Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: A Troika of Realists


Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 2014)


There was once a different Iran. At its helm was not a mullah but a monarch — secular, allied with the West, and committed to his country’s development and modernization. In a new book by Professor Roham Alvandi, that monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, comes to light as an independent Middle Eastern actor during the Cold War. Dispensing with older historiographies that denude Middle Eastern leaders of individual agency, Alvandi’s contribution breathes life into great-man history and the power of personality.

Pahlavi, the late Shah — or King — of Iran, is only one leg of a troika in this story, joined by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. Alvandi’s book documents the personal and political relationships between these three actors as they relate to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The author takes the reader through distinct periods of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, and, perhaps more importantly, the Shah’s formulation of Iranian foreign policy toward the United States.

The first chapter highlights the material the Shah’s enemies would draw upon to paint him as “an American agent,” as Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, often did. The U.S. Embassy in Tehran had successfully negotiated a controversial Status of Forces Agreement with the Shah in 1964, which allowed the United States to broaden diplomatic immunity for Americans in Iran. After the deal was done, the Embassy eerily noted “the Shah’s regime has paid an unexpectedly high price in getting this done.”

Until the Nixon administration, the Shah suffered from what he felt was the relegation of Iran’s interests to the backburner by numerous U.S. administrations. For example, American support to Iran fell short of Turkey and Greece’s security assurances during the post-World War II period. The Shah, who ascended to the throne when his father was forced to abdicate in 1941, took these as personal slights. In 1959, he was reported to have likened Washington’s behavior toward him as that of “a concubine and not as a wife.” Moreover, during the first two decades of his rule, the Shah followed a variant of the “strategy of movazaneh (balance),” where a historically weak Iran made deals with opposing powers to prohibit the dominance of a sole power over Iran’s affairs. Eventually, with rising oil prices, U.S. foreign policy pitfalls in Asia, and a warmer American embrace, the Shah would outgrow movazaneh to become a source of polarity in the Persian Gulf.

This shift by the Shah would be concurrent with a change in American policy. U.S. Persian Gulf policy before the Nixon administration was a relic of British policy, balancing competing interests, lest any local power gain regional hegemony. When the British promised in 1967 to remove all of their troops “East of Suez,” the Shah sensed an opportunity to offer Iran as a regional guarantor of security to the United States.

This argument, however, fell on deaf ears until Richard Nixon became president. Nixon first met the Shah when he was vice president under Eisenhower in December 1953, mere months after the coup that restored his extensive powers. During that meeting, a friendship kindled that would burn for decades. That relationship, coupled with Nixon’s geostrategic sensibilities, best explains this shift. Deftly, Alvandi highlights the Shah’s persistent messages as concurrent with inter-agency reviews on U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. These review processes were often influenced by Kissinger and, while seemingly bland, would lead to National Security Decision Memorandum 92, which recognized “the preponderance of Iranian power.”

Despite Kissinger touting “geopolitical realities” to justify the embrace of the Shah, personal considerations proved preeminent. Nixon held the Shah in high regard, calling him “stronger than horseradish,” and at one point saying, “I like him, I like him, and I like the country. And some of those other bastards out there I don’t like.” Alvandi neatly correlates this with a jump in Iran’s yearly military purchases from the United States, reaching just over $682 million when Nixon resigned.

Perhaps Alvandi’s greatest contribution highlights “[t]he evolution of Iran from a client to a partner of the United States.” Specifically, Alvandi displays the Shah as instrumental in getting the United States to arm Iraqi Kurds against Ba’athist Iraq during the 1970s. The author links the entire initiative to the Shah’s distrust of the new Ba’ath regime, reminding readers that Iran twice backed anti-Ba’athist coups.

The book shines when discussing Iran’s view of Soviet-aligned Ba’athist Iraq. Already cooperating with the Israeli Mossad, the Shah entangled the United States in machinations to use the Kurds to preoccupy Iraq — providing Iran with much-needed leverage to press on issues like rights in the Shatt al-Arab waterway that forms the southern border between the two countries, and historically between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. The same waterway would be invoked by Iraq prior to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. The myriad sources Alvandi pours through all point to the Shah initiating these covert operations, and then suddenly dropping support for them when his leverage over Baghdad yielded the 1975 Algiers Accord — which formally demarcated the border in the thalweg of the Shatt al-Arab river.

