pushing • pressing • prodding
Pulling the Strings in Iran

U.S. Plots Ways to Sustain the Shah’s Rule (or Not)

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | September 12, 2014                     

“If we’re going to support [the Shah’s regime] we must simultaneously make every effort to enhance its effectiveness by actively pushing, prodding, and cajoling it in directions we favor...” — Robert W. Komer, National Security Council

Pulling the Strings in Iran (Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) In 1962, the Shah of Iran’s hold on power was deemed so fragile that his “life expectancy” was estimated at 3-5 years. Such was the assessment of Kennedy administration official Robert W. Komer (1922-2000), former CIA analyst and senior staff member at the National Security Council from 1961-1965.

In this remarkably frank memorandum, Komer aimed to sound the alert on this danger and recommend strategies for countering it. His suggestions ran the gamut, from “revamping” the regime to abandoning the Shah completely.

Robert W. Komer, National Security Council Komer had been mulling over options for months before finalizing this document, which he sent copies of to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, the President’s special assistant Ralph A. Dungan, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He had been brainstorming with colleagues over potential alternatives to the Shah in the event his demise appeared imminent, but, as he stated in a message to Bundy, it was too easy to say “let’s back another horse than Pahlavi (when we don’t see one running yet).” 1

The only consensus was that passivity was not an option. “We all agree that the US must do more than it’s doing, but are leery of such radical solutions as pressing for a Majlis or backing the National Front, with the Shah relegated to figurehead status or replaced by a regency”, explained Komer. “We stick with realpolitik.” 1 The regency idea had been recommended by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a man deeply familiar with Iran who held influence with his friend Bobby Kennedy. Komer intended to diminish the “Douglasites”, as he derisively called them, though he probably had less faith in the Shah camp than Douglas. “They don’t have what it takes to run a country themselves”, argued Komer.

With the Mossadegh era still fresh in mind, Komer even entertained the idea of engaging with the remnants of the deposed Premier’s severely marginalized coalition. “Could the [National Front] or some variant thereof run the country?”, pondered Komer. “I doubt it....”

William Green Miller, a Foreign Services officer stationed in Iran at the time who later became Ambassador to Ukraine, later recalled Komer’s contemporaneous visit to Tehran: 2

“The blowtorch”, Bob Komer, who was very close to Lyndon Johnson, and of course was deeply involved in Vietnam policy, he and Bill Polk, [William R. Polk, Policy Planning Council] in the White House, who was a good friend of the Kennedys, were raising questions of political stability constantly, based on the Iranian student demonstrations that were increasing in number and size even to the extent of picketing the White House and Congress. The issue was, can the Shah withstand unpopularity? Were there alternatives to the Shah? So the issues were raised. Komer and Polk came out, I can vividly remember on one occasion, to Iran on a U.S. military aircraft and annoyed the hell out of Ambassador Holmes [U.S. Ambassador to Iran Julius Holmes] because they were very preemptory and imperial in their manners and demanded to see the Shah and all the key figures in the government. They were very short on courtesies.

So they went throughout Iran, saw everyone they could, and wrote a report saying that the Shah was unpopular, and was holding on to an increasingly weakening power base. But in the end, despite this awareness of unpopularity, on all of the critical points, the decision was made to support the Shah in the face of the opposition, even democratic opposition. The crucial point, that tipped the balance as I mentioned earlier, was a decision covering roll-over funding for Prime Minister Ali Amini, an IMF [International Monetary Fund] rescheduling of debt payment. But the real issue was support for the Shah or Parliamentary governments. Yes, there was a dispute in Washington, but the majority view was that the Shah’s regime was well financed, he had the military, and would prevail. The contrary view was that he didn’t have the military, except at the top.”

Written in a blunt, conversational style, Komer’s paper is a naked testimony to the calculating, selfish, meddlesome policies which helped galvanize an irate populace to finally kick out the “American Shah” in 1979. Like the U.S. in 1962, Iranians ultimately failed to rally an alternative that could even remotely be considered an improvement.


1 John F. Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, Countries, Iran 11/1/62–11/30/62. Secret.
Komer to Bundy: “Here are the thoughts on Iran which I’ve been firming up for months. The paper is mine alone, though I’ve talked discreetly around with Polk, Hansen, and a few senior Agency types (latter only to explore whether any new faces on horizon). Nonetheless I think that it roughly approximates the consensus of those around town who, like myself, see our present Iran policy as inadequate to the need but find it too pat to say let's back another horse than Pahlavi (when we don’t see one running yet).”

2 The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Foreign Affairs Oral History Project — February 10, 2003. William Green Miller interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy.

