard on Iran. They also did their best to sabotage relations between Washington and Tehran.

Did they manage to completely change the course of those relations? No. But they did succeed in poisoning the relations by spreading a climate of mistrust and confusion. Yes, Carter oversaw the biggest year in U.S.-Iran arm sales and yes, he toasted the Shah at Niavaran Palace. But it is important to keep in mind that in international relations, perceptions can be as important as the data on arms sales or particular events. In this sense, Carter’s rhetoric on human rights, his appointment of officials critical of the Shah, and the misgivings of high-ranking officials (like Ambassador William H. Sullivan) of the close U.S.-Iran relationship caused deep apprehension in Tehran. At best, Iranian officials perceived a schizophrenic administration or a naïve president, and at worst, a nefarious scheme to undermine the Shah’s rule in Iran and to force a liberalizing agenda on him.[22] With Carter, the Shah felt that the United States was no longer predictable and he certainly though that Washington no longer had his back.

We need to keep this in mind in order to understand the erratic policies that the Shah began to pursue following Carter’s arrival to the White House, and which contributed to the spread of the revolutionary fervor. Washington’s human rights’ campaign led to a strain in relations with Tehran while encouraging the Shah’s opponents to take a more assertive role at a time of increasing unrest in Iran.

The reviewers correctly point that the human rights issue did not begin with Carter. As Roham Alvandi and other scholars have pointed out, Amnesty International (AI), the Red Cross and the International Commission of Jurists began to target the Shah’s Iran in the mid-seventies.[23] The denunciations by AI were soon echoed by liberal writers, journalists, and intellectuals in the United State and Europe. Also, the actions of the Democratic-led U.S. Congress preceded Carter’s efforts at putting human rights at the forefront of U.S. relations with other countries (and let’s not forget President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of the Treasury, William E. Simon, who vehemently opposed the Shah’s oil policies). Yet, with Carter that impetus seemed to have finally reached the White House. That was the Shah’s apprehension, never fully dispelled by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, or Carter’s sparse and cozy public statements.

Here I need to answer a point made by Emery. He asserts that I put too much weight on Carter’s human rights campaign, but that “pressures from world opinion, and particularly organizations such as Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists,” were as important (or more) to explain the Shah’s distress. Looking at the archives of the Carter Library in Atlanta one can clearly appreciate that there was a strong collaboration between Washington officials and those organizations (one could even say that they almost worked in tandem). We cannot understand Carter’s human rights policy without noting the impact of those organizations and we also cannot grasp the importance of the accusations made by those organizations about Iran without paying attention to the fact that they had an ally in the Carter administration. That is why the Shah was more sensitive to the denunciations from Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists when Carter was in the Oval Office and not during Ford’s administration. In fact, with Ford in the White House, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s State Department sent Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Alfred Atherton to defend the Shah’s human rights record before the House Committee on International Relations.[24]

The impact of Carter’s human rights campaign is a subject that needs to be carefully addressed when considering the Iranian revolution. Professor Emery argues that I rely heavily on the memoirs of leading political figures in the Pahlavi regime for my claim that Carter’s distaste for the Shah’s human rights record ultimately undermined the Shah’s confidence. It is true that I made use of memoirs and diaries of prominent members of the Pahlavi regime, but I also sustain this claim based on the memoirs of American officials as well as on public testimonies and archival sources.

This issue has been repeatedly acknowledged by officials from the Carter administration not just from the Pahlavi monarchy. Zbigniew Brzezinski acknowledged that “the lower echelons of State, on the Iran Desk, were clearly cheering the Shah’s opponents.”[25] Carter’s temporary special advisor on Iran, George Ball, publicly referred to the Shah as a “megalomaniacal,” “isolated,” and “messianic” figure who had lost any sense of proportion. He spoke of his regime as an “absurd” and “pathetic spectacle.” Ball also compared the Shah to an alcoholic in his compulsion to buy American weapons.[26] Ambassador Sullivan, who cannot be described as biased in favor of the Shah, was astonished to check the mood in the White House prior to the Shah’s visit: “many within both the administration and the Democratic Party constituency abhorred the idea of a visit by one of their least-favourite allies.”[27]  Charles W. Naas, Iran Country Director at the State Department, stated that “many Iranians saw the Carter human rights policy […] as a signal that we were weakening in our support of the Shah. And that was absolutely not the purpose, but the Iranians did read it that way.”[28]

I am not defending the idea that Carter was against the Shah. I do not think he or the top officials from his administration ever thought of carrying out an intentional and harmful policy towards the Shah. Shannon hits the mark when he writes that the importance of human rights had less to do with any actual push from the administration than with the Shah’s perception of Carter.

