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Migrating with Iran’s Bakhtiari Tribe Before the Revolution: A Tale From the Foreign Service

Back when the United States had diplomatic missions in Iran, a young Foreign Service Officer  travelled with members of the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe to better understand their culture and politics.  Malcolm Butler recalls camping with the Bakhtiari at the time of the 1969 Apollo IX moon landing — and trying to convince his skeptical hosts that the grainy images he showed them represented actual humans on the moon.  More substantively, both the nomads and students Butler met at Iranian universities betrayed signs of discontent with the Shah’s regime well before the 1978 Iranian Revolution.

In 1975, Butler would go on to work with the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger, and eventually become intimately involved in the work of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As Mission Director for USAID in the ‘80s, he would lead programs in Bolivia, Peru, Lebanon, and the Philippines, also acting as Executive Secretary from 1983 to 1985. His wife, Tish Butler, was in Beirut during the embassy’s bombing in 1983.

Malcolm Butler’s interview was conducted by John Pielemeier on November 17, 2017.

Read Malcolm Butler’s full oral history HERE.     

Drafted by Vinicius Storck

“If you were going to challenge the government, or if you were a powerful political or commercial family, whatever, you wanted the Bakhtiari on your side.”

Migrating With the Bakhtiari: Khorramshahr [city in Khuzestan] is in the south of Iran. That was good because it put me further out in the country, although in that region, Khuzestan, Arabic was spoken as much as Farsi. I enjoyed southern Iran, and being number two at the post. More important, the principle officer didn’t particularly like to travel, which meant that I covered all of southern Iran. I loved Shiraz, a beautiful university town, and spent time in Bandar Abbas, the southern port.

And I went on a migration with a Bakhtiari tribe. Every year they moved from summer pastures in the mountains down to the plains for the winter. I had made some friends among the Bakhtiari and they invited me to do the migration with them, which was really something, really a tremendous experience. I loved it.

Q: So, they were basically doing this with goats or animals or–?

BUTLER: It was everything– horses, sheep, goats, they moved the whole tribe. Mainly over mountain trails.

Q: It was basically for purposes of grazing that they were moving, right?

BUTLER: Yes. And the embassy was happy to give me a few weeks to go. The Bakhtiari were the most powerful of the indigenous tribes, potentially kingmakers in many respects in southwestern Iran. If you were going to challenge the government, or if you were a powerful political or commercial family, whatever, you wanted the Bakhtiari on your side. They were a large tribe, they were fiercely independent, and they were tough. So gaining some insights into the Bakhtiari was useful to the embassy. I didn’t speak Bakhtiari, but enough of them spoke Farsi, or even some English, that I managed. I was even able to use some German, because the Germans had made a big effort to use them against the British during WWII, and the German influence carried over. And I could ride a semi-broken horse, from my Texas days.

I’ll tell you one quick story there. When I was migrating with them it was soon after we had put the first Americans on the moon. USIA gave me a small projector, which we hooked up to a truck battery. I remember sitting out on a mountainside, under a full moon. The Bakhtiari families gathered around to listen to this crazy foreigner trying to convince them that the film was of people walking up there on that moon. I don’t think anybody believed a word of it, but they let me stay on.

Q: Were you trekking or were you on horseback or how were you doing this?

BUTLER: Well, it was both. And they had a couple of old trucks that they met up with periodically, to haul part of the equipment and to resupply.

“I was traveling and getting to know the people, and they were not at all comfortable with the Shah’s political structure.”

Signs of Political Discontent:  Years later the Iranian revolution took place. I was not there–my tour had ended–but I saw uneasiness building in the country, and particularly among the young people. I had friends at Shiraz University, one of the elite schools, and I knew a lot of other younger people. I was at the time 27 or 28. I was sending reports to the embassy saying I was very dubious about how much Tehran knew about the rest of the country, because local officials were protecting themselves. Everything I got officially was through obviously rose-colored lenses. I was traveling and getting to know the people, and they were not at all comfortable with the Shah’s political structure.




     BA in History and Economics, Rice University                                                               1963

     Graduate Studies in Economics, Oxford                                                                           1962-1964

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                           1966

     Mexico City, Mexico                                                                                                                1966-1969

     Khorramshahr, Iran                                                                                                                1969-1971

     Staff of International Economic Affairs, National Security Council                             1975-1977

     Lima, Peru—Mission Director, USAID                                                                                1981-1982

     Beirut, Lebanon—Mission Director, USAID                                                                      1982-1983 

     Manila, Philippines—Mission Director, USAID                                                                1986-1989

     Director of USAID program for the Newly Independent States (NIS)                          1989-1992