Britain, US late to predict Iran's Islamic revolution: Newly Revealed Documents

Britain, US late to predict Iran's Islamic revolution: documents
Katherine Haddon, Yahoo News, December 30, 2008

Britain and the United States clung to the belief that the shah of Iran would remain in power until shortly before the Islamic revolution, newly declassified documents from 1978 revealed Tuesday.

Officials thought Mohammad Reza Pahlavi would continue to rule in some form up to the final weeks of 1978, in spite of violence, protests and the increasing influence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The shah left Iran in January 1979 and later Khomeini became supreme leader of the Islamic republic, the creation of which was one of the key events in 20th century Middle Eastern history.

"It is not so much that the regime is in danger; more that their car has bogged down in soft ground and it is difficult to see how they are going to pick up speed again," wrote Britain's then ambassador to Tehran Sir Anthony Parsons in May 1978.

A US official said in September that year that it was "more likely than not that the shah could weather the next period. It was not in his nature to throw in the sponge."

The Western powers' views were revealed in files released by the National Archives in London under laws which allow official papers to be made public after 30 years.

Parsons kept London updated on the situation in Iran throughout 1978 in a series of messages.

In one of the longest, on May 10, 1978, he said he did not think there was a serious risk of the shah being overthrown and dismissed the influence of religious leaders.

"The religious leadership... thunder from the mosques about the destruction of traditional Islamic and Iranian values by the blind adoption of Western customs, Western technology and so on," Parsons wrote.

Speaking of the opposition more generally, he added: "I do not believe that this conjuncture poses a threat to the present shah's regime."

A briefing from Britain's Tehran mission to the Foreign Office on August 29 added that "the Islamic church as such has no real interest in seeing the Pahlavi regime overthrown when the complexion of any alternative is so uncertain."

On September 8, Britain's ambassador to the United States Peter Jay sent a message to London indicating the US was not thinking in terms of the shah being deposed, either.

Jay reported then US deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher had "confirmed US concern, though he saw the shah as given to pessimism and was not aware of anything really new."

Eight days later, Parsons sent another note to London which an official annotated with a note of concern about the shah's "passivity and depression". Then British prime minister James Callaghan added: "Yes. But he can come back!"

Amid more violence and the imposition of martial law in major cities, Callaghan later became more uncertain -- on October 24, he wrote on a report from Parsons: "On the basis of this, I wouldn't give much for the shah's chance."

Intensifying unrest saw an attack on the British embassy in Tehran on November 5, 1978 which caused extensive damage.

By November 20, Parsons was voicing "very little cause for optimism."

"The only hope I can see at present is that, for reasons of exhaustion and general concern about a slide into total anarchy, the temper of the country may abate and Khomeini's simple anti-shah message decline in attraction," he added.

In a letter to then US president Jimmy Carter on December 2, Callaghan said it was "impossible" to forecast whether the shah would cling on.

But he predicted that if he did not, it would have the "gravest" implications "for our two countries, with their great stake in Iran, in particular".

"It is only a minor consolation that continued chaos in the country or the emergence of an extreme government dominated by the religious right wing might create almost as many problems for the Soviet Union," Callaghan wrote.

By December 7, Parsons was telling London that it was "increasingly difficult" to see the shah remaining, just a few days before Jay got in touch, quoting Carter as saying he "fully expected" him to retain power.

On December 19, Parsons said it was "as difficult as ever to predict the outcome" and said the "only hope" for continuing the dynasty was for him to become a constitutional monarch and hand over to his son quickly.

Britain finally advised its subjects to leave Iran on December 31 unless they had a compelling reason to remain, and the shah followed soon after, on January 16, 1979.


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