Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, soon to be dictator of Iran, was "some kind of a saint," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young told Carter administration colleagues as the Islamic Revolution unfolded in Iran. In a November 1978 memo, ironically titled "Thinking the Unthinkable," the United States Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan, called Khomeini a "Gandhi-like" figure.
Less than three months later — 40 years ago this month — Khomeini returned to Iran from Paris. Within two months, the country would be declared an Islamic republic, forever changing both the Middle East and the world.
Few foresaw the extent of the tragedy to come. The government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a stable U.S. ally and a modernizer who had ruled since 1941, would be replaced by a fanatical anti-Western theocracy committed to spreading through terrorism its vision of a new world order.
For more than four decades, Western policymakers and pundits have indeed been "thinking the unthinkable," consistently misreading Iran at every turn.
Mistakes began long before Khomeini's chartered Air France flight landed in Tehran on Feb. 1, 1979. The U.S. intelligence community was caught off-guard by the revolution that arguably began with religious protests in January 1978. In August of that year, the CIA told the White House that Iran was not even in a "pre-revolutionary situation."
As recounted in Andrew Scott Cooper's 2016 book The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Day of Imperial Iran, in August 1977, the agency presented a "glowing picture of Iran as it prepared to enter the 1980s." The shah, already dying from the cancer that would kill him in 1980, enjoyed "good health" and would be "an active participant in Iranian life well into the 1980s," the assessment predicted. Claims to the contrary, the agency asserted, were "unfounded." The report predicted: "There would be no radical change in Iranian political behavior in the near future."
The Carter administration not only failed to foresee the impending crisis, it failed to discern its potential. Dismissing the possibility of a theocratic entity rising from the ashes of the shah's government, Young suggested, "It would be impossible to have a fundamentalist state in Iran."
The historian Efraim Karsh has noted, "At no stage of the crisis, not even when it was all over, did the administration realize that what had just happened in front of its very eyes was a revolution in the grand style of the French or the Russian, not merely turbulence on a grand scale."
The day after Khomeini's return to Iran, Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, even wrote, "Islamic revivalist movements are not sweeping the Middle East and are not likely to be the wave of the future."
But Iran's revolution would prove to be a watershed moment, inspiring jihadists like current al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and others, by showing that an Islamist government was achievable. The upheaval of 1978-1979 was a harbinger of the Middle East to come.
The intelligentsia and the press got it wrong, as well.
On Feb. 16, 1979, the Princeton academic Richard Falk published an op-ed titled, "Trusting Khomeini." Falk, who would later carry the title of "U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied since 1967," told readers of the New York Times that the depiction of Khomeini "as fanatical, reactionary, and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false." The ayatollah's "entourage of close advisers is uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals ... who share a notable record of concern with human rights."
The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported that Khomeini was "sometimes called Iran's Mahatma Gandhi" and unlike "what the Shah's propagandists had claimed," the dictator wasn't going to return Iran "to the Middle Ages." The regime, the newspaper told readers, couldn't afford to be ideological if it was to survive.
Failures of imagination have plagued Iran analyses ever since.
For example, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who oversaw assassinations of dissidents as head of the Supreme National Security Council, is often labeled a "moderate" by press and policymakers alike.
The Islamic Republic's employment of terror and assassinations are but tools in service of its vision. Yet, here too the mullahs' endgame is frequently misunderstood, with many overstating the role of sectarianism. Shiite Muslim Iran, they claim, is in a pitched battle with Sunni Muslim Arab nations predicated exclusively on their belonging to different sects.
But Khomeini's dream was much broader and more ambitious than that. As the historian Ray Takeyh noted, Iran wanted to launch a new "Islamic epoch" with it at the epicenter. Calling for a "revolution without borders," Khomeini exhorted: "We don't recognize Iran as ours, as all Muslim countries are a part of us."
Henry Kissinger once asserted that Iran must decide "whether it is a nation or a cause." Yet, the Islamic Republic's decision — to lead an Islamic revolution across the region and beyond — has always been clear, muddled observations notwithstanding.
Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA.