This Article was first published in Newsweek on July 18, 2023.
Much of the Western world has celebrated the post presidency life of Jimmy Carter.
Whether framing homes for Habitat for Humanity, selectively crusading for human rights, or teaching Sunday school in Plains, Ga., Carter has tried for four decades to overcome the bitter setbacks that culminated in the disappointment of his one-term presidency.
Now 98, the former president announced in February that he would enter end-of-life care at home without seeking additional medical intervention. He’s reportedly in good spirits, eating ice cream and visiting with friends.
It seems an enviable end to a long life. Still, there’s one thing the 39th president needs to do to rectify his legacy from his time in office.
Carter owes the people of Iran an apology.
Carter’s critics always point to his handling of the Iran hostage crisis as the most glaring flaw in his time in office. During the course of that 444-day nightmare, a student mob held 52 U.S. diplomats and civilians hostage, and no amount of negotiation—or attempted military action—could get them released. Thankfully, that sad chapter finally ended on Jan. 20, 1980, the day President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol.
But Carter’s true transgression—the original sin that has complicated and shaped U.S. policy in the Middle East ever since—preceded that. Carter’s gravest mistake was his disastrous undermining and lack of support for the legitimate ruler of Iran, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was waging a valiant battle against leukemia as the revolution unfolded in his country.
To be fair, Carter had plenty of assistance in his geopolitical blunder. His State Department seemed to effectively encourage the growing protests against the shah’s reign, which came to a head when Sec. of State Cyrus Vance announced that the shah would leave on “vacation” for an indefinite period. But the final responsibility lies with Carter, who saw fundamentalist sharks circling an ailing shah and helped engineer the rise of his disastrous successor by putting his trust in the exiled, soon-to-be leader of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini, and throwing the shah, a decades-long U.S. ally, under the bus.
When the administration announced Carter would meet with European heads of state in January 1979, the shah rightly understood that his departure from power was main item on the agenda. Eleven days later, out of options, he fled his own country. At that point, the fundamentalist takeover was all but inevitable.
Of course, now we know the rest of the story. In 2016, the BBC obtained documents detailing how the “Carter administration paved [the] way” for Khomeini’s return to Iran from exile. Carter administration officials familiar with the BBC report have not challenged its authenticity. Supporting the toppling of shah was an historic blunder, one with reverberations that are still felt throughout Iran and the rest of the Middle East to this day.
By indulging the impulse to remove the shah and putting his confidence behind an outspoken cleric over a proven friend of the U.S., Carter consigned Iran to a brutal, fundamentalist, oppressive regime that has systematically annihilated the Persian culture, its economy, and the human dignity of its people ever since.
For more than four decades, the Iranian people have attempted to tell their story to the world. It is the story of a proud civilization, successor to the great Persian Empire, that fell prey to America’s partisan political machine and as a result, has fallen backward in time.
Ironically, Carter blamed the shah of Iran for not meeting the progressive standards of the West. So, instead, he threw the Iranian people into the clutches of those who execute children, rape women, and throw innocent dancers, journalists, and bloggers behind bars merely for self-expression and free speech.
Where my mother received multiple academic scholarships to attend university in the 1970s, women are now considered to have half the value of a man in Iran’s Sharia courts.
Flash forward to today, and the shameful harvest of Carter’s abject failure to support the shah is more evident than ever before. As has been widely reported, Iran’s brutal morality police arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September for the crime of not wearing her hijab in the approved manner. Despite a police coverup that claimed she died of a heart attack, eyewitnesses reported she’d been bludgeoned and battered. Her murder triggered a wave of #WomanLifeFreedom protests that continue to this day, eclipsing the protests of 2009, 2017, and 2019. Human rights groups report at least 522 protesters have been killed, including at least 70 minors. This time around, the Iranian people are united in their endeavor, which is regime change.
Like myself, many of the protesters were born after the Revolution and never lived under the shah’s reign. Now, in the colorful and often rhyming political slogans shouted out on the streets, Iranians are fondly remembering the shah and even his father, chanting “Reza Shah, bless your soul.” They’re also asking the son of the shah, exiled Prince Reza Pahlavi, who currently lives outside Washington, D.C., to return to Iran as their potential leader.
More than two-thirds of Iran’s 80-plus million people are under the age of 40. For these Iranians, as for myself, there is a second-generation nostalgia for the Iran they have learned about through their parents’ stories. They know it wasn’t perfect, but compared to life under the current regime, it was utopia.
With no end in sight for the malignant fundamentalist regime in Tehran, it is indeed the case that Iran and the world are owed a profound, heartfelt apology.
It should come from Jimmy Carter.
Lisa Daftari is director and founding editor of TheForeignDesk.com, an online platform offering news and analysis on stories around the globe. Fluent in Persian, Spanish, and English, her parents left Iran to flee fundamentalist persecution.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.