Jimmy Carter's Support For the Shah of Iran

In discussions of the relationship between former president Jimmy

Carter and the shah of Iran, some (conservative) writers have alleged

that Carter's failure to support the shah led to the success of the

Iranian revolution and thereby "betrayed" the United States. Others

(leftists) have alleged that Carter gave unstinting support to the

shah, notwithstanding Iran's horrific human rights record and the

Carter administration's public professions of concern for human

rights. I'd like to know how to evaluate these claims. Specifically:

*What support did the Carter adminstration provide to the Shah's

regime terms of and financial and mililtary assistance?

*What public manifestations of support did the Carter administration

provide (speeches, state visits, etc.)?

*What pressure did the Carter administration exert on the Shah to

improve his human rights record?

*Was any aid actually withheld? Did U.S. support for the Shah's regime

increase or decline under Carter?

One thought on “Jimmy Carter's Support For the Shah of Iran

  1. Hello.

    I'll start with your first and last questions because they are closely


    *What support did the Carter adminstration provide to the Shah's

    regime terms of and financial and mililtary assistance?

    *Was any aid actually withheld? Did U.S. support for the Shah's regime

    increase or decline under Carter?

    The US government stopped giving "aid" to Iran in the late 1960s.

    "When the US AID mission to Tehran was closed in 1967, it had

    chanelled a total of $1 billion in US military and economic aid to

    Iran since its creation in 1954. The last military sales to Iran

    funded by Pentagon grants or MAP funds were delivered in 1969."

    source: Iran.org

    Fanning the Flames: Guns, Greed & Geopolitics in the Gulf War


    High oil prices in the 1970s allowed the Iranian government to pay for

    its own military programs. With the approval of the U.S. government,

    American defense contractors sold billions of dollars worth of

    military equipment to the Shah. This was the policy under the Nixon,

    Ford and Carter administrations.

    Carter entered office in 1977 with pledges to "moralize" U.S. arms

    sales, saying that the U.S. should not be "the first supplier to

    introduce into a region newly developed advanced weapon systems which

    could create a new or significantly higher combat capability." At the

    same time, Carter continued his predecessors' policies of approving

    large weapons sales to Iran. In fact, the arms sales to Iran appear

    to have accelerated under Carter. Total U.S. arms sales to Iran for

    the Nixon/Ford term of 1972-76 were $10.4 billion. During the Carter

    administration and "before the Shah fled the country on January 16,

    1979 he had placed orders with US contractors for an additional $12.2

    billion of military hardware, with deliveries to be spread over the

    following three years."

    source: Iran.org

    Fanning the Flames: Guns, Greed & Geopolitics in the Gulf War



    *What public manifestations of support did the Carter administration

    provide (speeches, state visits, etc.)?

    Carter's major manifestations of support for the Shah came in the form

    of the Shah's visit to the White House in November 1977 and Carter's

    visit to Iran on New Year's Eve of the same years.

    November 1977… "the shah's first meeting with President Carter in

    Washington D.C., was disrupted by angry Iranian students. The

    demonstrators, mainly Marxist activists members and supporters of

    various branches of the Confederation of Iranian Students Abroad, had

    been active against the imperial regime for years. The sight of the

    shah, President Carter, their aids and their wives suffering from tear

    gas inhalation meant for the demonstrators was unforgettable and was

    broadcast all over the world.

