For a White Revolution: John F. Kennedy and the Shah of Iran

Article excerpt

The story of American relations with Iran during the Kennedy administration is one of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi often manipulated and thwarted Kennedy's policy toward Iran and used American fears of Communism to gain increased financial aid and military support. Disagreements among US policy-makers also contributed to an inconsistent policy toward Iran. These factors resulted in the bolstering of a dictatorship out of touch with the Iranian people, inevitably leading to the revolution that occurred in 1978-79.

The story of American relations with Iran during the Kennedy Administration ( 1961 1963) is one of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. President John F. Kennedy's policy toward the Middle East illustrates the agency and unexpected power wielded by nations peripheral to the main thrust of the Cold War. In spite of careful planning in Washington, Middle East leaders sometimes manipulated and thwarted Kennedy's policy toward the region. The US-Iranian relationship during the Kennedy Administration is one example. Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran used American fears of Communism to gain increased financial aid, military support, and influence in the United Nations. The Shah, however, mostly sought to bolster his faltering regime by exaggerating the external threats to his power. Kennedy and his State Department fell victim to the same fears of instability and Communism and ignored those who argued for a fresh approach in American relations with Iran.

The Kennedy Administration is an excellent case study for the nature of power relationships during the Cold War because it came during a period in which policy shifted because of the actions of local players.' In most cases, successful policy toward the "Third World" occurred only when the interests of a superpower and the non-superpower state converged. In spite of Kennedy's resolve to change the American approach to the Middle East, the Shah managed to pose as a reformer, thus assuring a steady flow of dollars. Similarly, Prince Faysal of Saudi Arabia created paper reforms in order to persuade Kennedy to provide military aid. King Husayn of Jordan promised reforms and threatened to seek Soviet help in order obtain increasing amounts of American aid. Eventually, American support of traditional Arab regimes vis-à-vis more progressive ones further branded the United States as an enemy of pan-Arab nationalism.

Kennedy intended to work with whomever was necessary to further his aim: to minimize Soviet influence in the region and safeguard Western access to oil. Even though Kennedy would have liked to broker an Arab-Israeli peace or at least make significant progress toward that goal, he more realistically expected to maintain a balanced approach to both Arab states and Israel while minimizing the opportunities for Soviet infiltration. Although he gave other areas of the world much more time and energy, Kennedy saw the Middle East as an important arena in which to carry out Cold War aims.2 He called upon the State Department and staff of the National security Council to spend heavily of their energies on the situation in Iran. Task forces and temporary committees often met on a weekly basis to analyze issues and shape policy recommendations on the Middle East, and Kennedy frequently participated in the discussions. While overshadowed by Cuba and Vietnam, the Middle East received no small measure of attention.

Kennedy had a unique opportunity during his Administration. He was the only president from Franklin Roosevelt to Gerald Ford who did not have to cope with a major war in the Middle East. The fact that United Arab Republic President Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir [Nasser] and most of his Arab neighbors knew they could not afford war with Israel in the near future created a favorable environment for internal development and cooperation. If ever there was a time that the United States could prove to be a supporter of Arab nations, it was the early 1960s. …