Nearly 60 Years Ago, the Pentagon’s Top Officer in Iran Felt ‘Guilty’ and ‘Ashamed’
America’s adviser to the Shah was embarrassed by his budget
After helping overthrow the Iranian government in 1953, the United States rushed to support the new regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
But four years later, during a meeting of American advisers in Karachi, Pakistan, one of the Pentagon’s top officers in Iran felt embarrassed by how slow military aid was flowing into the country.
“I stand here, really, with a deep feeling of guilt,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. J.F.R. Seitz, chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Iran, said during the meeting.
“[I am] somewhat ashamed to even mention the fact that I may have a problem in Iran.”
Two years earlier, the Baghdad Pact formed between the U.S., Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Like NATO but for the Middle East, the Pact attempted to unite pro-American—and anti-communist—states in the region.
The problem was that the military forces in these countries were hardly in the best of shape. The American advisers’ job was to make them better. But it wasn’t easy, as competing demands from the Pentagon and the region’s despots pulled their well-laid plans apart.
During the gathering in Karachi, the advisers discussed their frustrations. The U.S. Army’s Heritage and Education Center recently declassified transcripts from this meeting.
Their comments are often gloomy, revealing and occasionally salty. But Seitz focused as much on Washington’s failures to help the Shah, as he did with the impoverished state of the Iranian military.
Seitz used a comedy skit to explain what he meant. The skit centered around “Mrs. Neusbaum,” a famous character played by actress and Russian emigre Minerva Pious on various radio programs in the 1940s.
In the off-color routine, Mrs. Neusbaum fights with her husband about spending money on a new mink coat. The housewife insists two other high-society women—with their own fancy clothes and jewelry—will look down on her in disgust if she doesn’t buy the garment.
“What will I look like? A damn Christian between two Jews!” the punchline went, according to Seitz. “Believe me, gentlemen, that is the way I feel sitting in Iran.”
The two “Jews” in this case were Turkey and Pakistan. Seitz referenced how the Pentagon poured military aid into both countries because of worries about threats from the Soviet Union, China and neutral India.
The problem was that Iran also shared a massive frontier with the Soviets, but didn’t get nearly the same funding. “Believe me … the Shah is well aware of the same differences in U.S. aid,” he added.
Seitz complained stingy funding and conflicting orders from Washington were making his job difficult. As a result, authorities in Tehran made little progress toward building a battle-ready military.
American officials were drafting an entirely new structure for the Iranian army from the ground up. He said new documents—which would guide the reorganization—were 90 percent complete.
But “having talked with our ‘friends’ in Washington, I have now learned that I may have to re-do this program,” Seitz declared with obvious frustration.
For unknown and bizarre reasons, the Pentagon suddenly decided that Seitz should model the Iranian army after the South Korean army. “I shall endeavor to do my job as I am told,” the adviser lamented.
He also said the Iranian air force was suffering from a lack of planes and support. The Shah was impatiently awaiting delivery of jet-powered F-84 fighter-bombers and T-33 trainers.
“As my people in the Air Section so succinctly state—their problem is not in making an air force, or not in training an air force; their problem is in getting an air force,” the major general told the other advisers.
Seitz didn’t even want to talk about Tehran’s navy. “It is may understanding that the only reason Iran has a navy program at all is for political reasons,” he quipped.
American plans to help Iran build new military bases weren’t going any better. He explained the construction projects had become practically worthless because they were so far behind schedule. Reza Pahlavi felt the whole program was a “mess” too, according to Seitz.
Major bureaucratic problems were at the root of these issues, Seitz explained. The Pentagon’s methods for dolling out aid money was chaotic and disorganized. Clerks would have to spend “untold hours” manually “transcribing from last year’s spreadsheets and figures to this year’s,” the adviser noted.
It was hard to plan ahead. The Pentagon’s military mission in the country—separate from the advisory group—was also “intimately mixed up in the budgetary procedures of the Iranian government,” Seitz explained.
Making the mess worse, Iranian officials were wary of proposing anything to the Shah without prior approval from from the Americans, which slowed everything down.
Seitz also acknowledged that the Shah’s tendency toward micromanagement—and Iran’s own economic woes—were problems, too.
“Iran’s budget is in bad shape,” he added matter-of-factly.
But in the years that followed, the Pentagon dramatically stepped up its support for Tehran. The Shah’s forces received some of the most state-of-the-art weapons in the American arsenal.
The Iranian air force turned into one of the most advanced air arms in the region. Iran was the only other country to ever operate F-14 Tomcat fighter jets, along with more ubiquitous F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tiger IIs. Iran still uses the Phantoms.
But military aid couldn’t change the fact that Reza Pahlavi was a deeply corrupt and unpopular ruler. In 1979, leftist and Islamist organizations banded together and threw the Shah out of power. The Islamist factions eventually seized the reigns of the revolution.
Since the Islamic Revolution, Washington has not had any significant diplomatic or military ties with Tehran. Still, relations between the two countries have thawed … slightly.
The biggest stumbling block remains Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The U.S. and many of its allies allege the country is actually working on an atomic bomb.
But the dramatic rise of the brutal terror group Islamic State has pushed both countries closer together. Despite concerns about Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon is effectively fighting the same enemy alongside Tehran.
At the same time, Iran is providing extensive military support to Iraq.
“As long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside the country, then I think Iranian influence will be positive,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Jan. 8.
That’s a huge shift. But just as the American advisers during the Cold War would discover, alliance-making is rarely predictable.