Washington, October 20, 1962.


Just now we’re in a hiatus period in Iran; even the SAVAK chief [Hassan Pakravan] says that “at least for the short term immediate future there is no reason to feel uneasy.” But Pakravan, or anyone familiar with this feeble country, knows this as just another lull before the storm.

It is equally trite to point out that Iran, as one of the most vulnerable soft spots around the Bloc periphery, is potentially as serious a crisis area as any we confront. Though we’ve tended in the past to view this problem more in terms of external threat than internal upset, we’re even past this hurdle. Most of us regard the greatest threat to US interests in Iran as arising from the combination of a modernizing revolution and a weak, archaic government (and ruling group) which seems unable either to contain or adjust to it fast enough. As Khrushchev told Kennedy at Vienna, this place will collapse from within. [Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev and President John F. Kennedy, historic Vienna Summit in June 1961]

Despite this consensus, US policy toward Iran has hardly been commensurate to the need. For fifteen years we’ve pursued an essentially reactive policy. We’ve rushed into the breach whenever a clear threat reminded us of Iran’s crucial position (as in the 1946–47 Azerbaijan crisis, the Mossadegh period, the Shah’s 1958 flirtation with the Soviets, or the May 1961 crisis). But as each was over, we relapsed into an essentially passive acceptance of things Iranian as they are.

“Crudely stated, our goal in Iran is enough stability to avoid violent revolution...”

Our attitude toward the abortive Amini experiment [axed Prime Minister Ali Amini] is especially instructive. Here the Shah, running scared, decided to put in Amini and take a flyer at reform. We too ran scared; the Iran Task Force mapped out the most constructive policy I’ve seen yet toward Iran’s domestic problems. But we, the Shah, and even Amini were capable of only a short spurt of activity. Once the Shah and his entourage realized the crisis was over, they resumed the perennial game of cutting the new boy down to size. We too relapsed into our usual preoccupation with the military rather than the internal problems of Iran (we got real movement in the last year only on a $300 million, five-year MAP package, [Military Assistance Program] nothing else).

From one standpoint, to be sure, our Iranian policy has been a success. We’ve bought time and helped preserve a friendly country. We’ve had little luck, however, in stimulating sufficient internal movement to channel and stabilize the forces released by the gradual crumbling of the traditional society. Admittedly our attempts to do so have been exercises in frustration, but there’s been little sustained drive on our part. We’ve taken refuge in the argument that we can’t push the Shah too hard because, however weak, he’s the only existing source of power. But this gets us into a vicious circle, because unless they do more than at present, the Shah and the group around him can’t last.

Thus our present approach of stepping in only when crisis occurs, and then only to help paper it over so we can relax again till the next one, doesn’t meet the problem. Crudely stated, our goal in Iran is enough stability to avoid violent revolution, from which we doubt we’d emerge the gainers, which means rapid enough progress to satisfy growing popular frustrations. As Amini put it, we need a controlled revolution rather than an uncontrolled one. The Shah genuinely seems to prefer this too, but on his own is too weak to risk the effort required.

“...the US could no doubt bring down the Shah, simply by withholding aid and letting nature take its course.”

What policy for the US? If then, the present Iranian regime is not effective enough to provide the reasonably stable but progressive government needed to forestall repeated crises and eventual chaos, what are the alternatives? As I see it, we confront two basic dilemmas in Iran: (1) Should we continue to back the existing power structure or acquiesce in political revolution? (2) Under either alternative, should our role be active or passive?

One course would be to ride with anti-Shah forces and perhaps encourage them. There is much support for this line, depending on the degree to which one thinks an early political overturn inevitable. And the US could no doubt bring down the Shah, simply by withholding aid and letting nature take its course. If this weren’t enough, US could press for elections and a new Majlis, disengage from its present close relations with the court, invite National Front leaders to US, etc. The Shah in desperation might flirt with the Soviets or try open dictatorship, but would more likely flee.

To what, however, would this policy lead? Hopefully, we would increase our leverage with whatever new political forces came to power. But what are these forces? The chief opposition at present, the so-called “National Front”, is one in name only; its only unifying element is a common antipathy to the present regime. It is a loose grouping of minor league politicians with little popular base. The young technocrats detest them. They are against everything but have no constructive platform of their own. Could the NF or some variant thereof run the country? I doubt it (and so do those “young Turks” like Gudarsi [Manoucher Goudarzi] and Farman-Farmaian [Manucher Farmanfarmaian] whom I talked with in Teheran).

“Iran simply is not ready yet for democratic consensus...”

