IRAN-Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War

By Little, Douglas | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

IRAN-Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War


Little, Douglas, The Middle East Journal


Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War, by Roham Alvandi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 255 pages, $55.

Reviewed by Douglas Little

Thirty-five years after the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States and Iran seem on the verge of a rapprochement that could reverse three decades of frosty relations between the two most important players in the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf. Roham Alvandi, who teaches international history at the London School of Economics, has given us a beautifully written and thoroughly researched account of the "special relationship" between the Nixon Administration and the Shah during the early 1970s, a relationship whose collapse would put Washington and Tehran on the road to estrangement after 1979. Challenging the conventional interpretation put forward by Amin Saikal, James Bill, and many other scholars, who contend that President Richard Nixon and his chief foreign policy strategist, Henry Kissinger, actively recruited the Shah as an American puppet and proxy, Alvandi argues that events actu ally unfolded the other way around. Relying on recently declassified materials from the US and UK archives as well as Persian-language diaries and memoirs, Alvandi presents a compelling revisionist narrative showing that "the shah effectively harnessed the Nixon Doctrine to serve Iranian interests" (p. 6).

Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah is not a comprehensive survey of Iranian-American relations from 1969 to 1977 but rather a series of interconnected case studies examining Nixon's personal relationship with the Shah, the covert war against Saddam Husayn in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Iran's burgeoning nuclear ambitions. Alvandi begins with a concise overview of America's evolving relationship with the Shah from the administrations of Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson. Dwight Eisenhower's decision to unleash the Central Intelligence Agency against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, the Shah's chief nemesis, in August 1953 and John Kennedy's determination to foster Iranian modernization a decade later despite ferocious opposition from clerics like Ruhollah Khomeini led Iranian critics to dismiss the royal government as nothing more than a puppet regime. The Shah, however, bridled at accusations that Washington was pulling the strings during the 1960s. Proud and ruthless, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi insisted that "the White Revolution" was not made in America but was rather the product of his own imperial vision, prompting one reformer to remark that "His Majesty is trying to become both Xerxes and Fidel Castro" (quoted, p. 23).

When Richard Nixon moved into the Oval Office, US policy-makers were already scrambling to preserve Western influence in the wake of Britain's impending departure from the Persian Gulf scheduled for 1971. The Shah made no secret that he was eager to fill this vacuum. Nixon, who had first met the Shah in 1953, regarded him as a modernizing anticommunist statesman and was hardly surprised to hear him say in April 1969 that "Iran is not an American stooge" (p. 42). Alvandi shows that during the following three years, the Iranian monarch repeatedly let it be known that he was willing to serve as America's principal partner in the Middle East, provided that US officials stopped treating him as a client or, even worse, as a puppet. When Nixon sat down with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran in May 1972 and literally said "protect me," the Shah made him an offer he could not refuse (p. 29). In exchange for access to any nonnuclear hardware in the Pentagon's arsenal, the Shah agreed to assume responsibility for ensuring political stability and preventing Soviet subversion throughout the region. Alvandi concludes that by the time Nixon and Kissinger returned to Washington, "they were looking at the [Persian] Gulf through the shah's eyes" (p. 57).

By the early 1970s, the Shah's eyes were riveted on Iraq, where a Ba'thist regime not only maintained close ties with the Kremlin but also expropriated the holdings of several American multinational oil companies. …

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