    The shah's visit to Washington D.C. and President Carter's return

    visit to Tehran in late December 1977, during which he called the

    shah's Iran "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas

    of the world," seems to have had two results as Iran prepared to meet

    the turbulent days of 1978. First, the shah and President Carter

    developed a working relationship and the shah was assured of strong

    U.S. backing for the imperial regime. Second, the shah reaffirmed his

    resolve to push for reforms in Iran. Issues such as human rights and

    political freedoms were discussed but no pressure was exerted on the


    source: "Rebels with a cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran,"

    hosted by Iranian.com


    "Fast forward to New Years Eve, 1977: President Carter toasted the

    Shah at a state dinner in Tehran, calling him 'an island of stability'

    in the troubled Middle East. What the president also knew, but chose

    to ignore, was that the Shah was in serious trouble. As opposition to

    his government mounted, he had allowed his secret police, SAVAK, to

    crack down on dissenters, fueling still more resentment. Within weeks

    of Carter's visit, a series of protests broke out in the religious

    city of Qom, denouncing the Shah's regime as 'anti-Islamic.'"

    source: PBS.org


    "The two countries were really close to the extent that Jimmy Carter

    and the Shah together celebrated the new 1978 year in Teheran. The

    American President danced with Shah’s wife Farah and the Shah’s twin

    sister Princess Ashraf. William Sullivan, the then U.S. Ambassador in

    Iran, later recalled: “The President was in excellent mood. In his

    speech he said: 'Under the Shah’s brilliant leadership Iran is an

    island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions of the

    world. There is no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like

    more.'"2 This was their last meeting."

    source: GEOPOLITICAL ASPECTS OF ISLAMIZATION, hosted by ca-c.org


    Detailed information about the chronology of the New Year's Eve visit

    is available from the Jimmy Carter Library:


    More evidence of support…

    "As late as December 12, 1978, during a White House press conference,

    President Carter still reaffirmed his belief in the Shah. 'I fully

    expect the Shah to maintain power in Iran and for the present problems

    in Iran to be resolved. The predictions of doom and disaster that came

    from some sources have certainly not been realized at all (14).'"

    source: Iran.org

    Fanning the Flames: Guns, Greed & Geopolitics in the Gulf War


    Finally, consider President Carter's own assertion that "we gave the

    Shah every possible legitimate support."

    "…it was a blow to the United States when the Shah was deposed. He

    had been a close associate, an ally with, I think, if I'm not

    mistaken, seven presidents who preceded me, and we never dreamed that

    the Shah was likely to be overthrown by his own people. But when he

    became embattled by attacks from his own people at home, and

    particularly from the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was issuing broadcasts

    and tape recordings from France, we gave the Shah every possible

    legitimate support."

    source: Jimmy Carter Interview, hosted by gwu.edu:


    Overally, it's pretty clear that relations between the Shah and Carter

    administration were quite cordial. For a general example of the

    nature of teh relationship, see this 1977 address by a State

    Department official:

    "The U.S. and Iran, An Increasing Partnership"



    *What pressure did the Carter administration exert on the Shah to

    improve his human rights record?

    Carter's main pressure seems to have come during the November 1977

    meeting at the White House, where he apparently pressed the Shah to

    implement some human rights reforms.

    "…President Carter, in those meeting and talks, had demanded serious

    liberalization of Iran's political and economic institutions and had

    tied the Shah's demand for sophisticated weaponry to serious and

    tangible improvement in Iran's human rights record and Iran's domestic

    political freedoms. So had members of U.S. Congressional Committees on

    Foreign Relations and Arms Sales.

    "Carter started by pressuring the Shah to release 'political

    prisoners' including known terrorists and to put an end to military

    tribunals. The newly released terrorists would be tried under civil

    jurisdiction with the Marxist/Islamists using these trials as a

    platform for agitation and propaganda."


    "Carter pressured Iran to allow for 'free assembly' which meant that

    groups would be able to meet and agitate for the overthrow of the


    In November 1977, the Shah and his Empress, Farah Diba, visited the

    White House… Carter pressured the Shah to implement even more

    radical changes."

    source: "Carter Sold Out Iran 1977-1978," hosted by chuckmorses


    Here are President Carter's own words on the subject:

    "Did you tell him, when you were in office, what you thought of his

    record on human rights?

