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A Short History of an Epic Blunder : Intelligent U.S. Handling of Iran Ended With Eisenhower

January 04, 1987|WALTER A. McDOUGALL | Walter A. McDougall is professor of diplomatic history at UC Berkeley, visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age" (Basic Books, 1985).

Should a democracy engage in covert operations? Yes, if we are at war. Are we at war? Yes, both a Cold War against totalitarians and a Frigid War against hate-filled terrorists--however much we comfortable, usually generous and always impatient Yankees choose to deny it.

The fact is that modern technology and ideologies of class war and race war have almost destroyed the boundaries between war and peace, between combatants and noncombatants, which prevailed in the gentle 18th Century when our nation was founded. Our failure to admit that, however, sometimes makes us not a "Great Satan" but a laughing-stock.

America's losing streak in Iran, especially, is one that would win sympathy from the Los Angeles Clippers. First, the Carter Administration tried to force "liberalization" on the most liberal regime in Iran's 2,500-year history, that of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. All that was accomplished was the fall of the ailing Shah in 1979 and the collapse of a 25-year-old U.S.-Iranian alliance. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's cultural revolution cleansed Iran of all modern deviltries, including human rights, the dignity of women, private property and civilized diplomacy.

Next, the seizure of 52 American hostages presented Jimmy Carter with a crisis that he promptly bungled, destroying his presidency.

Then, Iran and Iraq became locked in a holy war appalling enough to remind Westerners that crusading Muslims taught the medieval Christians all they knew about proselytizing with the sword. The war helped the Soviets tighten their grip on Afghanistan and continues to threaten our last friends (almost all tolerant kingdoms, not fanatical "republics") in the Persian Gulf.

Finally, the Reagan National Security Council, appreciating Iran's geopolitical value and pitying the families of our hostages in Lebanon, extended to Tehran an olive branch (made of weapons) that is poisoning the Reagan presidency. One is reminded of Rudyard Kipling's epitaph:"Here lies one who tried to hustle the East." Or, as Talleyrand said of Napoleon's execution of the Duke of Enghien: "It was worse than a sin, it was a blunder."

Our inability to win on the ayatollah's home court is especially sad since we used to dominate the series. From 1900 to 1950, the United States was Iran's white knight in its efforts to resist British and Russian imperialism. Then in 1953 the CIA, with incredible competence, killed three birds with one stone: the Soviets, the British oil monopolists and the radical Muslims. For by then Mohammed Mossadegh, an ascetic, demagogic nationalist who insisted on wearing pajamas in public and bawling copiously during speeches before parliament, had seized power from the young Shah, nationalized the Anglo-Persian oil company and flirted with the Tudeh communists.

The British turned for help to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was at the moment extricating the United States from Korea and contemplating the first Soviet H-bomb test. As biographer Stephen Ambrose explained, to Eisenhower "nuclear war was unimaginable, limited conventional war unwinnable, and stalemate unacceptable. That left the CIA's covert action capability."

Spymaster Allan Dulles and agent Kim Roosevelt (heir to grandfather Teddy's soft speech and big sticks) moved to oust Mossadegh without telling the Cabinet, the NSC and Congress. Eisenhower was kept informed regularly over cocktails with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. But he retained deniability and no documents were shredded, for none were produced.

In July, 1953, Mossadegh dissolved his parliament and made himself a dictator. The next month a national plebiscite gave him a 99.4% endorsement and he initiated negotiations with Moscow. On Aug. 22 the Iranian army, with Roosevelt's guidance, arrested "old Mossy" and restored the Shah. Iran promptly cut a new oil deal with the West granting American firms a 40% share, joined the American alliance system, provided us with vital radar posts on the Soviet border and began a long history of generous support for Israel. Few Americans questioned the activities of Ike's CIA, not just because it was successful but because the public by and large accepted the fact that we were "at war" with communism.

Nowadays, the overthrow of Mossadegh is often cited as a typical act of Cold War arrogance, the sin of our fathers that is now being visited on the sons. Perhaps it was a sin. But it was not a blunder. Adm. John M. Poindexter's gambit, by contrast, was a blunder but not a sin. As Ike realized, we now live in an age when covert methods are almost the only ones we can still employ that won't undermine our relative tranquility and freedom or run the risk of holocaust. The alternatives to underground warfare, after all, are new Vietnams, police-state controls against terrorism, World War III, or isolationism and slow death.

The trouble is, our open democratic system, unlike the old monarchies or the new dictatorships, is just not set up for covert warfare. Such warfare requires that the executive sometimes abrogate in private the pious principles that it parades in public. But this in turn puts a premium on quality in the selection and management of the President's staff. And it puts an equal premium on unsentimental judgment as to when such "un-American" activities are warranted.

The trouble with Ronald Reagan is that he's too nice a guy. Confronting the Soviets at Reykjavik, he took the advice that Nancy gives to young people about drugs: "Just say no." He couldn't bring himself to say that to the families of our hostages in Lebanon, but instead reportedly asked the NSC again and again, "What are we doing for our hostages?" Perhaps his lieutenants, like the nobles in "Murder in the Cathedral," took the king's wish for a command. And so our losing streak continues.

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