IRAN: The Crescent of Crisis

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desperately poor, overpopulated and undeveloped, like most of the Third World. What the entire region has in common is an innate fragility, a vulnerability borne of being located at the center of so strategic a territory. The Persian Gulf provides fully 71% of the oil presently consumed by Western Europe; yet geographically, and perhaps also socially and politically, it is a perfect target of opportunity for Soviet expansionism. There is no convincing evidence that the Russians have been subversively operating to get rid of the Shah in Iran or that they are presently working to overthrow other regimes along the crescent. But within a decade, according to intelligence reports, the Soviet Union will be running short of the oil it needs to fuel an expanding economy. Thus the region could easily become the fulcrum of world conflict in the 1980s.

The U.S. at the moment seems unprepared to meet such a challenge. After weeks of indecision and disbelief, the Carter Administration finally realized last month that the Shah's days as an absolute monarch were ending. From the very beginning of the cold war, the Shah's country had been a cornerstone of the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)* and a bulwark of Western influence. It was largely the U.S. that restored the ruler to his Peacock Throne after the overthrow of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Yet U.S. intelligence failed dismally at assessing the depth and range of opposition to the Shah. Jimmy Carter ordered a U.S. carrier task force to steam from the Philippines to the Persian Gulf as a gesture of support. Three days later, on the advice of his foreign policy aides, Carter changed his mind and ordered the ships to remain on station in the South China Sea. Seldom have the limits of American power or the lack of a strong policy been so obvious. In the acid phrase of Conservative Columnist William Safire, the whole exercise was "the first example of no-gunboat gunboat diplomacy: we showed a naked flagpole."

In fairness, the dilemma created by Iran is one that would have tested any American President. The Carter Administration inherited a relationship with the Shah that could hardly have been more cozy. In 1972 Richard Nixon decided to lift all restrictions on arms sales to the Shah. Soon billions of dollars' worth of the most sophisticated weaponry and aircraft in the U.S. arsenal began pouring into Iran. America's decision to depend on the Shah as its surrogate policeman in the Persian Gulf was perceived as even more crucial in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, when Iran disregarded the boycott and continued to sell vital petroleum to the West. In retrospect, one top U.S. policymaker of that period reflects: "We let the arms sales get out of control, and we failed to press the Shah to establish the roots of democratic institutions."

Until recently, the Shah was believed by practically all Western observers to have a base of support that included the peasantry, the middle classes who were supposed to benefit from the Shah's heady campaign of modernization, and the armed forces. Exactly what happened to that support will be debated for a long time. Without doubt the answer is more complex than the pat view of some American journalists who today try to argue that the Shah never enjoyed much support at home and was largely an invention of the CIA.

Certainly he was

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