Several of Rod Dreher’s commenters have responded cogently to his interesting thought experiment:
Thought experiment: given events of the past three decades in Iran, how much violence do you think the Shah’s repressive government ought to have been willing to inflict on pro-Khomeini Iranians to prevent the Islamic Republic from coming into existence? I’m not asking rhetorically, and I don’t know how I would answer that question. Just throwing it out there. I have no idea what the White House should do right now, because it is not clear to me that there is any possible outcome in Egypt that is less than horrifying. People who are certain that the US should cut off the military government in Cairo, though, should ask themselves what, in retrospect, the Shah’s government should have been prepared to do to prevent the Islamist horror show that has kept Iran bound since 1979. (Or, for that matter, how many Bolsheviks the Tsar’s despotic government should have shot to save Russia from the infinitely worse curse of Soviet communism.)
The analogy is instructive, probably because many Americans have acquired a somewhat rosy memory of the Shah’s Iran, or at least fondness for the time when the country didn’t cause America much in the way of problems. But no one should mistake the Shah’s reign as some sort of golden age for Iranians. To give a sense, here is Kenneth Pollack in The Persian Puzzle (Pollack, who once reigned as the neocons favorite Capitol Hill liberal, is certainly no dove) on the American record with the Shah:
The one area in which the United States neglect of Iran was most damaging—and most difficult to forgive—was in the sphere of human rights. The shah’s police state terrorized the Iranian populace. Tens of thousands may have been tortured by SAVAK, and at least thousands were murdered. Despite the efforts of Iranians and others to prove it, no evidence has ever been produced that the United States directly aided SAVAK in this grisly record…But we did turn a deaf ear too those pleading for our help to stop these practices.
The US government certainly did want the Shah’s dictatorship to survive, and sent numerous emissaries to bolster it when it began to falter. But it was hard to know how or where to stop the revolution once it started. The anti-Shah demonstrations which snowballed in 1978 made the Iranian revolution the most popularly engaged revolution in human history, according to one serious assessment. Ten percent of the Iranian population participated in anti-regime demonstrations or general strikes, versus two percent of the French and one percent of the Russians, during their respective revolutions. (And this before Twitter!)
This comparison shouldn’t be used to whitewash crimes committed by the Iranian Islamic Republic, which has been just as brutal towards domestic dissenters as the Shah, and perhaps more so. It’s hard to conclude other than that the Iranian people have been besieged by bad government for more than sixty years, at least—a period broken by a few interludes during which things promised to get better (the election of Khatami in 1997 was one; this year’s election of Rouhani may be another.)
But it is also worth remembering that the Shah was imposed on Iran by a CIA sponsored coup—where he replaced an Iranian nationalist who was, at least by prevailing standards, the most democratic ruler in the Mideast. This coup and what it represents has become the dominant historical memory of modern Iran, and it wouldn’t be unwise for Americans to give some weight to the historical memory and what it means for the victimized people (as we certainly do with the memories of blacks, Jews, Irish [vis a vis the English] and numerous other groups).
Yesterday, in response to a freedom of information act request, the CIA released a history that acknowledged US complicity in the 1953 coup—not that there was ever any doubt about it. Perhaps the timing of the release was meant a veiled signal to Iran’s new government, that America is willing to face facts. Perhaps it was random. In any case, from an Iranian perspective and probably from a neutral one, the United States has done infinitely more harm to Iran than vice versa. The sort of historical hypotheticals Dreher introduced are often extremely useful, as they they can lay the groundwork for real thought and understanding. Here’s another one: How would Iran have turned out if the CIA had not engineered a coup against its government in 1953?