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The preachments seemed to have little effect, as the Shah set about building the most thoroughly Westernized nation in all of the Muslim world. The progress achieved in a deeply backward country was stunning. Petroleum revenues built steel mills, nuclear power plants, telecommunication systems and a formidable military machine, complete with U.S. supersonic fighters and missiles. Dissent was ruthlessly suppressed, in part by the use of torture in the dungeons of SAVAK, the secret police. It is still not clear how widespread the tortures and political executions were; but the Shah did not heed U.S. advice to liberalize his regime, and repression inflamed rather than quieted dissent.
By 1978 the Shah had alienated almost all elements of Iranian society. Westernized intellectuals were infuriated by rampant corruption and repression; workers and peasants by the selective prosperity that raised glittering apartments for the rich while the poor remained in mud hovels; bazaar merchants by the Shah-supported businessmen who monopolized bank credits, supply contracts and imports; the clergy and their pious Muslim followers by the gambling casinos, bars and discothéques that seemed the most visible result of Westernization. (One of the Shah's last prime ministers also stopped annual government subsidies to the mullahs.) Almost everybody hated the police terror and sneered in private at the Shah's Ozymandian megalomania, symbolized by a $100 million fete he staged at Persepolis in 1971 to celebrate the 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. In fact, the Shah's father was a colonel in the army when he overthrew the Qajar dynasty in 1925, and as Khomeini pointed out angrily from exile at the time of the Persepolis festival, famine was raging in that part of the country.
But the U.S. saw the Shah as a stable and valuable ally. Washington was annoyed by the Shah's insistence on raising oil prices at every OPEC meeting, yet that irritation was outweighed by the fact that the Shah was staunchly anti-Communist and a valuable balance wheel in Middle East politics. Eager to build up Iran as a "regional influential" that could act as America's surrogate policeman of the Persian Gulf, the U.S. lent the Shah its all-out support. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger allowed him to buy all the modern weapons he wanted. Washington also gave its blessing to a flood of American business investment in Iran and dispatched an army of technocrats there.
The depth of its commitment to the Shah apparently blinded Washington to the growing discontent. U.S. policymakers wanted to believe that their investment was buying stability and friendship; they trusted what they heard from the monarch, who dismissed all opposition as "the blah-blahs of armchair critics." Even after the revolution began, U.S. officials were convinced that "there is no alternative to the Shah." Carter took time out from the Camp David summit in September 1978 to phone the Iranian monarch and assure him of Washington's continued support.
By then it was too