No Help When Needed

  October 10, 2021   Read time 2 min
No Help When Needed
The Iranian army was dysfunctional from another, much more pernicious, aspect. It was to the army that the shah looked for support in the final days of his rule—and it failed him.

The shah, as we now know, was a fatally ill man, badly debilitated from treatments he was receiving. He wanted the army to help him out, in effect to take some of the burden of suppressing the Khomeinists from him; it proved quite incapable of doing this. In part, the failure of the shah’s army to sustain him was the shah’s own fault. He had so structured it that the officer corps was largely defective. From the very first days of his rule the shah had feared a military coup and sought to guard himself against it by, in effect, handicapping his officers.

He structured the army’s command so that very little horizontal communication obtained between units; all communication was vertical. The shah passed orders down through the ranks; responses were passed upward from below. Unit commanders were rarely permitted to deal with the shah, except on a one-on-one basis. Senior officers never met together outside his presence. As a result, Iran’s army never had the equivalent of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some observers have gone so far as to suggest that the army was merely a projection of the shah’s personality, being unable to function without specific, direct orders from him. The officers had not been trained—nor were they expected—to think for themselves.

At the very end the shah’s last resort was to his security force, SAVAK— and that, too, failed. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, this feared agency was credited with having suppressed numerous threats against his rule with brutal efficiency. There was, however, good reason why at the last SAVAK, too, would prove inadequate; to understand why this would be, one must appreciate how an organization such as this operates.

Essentially SAVAK—and all other security forces—are surveillance nets. They live off informers, who supply them with information enabling them to stay ahead of the opposition. Iran in the 1970s was a country in motion, in the sense that the population was continually shifting. The rural masses migrated to the urban centers looking for improved livelihoods, and this disturbed the surveillance arrangements of SAVAK. Informants took themselves out of the ambit of local security units and, turning up elsewhere, confused agents in their new location.

Moreover, a security force must intimidate the populace if it is to maintain order. In a situation such as developed in Iran, this is most difficult. Many of Khomeini’s adherents craved martyrdom—against minions like these the security apparatus was virtually helpless. In the end everything collapsed, and the shah was swept away with a suddenness that was astonishing.

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