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US-Iran split: how old friends became foes

The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations, by James A. Bill. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 520 pp. $25. ONCE best friends, the United States and Iran today scrutinize each other through their warships' telescopic sights. Who's to blame?

In ``The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations,'' James A. Bill places the white hats on the Shiite clerics. The black turbans belong to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, David Rockefeller, and a host of other politicians and Washington arm-twisters.

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From the establishment of relations in 1883 until World War II, the United States enjoyed widespread popularity in Iran by leaving its internal affairs alone. Then Iran's oil reserves persuaded the US to be a player alongside the intervening British and Soviets.

The US began to squander its reservoir of Iranian goodwill through actions like the CIA-staged overthrow of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953 and the boycott of nationalized Iranian oil. Particularly outrageous to Iranians was the Status of Forces Agreement, a long-sought prize the US obtained in 1964. That agreement, which exempted a vast number of Americans from Iranian law, was quickly denounced in what Bill calls ``one of the most important and moving political statements made in Iran in this century.'' The speaker was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

``They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog,'' he said. ``If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. ... But if an American cook runs over the Shah, the head of state, no one will have the right to interfere with him.'' No wonder American teen-agers would later feel free to ride motorbikes through the Shah Mosque.

Meanwhile, America succumbed to the charm of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Ambassador after ambassador, president after president (Kennedy excepted), embraced his rule and endorsed his methods. True, the Shah had a lot to offer: low-key support for Israel, prime sites from which the CIA could snoop on Soviet activities, a moderating influence within OPEC, and a hunger for weapons systems that was so insatiable that it helped balance US trade.

US leaders came to regard the Shah as indestructible and indispensable. Infatuation blinded them to millions of famine-ravished Iranians whom the Pahlavi regime, and by association America, increasingly alienated. Bill dissects the State Department's intelligence-gathering system, exposing the built-in failure mechanisms that institutionalized ignorance of the opposition's very existence. As for the CIA, its eyes were on the Soviets.

So overcommitted were Congress and the White House that the approaching end provoked a massive denial reflex and a refusal to deal with the emerging leadership. Even the Shah was incredulous when he learned that Brzezinski nixed a plan to contact Khomeini. ``How can you expect to have any influence with these people if you won't meet with them?'' he asked.

Massive rioting throughout 1978 finally convinced the Shah that he could no longer militarily occupy his own country. He fled on Jan. 16, 1979, and the Army collapsed a few days later. Now Iranian eyes were on the US. Would it recognize the new government or attempt to restore the Shah?

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Every signal Washington sent was the wrong one. The final straw was President Carter's decision to admit the Shah into the US.

The fall of the Shah and its ongoing aftermath - including the arms-for-hostages boondoggle - are America's biggest foreign policy debacle since the Vietnam war. This remarkable case study reveals what went wrong and how it might have been mitigated, if not prevented.

Bill is director of the Center of International Studies at the College of William and Mary. Fluent in Farsi, the language of Iran, he has spent 27 years probing the inner workings of Iranian society.

Scott Pendleton is on the Monitor staff.

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