New Internationalist

Bad Intelligence

Issue 091

The CIA gave power to the Shah. But it couldn’t save him. Carl Kaplan has interviewed a CIA agent who was there, and pieces together the SAVAK connection.

The story of US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) involvement in Iran is gradually unfolding. The Agency’s role in restoring the Shah to power in 1953 is now well-documented. But its intimate connections with the Shah’s secret police are more obscure. I interviewed one of the first batch of US agents posted in Iran after World War Two. Mr. Smith, as we shall call him, recently retired from the CIA after 25 years. He gives fresh evidence on the Agency’s record in Iran. In 1957 the US was asked by the Iranian government to establish a national intelligence organisation along the same lines as the CIA. Officers from the Shah’s army were recruited together with civilian European Ph.D’s and members of the post-World-War-Two Iranian secret police. From its very inception SAVAK, as the organisation was named, combined intelligence and police functions.

The CIA assigned an official liaison team of 12 to advise SAVAK. The group took over a building in Tehran and set up shop. The CIA team taught classes, in trade craft, analytical skills, interrogation procedures and even world history. The Agency poured unknown amounts of money into their offspring. The closest of allies, the CIA and SAVAK found they had common interests. ‘Iran has always been loaded with Soviet agents,’ said Smith. ‘The SAVAK people wanted help to clear them out.’

In 1963 Col. Nematollah Nassiri was named boss of SAVAK and the organisation began to specialise in anti-terrorist operations and systematic torture of political dissidents. Meanwhile the CIA officially denied any knowledge of SAVAK torture. In a sense the CIA’s denials were true. They didn’t ‘know’ about SAVAK torture because they never bothered to officially investigate it. Unofficially, of course, they CIA was well aware of SAVAK’s activities. Jesse Leaf, an ex-CIA man, admitted in The Nation last March, that ‘stories of SAVAK torture of political dissidents were common knowledge’. And Smith agreed: ‘We all heard stories’.

Abbas / Gamma
Suspected SAVAK agents, arrested and blindfolded by Revolutionary Guards. Abbas / Gamma

Although no CIA agent has admitted helping a SAVAK agent to hold an electric cattle prod to somebody’s foot, the fact that they gave classes in ‘interrogation techniques’ implies some responsibility for SAVAK brutalities. Until 1975, when they were abolished by Congress, the CIA ran two intitutes in Washington D.C. - the International Police Academy and the International Public Services School. These programs, under the ‘cover’ of the Agency for International Development (AID), trained Third World police officers and intelligence agents. In 1974 Danial Parker, then Director of the AID, said, ‘The subject “Interviews and Interrogation” is taught as part of criminal investigation speciality courses … while the means are neutral it

is quite possible that at some later date the police trained here may participate in repression.’ Between 1963 and 1975 there were 179 Iranians trained through AID.

In the late 1960s the CIA began to retreat from its fatherly role and the SAVAK adolescent began to develop confidence in itself. Bursting with professional pride it wanted to deal with the CIA on an equal footing.

During this period of separation the CIA concentrated on three tasks reflecting US national security interests:

  • gathering intelligence about the Soviet Union, mostly by means of sophisticated listening devices on the Iran border;
  • monitoring anti-Shah terrorist groups and helping Mossad, the Israeli intelligence, to combat Palestinian terrorist units;
  • monitoring Iranian oil field security.

In 1973 Richard Helms, a former director of the CIA, was named Ambassador to Iran. His appointment symbolized the history and extent of the CIA involvement in the country. Given the extensive ties between the CIA and SAVAK, it is extraordinary that US intelligence failed to predict the Islamic revolution in 1979. Ironically, it seems that this CIA failure was actually because of its close ties with the Shah and SAVAK.

In January 1979, The Washington Post reported that stories of the Shah facing rising public opposition were kept out of a national intelligence report because the CIA disagreed. It was all wishful thinking. In fact the CIA had little or no information about right-wing Moslem opposition because that particular opposition group had been ‘off limits’ to the 50 or so CIA agents in Iran. As one CIA official told The Post, ‘The Agency’s intelligence on domestic Iranian developments had to come from the Shah’s own secret police, SAVAK, which could hardly be expected to report that the Shah was in trouble,’ So the CIA was ignorant because they relied on biased information from SAVAK, their own creation.

No information available

After the revolution, claims Smith, the CIA withdrew. ‘Everybody cleared out and closed shop. CIA people are not heroes, you know; they are civil servants. They left like everyone else.’ We’ll have to take Smith’s word. No other information is available. Yet curiously, report Michael Ledeen and William Lewis in the Washington Quarterly, just before the revolution, the State Department called Ambassador William Sullivan at the Tehran Embassy to inquire if it was too late to launch a military coup. ‘A US navy tanker was even ordered to stand off the coast of Iran to supply fuel to the Iranian military if the coup werelaunched.’ That the US would even consider such a plan at this late date reveals how little they understood the Islamic revolutionary forces. The average American still can’t understand why Iranians spit hatred and shake their fists at the mere mention of the United States. Most Americans remain ignorant of the Shah’s repressive tactics and of the CIA’s role in shaping and guiding the SAVAK machine. A veteran CIA watcher, Thomas Powers, explained the Iranian emotion this way: ‘Memory is long. No one likes to see his country prodded and pulled by outsiders who can barely speak the language. The extra hatred many Iranians feel for the US was certainly not intended or anticipated by the CIA, but it was their doing all the same.’

Carl S. Kaplan, a former Assistant Editor of the New Leader', is a New-York-based freelance journalist.

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