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Jugular Vein. Some of Iran's Arab neighbors wonder whether the Shah really needs all that expensive hardware and worry about his ambitions. "With each generation of weaponry," one Pentagon expert observes, "his defense perimeter expands." In answer, Iranians point out that they share a 1,100-mile border with the Soviet Union; and the Russians, they argue, have never really given up their interest in gaining control of Iran's oilfields some day. Iran also has an inimical and testy neighbor in Iraq, which has been massively supplied with Soviet weaponry. The forces of the two states frequently clash head-on along the border. In the most recent skirmish last spring, Iran lost 42 men in a fierce firefight but killed at least 39 Iraqis in return.
The Shah maintains that he is building a force with the primary mission of protecting Arabs and Iranians alike in the Persian Gulf, from which 86% of the non-Communist world's crude shipments originate. The gulf at its neck narrows until the supertanker channel is only twelve miles wide at the Strait of Hormuz, which Premier Hoveida calls "our jugular vein." Iran worries that dissident forces, like the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, which is currently fighting Sultan Qabus in Oman, could block the strait by sinking a supertanker. The Shah's response has been a pride of military powers so vast that he not only can neutralize the guerrillas but also dominate the gulf. Says one U.S. diplomat: "The Arabs like to call it the Arabian Gulf. But it really is the Persian Gulf. It's the Shah's lake."
A well-equipped military loyal to the Shah would also be helpful in putting down any dissident uprising within Iran. The Emperor freely admits that opposition to the monarchy is not tolerated in Iran, and he has methodically repressed dissent. His principal instrument for maintaining internal security, as he sees it, is SAVAK, Iran's feared secret police organization which routinely scrutinizes even job applications and requests for exit visas. Its name is an acronym from the Farsi words Sazeman Ettelaat va Amniat Keshvar (Security and Information Organization). The Shah himself insists that SAVAK is not large, and some Western observers in Tehran wonder whether it is as efficient as Iranians believe. Nevertheless, the secret police, through a large network of informers, have been responsible for making countless arrests of leftists on occasionally vague anti-Shah charges and for at least 200 executions. The Shah, who has twice been a target of assassination attempts, travels with a heavy security guard and makes fewer public appearances these days.
If the Shah has both strong intimations of mortality and a divine sense of mission, it may well be because his dynasty is of surprisingly recent origin. His father, Reza Shah, was a swaggering 45-year-old army major in 1921 when he seized power from the corrupt Qajar dynasty. Harsh and intractable, Reza Shah was unable to cope with the world powers that interfered in Persian affairs after oil was discovered. Finally, in 1941, on the ground that he had become dangerously friendly with the Hitler regime, Reza Shah was packed off to exile in South Africa by the British and Russians. The throne passed to his shy, diffident 22-year-old son.