The Alternative in Iran: From December 23, 1978

Editors note: In the October 15 America, the editors assess Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejads visit to the United Nations and Columbia University. In December 1978, just a month before the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the editors considered the countrys grim future under an Islamic extremist:

The growing uneasiness of the Carter Administration over the drama unfolding in Iran suggests that it may be losing its confidence in the Shahs ability to survive. President Carter may not have said so unequivocally. Yet George W. Ball has been hastily summoned out of retirement to help shape policy alternatives amid the uncertainties of Teheran. To illustrate the Administrations unease, 1,200 wives and children of U.S. Embassy personnel, about one-third of the U.S. Government dependents in Iran, have chosen to leave the country, all within hours of Wahingtons offer of a free ride home. Their hasty departure set off a new flight wave among the dependents of the American business community. Over the past three months, more than 8,000 of the 45,000 Americans in have left.

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The continuing crisis in Iran poses a stark dilemma for the United States. At the moment, the only force holding the country back from sheer anarchy is the Iranian Army. For this reason, U.S. policy would appear to have no alternative except to support the Shah, at least until the agitation in the streets exhausts itself, in order to prevent the chaos almost certain to follow his abdication. Moreover, the crisis in bears implications that extend far beyond the country itself, for chaos in this key Persian Gulf state would in all probability signal the beginning of an unraveling process through the Middle East. The Western world and Japan cannot ignore the fact that 75 percent of their oil imports flows through the Persian Gulf. On balance, therefore, if order can be restored to the streets of Teheran, it probably is preferable to allow a process of political evolution to proceed under the Shahs leadership. Whether such peaceful evolution is possible remains in doubt.

The U.S. dilemma would be easily resolved if there were plausible alternatives to the regime of the Shah. As it is, however, the opposition is a mixed bag representing every shade of the political spectrum from right to left. Nowhere does a figure stand out as a credible political leader. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the principal instigator of the riots and demonstrations, preaches religious revival from his 15-year exile in Paris. While he calls for the establishment of an Islamic republic, which would be light years away from the Shahs vision of a modernized Iran, the local, small-town mullahs, with radical populist voices, urge the people of Iran to "turn away from foreign ways." What the Ayatollah and the mullahs have in mind, one fears, is an Iran modeled on the Libya of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. If the Ayatollah has his way, the jeans-clad Iranian women photographed during the anti-Shah demonstrations in Teheran could expect, irony that it would be, to be banished to the village and the veil.

What is left for the traditional political opposition in is the National Front, a political party that stands for a vapid socialism. It is a remnant of the days of Mossadegh and is today but a feeble facsimile of its once influential self. Nor is there any real alternative on the far left. The Communist Tudeh Party is well organized and is using the unrest for its own purposes. Yet its following is negligible, a fact recognized by the Soviet Union, which has thus far taken a surprisingly moderate stand on events in Iran; it, too, has reason to fear the chaotic consequences of the Shahs fall.

At the same time, it is impossible not to reach the conclusion that the disaffection in Iran permeates all strata of Iranian society. The very fact alone that over a million people turned out for a public demonstration against the Shah on December 11 is, in itself, a forceful statement. To quote one British observer in Teheran, the spectacle had the unmistakable appearance of a "large national solidarity movement." Yet, as determined as this opposition is to get rid of an autocracy so many Iranians have come to hate, its leaders have their own misgivings about the possible consequences. A lawyer in the opposition admitted: "Khomeini is not harsh like the Shah, but he is just as convinced that he has all the answers. I hope we dont climb out of a ditch only to fall into a well."

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