Zanchetta is certainly right to suggest that one of the shortcomings of my book is the fact that it ends with the departure of the Shah, and that little is said about the crucial months of 1979 in which the Carter administration sought to amend relations with revolutionary Iran. In my thesis I delved in deep detail on the consequences of Aytollah Khomeini’s triumph, Washington’s aborted rapprochement with Bazargan, the hostage crisis and in the link between the Iranian revolution, regional developments, and the overall evolution of American foreign policy. But with this book I decided to focus on U.S.-Iran relations up to the Shah’s downfall. I thought that unlike the hostage crisis, this is an aspect of US-Iran relations that had never been studied in detail (always as part of broader studies of US foreign policy or US-Iranian relations). If I had to choose another overlooked period to study in detail it would be that one that goes from February to November 1979 (although Professor Emery has shed light on the subject in a book he published a few years ago).

I also can not disagree with Zanchetta’s objection to the scarce attention of my book to the Cold War/ Soviet dimension of U.S.-Iran relations. Keeping the Soviet factor outside the scope of my book is something that I have come to regret. Certainly, Washington’s fears of Soviet penetration in the Persian Gulf constitute the bigger picture of Carter’s Iranian policy. Again, this is an issue addressed in my thesis but during the writing of my book, given the stringent page-limit, I made decisions that favored certain objectives over others. With every decision something valuable had to be sacrificed. Yet, I completely agree with Zanchetta that the subject merits much fuller treatment than I provide.

Finally, while I concur with Zanchetta that the Iranian revolution had a decisive impact in the remaking process of American policies, she also makes a point I cannot agree with. At the end of her review Zanchetta states that “the United States and President Carter were not actors in the process, which was, for the most part, an internal Iranian affair.” In fact, my book precisely tries to prove the opposite.

I must mention that Zanchetta’s objection is shared by Emery, who feels that I place “too much weight on U.S. policy for the Iranian revolution.” He even goes further and asserts that there is a “Western-centric approach to explaining revolutionary moments” in my book. Later, he adds to his criticism my overreliance on U.S. primary sources.

First, I should state the obvious: given that my book is about U.S.-Iran relations during the last years of the Shah’s reign, it is inevitable that it focuses on the U.S. role in the Iranian Revolution. That does not necessarily mean that I ignore the causes that predate Carter’s arrival in office or that I dismiss the internal dynamics of Iran. But my book is not about Iran’s economy, nor is it an analysis of the political activism of the clergy or the Bazaar. I agree that the Iranian Revolution is the result of a multitude of causes, but here my focus is on U.S. foreign policy in Iran. That means I was forced to mention very important domestic issues of Iran topics in passing. At the same time, I do believe the United States (actively or passively, willingly or unwillingly) played a notable role in the Iranian Revolution and that without the Carter administration we cannot fully understand what happened in Iran in the late seventies.

By 1978 the Shah was a broken man: Ford’s agreement with Saudi Arabia regarding the Kingdom’s oil production brought the Shah to his knees and Carter’s human rights campaign was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Obviously, there were other important factors, such as the death of powerful confidants of the Shah (like Asadollah Alam), the creation of the political party Rastakhiz (which seemed to betray the Shah’s promises on gradual liberalization), the sudden removal of Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda from office, the Shah’s lymphoma... and above all, Khomeini and the unhealed wounds from the 1963 revolt and the White Revolution. But because the Shah was a broken man by the time Carter came to office, he was even more dependent on the United States. In 1977 the Shah was at a loss and he sought in Carter the kind of reassurance and backing that could have given him the determination and strength to carry a determined policy that could have preempted the triumph of the revolution. I do not think all was lost by 1977 and that the die was cast for the Shah.

My argument is that, had the Shah found a resolute White House, perhaps he would have taken the initiative in finding a firm way to cope with the crisis.

Why did the Shah summon Sullivan so often to Niavaran Palace during the momentous months of the Iranian Revolution? Why did he display such insistence on getting Washington’s approval for a crackdown? Why so many demands of reassurance from Carter? Why the frantic exchange of calls between Washington and Tehran? The Shah was not a leader for perilous times. He had already proven it in 1953. The Shah was looking to hold fast into the United States, but Carter failed to support him.

This does not mean that I hold the Carter administration responsible for the Iranian Revolution, as Emery states. As I mention at the beginning of my book, without Ford’s collusion with the Saudis one cannot fully explain the Iranian Revolution. Also, one must keep in mind the internal dynamics of Iran. But I do think the Carter administration should shoulder some of the blame for Khomeini’s triumph over the Shah. I do not, as Emery claims, ignore the “perfect storm” created by the secret arrangements between Saudi Minister of Oil Zaki Yamani and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury William Simon, but that part has already been studied in detail by Andrew Scott Cooper and the purpose of my book was to provide a study of the relationship between the Pahlavi regime and the Carter administration.[29]

I would like to end by most sincerely thanking again the four reviewers for this exchange. I hope I will be able to keep discussing these issues with them in the future.


[1] I should note that only a small portion of the diaries of the Shah’s closest adviser, Asadollah Alam, have been published in English in The Shah and I (London: I.B. Tauris, 1991). In the multi-volume, Persian originals (Yad’dashtha-yi ‘Alam), Alam includes some criticisms of the monarch. He has not left a completely hagiographic account as one might presume.

