35. Special National Intelligence Estimate0

SNIE 34–62


The Problem

To examine the political prospects for Iran, particularly in the short term.


With the resignation of Prime Minister Amini, the Shah is once more the focal point of the Iranian political scene. Before long he will almost certainly again become the direct target of political pressures and general discontent. While none of the Shah’s opponents are likely for some time to summon up the will or develop the capability to overthrow him, they will be alert to exploit any fortuitous crisis which may occur, e.g., a popular outburst in Tehran or a Kurdish insurrection. As long as the Shah retains control of the army and the security forces, the chances are that he [Page 85] will be able to ride out such crises, but each time a serious crisis occurs, the possibility of his overthrow or even his voluntary abdication will be present.

The Estimate

For some years our estimates have been pessimistic about the prospects for political stability in Iran. In NIE 34–61, “Prospects for Iran,” dated 28 February 1961,1 we pointed out that the growing political unrest of the urban middle class was being manifested increasingly openly, and we estimated that profound political and social change was virtually inevitable. We added that such change would most likely be revolutionary in nature. In SNIE 34–2–61, “Short-Term Outlook for Iran,” dated 23 May 1961,2 soon after the advent of Prime Minister Ali Amini, we said that the chances of an evolutionary change would be enhanced should Amini be able to develop a position independent of the Shah and implement a major reform program. However, we also said that, if the Shah forced Amini into a puppet’s role or replaced him with a politician subservient to the throne, unrest would be likely to break out again.
Ali Amini resigned as Prime Minister on 17 July 1962. As his successor, the Shah appointed Asadollah Alam, a long time retainer and personal friend, indicating that he himself intended to reassume direct responsibility for governing Iran. Hence, though the implications of the change cannot yet be fully assessed, a new look should be taken at Iran’s political prospects.
While Amini was in office, the Shah gave him a free hand except in military matters and in some aspects of foreign affairs. However, His Imperial Majesty was never sanguine that this experiment with an independent Prime Minister would be successful. In reasserting his own exclusive dominance, the Shah has acted in accordance with his longstanding belief that Iran is far from ready for a true parliamentary government and that the country can be ruled effectively only by a strong man like himself who understands Iran’s problems. The Shah’s conviction is not without some foundation. The wealthy conservative elements, who for generations have constituted the established elite, have proven themselves virtually incapable of modernization and reform. The nationalist opposition is disunited and irresponsible. The military has shown little talent for leadership. Apart from Amini, there are no political “independents” of any stature. Amini himself was never able to develop a political base of his own; such progress as he made in land reform and anticorruption could not have been accomplished without the Shah’s backing.
As a result of Amini’s departure from the government, the Shah is again the focal point of Iranian politics. He must not only cope with the budgetary problems which defeated Amini but must try to raise the substantial foreign aid needed for Iran’s new development plan which begins this year. He must also deal with what most Iranians (including himself) feel is the less than satisfactory state of their country’s relations with both the USSR and the West. Above all, he must once again bear directly the burden of unrest in the country: the disgruntlement of the upper classes who would undo Amini’s modest reforms, the disillusionment of many urban intellectuals whose hopes for modernization and reform have been set back, the almost certain increase in National Front agitation.

