Thursday, April 13, 2017

Blind Ambitions: Iran, the Shah and His Friends

To George Meany the Shah of Iran was "a murderer and robbed his country blind." The AFL-CIO leader made that assessment in November, 1979 while simultaneously condemning the "blackmail" strategy of armed, mostly young Iranians who had seized the US Embassy in Tehran. 
      Yet despite his distaste for both sides, Meany still thought US should defend the dying monarch. Murderer or not, said the labor leader, "for some reason he was our friend."
      But whose friend was Mohammed Riza Pahlevi? And why were they friends for so long? Only after he departed the "Peacock throne" did the truth start to emerge, especially about his long and deep ties with David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger and Allen Dulles, a trail of greed and repression that went back decades and continues to produce unsettling, often brutal consequences.
      The Shah was a crucial, often demanding partner in building Iran into a petrochemical powerhouse and US regional gendarme for the Persian Gulf. The arrangement had allowed the Pahlevi family to amass an estimated $25 billion, much of it managed by Rockefeller's Chase Manhattan Bank. Toward the end, as the exiled dictator wasted away from lymph system cancer, Kissinger and Rockefeller remained trusted financial advisers. They were also instrumental in securing his controversial admission to the US in late October, 1979. But by then their shared vision had been crushed by a Muslim revolution.
      The alliance dated back to the 1950s, even before Chase became Iran's premier bank. It began when the National Front, led by Mohammed Mossadegh, proposed in 1952 that the British-controlled oil company be nationalized. Rockefeller and the C.I.A. had other ideas -- to help the military put the Shah back in power and win a share of Iranian oil for the major US oil companies. 
      As the public learned only years later, the coup was financed, with the approval of C.I.A. Director Allen Dulles, for a modest $100,000. Dulles claimed that Mossadegh was attempting to create a Communist state, a convenient and effective pretext to install a ruler who was willing to represent US interests in the region. Through long-term contracts, oil interests did extremely well after that, while Chase handled much of the money and loaned the regime at least $4 billion. Some private deals were also cut, one involving large personal payments to the Shah, Rockefeller and Dulles, funneled through the National Iranian Oil Company and Swiss banks.
      Long before the Iranian takeover of the US embassy, the post-Shah government knew all this and began transferring funds out of the Chase London branch. But anger turned to rage when word leaked out that the Shah's old friends, Kissinger and Rockefeller, were urging US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to grant him asylum. Resisting at first, Vance eventually gave in, setting off a diplomatic disaster even worse than the one that followed the Shah's flight from his country.
The Trilateral Commission briefs President Ford 
    Predictions that the monarch would fall had circulated long in advance. But they were rejected by another friend with Rockefeller connections, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the man in charge of Iranian policy throughout the Carter administration. Before that assignment he had been the founding director of the Trilateral Commission, a transnational corporate league assembled by Rockefeller in 1973. Once in the White House he supported the build up of Iranian military forces, following the policy established by Kissinger. And he assumed, in spite of pessimistic C.I.A. reports, that the Shah would (and should) survive in power.
       As demonstrations escalated Iranian capital, largely hoarded by the many millionaires created by the oil boom, fled the country. Yet even after George Ball, a former Under-Secretary of State and Trilateral member, filed a report concluding that the Shah was finished, White House policy did not budge. Ball's findings, received by Carter a full year before the revolution, were never officially released. 
      Instead, Vance tried to establish contact with Muslim leaders close to Khomeini. But that approach was also blocked by Brzezinski. Keeping the Shah in power seemed to trump other considerations -- from the possibility of a working relationship with the new regime to the danger of a hostile Iranian population armed with sophisticated weapons and technology. They also had an economic weapon, oil.
      No matter who accused the Shah of crimes against humanity, however, some old friends remained faithful. One reason was control of his wealth after he was gone. But there was another. In some cases his friends were also accomplices in his crimes.
      In the 1950s, for example, after restoring the Shah to power, the C.I.A. funded and guided Iran's secret police, SAVAK. Trained by both US and Israeli Intelligence agencies, it became infamous as one of the most brutal tools of "legalized" terror, a worldwide network of 60,000 agents who specialized in harassment and torture of the regime's opponents.
      With covert US funding, the Shah also helped provoke a rebellion in Iraq. Beginning in 1972, over $16 billion was channeled to Kurds who were conducting an armed struggle against the central government. Kissinger embraced the plan, and made sure it was implemented over the objections of the State Department by bypassing the Forty Committee, which normally approved such covert operations. 
      It was a cynical move. Neither Kissinger, Nixon nor the Shah actually wanted the Kurds to win. The main point of the war was to sap Iraq's resources, setting the stage for eventual treaty concessions.
      A US House Select Committee report on the C.I.A. acknowledged at the time that the Kurdish operation was initiated as a favor. By this time, the Shah was able to get such concessions in exchange for his partnership. But it was secret enough that the arrangements were confirmed in person with John Connally, who was about to join Nixon's re-election campaign. 
      Aid to the Kurds continued for several years. Meanwhile OPEC quadrupled the price of oil, vastly expanding Iran's oil revenues. During the same period, the regime purchased more than $12 billion in arms from the US. But the Kurdish rebellion ultimately outlived its usefulness. Once a treaty between Iran and Iraq was signed in 1975, covert aid to the Kurds was abruptly withdrawn.
      The day after that treaty was signed, an all-out search and destroy mission was launched, scattering the rebel forces. All pleas, even from C.I.A. personnel stationed in the region, fell on deaf ears. Kissinger and Nixon meanwhile refused aid for the refugee population that US funding had helped to create. Asked to explain the betrayal, Kissinger responded, "We're not missionaries."
      And after all, giving the Shah what he wanted had produced lucrative oil concessions, billions for arms manufacturers, and a false sense of security for those worried about alleged Communist incursions. On the other hand, he also drove his country into debt and maintained his power with repressive tactics that bred a deep hostility among millions of Iranians. 
      The fall of the Shah was probably inevitable. But by ignoring warning signs and refusing to adapt his "friends" turned that loss into a global disaster.

This article first appeared in the Vermont Vanguard Press in November, 1979. Here is the original version.

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