To what extent was Mohammad Reza Shah an instrument of US foreign policy between 1941 and 1979?
The Shah’s role in Iran’s ascent from 1941-1979 is of considerable contention in the historiography of Third World leaders’ dependence on, or agency from, major powers, and must be considered in conjunction with the pressures of the Cold War that irrevocably shaped Iran’s domestic and international politics. Cold War Traditionalists and Revisionists focused on the actions of the major powers, side-lining evidence of Iranian agency whether from the Shah or the Majlis. Traditionalists painted a Soviet Union “…prepared to move into any position that the Western states were not willing to defend.” while Revisionists, influenced by conflicts like the Vietnam War, stressed Iran’s subservience to US economic aims. This big power focus reflects the contemporarily weak state the Shah. Largely side-lined by the government until the overthrow of Mossadeq, the Shah was anxious to expand his American connection and solidify his throne. This ostensibly gives credence to the Traditionalist and Revisionist view that the Shah was an instrument of US foreign policy, but this essay argues such arguments are found wanting, that these schools’ focus on the global, overlooks how skilfully the Shah exploited US Cold War fears and aims to suppress domestic dangers, balance British and Russian interests in Iran and procure military and economic aid.
This essay follows the post-revisionist position, which highlights third world leaders’ agency in their big power relationships, arguing that this period reveals a consistent US foreign policy across administrations that stressed Iranian sovereignty and stability rather than revisionists’ economic gain, and that the Shah “challenged, debated and negotiated virtually every aspect” of US Cold War policy, forcing his promotion to partner.
From 1941-1953, the Shah was Iran’s nominal leader and battled a Majlis led by Qavam and later Mossadeq, which sought to limit his power. Furthermore, Russia and Britain infringed on Iranian sovereignty, seeking to maintain oil concessions as well as prestige and power. The Shah nervously held the throne through the army and from 1946, active US support.
This weakness tempts acceptance of the Traditionalist and Revisionist disregard for third world agency. A more domestically-engaged investigation however, reveals a Shah of considered action even in this early period, who, aware of the confluence between international and domestic, developed ties with the US to solidify his hold domestically and remove British and Russian influence. The Shah-US relationship from 1941-1953 was in fact, a symbiotic one.
Admittedly, the Shah’s agency from 1941-1953 was limited in its aggressiveness but this should be viewed as adroit patience. The US, despite supporting Iranian sovereignty in the 1943 Tehran Declaration, remained hesitant to involve itself in Iran until the Crisis of 1945-46. Instead it pursued Russia through the UN. This limited involvement from 1941-46 provided the Shah with little to exploit beyond presenting himself as the US’ ‘man’, hoping this would help him overcome the Majlis.
He worked to convince US diplomats of his progressive nature. He declared on radio democracy was Iran’s future and cultivated a relationship with US ambassador George Allen. Following the 1946 Agreement, the Shah suggested Qavam’s trip to Moscow and lift of the ban on Tudeh activities were proof Qavam had Soviet leanings. Simultaneously, the Shah promoted himself as the only possibility for a stable, pro-west Iran, pressing this upon Allen who, despite official US support for elections in 1946, worked to undermine Qavam and supported the proposed coup.
The Shah’s successful relationship with Allen is reiterated by Pfau, who recounts Allen’s characterisation of Qavam during the airline incident as unfavourable. With Allen’s assurance the US would prevent Qavam rallying the gendarmerie against him, the Shah immediately committed the army, relatively safe that the “conviction by all concerned (Soviets, Iranians and Azerbaijanis) [was] that the United States was… supporting Iranian sovereignty”.
The Shah’s ulterior motive was suspected by Leland Morris who believed the Shah’s eagerness to enter the Russian zone was to force the US and British to “make a stand”. Prodding of US fears of Soviet influence and the Shah’s self-promotion delivered the Shah, not Qavam at the head of reunification and Qavam was soon removed.
The Shah continued exploiting the US with Mossadeq’s appointment. Campaigning to limit the Shah’s power and increase control of the oil industry, Mossadeq conflicted with the Shah’s and British interests. Both recognised the value of the other to their aims but US goals under Truman to keep Iran pro-West and to ensure a stable oil market, did not require Mossadeq’s removal. Therefore, British efforts to remove Mossadeq never quite came to fruition. Legal negotiations with Mossadeq in the ICJ, economic sanctions and military manoeuvres, attempts at discord in the National Front, and British designs for Zia, Qavam and Zahedi all failed.
