Iran used to be one of the United States’ greatest allies in the Middle East. This alliance fell apart at the time of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Iranian Revolution was short but violent, causing many civilians to lose their lives. The United States had the power to intervene, stop the revolution, and prevent the loss of civilian life. They had a significant investment in Iran and lost it all during the revolution. Some might say that it was possible for the United States to end the revolution and that it would have been in the United States’ best interest to stop it or that it was the moral thing to do. This brings about the question of why did the United States consider intervening, but ultimately refuse to fully intervene in the Iranian Revolution of 1979? This paper will address why the United States did not intervene in the revolution using the primary ethical theory of state moralism and the alternate theory of defensive realism.
This paper is broken up into seven sections with the first section being the introduction followed by the background of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its significance today. The third section will define state moralism, a theory which will be used to explain why the United States did not intervene in the revolution. The fourth section will be the hypothesis which will put the theory into the context of the situation. The fifth section is the analysis of the theory in regard to the situation. The sixth section will be an alternative theory and its application to the situation to explain why the United States did not intervene in the revolution. Lastly, there will be a conclusion to summarize this paper. This paper will test the ability of the ethical theory of state moralism to explain why the United States did not fully intervene in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the government of Iran was very different from what it is today. Due to the 1970’s oil boom in the Middle East, the United States saw Iran as a strategic position in the Middle East. To gain a foothold in the region, the U.S. helped place the monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was pro-American which upset the revolutionary group of Iranians which was led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Khomeini wanted a new government focusing on Islamic ideals and the privatization of Iranian oil while the Shah wanted to westernize the people of Iran. However, while the Shah of Iran did attempt to achieve this westernization, he did so through oppressive means.
The Shah had his own personal secret police called the SAVAK. It was a “fearful force that was almost everywhere and everyone believed that any dissent, any opposition, legal or otherwise would not be tolerated by SAVAK and the people would be arrested and would be tortured” (Hadian). The SAVAK assassinated individuals who were thought to be a threat to the government. Some of the popular SAVAK torture method included the following: “electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails” (Ministry of Security SAVAK). Regular people were becoming victims of the SAVAK.
The bloodshed of the revolution was completely one-sided with military members killing civilian protestors (Dorman 155). “For more than a year literally millions of Iranians faced tanks and machine guns with little more than moral outrage” (Dorman 156). The estimated number of casualties range from a little over three thousand to over seventy thousand. The government of Iran reports 70,000 “martyrs” but alternative reports estimate 3,164 Iranians were killed in the Iranian Revolution (Kadivar). Whatever the number, civilians being killed in any conflict is unacceptable.
An example of the travesties that went on during the Iranian Revolution was the Jaleh Square massacre. Iran was under martial law but a demonstration was held in the capital of Tehran. The government used military force to break up the peaceful demonstration killing up to 3,000 civilians (Kadivar).
After the revolution the government became a theocracy and was called the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran went from a pro-Western government to becoming very cautious of the West.
The United States has recently declared Iran to be part of the “Axis of Evil.” However, prior to 1979, the United States used to consider Iran to be one of its greatest allies. Iran accounted for 40% of the United States’ oil imports (U.S. Arms Deal with Iran Faces Rising Criticism). In addition, Iran was one of the United States’ “most important customer abroad for the products of the U.S. arms industry” (U.S. Arms Deal with Iran Faces Rising Criticism). President Reagan even went as far as saying that the Shah of Iran was one of our best allies (Reagan). With Iran being such an important ally to the United States it is important to understand why the United States did not end the revolution which ultimately severed the alliance between the United States and Iran.
There have been multiple revolutions in recent history and it is interesting to compare the United States’ action in these to the Iranian Revolution. The recent Egyptian revolution that began in 2011 was similar to the Iranian Revolution in several ways. The revolution started out with peaceful protests but then broke out into armed violence between the protestors and the military (Kirkpartick). The revolution was also supported by the majority in both conflicts (McLaren). In Egypt, the people were protesting corruption in government, police brutality as well as social and economic differences. The revolution in Iran was partly focused on getting rid of the Western influence in the country (Argo). However, there was also resentment against the Shah’s economic injustice against the working class (Abrahamian, 513). In both the Egyptian and Iranian Revolution, each state went into a police/military state creating injustice against the people. The militaries opened fire against the civilian populations and thousands died.
However, there is one key difference between the Egyptian revolution and the Iranian Revolution. The Egyptians wanted to transition into a democratic state while the Iranian transitioned into a theocracy that was skeptical about the West. The new “military leaders who took power [in Egypt] are not anti-American and are likely to preserve the U.S. interests in the area” (Hamid). So the main difference in the Egyptian revolution and the Iranian Revolution was the resultant government from each conflict. In both conflicts, the United States did not intervene militarily.
