The Iranian Revolution: An Oral History with Henry Precht, Then State Department Desk Officer

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Henry Precht, Country Director for Iran in the State Department, 1978-80, held a key position during the Iranian Revolution. Previously, he had served in Embassy Tehran, 1972-76, as political-military officer. Here follow relevant excerpts from his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Oral Historian of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. The full text of Precht's oral history is available from the Association. Used with permission of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project.

Q. Henry, you took over the Iran desk in June 1978. Will you explain the situation you found at that time?

PRECHT: Iran's troubles (we didn't call it a revolution until it was over) had started in January when the Shah's people and newspapers insulted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and religious students demonstrated in Qum at the seminary. A number were shot, touching off a series of mourning demonstrations. They began in January and at intervals of three or forty days there would be mourning marches, in Tehran, Tabriz, and other cities. Each time the troops would crack down and there would be more commemorations for those who were killed. The country was getting out of hand, and the Shah was getting nervous. He began promising a more liberalized regime. Unfortunately, people weren't buying that.

I had been concerned about what was happening in Iran. The Embassy indicated some worry, but the press, which was not represented in Tehran by American reporters, downplayed the incidents. US papers had stringers who we always thought had dual employment, the other employer being SAVAK, the secret police. So, the level of concern was muted at best. In June when I came on board, things had, in fact, quieted down. The mourning ceremonies had come to an end. There was tension but not recurring violence.

Q: At that time was it the perception that you were getting from other people and your own view that the problem was that the Shah either had to liberalize or become more conservative and religious?

PRECHT: Basically, Washington didn't believe the Shah, who had been through a lot of trouble at different times since 1941, was in any real danger. Some people thought liberalization was the answer. That is, to lighten up. No one suggested that he join the church or start contributing to the building fund, because religious people weren't so prominent in American thinking at that stage.

Q: Was it also because we couldn't talk to mullahs, and also Americans, particularly in those days, didn't think in terms of Islam or church in any place? We are secular people and have secular solutions.

PRECHT: Don't forget we are looking at this in retrospect. There had never been an Islamic revolution. There had been political demonstrations led by clerics, the last one 25 years earlier led by Khomeini, at which time he was jailed and sent off in exile in Turkey, then Iraq. The religious aspect wasn't the main focus in the spring of 1978; it was a popular uprising. It wasn't even viewed as being a long-term thing. After all, the Shah had a pretty tough secret police apparatus and an army deemed to be loyal. The presumption was that it might be messy and might take a little while, but they could do the job. I recall a cable coming in from the Embassy in May 1978 which identified Khomeini, who figured in the troubles but wasn't revered yet as leader of the stature he later acquired. That the Embassy had to identify him in a cable to the Washington audience tells you something about how much we knew about Iranian internal politics and Khomeini's role in it.

One of my first visitors on the desk was the Israeli Embassy officer who handled the Middle East. He had been born in Iran. He told me, "We are already in the post-Shah era." I had not heard that before. He felt the Shah was in deep trouble. The officer was basing that view, I guess, on what he knew of Iran and was getting from the unofficial Israeli Embassy in Tehran. …