Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, soon Iran's dictator, was "a sort of saint," US Ambassador of the United Nations told Andrew Young to colleagues at Carter, while the Islamic Revolution unfolded in Iran. In a November 1978 memo, with the ironic title Thinking the Unthinkable, the United States Ambassador to Iran, William Sullivan, Khomeini called a Gandhi-like & # 39; figure.
Less than three months later – 40 years ago this month – Khomeini returned to Iran from Paris. Within two months, the country would be declared an Islamic republic, which would change the Middle East and the world forever.
Few people foresaw the extent of the coming tragedy. The government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a stable ally of the United States and a modernizer who had ruled since 1941, would be replaced by a fanatical anti-Western theocracy that is committed to spreading terrorism's vision of a new world order.
For more than four decades Western policy makers and scholars have indeed "thought the unthinkable", where they consistently misinterpreted Iran on every occasion.
Errors began long before Khomeini's chartered Air France flight landed in Tehran on February 1, 1979. The American intelligence community was overwhelmed by the revolution that began demonstrably with religious protests in January 1978. In August of that year, the CIA let the White House know that Iran is not even in a pre-revolutionary situation & # 39; used to be.
As told in Andrew Scott Cooper's 2016 book The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Day of Imperial Iran, the agency presented in August 1977 a "glowing image of Iran as it prepared to enter the 1980s. . " The shah, already dead of the cancer that would kill him in 1980, enjoyed "good health" and "would be an active participant in Iranian life, well into the eighties," predicted the assessment. Allegations to the contrary, the agency claimed, were "unfounded". The report predicted: "There would be no radical change in Iranian political behavior in the near future."
The Carter government not only managed to anticipate the imminent crisis, but also underestimated its potential. While denying the possibility of a theocratic entity rising from ashes of the shahs government, Young suggests: "It would be impossible to have a fundamentalist state in Iran."
The historian Efraim Karsh remarked: "At no stage of the crisis, not even when it was all over, the administration realized that what had happened just before her eyes was a revolution in the grand style of the French or Russian, not only turbulence on a large scale. "
The day after the return of Khomeini in Iran, Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, even wrote: "Islamic revivalist movements do not sweep across the Middle East and are unlikely to be the wave of the future."
But the Iranian revolution would be a turning point and inspire jihadists such as the current Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and others, by showing that an Islamic government was feasible. The upheaval of 1978-1979 was a harbinger of the coming Middle East.
The intelligentsia and the press are also wrong.
On February 16, 1979, the Princeton academic Richard Falk published an opinion piece entitled "Trusting Khomeini." Falk, who later became the title "UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Since 1967," told the readers of the New York Times that the portrayal of Khomeini "as fanatical, reactionary and bearer of harsh prejudices, for sure and Fortunately false. "The Ayatollah" Entourage of close advisers is uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals … who have a remarkable record of human rights. "
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that Khomeini was "sometimes called Mahatma Gandhi of Iran," and contrary to what the Shah propaganda claimed, "the dictator would not return Iran to the Middle Ages." The regime, the newspaper told readers, could not afford to be ideological if it were to survive.
Mistakes in the imagination have since inflicted the analyzes of Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who oversaw the assassination of dissidents as head of the Supreme National Security Council, is often labeled as "moderate" by press and policymakers.
The use of terror and murders by the Islamic Republic is only a tool in the service of her vision. But here too the endgame of the mullahs is often misunderstood, much of which overestimates the role of sectarianism. Shiite Muslim Iran, they claim, is in a battle with Sunni Islamic Arab countries that are exclusively based on their belonging to different sects.
But Khomeini's dream was much broader and more ambitious than that. As the historian Ray Takeyh said, Iran wanted a new & # 39; Islamic era & # 39; launch in the epicenter. Calling for a "revolution without borders", Khomeini admonished: "We do not recognize Iran as ours, because all Muslim countries are part of us."
Henry Kissinger once claimed that Iran must decide "whether it is a nation or a cause." Yet the decision of the Islamic Republic – to lead an Islamic revolution over the region and beyond – has always been clear, muddled observations, despite.
Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America or CAMERA.