The Bill Douglas solution [Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas] of a regency, thus preserving the monarchic institution, is to me a non-starter; it preserves the shell but without even the little substance that the Shah himself provides. Even to press the Shah prematurely toward new elections and a Majlis is an invitation to chaos in a country like Iran; these are not a stabilizing institution or even a safety valve (look at the record of the “stacked” Majlis of the recent past). Iran simply is not ready yet for democratic consensus (any more than Pakistan was in 1950-56).

So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we’d have a series of weak, ineffective governments (a la Mossadegh), near political chaos, and open sesame for the growth of Tudeh influence. Of course there might emerge, out of the chaos, a leader or group (no doubt from the military) who would impose authoritarian rule. Iran may yet go in this direction. At this time, however, we see no contender worth considering 1 (though we’re keeping eyes peeled).

“Sooner or later...there’s going to be an explosion in Iran.”

So the above alternative is not a real one yet. While we could slough off the old regime in Iran, we’d just be out of the frying pan into the fire. We’d have no way of assuring that we could protect our interests satisfactorily in the chaos likely to ensue. Indeed the odds are that, in the absence of even the modest source of stability the monarchy and army now provide, we’d have less leverage with whatever regime eventually emerged. Would it at least be a stronger, more satisfactory regime from the US standpoint? I doubt this too. If a strong man emerged, there’s at least as much chance he’d be more like Kassem [Iraqi Premier Abdul Karim Kassem] than Ayub [Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan‎]. The odds are that the Soviets would benefit far more from this type of situation (as they did with Mossadegh and have with Kassem) than we. We may have to live with a neutralist Iran but it’s got to be one strong enough to resist pressures from both sides.

The above picture may change. A viable alternative may emerge. So let’s keep actively looking. But there is no presently foreseeable alternative better than some combination of the Shah and a reformist cabinet with his full backing or at least acquiescence.

I’m persuaded of one thing—the Shah does mean something in Iran. He’s more than a symbol; with all his weaknesses he’s the chief existing source of power in a country with few if any competing power centers. Let’s not forget he still has the army and the peasantry. Yet (as I’ve consistently argued), backing him in the manner we do at present isn’t a very viable proposition either. It only buys us a bit more time. Sooner or later, unless he and his show more energy than they have (and are), there’s going to be an explosion in Iran. Most observers agree on this proposition; their chief differences are essentially over how soon.

“This isn’t [a] country...with strongminded and reasonably competent leadership. It is Iran.”

Left to its own devices, the present regime in Iran will not move fast enough to avert the otherwise inevitable. Its greatest deficit is that intangible I’ll call leadership. The Shah means well; so do many of his ministers. As Bill Douglas says, talk two hours to the Shah and you come away thinking he’s FDR. [32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] What they lack is the capacity for sustained, dynamic effort. They don’t have what it takes to run a country themselves.

So we must try to provide what’s missing. At any rate, if we won’t try who will? This isn’t country like Greece or Pakistan (even Turkey) with strongminded and reasonably competent leadership. It is Iran.

Therefore, an essential corollary to supporting the present regime is that the US must pursue a policy deliberately calculated to maximize its chances of its survivability and popular acceptability. If we’re going to support it we must simultaneously make every effort to enhance its effectiveness by actively pushing, prodding, and cajoling it in directions we favor, rather than bailing it out only when its own mismanagement gets it in a box. We must attempt to reshape the regime to give it greater life expectancy than the 3–5 years it otherwise has.

What would a more vigorous US effort involve? First and foremost, it would mean pressing the Shah and his government to move faster on planned development, land reform, anti-corruption, better revenue collection, reform of the bureaucracy, public relations, and the like. It would involve efforts to control the military budget, and to influence the budgetary process in general. It might also mean more money, but we could reasonably expect to get more for it too.

“The US is already so identified with the present regime, and the “hidden hand” theme so pervades Iranian thinking, that no one believes we aren’t really pulling the strings. We’re committed to the present Iranian regime, and our prestige will suffer if it fails no matter what. So let’s not kid ourselves with what are essentially arguments for inaction.”

One key element would be to press the Shah to install (and keep in power) reform-minded cabinets. We need a series of Aminis; indeed one bet would be to push for the reinstallation of Amini himself. If we did so, however, it should be on some clearly defined conditions which would enhance his chances of success.

Would US “intervention” work? Amini himself, even with the Shah’s lukewarm support and ours, ran out of gas after fifteen months of trying, largely single-handed, to move Iran. The closer he got to effective reform the more the interests being hurt tried to clip his wings. And he too made plenty of mistakes. But it is shortsighted to regard the Amini interlude as a flop. While he didn’t achieve what we optimists expected, he did accomplish more than anyone else in the last fifteen years. Land reform at least acquired sustained momentum; both the Shah and Alam [Premier Asadollah Alam] are continuing to push it hard.

