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Jimmy Carter Toasts the Shah

The Shah’s reign witnessed years of oppression against the Iranian people, and Carter’s toast added fuel to the fire.

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On New Year’s Eve 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter raised his glass of champagne to toast his host, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Carter spoke warmly of the Shah: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you” [2:35]. Time would tell that Iran was not an island of stability, and the Shah was anything but loved by most Iranian citizens. Only one week later, in opposition to the repressive regime of the Shah, Iranian citizens started to partake in massive demonstrations that would eventually culminate in revolution, ushering in the Islamic Republic of Iran.


The United States had little involvement with Iran before World War II. That changed after the war, due to the rising importance of oil for the American economy and escalating tensions with the Soviet Union. American officials aimed to secure and protect the vast deposits of oil within Iran’s borders, and keep the Soviets from dominating the region. The Cold War complicated American relations with Iran, and ultimately resulted in American support for the Shah – a repressive dictator – in order to prevent Soviet in-roads.

The Shah prioritized staying in power more than generating legitimate support for his regime. During the course of his rule, many political opponents were imprisoned or executed by SAVAK, the Iranian secret police. American officials counseled the Shah to undertake reforms aimed at broadening and strengthening support for his regime. The Shah reluctantly agreed, and in 1963 launched the “White Revolution,” an ambitious domestic reform program that sought to catapult Iran into modernity through industrialization, land reform, greater access to quality healthcare and education, and other measures. But the Shah preferred to spend Iran’s oil wealth on American-made weapons, along with lavish celebrations to demonstrate Iran’s modern sophistication to Western audiences. Underfunded and poorly executed, the White Revolution actually alienated many Iranian citizens, even as it seemed to impress American officials. In sum, the Shah’s measures failed to win popular support as his regime continued to repress the Iranian people with brutal tactics.