After the fall of Mohammad Mussadiq’s nationalist movement in 1953 at the hands of the United States and Great Britain, Iran underwent rapid economic growth and rapid military development. This was in large part due to the assistance and guidance of the United States. During a period of uncertainty and fear throughout the Cold War, the United States sought to create a stable ally in the Middle East that would stem the spread of communism. Over the next twenty-five years the U.S. would mold the shah’s regime in Iran to serve this purpose. The presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all played a critical role in the development of this special relationship, but Nixon developed a unique policy to propel Iran to an unmatched level of military dominance. Iran’s strategic location, bordering the Soviet Union, and its extensive oil reserves, made it a perfect partner for the United States under Nixon’s new foreign policy plan, which would later be termed: The Nixon Doctrine.

U.S. Policy toward Iran under Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson

          Following the ousting of Mussadiq by the United States after Operation AJAX, the U.S. played a vital role in propping up the Zahedi government and the Shah. Within ten days of the coup, in order to prevent disorder and a Soviet takeover, Eisenhower’s administration augmented an existing aid program “with $23.4 million and an additional $45 million in emergency aid” (Gasiorowski, 90). In addition, “the Tehran CIA station also began a variety of covert efforts to assist the new government” (Gasiorowski, 91). Moreover, the United States helped to broker an oil deal with the NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company), which divided the old AIOC monopoly into a partnership of consumers (Rubin, 95). This new consortium not only served to proportionately divide the royalties among all the oil companies and Iran, but also gave the Zahedi government more legitimacy. It demonstrated that the new government could be successful and had Iran’s best interest at heart. In America, the new deal brokered by the Eisenhower Administration was essential to the prevention of a global oil crisis. Because of this, it was evident that the U.S. was already highly invested in the new Iranian government. In the Shah, American policymakers saw a future partner that played perfectly to Eisenhower’s ‘New Look Strategy’ of containing the Soviet Union (Gasiorowski, 93). Iran’s geographic location in the northeast of the Middle East and bordering the Soviet Union made it a “crucial buffer against soviet expansionism” vital to the United States and to regional security (Moens, 214). After a long period of investment in European countries, Eisenhower shifted his focus to establishing relationships with countries within the democratic sphere of influence, but along communist borders. His goal was “to regain the initiative in confrontation with the Soviet Union while reducing U.S. defense expenditures” (Gasiorowski, 93). The Eisenhower Administration played an essential role in solidifying the new Iranian government under the Shah and in laying the groundwork for a special relationship between the United States and Iran.
          Although the U.S. made sizeable contributions of $200 million in economic aid and $200 million in military aid, it was not enough to meet the demands of the Shah and certainly not enough to put Iran in a position of military supremacy in the region (Rubin, 95). Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles believed that, “America’s retaliatory strength was the greatest barrier to any Soviet advance” not Iranian military power (Rubin, 99). Dulles thought that any incursion on Iran by the Soviet Union would definitely lead to a global conflict, consequently involving the United States. Furthermore, the U.S. felt that “Iran could never actually build a strong enough military force to check the USSR” (Rubin, 98).
          Instead, the United States urged the Shah to build a smaller force strong enough to subvert any potential internal communist revolution.  A common policy held throughout the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations was that internal issues in Iran posed a much larger threat to Iran’s stability than external regional pressures. This policy served to justify the denial of more American arms to the Shah. Moreover, in March of 1962 Kennedy “sought to shift the Shah’s preoccupation from military security to economic progress, even if it became necessary to limit American military aid as leverage” (Rubin, 107). The policies of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations not only served to consolidate the Shah’s power, but also forced him to develop economically and modernize his country. By withholding some military aid at the outset, but offering to provide more a later date, the United States was able to motivate the Shah to increase domestic investment as opposed to reinvesting all of Iran’s revenue into the military. While these policies were successful in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, geopolitical events, including the communist influence over the Baathists in Iraq and the mobilization of Russian ships on the Red Sea, changed the political environment of the Middle East, prompting dramatic changes in the U.S.’s policy towards Iran.
          In January of 1968, Great Britain announced that they would be withdrawing all their forces from the Persian Gulf by 1971, leaving a power vacuum that would inevitably be filled by the next most powerful force. Washington feared that independent Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, radical Iraq, Nasser’s Egypt, and Soviet backed local Marxists would rise to fill the vacuum (Rubin, 125).  President Johnson knew that the United States was in no way prepared to take on such a responsibility. Instead, inspired by Britain’s “two-pillar policy,” Johnson focused on cooperation between the two most powerful states in the Middle East at the time, Iran and Saudi Arabia (Alvandi, 35). To the Shah’s dismay, the United States chose a policy that would diminish Iranian primacy in the region. But, luckily for the Shah, Richard Nixon was inaugurated the following January in 1969. From that point on, the relationship between Iran and the United States would never be the same.