Nonetheless, a more vigorous US effort to encourage revamping of the present regime is admittedly a gamble. If pushed too hard, it will breed countervailing pressures from those interests on whose feet we trod. It may well run into difficulties with the Shah, who though intellectually convinced of the need for reform is more concerned with protecting his own short term position from any prime minister grown too powerful. Yet I think we underestimate our leverage with him; he needs us and knows it (and he’s never had a strong lead).

Another argument is that too overt a US identification with any Iranian regime is the kiss of death. We should stand aloof, not engage our prestige with possible failures. Let’s retain flexibility. To me, these traditional worries are out of date. The US is already so identified with the present regime, and the “hidden hand” theme so pervades Iranian thinking, that no one believes we aren’t really pulling the strings. We’re committed to the present Iranian regime, and our prestige will suffer if it fails no matter what. So let’s not kid ourselves with what are essentially arguments for inaction. Moreover, if the US is frankly identified with pushing reform and development in Iran, this cannot really hurt us much with whatever successor regime takes power if the present one fails.

Can our present team do the job? If we ought to stick with what we’ve got in Iran but mount a real effort to refurbish it, we need people who will give the necessary push. Talbot [Phillips Talbot, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs] and Grant [James P. Grant of the State Dept.] on the Washington end would pitch in if given the word in no uncertain terms. They know we’re living on borrowed time. But I’ve found from 18 months of needling that they’re weak on follow-through. They haven’t really sat on top of Embassy Teheran (in justice I’ll say that other more immediate problems always seem to claim their time).

The opposite vice grips Teheran. Julius Holmes [U.S. Ambassador to Iran] is one of the most toughminded operators in the Foreign Service. His problem is that he’s toughminded about the wrong things; he’s great on military aid and earthquake relief, but fails to understand what really ails Iran. I’m afraid he’s too much of a traditionalist for the role. 2 His Embassy is weak too on the political side; it badly needs a stronger DCM. [Deputy Chief of Mission]

But let’s see the alternatives before we change. There aren’t many ambassadors who could do better in this touchy situation who aren’t already fully employed. In fact, what we need is a good non-professional with drive, perhaps a good defeated candidate from ’62 elections.

Recommendations. I offer my prescription, not as a sovereign remedy but as the best available to us in a deteriorating situation. And let’s start moving now—the Shah is already thinking of a new PM and we want to influence his choice. The Iranian trend line is so adverse, and the stakes so important, that the one thing we can’t afford to do is stand still. Therefore:

1. Stick with the Shah, but push him a lot harder in the direction we think he must go. Give him a strong lead, instead of always kowtowing to his fantasies.

2. Press on him (at the right moment) another reform-minded PM and cabinet. The best bet might be Amini (perhaps we should start re-grooming him). We vigorously press this guy too, with advice and where necessary aid.

3. Make the theme of our pressure vigorous reform and sensible development; insist on a good development plan (as the condition for our aid) and on sufficient control over the ordinary budget (including military) that adequate local resources and oil revenues can be diverted to this task.

4. Also intervene more vigorously with advice and where necessary pressure at other points where we can do so effectively, not just with the Shah and PM.

5. Soft-pedal for a while longer on elections and a parliament. In fact, let’s strengthen the internal security apparatus.

6. Look for a better Ambassador, preferably a non-professional with drive; someone like Dilworth (if he doesn’t win) might be great. [Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilworth, who resigned early that year to seek election as Governor. He lost.]

7. Start the ball rolling, not with another NSAM [National Security Action Memorandum] and task force (which scare the bureaucrats but not enough to get action), but with a tough presidential word to Rusk [Secretary of State Dean Rusk] or Ball [Under Secretary of State George Ball] (and a strong follow-through mandate to thee and me). Then Talbot and I could go out to Teheran to pass the word (and bring home the verdict).

R. W. Komer

1 A possible exception is Timur Bakhtiar, [Gen. Teymour Bakhtiar] ex-SAVAK chief, who certainly has such ambitions, but in whom we don’t see much (except as a course of desperation). Indeed, we specifically warned him off at time of May 1961 crisis.

2 Nor is his political judgment so hot. Ed Mason, in late May, found Amini a spent force. So I’m told did everyone in the Embassy. Yet when Holmes returned from two months home leave, he found this judgment “premature” (Tehran 15, 4 July). Twelve days later Amini quit.

[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]

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