    JC: Yes, very strongly. When the Shah was in Washington for a state

    visit in November of 1977, his secret police, Savak, had fired into a

    crowd of peaceful demonstrators and killed, I believe, several hundred

    of them. When the Shah came to visit me, I took him aside into a small

    office that I had adjacent to the Oval Office, and I told him that I

    thought that he was making a serious mistake in violating the human

    rights of his own people through his secret police and in taking

    strong military action against peaceful demonstrators. I advised him

    strongly not to do this any further. He replied to me with some degree

    of scorn and said that not only the United States but all the European

    countries were making a serious mistake in permitting demonstrations

    of our people against our government, that this was obviously a

    communist plot to overthrow democracy and freedom in the Western

    world, and we were ignorant as leaders in not stamping out this kind

    of demonstration at its earliest stage. And he said that.. in the

    nation of Iran there were just a tiny handful of people who opposed

    his regime, and these were all communists, inspired and controlled

    from outside, that there was no indigenous threat to his popularity.

    That was his response. It was a very frank and fairly unpleasant

    confrontation, but in private."

    source: Jimmy Carter Interview, hosted by gwu.edu:



    Finally, here is some general information on this subject:

    "Did the Carter administration 'lose' Iran, as some have suggested?

    Gaddis Smith might have put it best: 'President Carter inherited an

    impossible situation — and he and his advisers made the worst of it.'

    Carter seemed to have a hard time deciding whether to heed the advice

    of his aggressive national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who

    wanted to encourage the Shah to brutally suppress the revolution, or

    that of his more cautious State Department, which suggested Carter

    reach out to opposition elements in order to smooth the transition to

    a new government. In the end he did neither, and suffered the


    source: American Experience

    "People & Events: The Iranian Hostage Crisis, November 1979 – January

    1981," hosted by pbs.org


    "Throughout all of 1978, as demonstrations and violence shook Teheran

    and weakened the Shah’s hold on power, the Carter administration

    oscillated back and forth between supporting him and pressing for


    source: "Avoiding the Burden: the Carter Doctrine in perspective,"

    hosted by maxwell.af.mil:


    "There is extensive documentation on the various and sometimes

    conflicting efforts made by U.S. officials beginning in November 1978

    to persuade the Shah to respond to domestic demands for reform and to

    share and then transfer power to moderate opposition elements. The

    final agonizing days of the Shah's regime and Prime Minister

    Bakhtiar's last futile attempts to keep the Islamic fundamentalist

    movement in check and maintain a Western-oriented and more democratic

    government in power are described in detail. The documents also give

    some evidence of the divisions and uncertainty within the Carter

    administration over how to deal with the revolutionary movement.

    Although the White House reaffirmed its support for the Shah and the

    monarchy until the middle of December 1978, the Embassy was vigorously

    involved in negotiations to accomplish a transfer of power to the



    "Iran: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1980"


    Finally, I found a reference to a book called "Roots Of Revolution An

    Interpretive History of Modern Iran" (1981) by Nikki R. Keddie.

    According to a review, one of the main claims of this book is that

    U.S. policy toward the Shah didn't really make much difference either

    way. In other words, the Iran situation was not the result of

    President Carter giving too much support or not enough support to the

    Shah. Rather, Keddie apparently argues that the Iranian revolution was

    an internal phenomenon that could not have been signficantly altered

    by U.S. policy. Here is a brief excerpt from a review:

    "Ambassador Sullivan's book is premised on the assumption that policy

    alternatives open to the Shah and the United States Government during

    his tenure made a crucial difference; Nikki R. Keddie, a leading

    historian of Iran who watched the Islamic revolution from a distance,

    holds otherwise. 'It seems unlikely that a different American policy

    in 1978-79 could have significantly changed the course of events,' she

    writes. 'Probably only a very different set of policies over the

    previous twenty-five years could have led to different results. As to

    the Shah's vacillating carrot-and-stick behavior … there is no proof

    that different behavior in 1978 would have maintained his throne.'"

    source: Book Review, hosted by danielpipes.org


    I hope this answers your question. If anything is unclear, please use

    the "request clarification" feature. Thanks.

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