The Nixon Doctrine

          Richard Nixon’s presidency marked a turning point in the United States’ foreign policy toward Iran. After the British withdrawal, the U.S. knew that its only hope for maintaining influence in the region was to guarantee that the power void would be filled by a state friendly to the United States. Under Johnson, the U.S. had sought to produce stability in the region by supporting a mutual cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But, under Nixon, the U.S. moved away from the British two-pillar policy in favor of a policy which concentrated on Iranian primacy. In the Shah of Iran, Nixon claimed to have a partner, who would promote American interests in the Middle East, protect against communist incursion, and protect the oil supply that western economies depended on.
            The Vietnam War and other conflicts in South Asia made it close to impossible for any U.S. president to support any more armed conflicts abroad. For this reason, Richard Nixon established a new foreign policy, which would later become known as the Nixon Doctrine. Although Nixon began his presidency by continuing Johnson’s two-pillar policy, regional tension and instability, including a border conflict in the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq in which Iran forced Iraq to back down, gave Nixon “little doubt about the Shah’s resolve to assert Iran’s power in the Persian Gulf against any regional threat” (Alvandi, 46). The new policy’s primary principle “was that the United States would call on its allies and friends to supply their own manpower to ‘defend’ themselves against ‘Communist aggression,’ while America provided only advice, aid, and arms,” but not direct military intervention (Kimball). Nixon saw in the Shah of Iran, the perfect leader to carry out his new policy in the Middle East.
          Under Nixon’s new policy, “the United States would rely on the Shah to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf” (Alvandi, 28). By 1970, the partition of Pakistan after losing another war with India, the Marxist revolution in South Yemen, a growing Soviet naval power in the Red Sea, and the Iraqi-Soviet friendship treaty all pointed to increased instability around the Persian Gulf, further justifying the Shah’s argument for more weapons. On November 7, 1970 Nixon signed NSDM (National Security Decision Memoranda) 92, which signaled a change in “U.S. Gulf policy from balancing to Iranian primacy” (Alvandi, 55). Nixon’s goal was to empower the Shah to the point where he could enforce regional security. In May 1972, Nixon promised to allow Iran to buy any American made weapons except for nuclear devices (Rubin, 129). At last, the Shah would get what he had lobbied U.S. presidents for since Eisenhower; recognition as the region’s primary protector and an unlimited amount of American made weapons. Nixon’s promise marked the beginning of a special relationship between Iran and the United States.
          The Shah was elated by Nixon’s new policy. His dream of becoming a global power would be made possible by high tech American made weapons. From “1970 to 1975 American military exports increased from $1 billion to $10 billion a year,” principally into Iran (Rubin, 160). The Shah’s expensive arms bill meant that he needed more revenue from oil. In 1969, Iran, along with other oil producing states, formed OPEC with the hope of gaining the collective power necessary to increase oil prices (Rubin, 131). Next, Iran used OPEC and threatened to stop production unless the money given to exporting countries was increased. In an attempt to solve the crisis, oil companies implemented the Tehran agreement in 1971; in this arrangement, “companies granted large price increases to producing countries in exchange for their promise to keep prices stable” (Rubin, 131). To make matters worse, “Libya and Iraq nationalized most of their oil production in 1972 and Iran took over most of its consortium the following year” (Rubin, 131). Throughout the crisis, the U.S. stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with Iran and this proved beneficial when OPEC declared an oil embargo on western countries. During the crisis, Iran continued to supply oil to the United States, which kept oil prices and the U.S. economy stable.  This confirmed the benefits of a positive relationship with Iran and provided a domestic justification for Nixon’s new foreign policy.

