How the Shah Entangled America

How the Shah Entangled America

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

By maintaining the arms relationship with the Shah, Carter’s experience exemplifies the lack of alternatives that existed for U.S. regional policy by the late 1970s. After thirty years of investment and political winnowing, America’s regional options had become heavily leveraged on the Shah’s Iran. A path dependency had taken hold that even an antiarms president was powerless to materially alter. It had been no surprise that Ford continued to arm Iran. But witnessing the same advocacy from Carter is testament to the power and influence that Washington had outsourced to the Shah. The project was simply, in today’s jargon, too big to fail.

Unfortunately for U.S. policy makers, the Iranian people had other intentions in mind. Their removal of the Shah and his regime through the winter of 1978-1979 tore Iran from the United States, and a deeply hostile regime took power in Tehran. The largest deployment of U.S. arms in one single country fell into the hands of angry mobs shouting “death to America and Israel.”

Adding this layer of analysis into U.S.-Iranian relations is not just historical. It provides insight into the major U.S. Cold War policy shifts that followed the Iranian Revolution—such as the Carter Doctrine and Reagan’s decision to go on the offensive against the Soviet Union. Put simply, those policies bore a direct relation to the failure of outsourcing containment in the Middle East via arms sales and security relationships with allies such as the Shah. In that sense, arming Iran was the grand test of Nixon’s idea of outsourcing containment. And it became its grand failure. When Iran descended into revolution, the very essence of U.S. policy towards the entire Gulf region imploded. The consequence was the direct application of U.S. power in the region—something that had been resisted for decades due to fears of overstretch and a reluctance to extend the definition of U.S. national interests to another theater.

Looking at the Middle East today, it seems that the loss of Iran was a game-changing event. It forced the United States to cross a line into territory which it has been unable to step back from due to the ongoing geopolitical centrality of the region.

Stephen McGlinchey is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of the West of England, Bristol. He the author of Richard Nixon’s Road to Tehran: The Making of the U.S.-Iran Arms Agreement of May 1972 and lead editor of  e-International Relations .