Gasiorwoski’s description of the Shah as “sympathetic but… paralyzed with indecision” seems misplaced. British failure, largely due to US resistance, reiterates the Shah as patient, aware of the Anglo-American rift. Indeed, US aims were made clear through statements supporting Iranian sovereignty, support for a negotiated end to the oil dispute, and Mossadeq’s reception by US officials in the UN. The Shah likely realised the US were as “‘opposed to British neo-imperialist political and economic models as they were to Soviet presence.” And he stalled hasty British actions he deemed could threaten his rule.
The Shah’s ‘paralysis’ melted with Eisenhower’s election and a more aggressive US policy reacting to Iranian instability. Riots had exploded in 1952, the army and Bakhtiari considered a coup, the anti-West Kashani had tried to oust Mossadeq in 1953, and there were fears the Tudeh Party would seize power. Additionally, Mossadeq was viewed as increasingly unreasonable, his government unstable. The Eisenhower administration was ready to use force but the Shah only accepted US designs for Zahedi after multiple attempts, the guarantee Iran would receive economic aid and the public announcement of US and British involvement in the coup. The coup succeeded. The Shah had exploited US cold war aims and fears to limit British and Russian influence, remove domestic opposition and secure aid.
The Shah’s rule from 1953-1963 was defined by increased power domestically, an increased ability to leverage aid and his reformist pose, amenable to the incoming Kennedy administration’s Third World liberalisation. These developments were achieved through the exaggeration of external threats feared by the US and US policy subsequently shifted during this period in a manner that served the Shah more it served the US.
Throughout the 50s, the US-Shah relationship was tense despite support from the Eisenhower administration, evidenced by the Shah’s 1959 negotiations with the Soviet Union. Fearing the Soviet hand in the 1958 Iraqi coup, the negotiations reacted to US’ absence from the Baghdad Pact and were designed to reduce Iran’s dependence on US security from Soviet-backed opposition or invasion. Despite attempts at secrecy, the negotiations quickly became public. The Shah exploited this development – criticising the ineffectual Baghdad Pact, the military and economic aid Iran received compared to Turkey and demanded the US defend Iran from any aggression.
He was termed “the best blackmailer” by Allen and the US refused the Shah, reasoning he would not risk dissolving ties to the West. The Shah did not want to leave the Western fold, but true to form, tried to sign both the Soviet’s non-aggression pact and the US’ bilateral agreement, telling the US the Soviet offer was tempting. Under pressure, the US rushed the Shah to sign the agreement. Although the Shah failed to play off the major powers, these negotiations marked the Shah’s increasing independence and agitation to leech more from the US.
A split soon emerged amongst US policymakers on how to deal with him with the inauguration of the Kennedy administration in 1961. Traditionalists advocated working with the Shah while New Frontiersmen favoured pressuring the Shah to devolve power on the condition of US aid. The New Frontiersmen approach was designed to sate domestic Iranian unrest through economic, social and political reform, while rewarding the Shah with aid to prevent neutrality.
Despite the ostensibly radical approach of New Frontiersmen, the goal of US foreign policy during this administration remained the long-term goal for a pro-West, stable Iran. New Frontiersmen ‘reform’ manifested in Amini, a reformist appointed by the Shah to quell demonstrations in May 1961, but little else. As Nemchenok highlights, New Frontiersmen’s non-binding language ensured political reform was conceived narrowly and while they encouraged devolved power, they still recognised the Shah as “the fulcrum of power”. Significant political liberalisation was soon dropped, fearing “Any United States ultimatum or even heavy-handed hints… would probably result in corresponding moves… towards the USSR and neutralism.” Therefore, despite token support for Amini, the JFK administration effectively practiced the findings of the Special Operations Board under Eisenhower that there was no real alternative to the Shah.
For his part, the Shah frequently undermined Amini while stressing his own centrality. He made evident that Amini could only remain prime minister so long as Amini’s objectives were his own, leading John Holmes to council restraint because, according to Nemchenok, he “grasped the limits of US power”. Additionally, the Shah threatened to resign as commander of the armed forces if the US reduced Iran’s military, prompting the US to advance the Shah’s state visit, while conjuring a new military aid package to counter complaints. When JFK met the Shahin Washington in 1962, JFK even termed him “the keystone to the arch in Iran.”
