The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations

James Bill has written a most valuable and trenchant critique of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran in the Pahlavi and post-Pahlavi periods. The author has based his study on a great array of sources, including declassified U.S. government documents (plus those “declassified” by the student hostage takers at the U.S. embassy after their assault in November 1979); personal letters and memoranda; interviews with key policy makers; internal Iranian sources; and informal discussions with U.S. and Iranian public figures. Bill has accumulated a wealth of experience in his many years of travel to Iran and from his numerous studies of Iran’s internal and external politics. The result is a work that is characterized by a high degree of authenticity and integrity.

Bill’s thesis is that U.S. policy toward Iran since the 1940s has been characterized by deeply disturbing inconsistencies; willful intervention; fractured communications among the numerous official U.S. agencies both inside and outside Iran; endemic rivalries among members of U.S. civilian and military missions; cultural insensitivities and misperceptions; myopia concerning the alleged communist threat to Iran; and excessive reliance on contacts with Iran’s governmental elite, especially the shah. Bill believes that these deficiencies were responsible not only for the United States’ failure to anticipate and act to prevent an Iranian revolution but also for its inability to come to terms with the revolution after the fact.

Among the most compelling parts of this book are the discussion of the genesis of the U.S. commitment to the shah in the 1940s; the analysis of the interrelationships among the various U.S. and British oil companies; the impact of private sector figures (such as David Lillienthal of the Tennessee Valley Authority, David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank, and the newly retired but vigorously active Henry Kissinger) on U.S. policy; and Washington’s catastrophic insistence that Iran approve a humiliating Status of Forces Agreement in 1964. With the exception of Truman, postwar U.S. presidents receive poor marks: Eisenhower because of his sanctioning of the CIA coup of 1953; Kennedy because his reform proposals were really intended to preserve the status quo; Johnson because he believed in the shah’s use of force and admired his apparently stable rule, as well as his support of the U.S. war in Vietnam; Nixon because of his blank check of 1972 on arms transfers to Iran; Carter because he praised Iran’s stability and later followed Brzezinski’s hawkish advice to try to derail the revolution-in-progress by a military coup(t); and Reagan because of his demonizing of the Iranian regime and of course his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

The Pahlavi family carefully cultivated its relationships with American power brokers; Bill’s study of this is especially revealing and disturbing, as it indicates the number of highly questionable activities undertaken for a foreign prince by American citizens.

The real tragedy of American-Iranian relations came as United States policy makers depended almost totally upon the Shah’s view of the situation and neglected obvious signs of popular dissatisfaction, unrest, and finally open revolt. Willfully self-blinded, many in the American foreign policy establishment were caught by surprise at the Khomeini revolution and the depth of hatred for the United States it unleashed.

There are many lessons to be learned, and Bill provides a checklist of some 12 points for future consideration to avert the continuation of the tragedy in U.S.-Iranian relations. These range from a skeptical and questioning attitude toward any sacred cow assumptions in U.S. foreign policy making and prevention of private interests from overtaking public U.S. interests to quashing the urge to attribute all problems to communist activity, eschewing simplistic resort to force, fully training diplomats in all the skills needed to understand the societies to which they are posted, consulting more with nongovernmental sources for advice and information, moderating bureaucratic conflict, and instituting long-range planning.


The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. By James A. Bill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. 520p

Shahrough Akhavi, American Political Science Review, Volume 84, Issue 4, 1990, pages 1417-1418.
© 1990 by Cambridge University Press

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: