Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Lyndon B. Johnson and Arms Credit Sales to Iran 1964-1968

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Lyndon B. Johnson and Arms Credit Sales to Iran 1964-1968

Article excerpt

During the 1960s, Iran transitioned from a client state into an emerging partner of America. Crucial to the analysis of this transformation is understanding how Iran progressed from a low-priority military aid recipient in the 1950s to a military credit purchase partner in 1964. The transformation was characterized by frequent difficulties and disagreements as the Shah's demands and Washington's ability and/or desire to fulfill those demands rarely coalesced until the twilight of the Johnson Administration.

In 1971, Iran was America's largest arms export customer. One year later, in May 1972, the Shah of Iran agreed to a deal with Richard Nixon that gave him a blank check to purchase whatever arms he desired from America, short of nuclear weapons, and to make those purchases without any interference or oversight from Washington - a highly unique agreement. What followed was an annual multi-billion dollar arms purchase pattern that catapulted Iran within a few short years from a relatively underdeveloped state militarily into one that wielded one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the world. Yet, by early 1979, the Shah had been overthrown in a violent revolution, after which the high-level arms relationship between America and Iran ground to a sudden halt as a virulently anti-American Islamic regime took power in Iran - a state of affairs that has remained to the present day. While the Nixon years are addressed relatively well in the literature on US-Iranian studies, the Johnson years are comparatively under-researched. Hence, an opportunity exists in revisiting the mid-1960s to lay better foundations for the understanding of the unique position that the US-Iranian relationship attained in the 1970s.

Johnson's predecessor, John F. Kennedy, had a broad ideological approach to foreign policy based on economic rather than military aid, and he expressed an antipathy for authoritarian regimes, such as that of the Shah. It is thus understandable why certain historians have described the Kennedy years as the nadir in relations between America and Iran, after which the transformation of relations between the two nations began to gradually take shape.1 This assessment is correct with respect to the fact that the Kennedy Administration came closer than any previous administration to actually considering removing support for the Shah. Yet, by the spring of 1962, the relationship was largely back to where it had been in the 1950s, when acceptance for the Shah and steady American support for him as a staunchly pro-American leader in an unstable Cold War hot spot was assured.

As Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963, there was every reason to assume that this steady momentum in relations with Iran would continue. However, closer examination of the Johnson years reveals that relations became extremely rocky after 1964, and critical by mid-1966, with arms issues the express driver of the tensions. Johnson is traditionally portrayed as a president who was determined to have a domestic agenda, a desire that was ultimately eroded by ever-increasing American escalation in Vietnam.2 That overwhelming focus on Vietnam consumed the bulk of the foreign policy attention of the administration and led to a dangerous driftin relations with Cold War periphery states such as Iran. This development has been largely ignored, with precious little examination of this period of US-Iran relations in the literature on Johnson's foreign policy3 and less still on the issue of arms deals between the Shah and the Johnson Administration.4 The lack of detailed investigation has caused a distortion within the general historiography of the period, evident throughout the literature, which often assumes, erroneously, that relations with Iran were stable and progressing well in the Johnson period. A prominent example is Richard W. Cottam, who, in a frequently-cited case study of US-Iran relations in the Cold War, stated that the mid-1960s were part of a "decade of stability. …

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