Fears of an Aggressive Iran Are Far Older Than the Islamic Republic Is
The U.S. destabilized the Middle East in the ’70s by selling billions in weapons to the Shah
This story originally appeared on May 27, 2015.
The U.S. and Iran were once best friends. Washington saw the country as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, an ally it could rely on to keep the peace in a confusing and conflict-prone area of the world. It was more than willing to sell weapons of war to the kingdom.
In the 1970s, the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, pursued a manic build-up of Iran’s military. He read defense industry trade journals such as Jane’s Defense Weekly as if they were shopping catalogs. He wanted the best for his soldiers and he had the cash to buy it.
He bought everything from sophisticated F-14 Tomcat jets — Iran was the only foreign power America allowed to buy the planes — to British Chieftain tanks. In the last day’s of the Shah’s regime, its army was one of the most powerful and advanced in the region and its navy was the largest in the Persian Gulf.
In the early ’70s, Pres. Richard Nixon delegated a lot of regional responsibility to the Shah as part of his Nixon Doctrine. Coming toward the end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the doctrine served to outsource peacekeeping to U.S. allies.
Instead of fighting war, Washington would sell arms and lend support to its friends across the planet in hopes that they would keep the peace.
Nixon’s go-to guy in the Middle East was the Shah, who suddenly had access to the most sophisticated military hardware in the world. He went on a spending spree the scared the neighbors Nixon expected him to protect.
Not everyone was happy about the Shah’s new military might. Journalists and analysts speculated about what Iran might do with all its new weapons. One popular theory — reported by everyone from newspaper columnists to 60 Minutes — was that the Shah would overrun the Saudi oil fields if his own supplies ever ran low.
The late columnist and investigative journalist Jack Anderson wrote in March 1976 that secret intelligence reports concluded that the Shah could take the fields if he wanted to. Anderson suggested that such a move could spark a wider war where Iraq, Egypt and Jordan might come the defense of Saudi Arabia.
Among the intelligence documents Anderson cited was the CIA’s psychological profile of the Iranian monarch.
The CIA deemed the Shah “a dangerous megalomaniac who is likely to pursue his own aims in disregard of U.S. interests.”
“His dreams of glory exceed his ability to finance them,” the profile continued. “When his oil revenues run out in an estimated two decades he might use his new military power to seize some neighboring oil fields.”
Washington had sold the Shah $3 billion worth of military equipment. Iran had more than enough firepower to tackle the Saudis and take their oilfields, including 483 helicopters, a 75,000-man air force and almost 20,000 sailors manning three destroyers, four frigates and three submarines.
By comparison, the Saudi navy comprised a paltry 1,500 men. “Some Arab nations,” Anderson wrote. “Particularly Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, are beginning to wonder who will protect them from their protector.”
The fears of journalists and Iran’s neighbors weren’t unfounded. In late 1973, the British government feared that the U.S. and Iran might invade and occupy important oil installations in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The Arab monarchies had constricted American energy supplies after the Yom Kippur war, so the White House considered a wide range of creative solutions to solve America’s energy crisis. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger even suggested seizing Abu Dhabi just to keep the other Arab nations in line.
The Shah insisted that he would never use the Iranian military to seize the land of his neighbors.
But Iran did take control of three small but strategically important islands in the Persian Gulf — Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs — in 1971 right after the establishment of the United Arab Emirates.
It controls the islands to this day despite the UAE’s repeated claims it owns the territory. The dispute is still a source of acrimony and contention between the two countries.
Taking islands is small-time villainy compared to the Shah’s grander ambitions. He wasn’t content with merely being the guardian of the Persian Gulf — he wanted Iran to be a world power. He planned for his sizable navy to expand into the Indian Ocean to patrol along with the navies of Australia and South Africa.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. But America’s weapons and support made Iran’s little expansions possible.
U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger acted as if the Shah were infallible when it came to regional geopolitical and geo-strategic assessments. He deferred to him on those matters — a mindset well documented in Roham Alvandi’s 2014 history, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah — The United States and Iran in the Cold War.
In 1973, the U.S., Israel and Iran gave covert support to the Iraqi Kurds in their armed guerrilla struggle against the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad.
Above — Iranian troops fire artillery. Photo via Wikimedia. At top — Iranian F-14s defend an oilfield. Iranian Air Force photo via Wikimedia
Nixon and Kissinger said America was preventing the Soviets from dominating Iraq through a Ba’athist-Communist Party unity government. The Shah concurred. Britain, and many of Nixon’s advisers, did not.
The Shah eventually pulled his support of the embattled Kurds, who he helped on the pretext that they would keep the Iraqi Ba’athists embroiled in a conflict within the boundaries of Iraq.
Iranian soldiers fought in the conflict disguised as Kurdish Peshmerga forces. But the Shah pulled the rug out from under the Kurds in 1975 by making a deal with Iraq’s then-Vice Pres. Saddam Hussein. The two met in Algiers and negotiated a settlement. The Shah did this to bide his time while he built up Iran’s armed forces and military strength.
The Shah also sent forces into Oman in 1974 to help the Sultanate in Muscat put down a Marxist insurgency in the Dhofar region. He dismissed the rebels as “savages in the mountains, living like goats and acting like terrorists.”
As part of that effort, Iran contributed its own task force of UH-1 Huey helicopters and Boeing CH-47 Chinooks to bring Iranian troops into battle against the guerrillas. The Shah dispelled the notion that Iranian troops operating south of the Persian Gulf was a sign that Iran wanted to expand.
“We have plenty of territory ourselves,” he said.
While running for president that same year, Jimmy Carter expressed outrage that America had sold Iran so much military hardware.
“Our priorities ought to be, first of all, to meet our own military needs; secondly, to meet the needs of our allies and friends, and only then should we ship military equipment to foreign countries,” he said during a debate with Gerald Ford.
“As a matter of fact, Iran is going to get 80 F-14s before we even meet our own Air Force orders for F-14s, and the shipment of Spruance-class destroyers to Iran are much more highly sophisticated than the Spruance-class destroyers that are presently being delivered to our own Navy,” Carter added.
“This is ridiculous, and it ought to be changed.”
Carter won the presidency, but his stance on Iran became moot. Before the end of his first and only term, the Islamic Revolution deposed the Shah and imposed a cleric-ruled theocracy. Less than a year later in 1980, Iraq attacked Iran.
The same countries that once feared Iran’s military power pumped money into Baghdad, hoping to weaken the Islamic regime. The war lasted eight years and killed hundreds of thousands of people on both sides.
The Shah’s multi-billion-dollar military apparatus fell apart due to a U.S. arms embargo and the inexperience of the nascent Islamic Republic regime which imprisoned, tortured and executed military officers who had served under the Shah.
Which is to say that backing the Shah from the beginning was a mistake with serious consequences for U.S. interests in the region. Sometimes your best frenemy is really just an enemy.