AMBASSADORS rarely have great importance in the age of telecommunications; when virtually all policies are made in their own capital cities, their jobs entail more show than substance. But on a few occasions, they can still play key roles. It was William H. Sullivan's fate during a two-year stint in Teheran from 1977 to 1979 to become a central figure in Iran's revolution. His frequent meetings with Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, his responsibility for 35,000 Americans in Iran and his explicit policy disputes with the White House make his memoirs a document of real worth.
"Mission to Iran" divides into three parts: The first is an introduction in which Mr. Sullivan tells how he took on the post of United States Ambassador to Iran; the second is an exposition of the situation there upon his arrival, including discussions of the Shah, the government, economy, military, secret police and Islam; the last part, two-thirds of the book, describes his activities as Ambassador.
Mr. Sullivan's paramount purpose is apologetic; as the man on the scene when a vital ally of the United States came to grief, he has a lot to explain. Throughout the book, Mr. Sullivan attempts to vindicate himself by showing how correct he was and how misguided his rivals in Washington were. Mr. Sullivan differed with the Carter Administration on two issues especially: his early conviction that the Shah had to abdicate and his opinion that the Iranian military would crumble rather than shoot at the Ayatollah Khomeini's supporters. In Mr. Sullivan's opinion, policy makers in Washington backed the Shah too long, and, after his departure, they hoped the armed forces would stage a coup d'tat to keep Khomeini out of power.
The Ambassador may have analyzed the situation more acutely, but he diminishes his case through shrill self-righteousness and errors of fact. Obsessed with justifying his judgments, Mr. Sullivan makes too much of the Iranian drama hinge on his role. For example, he ascribes Zbigniew Brzezinski's steadfast support of the Shah to his desire to prove Mr. Sullivan wrong: "Some published reports suggest that, in order to disprove my thesis that the Shah might not survive, [Mr. Brzezinski] was spurred to take every sort of action to assure that the Shah would survive and thereby exculpate himself from any failure to have kept the President informed of an impending crisis."
With all due regard for bureaucratic infighting, it is hard to imagine that Mr. Brzezinski's concern to keep the Shah on the throne had much to do with Mr. Sullivan's doubts about the Shah's future. Distorting Mr. Brzezinski's actions casts doubts on the very sense of judgment Mr. Sullivan hopes to vindicate. Furthermore, "Mission to Iran" ignores the well-known failings of the United States Embassy in Teheran, such as its spectacular ignorance of the Shah's cancer and its inability to keep up with the dissident movements. Mr. Sullivan's boasts and his self-serving manner give his book a distasteful quality.
He also has a dismaying tendency to get facts wrong. In addition to numerous mistakes about Iran's earlier history, he makes startling errors when discussing his own period of service. How could King Hussein of Jordan visit Iran in December 1977 to discuss the Camp David accords - eight months before they came into existence? Mr. Sullivan also misdates Khomeini's first political conflict with the Shah and twice mistakenly ascribes the sudden death of Ali Shariati, a leading Iranian intellectual, to cancer.
For all these drawbacks, "Mission to Iran" has its moments. Mr. Sullivan fills in the details of the controversial mission to Tehran by Dutch Huyser (sent as a special envoy by President Carter in January 1979 to help stabilize the Iranian armed forces), recounts the first takeover of the United States Embassy in Tehran and describes the bizarre precautions taken to assure his own safe departure from Iran. Most fascinating of all are his vignettes of the Shah, an elusive and until now inadequately explained personality. Here is one scene: After chatting privately for some time with Mr. Sullivan, the Shah was informed that an air show was about to begin. "From the gracious, easy, smiling host with whom I had been talking, he transformed himself suddenly into a steely, ramrod-straight autocrat," writes Mr. Sullivan. "This involved not only adjusting his uniform and donning dark glasses but also throwing out his chest, raising his chin, and fixing his lips in a grim line." Thus did a shy man become King of Kings.
Ambassador Sullivan's book is premised on the assumption that policy alternatives open to the Shah and the United States Government during his tenure made a crucial difference; Nikki R. Keddie, a leading historian of Iran who watched the Islamic revolution from a distance, holds otherwise. "It seems unlikely that a different American policy in 1978-79 could have significantly changed the course of events," she writes. "Probably only a very different set of policies over the previous twenty-five years could have led to different results. As to the Shah's vacillating carrot-and-stick behavior ... there is no proof that different behavior in 1978 would have maintained his throne."
In contrast to the Ambassador's intimate view, Professor Keddie, who teaches at U.C.L.A., writes from a scholar's vantage point. She stresses two points especially: While foreign observers tend to think that Iran never before experienced comparable political turmoil and that the mullahs had habitually enjoyed a strong political role, just the reverse had been the case. Iran has gone through several political upheavals during the past century (notably the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, Riza Shah's rise to power in 1921-25, and the Mossadeq period of 1951-53) - but the religious authorities have never had anything like the power they wield today. "The main lines of Iran's literature and political thought in the past century have been radically different from the culture most visible in 1980," Professor Keddie writes; to understand the rapid changes toward Islam in recent years, "we must remember the concurrent intensification of a Westernized despotism, closely tied to dependence on the West, and especially the United States."
In sum, Professor Keddie ascribes the Islamic revolution to "economic, social and political discontents [that] had developed over the decades and coalesced in the past few years, while added to the central Islamic identity felt by the majority of the popular classes were new interpretations of religion that justified revolutionary ideas and became widespread in society."
Professor Keddie presents a competent, almost standard account of modern Iranian history from about 1800 to the present. Despite its title, however, "Roots of Revolution" tells little about the background and causes of Iran's revolution. It alludes to but does not explain how the oil boom disrupted life in Iran, how the military buildup fueled resentments, how foreign advisers disturbed Iranians, how social tensions mounted, how the Shah's personality undermined his reign or how the religious opposition became dominant. Only one eighth of the book deals directly with the origins of the revolution; the rest touches on it in passing.
Such a wide discrepancy between title and text disturbed this reader. I kept looking for explanations that never came, and I could not help thinking that the title was intended to win maximum attention. Professor Keddie has written a solid and useful book; she has no need to resort to such an inexact title.
Ambassador Sullivan's memoir will absorb those whose business it is to know exactly what happened during the Islamic revolution, others will find it stilted and slanted. Professor Keddie's study provides a reliable outline of modern Iranian history, but it will disappoint those who seek to understand Iran's most recent revolution.