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John F. Kennedy Administration: Memorandum on Changes in Iran

(December 17, 1963)

This is a memorandum from William R. Polk of the Policy Planning Council to the Counselor and Chairman of the Policy Planning Council reporting changes in Iran.

Ambassador Holmes was away from Tehran during my visit but, because my airplane to Kabul was canceled, I had a chance to spend a few extra days talking with various members of the Staff and old friends. My general impressions disturbed me a great deal.

Ambassador Holmes' reporting from Iran is a highly personal and direct one. Most of it consists of what the Shah and the Foreign Minister and he have discussed. Supplementary reporting from other Embassy officers does not add a great deal to this. The single exception is a reporting of a former Harvard colleague of mine, Mr. William Miller, who has visited most of the remote areas of Iran and is writing about such programs as Land Distribution.

During the last decade, there have been major structural changes in Iranian society. For example, there are some eleven thousand Iranian students abroad today. Major changes have taken place in the Primary and Secondary school systems to the point where the whole strata of the Iranian society which never before were involved in the educational process are now deeply involved. Literacy is now reaching a very much higher proportion of the society than was the case even a few years ago.

At the same time that this rise in access to information has occurred, bringing with it a corresponding rise in aspirations, the note [rate] of economic growth has slowed appreciably. There has probably been no rise in gross national product for this year and may indeed have been a slight decline.

Similarly, the Shah's control over the repressive machinery of his government is tightened. However, the Shah now speaks for an even smaller proportion of the ruling elite than was the case here two years ago. There is notable dissatisfaction within the ruling circle, apparently including even the chief of his security and intelligence apparatus and the Prime Minister. The Shah has even fired his Minister of Court who was his most notable stooge in the whole government structure.

However, none of these major structural changes or the adverse political changes have been mirrored adequately in the reporting from the Embassy. Indeed, I should go so far as to say that the Iran we know in Washington from the reporting of the Embassy is a different country from that mirrored in scholarly American studies and in what one can pick up in Tehran.

The attitude of the American Embassy in Tehran is strongly affected by the experience of the Iranian Task Force which was convened in Washington in the early days of this administration. The Deputy Chief of Mission of our Embassy in Tehran told me that he felt no need of any further attempts at cooperation or collaboration with any government departments and indeed he felt that his Embassy was under slightly less harassment than it had been in the past and that all it really wanted was to be left alone by Washington. This is such a striking contrast to the attitude of the American Ambassador in Ankara, that it is perhaps the key of the difference between the two situations. We have almost no contacts at all with anyone in any of the opposition groups in Iran.

Indeed, if the assassination of President Kennedy should be followed by the assassination of the Shah as everyone, including the Shah, thought possible, there is no single institution upon which the Iranian Government would devolve. Even the major leader of the moderate opposition to the Shah, the former director of the planned organization, Mr. Ebtehaj, told me that he would be horrified if anything should happen to the Shah today. He said, "The situation would simply disintegrate here." Our political counselor admitted to me that his contacts were so limited that if the Shah should die or be replaced, as nearly happened a few weeks ago when the Shah took the whole ruling family on an airplane ride, we would be almost totally out of touch with the political situation.

This leads me to believe that we need very much to mount a National Policy Paper of Iran in the springtime but that it must be done with extreme caution and care to the susceptibilities of the Embassy in Tehran in order to secure their cooperation.

In the meantime, I must say that I am disturbed by almost everything that I saw during my short visit to Tehran. I do not believe that we are in a better position today than we were two years ago. To the contrary, I believe that we may be in a considerably worse situation.

Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Near East, 1962-1963, V. XVIII. DC: GPO, 2000.