[2] For this view see Stephen McGlinchey, US arms policies towards the Shah’s Iran (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2014); Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran (New York: Random House, 1985).

[3] This argument appears in Andrew Scott Cooper, The Oil Kings: How the West, Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).

[4] See, for example, Asadollah Alam, The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran’s Royal Court, 1969-1977 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008); Parviz C. Radji, In the Service of the Peacock Throne: The Diaries of the Shah’s Last Ambassador to London (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983); Farah Pahlavi, An Enduring Love: My Life with the Shah (New York: Mirimax, 2005); Ashraf Pahlavi, Faces in a Mirror: Memories from Exile (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1980, 2005).

[5] James Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Betty Glad, An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009); Scott Kaufman, Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008); Gary Sick, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran (New York: Random House, 1985); Gaddis Smith, Morality, Reason, Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986).

[6] Mark Bowden, Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam (New York: Grove Press, 2006); David Farber, Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); David Harris, The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah—1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004).

[7] Andrew Scott Cooper, The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran, and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).

[8] See Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Answer to History (New York: Stein and Day, 1980); Manucher Farmanfarmaian, Blood and Oil: A Prince’s Memoir of Iran, From the Shah to the Ayatollah (New York: Random House, 2005); Aria Minu-Sepehr, We Heard the Heavens Then: A Memoir of Iran (New York: Free Press, 2012); Ashraf Pahlavi, Faces in a Mirror: Memoirs from Exile (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1980); Hussein Fardust (ed. By Ali Akbar Dareini), The Rise and Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty: Memoirs of Former General Hussein Fardust (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1998).

[9] Kambiz Fattahi, “Two Weeks in January: America’s Secret Engagement with Khomeini,” BBC News, 3 June 2016; Roham Alvandi and Christian Emery, “The Lure of Conspiracy Theories in Iranian Politics,” The Guardian, 1 July 2016.

[10] Guerrero supports Alexander Moens’ claim from so many decades ago that, “Usually the findings…fall into two categories. Some deal with the crisis in a deterministic fashion, arguing that the shah had made his country thoroughly ripe for revolution” while “Others conclude that the outcome was a classical example of Jimmy Carter’s vacillation.” Alexander Moens, “President Carter’s Advisers and the Fall of the Shah,” Political Science Quarterly 106:2 (Summer 1991): 211-212.

[11] Mike Evans, Jimmy Carter, the Liberal Left and World Chaos: A Carter/Obama Plan that Will Not Work (Pheonix: TimeWorthy, 2009); Philip Pilevsky, I Accuse: Jimmy Carter and the Rise of Militant Islam (Dallas: Durban House, 2007); Ruthi Blum, To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the Arab Spring (New York: RVP Press, 2012).

[12] Michael Ledeen and William Lewis, Debacle: The American Failure in Iran (New York: Knopf, 1981).

[13] James Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); Richard Cottam, Iran and the United States: A Cold War Case Study (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989).

[14] Ali Ansari, The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[15] Christian Emery, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Iranian Revolution: The Cold War Dynamics of Engagement and Strategic Alliance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Andrew Scott Cooper, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran (New York: Holt, 2016).

[16] Barbara Zanchetta, The Transformation of American International Power in the 1970s (New York: Camdridge University Press, 2014).

[17] Zanchetta, 249.

[18] Briefing book for Secretary Vance’s May 1977 visit to Tehran, cited in ibid, 249.

[19] Ibid.,86-104.

[20] See, for example, William H. Sullivan, Mission to Iran (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981); Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith : Memoirs of a President (New York: Bantam Books, 1982); Rosalynn Carter, First Lady from Plains (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994; Hamilton Jordan, Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1982).

[21] Betty Glad, An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 245.

[22] This is exactly what Ambassador Sullivan told Vance. See William H. Sullivan to Secretary of State, “Conversations with Iranian Officials RE Human Rights,” Confidential, July 1977. RG 59, Entry 14, Box 52. General Records of the Department of State; Records of Warren Christopher, 1977-1980, NARA.

[23] Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). Professor Alvandi will delve further on the question of the international organizations’ pressure and interaction with Iran on his forthcoming book: Pahlavi Iran in the Global 1960s and 1970s.

[24] State Department Report to the House Committee on International Relations, “Human Rights and U.S. Policy: Argentina, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Peru, and the Philippines,” 12/31/76, 18-22.

[25] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977–1981 (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983), 396.

[26] See George W. Ball, The Past has another Pattern (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 455-456 and James A. Bill, George Ball: Behind the Scenes in U.S. Foreign Policy (Cumberland: Yale University Press, 1998), 168.

[27] William H. Sullivan, Mission to Iran (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981), 122.

[28] The reminiscences of Charles W. Naas in an interview with William Burr, Bethesda, MD, 31 May 1988, 110-111, in the Oral History of Iran Collection of the Foundation of Iranian Studies.

[29] Andrew Scott Cooper, The Oil Kings (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).