Bureaucratic gamesmanship/Lessons from Iranian hostage crisis

All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran, by Gary Sick. New York: Random House. 366 pp. $19.95. Gary Sick was the National Security Council staff member concerned with Iran in the Ford and Carter administrations. From this vantage point -- probably the best in the government -- he has written a valuable book.

``All Fall Down'' is a good record of US-Iranian relations during the period that saw the fall of the Shah and the trauma of the hostages in the American Embassy in Tehran. It provides insights into how the United States government works. It explains a good deal about how we got into the Iranian mess in the first place. And it draws some lessons that might well be useful in similar circumstances elsewhere if we have the wit to recognize them.

After the fall of the Shah, the Carter White House complained that it had not been warned by the intelligence community. Mr. Sick points out (conceding the benefit of hindsight) that whatever the failings of the intelligence community, the warnings were there in newspapers and academic analyses.

The difficulty, he says, was that the US government was so totally committed to the Shah, and American policy in Southwest Asia was so totally anchored in Iran, that nobody in the government was asking the right questions. Out of deference to the Shah's sensitivities, we had abandoned any contacts with the opposition.

Nobody in the American government was willing, as Sick puts it, ``to make the call'' -- to say, ``Hey, this is not working.''

Further, as the Shah's difficulties grew, so did those of American policymaking. Bureaucratic self-interest asserted itself. In part as a precaution against leaks and in part out of bureaucratic gamesmanship, officials did not talk to each other as much as would have been desirable. The State Department did not always know what the American ambassador in Tehran was up to. The department's Iranian-desk officer had his own ideas, which were sometimes at variance with those of his superiors. National-secur ity adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had differences.

The growing crisis involved a widening range of American interests, and this meant a wider circle of policy- makers. The Energy Department had to deal with oil supplies; the Treasury with Iranian assets; Commerce with American commercial interests; the Justice Department with a range of legal matters; and the Pentagon with military contingencies.

The book is rich with examples of the nuts and bolts of policymaking. In the course of it, Sick writes candidly about the principal participants. Carter and Vance come off well; Brzezinski less so; Ambassador William H. Sullivan in Tehran and Henry Precht, the Iranian-desk officer, least so.

Two things stand out during the period when the hostages were held in the Embassy. One is how the hostages evolved into a problem for the Iranians: The captives became caught up in the politics of the revolution, and the efforts to secure their release became an exercise in helping the Iranians find a politically acceptable way to do what they needed to do.

The other is the President's frustration over the spineless behavior of America's presumed allies. Western European chancelleries by and large chose to ignore the shameless violation of international law, to counsel American patience, and to protect their own commercial interests. (In retrospect, Sick thinks a more patient, low-key approach might have worked better; but he recognizes that it would have been politically impossible.)

Finally, Sick draws some lessons from the Iranian case that, as he says, ``may be suggestive in other instances.'' We should be ``particularly alert'' to economic difficulties in countries that have been enjoying growth and to unorthodox expressions of discontent when normal channels are blocked. He also cautions against the tendency to overestimate the effectiveness of a state's security apparatus.

Are these warning signs currently visible? One thinks not only of some of Iran's Middle Eastern neighbors -- e.g., Saudi Arabia -- but also of some of America's Western Hemisphere neighbors -- e.g., Mexico and Brazil. These countries do not seem to be in as much trouble as Iran in, say, 1977; but Mexico and Brazil are indisputably suffering economic setbacks after upward curves of growth, and Saudi Arabia looks somewhat as Iran did in the Shah's heyday. We may hope that the Ayatollah Khomeini is unique,

but radical Islamic fundamentalism is clearly spreading and conveying some very unorthodox messages. If the Iranian case should prove to be not unique, is the US any better prepared to deal with the next such situation?

There are some omissions in the book. It skims lightly over the final negotiations for release of the hostages, and it deals scarcely at all with the harm done to American global or regional interests.

But these are quibbles. ``All Fall Down'' makes an important contribution to our understanding of the difficulties the US has in dealing with a puzzling phenomenon.

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