Jimmy Carter Toasts the Shah | 31 December 1977
On New Year’s Eve 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter raised his glass of champagne to toast his host, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Carter spoke warmly of the Shah: “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” [2:35]. Time would tell that Iran was not an island of stability, and the Shah was anything but loved by most Iranian citizens. Only one week later, in opposition to the repressive regime of the Shah, Iranian citizens started to partake in massive demonstrations that would eventually culminate in revolution, ushering in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The United States had little involvement with Iran before World War II. That changed after the war, due to the rising importance of oil for the American economy and escalating tensions with the Soviet Union. American officials aimed to secure and protect the vast deposits of oil within Iran’s borders, and keep the Soviets from dominating the region. The Cold War complicated American relations with Iran, and ultimately resulted in American support for the Shah – a repressive dictator – in order to prevent Soviet in-roads.
The Shah prioritized staying in power more than generating legitimate support for his regime. During the course of his rule, many political opponents were imprisoned or executed by SAVAK, the Iranian secret police. American officials counseled the Shah to undertake reforms aimed at broadening and strengthening support for his regime. The Shah reluctantly agreed, and in 1963 launched the “White Revolution,” an ambitious domestic reform program that sought to catapult Iran into modernity through industrialization, land reform, greater access to quality healthcare and education, and other measures. But the Shah preferred to spend Iran’s oil wealth on American-made weapons, along with lavish celebrations to demonstrate Iran’s modern sophistication to Western audiences. Underfunded and poorly executed, the White Revolution actually alienated many Iranian citizens, even as it seemed to impress American officials. In sum, the Shah’s measures failed to win popular support as his regime continued to repress the Iranian people with brutal tactics.
The Shah’s reign witnessed years of oppression against the Iranian people, and Carter’s toast added fuel to the fire. Viewed as a puppet of the West, the Shah never enjoyed the love of his people. Nevertheless, until the very end of his rule the Shah believed that the Iranian people loved him, despite his appalling record of human rights violations, which Carter studiously avoided mentioning in his public praise.
Just days after Carter’s toast, demonstrations against the Shah were sparked by a state-sponsored news article that ridiculed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini, exiled from Iran in 1964, opposed the Shah’s “modern” agenda for its failure to respect the precepts of Islamic governance. Many people in Iran, a predominantly Shia Muslim country, cared more for Khomeini’s message of Islam than the Shah’s message of modernization. Thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran to protest the oppressive regime of the Shah. As a supporter of the Shah, and with Carter’s toast as a prime example, the protesters lumped the United States in with the revolution’s opponents.
A series of demonstrations and riots by many of the Shah’s opponents—including Islamists, communists, and democrats— rocked Iran during 1978, and gave way to revolution in 1979. After an attempt to impose martial law proved unsuccessful, the Shah fled from Iran in January 1979, never to return. In April the revolutionary leaders proclaimed the Islamic Republic of Iran, with Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader. Carter broke U.S. diplomatic relations with Iran in April 1980, a situation that remains unchanged to the present day.
Carter’s toast is remembered as one of the most significant foreign policy gaffes of an American president
Perhaps the most consequential development for Carter happened when Iranian demonstrators stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, taking hostage fifty-two Americans. The action came in response to Carter’s decision to allow the Shah to enter the United States for cancer treatment. The new regime wanted to prosecute the Shah for his crimes as leader, and Carter’s quasi-asylum only reinforced the belief that America, in the words of Khomeini, was “the Great Satan.” Khomeini and other Iranian revolutionaries condemned Carter’s apparent unwillingness to confront the legacy of the Shah outside of U.S. interests. The “Iranian hostage crisis” became a foreign policy disaster for Carter, exacerbated by his embrace of the Shah in 1977. The unravelling situation in Iran no doubt contributed to Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.
Carter’s toast is remembered as one of the most significant foreign policy gaffes of an American president. The Carter administration clearly did not appreciate the groundswell of resentment engendered by the Shah among his subjects. The much-ballyhooed White Revolution, which promised to modernize Iranian society, failed to deliver on its promises alienated many Iranians, especially Muslims. In a predominantly Shia Muslim society, the Shah’s strong-arm efforts to impose a secular nationalist regime served principally to provoke revolutionary passions. Elaborate spending on U.S. military equipment by the Shah, combined with the brutal tactics employed by SAVAK, made Iran ripe for revolution. When a U.S. President raised a glass of alcohol—forbidden to most traditional Muslims—to toast a hated ruler, revolution soon erupted.
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