The Outlook

In these circumstances, the Shah is likely to press ahead by himself, sincerely trying to implement the anticorruption and land reform programs begun by Amini, but without either the will or the ability to deny special treatment to those whom he trusts or to whom he is bound by personal ties. He will attempt to avoid calling elections, since this would face him with the unhappy choice between rigging them, which would deepen popular discontent and could touch off disturbances, or, on the other hand, permitting free elections, which would give the nationalists an opportunity to carry their opposition into Parliament. He will be reluctant to share power with anyone; although he might recall Amini to the Prime Ministership if popular pressure grows acute again, he will not consent to any such permanent impairment of his authority as would be implied in a meaningful compromise with the nationalists. His preoccupation with military matters and his relative indifference to administrative and fiscal improvement will almost certainly persist. He will continue twisting and turning to relieve or deflect Soviet pressure, without, however, weakening his alliance with the West. He will press for greater military and political support from the US.
What all this means in terms of future political stability in Iran is less easy to estimate. The nationalists’ distrust of the Shah is as implacable as is his of them. However, the number of militant nationalists is small and their organization weak. Hence, at least for some time to come, they will probably be incapable of posing a serious challenge to the Shah’s authority. Eventually, the Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party, may succeed in infiltrating the nationalist movement and welding it into a more formidable opposition. At the moment, however, the Tudeh is also small and weak and more severely repressed than the nationalists.
While the wealthy conservatives will continue their efforts to frustrate almost any kind of reform, they are likely to move directly against the Shah only if they feel that such a move is the sole way of preventing a nationalist takeover. Most of the top military officers share the [Page 87] same inhibitions as their counterparts in the civilian “establishments,” although there will probably continue to be a few of them, like the currently exiled General Timur Bakhtiar, former head of the Iranian Intelligence and Security Organization (SAVAK), who have a desire for personal power on their own and may fancy themselves destined for the role of the “man on a white horse.” A move against the Shah by nationalist-minded junior or middle level military officers along the lines of the Nasser and Qassim coups in Egypt and Iraq is another possibility. If it did come to pass, its chances of success might be considerable, and its implications for the West might be unpleasant.
The large and fairly effective security apparatus which the Shah has developed—SAVAK, the national police, the gendarmerie, and the military intelligence services—has in the past enabled him to detect and deal with potential challenges by both military and civilian elements. He probably can continue to count on the loyalty of the security forces and the support of the bulk of the military to counter most clandestine plotting and organization. The military and security forces will also probably remain capable of dealing with more direct challenges to central authority. Much of the top leadership of these forces, however, is clique-ridden, and few officers appear to have any outstanding devotion to the Shah. The possibility will remain that some of these officers might fail the Shah in the face of a critical challenge or might even themselves become involved in plotting.3
For some months, most political elements will probably be busy assessing the new situation and determining their own attitudes toward it. This will give the Shah a breathing spell. Before very long, however, the political pressure will almost certainly begin to build up once more. The nationalists will not be satisfied with anything the Shah does and will agitate for early elections—always likely times for crisis in Iran. If the Shah continues to press Amini’s land reform and anticorruption measures, many conservatives will seek to undermine his authority; and in a more fluid situation, the ambitions of individual military officers are likely to be sharpened again.
For some time to come, none of these groups is likely on its own to develop both the will and the capability to overthrow the Shah. However, the nationalists in particular will be alert to challenge his control given a favorable occasion, e.g., a popular outburst in Tehran, a Kurdish insurrection, or a particularly juicy scandal in the royal court. In extreme circumstances, nationalist and conservative elements might enter into a brief opportunistic alliance against the Shah, but it is unlikely that any lasting or effective coalition will be worked out among various opposition [Page 88] groups. As long as the Shah retains control of the army, the chances are that he will be able to ride out such crises. Nevertheless, each time a serious crisis occurs, the possibility of his overthrow or his voluntary abdication will be present. (He has several times indicated that should he find it impossible to direct affairs in the manner he believes necessary, he would leave Iran.) Under these circumstances, Iran’s political structure will continue to be extremely fragile. Over the longer term, profound political and social change appears virtually inevitable.
  1. Source: Department of State, S/S Files: Lot 86 D 189, Iran Collection. Secret. According to a note on the cover sheet, the estimate was submitted by the Director of Central Intelligence, and concurred in by the U.S. Intelligence Board.
  2. vol. XVII, pp. 3738.
  3. Ibid., Document 52.
  4. Annex A contains a more detailed assessment of the Iranian security forces. [Footnote in the source text. The Annex, not printed, is entitled “Internal Security in Iran.”]