As mentioned above, this paper will explain why the United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution. This answer may also fit into situation of the Egyptian revolution. It is important to understand past decisions to understand why the United States’ government acts the way it does in today’s world.
Michael Walzer helped develop the ideas of state moralism which is an ethical theory of international relations which “argues that international politics rests on a society of states with certain rules” (Nye 199). One of the most important rules about state moralism is respecting state sovereignty. Each state has their own moral code and “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states is related to respect for individuals” of that state (Nye 199). States have the power to “collectively determine their own affairs” (Walzer, 87). State moralism even goes as far as to say that “any use of force or imminent threat of force by one state against political sovereignty or territorial integrity of another constitutes aggression and is a criminal act” (Walzer, 62). Intervening in a state’s affairs is a violation of a state’s right to govern its’ people.
A negative impact of state moralism is that it does not put the individual first as it is a rule based system of ethics. A state cannot intervene if human rights are being violated by another state because they have to respect the other state’s sovereignty. A realistic view on state moralism though is that the main rule is often violated. History is evidence that states do not always uphold the rule of state sovereignty.
An alternative view on sovereignty is that it is based on the view of the people. “If there is a conflict between a state and the people, then the peoples’ will should prevail” (Abrams, 2000). A state can only intervene in another state’s affairs if it has the authorization from the intervened state’s people. If the majority of the people in a state want intervention then it would not be a crime to intervene in that state. This makes sovereignty relative as it is based on the choice of the people. The people can change their minds which in turn would determine whether or not an outside country intervenes.
To use state moralism it is important to define some key terms that will be used throughout this paper. “A state is a collection of like-minded individuals who have come together for a common life” (Nye 199). To further clarify, a state has territory and a government that assists in this common life. There are multiple definitions of sovereignty but this paper will use the traditional definition which states that sovereignty is the authority of a state to govern itself with its own moral code and to control its own territorial region. This paper will use this definition of sovereignty because it is objective and can be measured.
Under the assumptions of state moralism we can conclude that statehood does not cause intervention because of respect of sovereignty. Alternatively we can also conclude that absence of statehood causes intervention due to lack of sovereignty.
State moralism can be applied to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and this paper will explain why the United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution in terms of state sovereignty. The United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 because they recognized Iran as a state and respected Iran’s sovereignty. In order to do this we must answer the following research questions:
Research Question One: Was Iran a recognized state by the United States?
Research Question Two: Did the United States intervene in the Iranian Revolution of 1979?
Research Question Three: Was the reason the United States did or did not intervene because of sovereignty?
This paper must define our independent and dependent variables along with the casual logic. The independent variable is the idea of statehood. Iran can either be viewed as a state or not a state by the United States. The dependent variable is intervention – whether or not the United States intervened in the Iranian Revolution. The casual logic is sovereignty – if there was or was not intervention, was it due to respect of sovereignty? This explanation is important to understand why the United States intervenes in revolutions when it does. The effect of this hypothesis can be seen in current events happening around the world. It might be possible to infer that the United States will not intervene in any revolution due to state moralism.
The analysis will answer the three research questions found in the hypothesis. By answering these questions this paper will prove or disprove the hypothesis that the United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution because it recognized Iran as a state and respected Iran’s borders.
Was Iran a recognized state by the United States?
Iran is considered a state by the United States. They were economic trading partners and fully supported the Shah when he was in power. President Carter visited Iran in 1977 and gave the following toast: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you” (Rosecrance 136). President Carter was the Foreign Policy Director and it is clear that he recognized Iran as a state. Iran had territory and the president thought the people shared a common interest of love for the Shah.
The Senate often hears words from ambassadors. Ambassadors are representatives for states. In 1977, the Senate also played the following speech from Ambassador Zahedi:
I will have to focus your attention on what we call our ‘Shah and People’s Revolution.’ I know that few among you would think of Iran as a country in midst of a revolution… As in every sovereign state, I am sure you will understand that we would be remiss in our duty to our people if we were not concerned with their well-being and safety. (Congressional Record vol. 123 15848-15849)
The Senate accepted the ambassador, who represents the state of Iran. His words spoke to the fact that Iran is a sovereign state. The Senate also accepts the fact that Iran is a country undergoing a humanitarian crisis.
It is clear that the United States accepted Iran as a state as the U.S. was responsible for empowering the Shah of Iran and giving him legitimacy; not doing so would be extremely difficult.
Did the United States intervene in the Iranian Revolution of 1979?
