What do Tehran, Panama City and Washington have in common?
Failed U.S. policy and C.I.A. maneuvering played themselves out in those venues 30 years ago. When the shah of Iran was deposed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Carter administration twisted the arm of Panamanian General Omar Torrijos and convinced him to give the shah political refuge. The shah’s chief protector while in Panamanian exile was Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega, Torrijos’ intelligence chief — all the while a paid C.I.A. collaborator.
Noriega told me in interviews I conducted with him in the 1990s for the book “America’s Prisoner” that Torrijos accepted the U.S. request “as a goodwill gesture to the United States,” despite protests worldwide.
Several times, there were attempts by terrorists to penetrate the security cordon and reach the shah; at least one occasion involved a zealot on a suicide mission trying to sneak into Panama with false documents. With the ayatollah declaring that killing the shah would be a sure route to heaven, we were certain that there would be such an effort and our guard was always up.
The United States has fingerprints all over the history of Iran, and Panama too — a legacy of manipulation, greed, disregard of human rights and democracy and failed understanding of U.S. long term interests.
The C.I.A. installed the shah on his so-called 2,500-year-old Peacock Throne in Tehran in 1953, overthrowing the democratically-elected president, Mohammad Mosaddeq. Successive U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter, looked the other way while the shah’s C.I.A.-trained SAVAK intelligence agency repressed dissidents and their fight for freedom.
Barack Obama is attempting a new and pragmatic approach toward dealing with Iran after generations of mutual suspicion. He is concerned that a high profile would make the United States a convenient target for Iranian clerics. Obama’s conservative opponents at home are looking for ways to criticize him, charging Obama is not sufficiently vocal in supporting the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.
Where are they now?
General Manuel Noriega is a convicted felon and prisoner of war, held in a Florida jail since 1989 when the United States invaded his country and disbanded the U.S.-trained Panamanian National Guard.
The shah died in Cairo of cancer in 1980. His son, Reza Pahlavi, emerged from obscurity in suburban Washington on Monday. He spoke at the National Press Club, dewy-eyed as he hinted he wouldn’t mind running for president of Iran one day.
For now: “My sole objective is to help my compatriots reach freedom,” Pahlavi said. But if and when that happens, he went on, “I’d like to be able to be in my country one day, come behind such a podium, talk to my people and every other candidate…let the people decide.”
– Peter Eisner
Find our complete coverage of the Iranian elections at Voices of Iran.