US support on this trip bolstered the Shah’s confidence and he rejected Amini’s cuts to tackle the budgetary crisis in June 1962, simultaneously demanding increased economic and military aid. Termed the “real cause” for the emerging US opinion that Amini was a “spent force”, the Shah’s undermining of Amini and constant demands spurred US refusal to grant Iran economic aid. Amini’s position became untenable. He resigned in 1962 and the US was without a balancing politician. The Shah began to exert what Holmes termed “the closest thing to direct rule.”
Calculating the US had no choice but to support him, the Shah became increasingly uncooperative. The Shah again approached the USSR, declaring on September 16 1962 that all foreign missiles would be banned from Iran. This was an adroit move designed to placate USSR’s anger over the 1959 negotiations and its ability to incite domestic Iranian opposition, while still maintaining the US ties that helped secure his throne.
Feeling secure, the Shah could assume the mantle of ‘reform’. His White Revolution co-opted the Kennedy administration’s preference for “revolutions from above” and the US, despite some reservations from New Frontiersman like Kenneth Hansen, quickly adapted to the Shah’s revolution as the ostensible motor of the economic and social change they wanted. This adoption however, did not come willingly, and according to Hansen, was forced upon them by a Shah who routinely cajoled and undermined US efforts. The Shah had effectively exploited US desires for Iranian stability, forcing the Kennedy administration to forfeit long-term aims for democracy in Iran in favour of the Shah’s brand of stability. By 1963 “The Shah was…in the driver’s seat.”
Johnson’s election in November 1963 marked the emergence of the Shah’s Iran as the foundation for Western security in the Gulf. The Johnson administration, occupied by the Vietnam War and wary of diminishing American influence globally, was content with the apparent stability the Shah had established through the White Revolution and the rigged elections of 1963 that had castrated the ability for traditional elites to rally opposition. Increasing oil revenues in the mid-1960s also served to increase the Shah’s autonomy from US control at a time when the US was increasingly unable to counter it.
The Shah pressed his advantage, forcing Johnson to increasingly treat Iran as a partner, rather than a client. On July 4 1964, government-to-government military sales rather than conditional aid began. This furthered the Shah’s independence from the US because it comprehensively rejected the New Frontiersman’ aim to limit the Shah’s military power. The Shah was free to begin the military build-up he had sought since the 1940s.
Naturally, the Shah was not content with this development, and sought to further reduce his dependence on the US for security. He resumed exaggerating foreign dangers and threatened to approach the USSR. Accordingly, in November 1965, the Shah-dominated Majlis attributed $200 million for military aid from any source. Having secured his position as the only game in town by Kennedy’s assassination, and with the US seeking any foothold to, according to Kissinger, “influence the Shah in the direction of constructive foreign and domestic policies”, this pressured the US to grant more military aid. The US ambassador to Tehran, Armin Meyer, duly complained to the Shah that he could not buy from the US and other powers, but importantly, Meyer made clear that “diversification” in the long run could be accommodated.
The Shah coupled his threats with support for America’s Cold War conflicts, even sending a medical team to Vietnam. This established him as a necessary and valuable ally and partner, rather than client. The inauguration of Nixon in 1969 completed this shift, with a policy of unconditional armament and the view that dealings with Iran could only be directed through the Shah. As Rubin remarked, the change in policy from Johnson to Nixon marked not the US’ triumph over the Shah, but the Shah’s triumph over the US.
With the British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971, the Shah exploited Nixon’s aim for the US to be “an overseer, not an intervener”, promoting Iran as the stable, regional power the US needed. The Shah exploited his close relationship with Nixon, and used the vocabulary of the Nixon Doctrine to articulate Iranian dominance in the Gulf. This worked, and the Nixon administration began considering whether the Shah could handle the regional role. Under pressure from the Pakistani War of 1971, Nixon travelled to Iran and signed the US–Iran Arms Agreement in May 1972, asked the Shah to protect him, and promised the sale of fighter jets and laser-guided bombs. The Shah later asserted “…Nixon ‘gave me everything I asked for.’”. Multibillion-dollar arms sales now defined US–Iranian relations, securing the Shah’s Iran as a partner, and ensuring its primacy in the Gulf until his overthrow.
The Shah’s power came at the nexus of the international Cold War climate, domestic Iranian concerns, changes in US administration and his constant agitation, vacillation and patience. He ruled through five US administrations, exploiting US power to remove domestic opposition and foreign influence. Rather than an Iranian reorientation of aims, he forced a US reorientation of aims, bucking any notion of him as an instrument of US foreign policy. It is little wonder then, that he is widely recognised as an example of a third world leader who used his agency to renegotiate his relationship with a big power.