The United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. President Carter said “That decision was not to intervene, not even through an activist political-diplomatic intermediation strategy, because even that ran counter to his core conviction of noninterventionism” (Jentleson 381). Critics on the left and the right said that “Carter was more concerned with pulling the United States back from involvement with offending regimes than with changing these regimes (the left) or ensuring that they did not change to something worse (the right)” (Jentleson 363). Either way, Carter made the conscious decision not to fully intervene in Iran. United States’ deployed troop levels dropped to about 10% of pre-1979 levels (Kane). The United States sent a strong message that they were not going to get involved in Iran.
Was the reason the United States did or did not intervene because of sovereignty?
President Carter said in a public response about whether the Shah could survive the Iranian Revolution and said that the conflict was “a decision for the Iranian people to make… We have never had any intention and don’t have any intention of trying to intercede in the internal political affairs of Iran” (Jentleson 369). Carter did not side with his foreign policy advisors but instead both Carter and Reagan acted against Iran through the lens of containment (Pollack). They would not intervene but were ready for the outcome of the Iranian Revolution. They made the conscious decision not to act in Iran.
“The typical milquetoast response from the US State Department indicated that nothing would be done to interfere with Iran’s internal affairs. In fact, it was a statement by President Carter on December 1978 press conference that seemed to seal the Shah’s fate. When asked if the Shah would prevail in Iran, Carter answered: ‘We [the US] personally prefer that the Shah maintain a major role in government but that’s a decision for the Iranian people to make” (Evans 254)
The Carter administration made it very clear that Iran was responsible for solving its own problems. The United States was not going to become directly involved in its internal affairs and would respect Iran’s sovereignty. This ultimately led to the United States setting trade restrictions on Iran and recently calling Iran a part of the “Axis of Evil”.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 can alternatively be explained through the lens of defensive realism, in which “states balance power rather than maximize it” (Waltz 127). Defensive realism says that the main concern of states is to secure their position in the international realm. A state’s first priority is to maintain their security. Security caused non-intervention because states do not seek to maximize power; rather, they seek to maintain it. To explain why the United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution using defensive realism, the following research questions must be answered:
Research Question One: Did the United States have security?
Research Question Two: Did the United States intervene in the Iranian Revolution of 1979?
Research Question Three: Was the reason the United States did or did not intervene because they had enough security?
This paper is defining security in terms of oil. Oil was a major export in Iran and accounted for 40% of the United States’ oil import (U.S. Arms Deal with Iran Faces Rising Criticism). However, the Iranian people wanted to privatize Iran’s oil in conjunction with removing all westernized influences (Argo). Privatizing Iranian oil would have made prices go up as the United States controlled most of Iran’s oil through the Shah. The oil prices were stable pre-Iranian Revolution but increased when the revolution began. To say that the Iranian Revolution did not have an impact on United States’ oil prices would be absurd. We can conclude that the Iranian Revolution impacted the United States’ security.
The second research question has already been answered in the analysis portion of this paper. The United States did not have to intervene in the Iranian Revolution because they had Saudi Arabia to replace Iran’s oil production. “Saudi Arabia’s single most important resource is oil” and “its oil reserves are estimated to be the largest in the world” (Hitti 247). United States imports from Saudi Arabia almost tripled in 1976, three years before the Iranian Revolution (U.S. Imports from Saudi Arabia of Crude Oil and Petroleum Products). In 1978, the Saudis increased oil production to compensate for the Iranian crisis (Pollack 80). There are even reports that the United States had “contributed to the shah’s fall” as they were “inching toward realignment with Saudi Arabia as the key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf” (Daragahi). It is safe to say that the United States did not need Iran for oil as they now had Saudi Arabia. In fact, Iran is still producing less oil today that it was pre-Iranian Revolution (History and Analysis – Crude Oil Prices).
The Iranian Revolution impacted the United States’ oil prices. However, they did not have to intervene in the conflict due to the fact that Saudi Arabia had an abundance of oil and was willing to work with the United States. Saudi Arabia effectively replaced Iranian oil imports to the United States.
Iran used to be one of the United States’ greatest allies in the Middle East. This alliance fell apart at the time of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Iranian Revolution was short but violent, causing many civilians to lose their lives. The theories of state moralism and defensive realism were used throughout this paper to come to a conclusion on why the United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution. Using state moralism, this paper has explained why the United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution because it recognized Iran as a state and respected Iran’s borders. An alternate hypothesis was tested that the reason the United States did not intervene was because they did not want to maximize their power in terms of oil in the region. This topic is important because revolutions happen and it is important to know how the United States might act. The United States did not intervene in the Egyptian revolution and through this paper we might assume that it was because of the same reasons that the United States did not intervene in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.