Success of the Nixon Doctrine in Iran

          Nixon’s policy of providing the Shah with a carte blanche to buy whatever American weapons he wanted, proved to be a good and sound policy for protecting American interests in the Middle East. For example, during the Pakistani civil war in 1971, the United States “wanted to help Pakistan, which was not only aligned with the Americans, but was also acting as an intermediary between Washington and Communist China” (Alvandi, 60). Even though public opinion in the United States had shifted against Pakistan because of the massacre of Bengalis, the Shah secretly provided American arms from their own supply to Pakistan (Alvandi, 60). It was in these contexts that Iran played a critical role in implementing U.S. policy abroad. Even the Shah’s own interests were aligned with the United States. He feared that if he didn’t support Pakistan, they would look to Beijing for aid, which could further spread communist influence. This was an excellent example of successful foreign policy under the Nixon Doctrine. The Shah shared the same goals with the United States and was therefore able to serve both the U.S. and himself, making Iran the perfect Middle Eastern partner. Furthermore, the Shah didn’t stop with Pakistan: by 1972 Iran was also involved in aiding “Jordan against the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia against South Yemen, and the sultan of Oman against the Dhorfari Rebels” (Alvandi, 65).
          Under the Nixon Doctrine, Iran became the country whom other countries in the Arab region looked to for support in times of invasion or political unrest. The Shah had established himself as the regional hegemon deserving of recognition and respect. In addition, the Shah’s aspirations were unending, as he began to talk with “Australia, Mauritius, and South Africa on plans to project Iran’s naval power into the Indian Ocean” (Alvandi, 65). It is evident that Nixon’s new policy toward Iran propelled the Shah into the global spotlight worthy of regional supremacy. Nixon’s relationship with Iran reflects the primary goal of the Nixon Doctrine—to create a regional proxy strong enough to stem the expansion of the Soviet Union’s communist ideology—and is an example of a successful foreign policy, which served both Iranian and U.S. interests.


          Under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, the United States leveraged the Shah to develop economically by withholding weapons. And, under Nixon the Shah was given virtually a blank check to purchase whatever weapons at his discretion. In the short-term and throughout the 1970’s, Nixon’s policy toward Iran was very successful and accomplished what the United States wanted: an Iranian proxy power in the region. Although peace did not last, the United States had in Iran a military partner that was willing to fight the wars in the Middle East without obligating the U.S. to get involved.
          Unfortunately, there is another side to the story. While Iran’s GDP and GNP increased dramatically during the 1960’s and 1970’s, “over 75 percent of rural families still earned less that $66 a month and malnutrition was widespread among them” (Rubin, 143). Instead of investing back into the population, the Shah used his immense oil wealth to buy more weapons from the United States, which achieved his own personal goal of propelling Iran into a position of regional dominance. But in the eyes of Iranians themselves, it looked as if he was a puppet of the United States that did not care about their immediate needs.
           In the long term, Nixon’s policy not only delegitimized the authority of the Shah in his own country, but also served to increase anti-American sentiment among the Iranian people. The fall of the Shah and the subsequent Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979 further reflected that the Iranians were not happy with his policies. While their grievances had more to do with his authoritarian leadership, many also were concerned with his lack of focus on economic development in Iran and his failure to deliver on domestic promises. Therefore the Nixon doctrine was only a short term success. It successfully positioned Iran as a proxy of the United States willing to fight the incursion of the Soviet Union into the Middle East, which served America’s immediate goals, but failed to address the domestic issues that challenged the Shah’s legitimacy.
          Applying the Nixon Doctrine through a more modern lens draws parallels to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003; wherein the immediate short term success was short lived due to a systemic failure to address Iraqi domestic issues. After removing Saddam power, there was a failure to address the domestic issues that plagued Iraqi society and no realistic plan to assist Iraqis in building a functioning civil society. In all, the Iranian and Iraqi corollary exposes failures to understand the domestic implications of U.S. foreign policy, which, if accounted for, would potentially ensure long term success.

Works Cited
Alvandi, R. (2014). Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War.Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Gasiorowski, M. J. (1991). U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.
Kimball, J. (2006). The Nixon Doctrine: A Saga of Misunderstanding. Presidential Studies
 Quarterly, 36(1), 59-74. Retrieved from
Moens, A. (1991). President Carter’s Advisers and the Fall of the Shah. Political Science
Quarterly, 106(2), 211.
Rubin, B. M. (1980). Paved With Good Intentions: Iran and the American Experience. New
York: Oxford University Press.