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 Fawcett, Louise, 2014. “Revisiting the Iranian Crisis of 1946: How Much More
Do We Know?” Iranian Studies 47:3 (Routledge) p. 379
 Doenecke, Justus, 1972. “Iran’s Role in Cold War Revisionism” Iranian Studies 5:2/3 (Taylor & Francis) p. 96
 Pfau, Richard, 1977. “Containment in Iran, 1946: The Shift to an Active Policy” Diplomatic History 1 (Wiley Online Library) p. 361
 Pfau p. 359
 Fawcett p. 380
 Gasiorowski, Mark J., 1987. “The 1953 Coup D’etat in Iran” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19:3 (Cambridge University Press) pp. 262
 Hess, Gary, 1974. “The Iranian Crisis of 1945-46 and the Cold War” Political Science Quarterly 89:1 (Academy of Political Science) p. 122
 Pfau p. 361
 Pfau p. 362
 Hess p. 117
 McFarland, Stephen L., 1980. “A Peripheral View of the Origins of the Cold War: The Crises in Iran, 1941-47” Diplomatic History 4 (Scholary Resources Inc.) pp. 359
 McFarland p. 348
 McFarland p. 348-349
 Pfau p. 365
 Pfau p. 371
 Hess p. 123
 Gasiorowski p. 262
 Gasiorowski p. 267
 Gasiorowski p. 263
 Gasiorowski p. 264
 Gasiorowski p. 264
 Davis, Simon, 2006. “’A Projected New Trusteeship’? American Internationalism, British Imperialism, and the Reconstruction of Iran, 1938–1947” Diplomacy & Statecraft 17:1 (Routledge) p. 31
 Gasiorowski p. 271
 Brands, H. W., 1989. “The Cairo-Tehran Connection in Anglo-American Rivalry in the Middle East, 1951-1953” The International History Review 11:3 (Taylor and Francis) p. 448
 Brands p. 448
 Brands p. 435
 Gasiorowski p. 273
 Summitt, April, 2004. “For a White Revolution: John F. Kennedy and the Shah of Iran” Middle East Journal 58:4 (Middle East Institue) pp. 560
 Summitt p. 562
 Alvandi, Roham, 2014. “Flirting with Neutrality: The Shah, Khrushchev, and the Failed 1959 Soviet–Iranian Negotiations” Iranian Studies 47:3 (Routledge) p. 419
 Alvandi 2014 p. 422
 Alvandi 2014 p. 422
 Alvandi 2014 p. 421
 Alvandi 2014 p. 426
 Alvandi 2014 p. 432
 Nemchenok, Victor V., 2010. “In Search of Stability Amid Chaos: US Policy Toward Iran, 1961–63” Cold War History 10:3 (Routlegde) p. 348
 Nemchenok p. 343
 p. 348
 Nemchenok p. 346
 Popp, Roland, 2007. “Benign Intervention? The Kennedy Administration’s Push for Reform in Iran” (Unpublished) p. 5
 Summitt p. 565
 p. 353
 Nemchenok p. 354-55
 Nemchenok p. 356
 Popp p. 10
 Popp p. 14
 Popp p. 14
 Goode, James, 1991. “Reforming Iran During the Kennedy Years” Diplomatic History 15:1 (Oxford Journals) p. 13
 Popp p. 3
 Nemchenok p. 360
 Castiglioni, Claudia, 2015. “No Longer a Client, Not Yet a Partner: the US–Iranian Alliance in the Johnson Years” Cold War History 15:4 (Routledge) p 498
 Castiglioni p. 494
 Castiglioni p. 500
 Castiglioni p. 505
 Castiglioni p. 504
 Castiglioni p. 505
 Rubin, Barry, 1980. “Chapter 5” Paved with Good Intentions: the American Experience and Iran (Oxford University Press) pp. 124-157
 Alvandi 2012 p. 346
 Alvandi 2012 p. 345
 Alvandi 2012 p. 345
 Alvandi 2012 p. 370
 Alvandi 2012 p. 370
 McGlinchley, Stephen 2013 “Richard Nixon’s Road to Tehran: The Making of the U.S.–Iran Arms Agreement of May 1972” Diplomatic History (Oxford University Press) p. 841