How One Man's Illness May Have Changed The Course Of Middle Eastern History

Mohammad Reza Shah of Iranvia WikimediaThe Shah, in happier times.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was a watershed event in modern history. It resulted in the overthrow of a brutal yet modernizing and pro-western government — and its replacement with a revolutionary theocracy that supports sectarian proxies throughout the Middle East. The breakdown in relations between the US and Iran, the Iranian nuclear standoff, the civil war in Syria, the current chaos in Iraq, and a host of other regional crises are to varying degrees the result of events that were put in motion in 1979.

And according to a recently declassified article from Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s internal journal, the significance of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi’s lymphatic cancer — from which the exiled Iranian monarch would die in July of 1980 — was badly misread by US intelligence agencies. It was hardly the only factor contributing to rise of the Islamic Republic, but it shows the potentially outsized impact of such seemingly tertiary and misunderstood factors.

In the summer, 1980 issue of Studies in Intelligence, an author whose name is redacted in the paper’s declassified version suggests that US intelligence officers did not have an adequate sense of the Shah’s actual health during the closing years of his regime. “We now know that by 1973 [the Shah] knew that the time was short,” the paper’s author writes, using redacted information from “the definitive medical report” of the Shah as proof.

He apparently learned of his lympathic cancer that year — and it might have made him govern in a way that hastened the country’s crisis.

The paper notes that the Shah upped his government’s modernization efforts to a breakneck pace after 1973, and that the Shah’s “grandiosity expanded exponentially” after that year. This alienated parts of a population that was already bristling under the Shah’s dictatorial rule, and the ruler’s sense of his own finite time in power might have caused him pursue policies that only deepened the country’s frustration towards its ruling family.

“Having sewn the seeds of a too-rapid modernization, he had reaped the whirlwind of revolution,” the author writes.

His illness might have made the Shah more willing to abdicate the throne, which he did in early 1979. The author raises the possibility that the cancer may have made the Shah’s decision-making more erratic while sapping his will to cling to power. He may have been “able to give only part of his energy to fighting for Iran’s life, since he was fighting for his own.”

Yet the US was largely in the dark about something that might have been central to the Shah’s calculations during the critical final years of his rule.

“Had we known the Shah was suffering from cancer of the lymph nodes since 1973, our government’s judgements as to his ability to deal with the revolutionary forces that swept through Iran would probably have been quite different,” the author writes. “Serious doubts would have replaced the guarded optimism concerning his ability to weather the storm.”

And these doubts might have convinced the US to pursue policies that could have staved off Iran’s eventual Islamist takeover. It could have led to the US push the Shah towards an “early accommodation” with his opponents. At the very least, it would have provided some much-needed explanation of the leader’s mindset during the frantic closing months of his rule.

The US’s misunderstanding of the Shah’s medical condition contributed to a crisis whose consequences are still deeply felt throughout the Middle East. It’s a reminder of how things that are seemingly background-factors can contribute to major shifts in history.

And it’s a reminder that even the CIA can totally miss them.

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