149. Memorandum From the Counselor for Public Affairs of the Embassy in Iran (Winkler) to the Ambassador to Iran (Helms)1


  • The American Presence in Iran

Some time ago you agreed that we should take up the subject of the growing American presence at one of the Thursday afternoon sessions. A number of events have preempted that meeting and therefore I thought I would put my thoughts on paper for you. I am impelled to do this because of the recent street altercations involving American military personnel. While I do not feel that we have a significant problem on our hands now, I think there is a potentially serious situation awaiting our successors in this mission.

Before I came here in early 1973, I was told that there were “around 10,000” Americans in Iran. This seemed to be a large number but after I arrived, it did not appear to be an area of major public relations concern. Most of these Americans were spread around this large capital and the remaining were fairly well dispersed in other parts of the country.

Most importantly, these were people with some overseas experience. The business people were pretty much of an international lot and there were not too many at the blue collar level. Firms like Page did have a substantial number of expatriate employees, but many were not Americans and most were deep in the boondocks. The oil-well types were pretty much off by themselves in Khuzestan working 12 hours a day and aside from some occasional roistering on the planes between here and Ahwaz, they really have never been a problem.

Our military people were mostly officers, many with graduate-level education. There was no cadre of young enlisted men making passes at Persian women and getting into saloon fights. In addition, the Gulf District facility has always provided a suitable and, to my mind, adequate recreational outlet for this group.

Now the American population has grown to “around 16,000.” I feel the changes in this population are instructive for the future, particularly in light of the changes in the Iranian psyche. The American military detachment has remained about the same and the basic increment [Page 445] has been made up of a sizeable number of retired military, businessmen and, mainly, technicians or blue collar workers. This has come at a time when Iranians are increasingly self-assertive and increasingly conscious of what they see as their own capabilities and their potential role in the world.

During this period one of the principal points of policy confrontation in the long history of good relations between the two countries has arisen. In addition to the matter of oil prices, there are other areas of differences between the two countries which are appearing.

A fairly large percentage of the new American arrivals have gone into provincial settings. Many of them are novices in overseas living. Iran today is a less than pleasant and attractive place for those of us who are veterans at living abroad. It is understandable, therefore, that these new arrivals are having problems. They find themselves in an unusually abrasive society; much more so, I would guess, than other societies in which large numbers of Americans are now living. I have a hunch that the recent altercations followed episodes of frustration and anxiety to which the involved Americans were subjected. What we basically face, it seems to me, are two alien groups which are rubbing against each other and where the unique rudeness and discourtesy of the host society will seriously exacerbate the situation.

There is no need to go into the housing problems, the schooling problems and other general living problems which the Americans face. There is no need to note the criticisms which are beginning to appear in the newspapers about “the changing face of glorious Isfahan,” and the terrorism which stems from several factors, one of which is undoubtedly a deep concern on the part of conservative and traditional Iranians about the erosion of their culture.2

While the Shah has said that he wants to bring in as many foreigners as are needed to get his society moving, he demonstrates both a great confidence in his own culture and a great insensitivity. I think we should keep that last point—the insensitivity—in mind because the Iranian establishment seems, in large measure, blind to the potential for mischief.

It is difficult to predict the future. While we cannot predict Iranian attitudes, we can guess they will become increasingly self-assertive and protective. While we cannot predict the course of government-to-government relations, we can guess that they will probably not get any [Page 446] better and that, in all probability, more issues will arise over which our two countries will disagree. Today the U.S. has a vitally important foreign policy asset in its excellent relations with this increasingly important country. However, these relations can become increasingly fragile.

We are about to superimpose on this fragility a huge number of additional Americans. The most recent figure I have seen is “80,000 in a few years.” This will give us a population in this country equal to the Jewish population, making us the second largest minority group. But the other minority groups are Persians. We are outsiders.

There are some 50,000 Iranians with an American educational experience who consider themselves Americanized. They are an important asset for the United States and USIS and other mission elements should continue to have meaningful contact with as many of them as possible. But this asset is not really going to be a terribly valuable insulation when great numbers of Americans pour in and begin to be negatively perceived by increasing numbers of Iranians.

My concern is that the kinds of problems we have seen in the past few years as our community has grown from 10,000 to 16,000 can be predicted to increase by geometric progression as increments of additional Americans come in and get to the point where we have five times as many as we do now.

It is very difficult to recommend useful courses of action. However, there are two I would advance. First, I think we should develop a consciousness about this which leads us to a concerted policy of getting our heads down. I have dealt with this in some detail in my memo to you of July 10 entitled Time to Pull in Our Neck, a copy of which is attached.3

But even more basic than the dramatization of the American presence through the mass media is planning for the future. I feel that the Embassy should go to work now to try and foresee as precisely as we can, with the information at hand, just what the American population is going to look like in each of the next ten years. How big will it be? Where will it be? What kind of individuals will make it up? What kinds of housing, schools, churches, and other facilities will they need?

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You might consider naming a committee of officers to undertake this study. I would suggest that if you do so, the committee should operate in your name so that it can achieve the fullest cooperation from whoever it goes to for information and cooperation. Undoubtedly the office of the new Defense Representative should play a leading role.

As this committee develops information, it should constantly be asking itself the question of “whether this additional American is necessary.”

Perhaps this committee will be able to achieve some pruning of the potential increment or at least achieve some progress in spreading the Americans out geographically. The committee may even identify an FMS project which requires a very substantial input of Americans but which would not deliver a reasonable return in the maintenance of good relations.

The point is that if the problem or problems can be specifically identified, solutions may present themselves. Certainly the committee should be charged with finding ways to get the Iranian Government to prepare adequately for these influxes before they arrive.

I would recommend that such a committee seek out sensible and sensitive Iranian advice. It would need the guidance and counsel of an intelligent Iranian social scientist, either as a consultant or as a staff member.

Other members of the Embassy staff may have other and better ideas as to how we should deal with this problem. My point in this memorandum is fundamentally to raise the issue.

Gordon Winkler4
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OUSD Files: FRC 330–82–0234, Box 2, DR 25, American Presence in Iran. Confidential. A copy was sent to Miklos.
  2. Others at the Embassy were less pessimistic. Political Officer Archie Bolster wrote to Henry Precht in a memorandum, October 21: “few Iranians oppose the presence of American technicians and advisers here unless they feel that these Americans are taking jobs they themselves are capable of filling.” (National Archives, RG 84, Tehran Embassy Files, 1975, Box 185, Political Affairs 1975)
  3. Attached but not printed. The memorandum, written following the murder of an Iranian employee of the Consulate, noted that the Iranian power elite, insensitive to popular attitudes, permitted extensive press coverage of U.S. community activities. The coverage reminded Iranians of the U.S. presence and thereby of “the huge outlays for military hardware” which “a significant portion of the population cannot understand and see as one of the reasons for the slowness in getting the benefits of the new wealth to all of the people.” Telegram 6424 from Tehran, July 3, reported the murder of the Consulate employee who was apparently mistaken for an American. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D750231–0029) The Embassy noted in telegram 6444 from Tehran, July 6, that its civilian and military members were targets after the terrorists pledged to kill nine U.S. officials. (Ibid., D750233–0345)
  4. Winkler signed “Gordon” above this typed signature.