How the Shah Entangled America

Iran used its strategic and economic importance so well that very different U.S. presidents pursued very similar policies. 

Mohammed Reza Shah’s rule of Iran from 1942 until 1979 spanned eight U.S. presidents. His desire for military supremacy over his neighbors and his distrust of the Soviets led him to seek a military relationship with the United States following the end of the Second World War. As the U.S.-Iranian relationship developed, the idea of arming Iran came to form a key component of U.S. policy due to waning U.S. options in the Gulf through the 1960s and an alignment in U.S. and Iranian regional policies in the early 1970s. This relationship eventually resulted in Iran wielding a military that was, on paper, within reach of becoming the world’s fifth-most-advanced force in 1978.

By the time of Richard Nixon’s arrival in office in January 1969, Iran was already America’s single-largest arms purchaser. Whilst this is notable in and of itself, it is vastly overshadowed by what followed. By late 1972 Nixon leveraged U.S. Middle Eastern regional policy primarily around the focal point of a militarily strong, pro-American Iran. Concurrently, the Shah was encouraged, and empowered, to begin an unprecedented and virtually unmoderated military spending spree in what is now known as the “blank check.”

Nixon did this for two reasons. Firstly, the British decided to withdraw their military forces from the Gulf, leaving behind a vacuum of sorts. Secondly, the Vietnam quagmire stressed the limits of the direct application of U.S. power in peripheral areas. Iran seemed the obvious candidate to turn to. There was a legacy of U.S. investment going back to the 1953 coup that the CIA engineered with the British to restore the Shah’s autocracy after a left-leaning nationalist government had marginalised him. Other possible pro-U.S. candidates were eliminated from consideration: Saudi Arabia had languished in military redundancy beset by political instability, and moving any closer to Israel would risk pushing the Arab states further toward the Soviets.

Within the space of a few short months in 1972, the Shah purchased over $3 billion dollars of arms from the United States—a twentyfold increase on the prior year. For the remainder of the 1970s, the Shah continued to buy arms in the multibillions per annum, dwarfing all other U.S. allies such as Israel and the NATO nations. In the Shah, Washington had an ally who was willing to accept a position as a regional policeman and rich enough to afford to do so (due to his ever-rising oil income). In return, Iran secured a high-level alliance with its preferred side in the Cold War, a buffer against potential Soviet incursions from its northern border. It was a win-win scenario for both nations. Yet the “pros” in the arrangement overshadowed a series of significant “cons.”

The wisdom of choosing Iran as the primary vehicle for outsourcing containment in the Gulf was controversial in its very essence. Firstly, Iran was not an Arab nation like the majority of its neighbors. Secondly, the Iranian religious population was comprised of Shia Muslims rather than the regionally dominant Sunnis. Thirdly, under the Shah’s rule, Iran was widely perceived as an arrogant and status-quo-threatening regime by its neighbors. In sum, the Shah’s Iran was neither respected nor liked in the region. Therefore, investing in promoting Iranian hegemony as a proxy for American power was at odds with the reality in the wider region. Additionally, the disproportionate extent of the military investment in the Shah’s regime is partially responsible for the tide of anti-American sentiment that endures in Iran to this day. If the Shah had not been overthrown by the Iranians themselves in 1979, it is likely that wider regional opposition would have manifested to the Shah’s ambitions as his plans became ever grander. For those reasons, Nixon’s blank check and the policy package that surrounded it was an extremely risky bet.

When Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment over the Watergate affair, the successor Gerald R. Ford administration found itself the steward for an Iran-arms policy that was under threat from within the administration and from Congress. Executive power had peaked in the Nixon years in what has been widely referred to as a period of imperial presidency. Yet by 1974 Congress had begun to recover lost ground. Congress continually battled with Ford for influence over military sales, with Iran at the forefront of concerns due to its extraordinarily large volume of purchases. The truth was, Congress was in the dark. It, and the public by extension, had no idea what was going on with U.S.-Iranian relations. Nixon had kept the arrangement secret. The majority of the mid-1970s was spent with Congress attempting to secure access and understanding over why the United States was arming Iran to such an extent—which the administration skillfully navigated in such a way as to stall and restrict progress.