The United States, by then under the Ford administration, was left with no option but to follow Iran out of the covert conflict, just as Nixon and Kissinger had followed it in. Here, Alvandi threads the needle between the Shah’s independence and defiance. Rather than framing the Shah as disdaining U.S. interests, he is shown as paying more attention to Iranian strategic considerations. While successfully underscoring the Shah’s agency, the lessons of this endeavor are instructive to policy-makers. Local actors retain every incentive to use great powers to bolster their regional standing.

Nixon’s “twin pillars” policy, as expressed in National Security Decision Memorandum 92, embraced Iran (primarily) and Saudi Arabia as the underwriters of stability in the Persian Gulf. Still, it is the Shah who was reliant on another set of “twin pillars” — Nixon and Kissinger. After 1974, only one — Kissinger — would remain in the White House. That year would see Nixon’s resignation, Ford’s ascension to the presidency, and the drastic increase in Iranian oil income to highs of nearly $18 billion. But despite the Shah being OPEC’s “price hawk”, he never partook in the oil-embargo.

That year, as Alvandi writes in his last chapter, is also when “Washington’s quiet complacency about Iran’s nuclear program was shattered.” The correlation between oil prices and the Shah’s ambitions, nuclear or otherwise, is noteworthy here. While the Nixon administration supported “Iranian primacy,” under President Ford this policy would face pitfalls in the face of critics such as Secretaries Schlesinger, Rumsfeld, and Simon. Journalists and Congressmen too would also join the chorus, while a growing Iranian nuclear capacity only compounded concerns. The Shah’s newfound confidence, coupled with changes in presidential staff, only drove home the power of human agency at this juncture.

Alvandi’s takeaway is that as the track record of U.S.-Iran relations during the Cold War demonstrates, “the borders between alignment and non-alignment were more fluid and dynamic than previously thought.” Such an interpretation, which extracts Cold War studies away from neat, parsimonious theories of statecraft, is a breath of fresh air.

Hopefully, this will inspire those of a strong historical bent to pursue the study of other characters often written-off as meek American marionettes. By better understanding their personal and political beliefs, a clearer set of motivations for the leaders of states caught between the United States and Soviet Union will blossom in Cold War historiography. In turn, that can better inform policy-makers about the trials and tribulations, both real and imagined, of being a U.S. adversary or ally.

The book however, is not without its flaws. It does not delve as deep into the same personal considerations on behalf of Kissinger or Nixon as it does for the Shah. These were figures with their own politics, deep-seated convictions about global order, and the role of the United States within that order. Their individual struggles would have provided a more balanced appraisal of the three men who supported “Iranian primacy.” Despite the varying critiques of that policy’s merits, it was a success. After all, the Persian Gulf never became a Soviet stronghold, even after the 1979 revolution shattered Iran’s alliance with the United States.

Additionally, Alvandi’s book would have been better served if it challenged the conclusions found in recently published works on Iran that relied on declassified government documents: Abbas Milani’s The Shah and Andrew Scott Cooper’s The Oil Kings, for example. Conclusions from Cooper’s book, which challenge the personality-driven narrative found in Alvandi’s account, would have been interesting — especially since Cooper quotes former CIA Director and U.S. Ambassador to Iran Richard Helms, who said that with respect to the Shah, he and Kissinger “never took him seriously.”

From a policy perspective, Alvandi devotes less than a page to the ramifications of the Shah’s inheritor state, the Islamic Republic of Iran. References to the Shah’s unwillingness to bear the brunt of any “discriminatory nuclear agreement” aside, if ever there was a case to prove that leaders matter, it is Iran post-1979. Alvandi correctly assesses that for a change in the U.S.-Iran relationship to take place today, “Iranian and American leaders must share a common set of ideas about the nature of the global order.”

At present, that scenario seems unlikely at best. The author over-infers commonalities that faced both the Shah and the ruling theocrats in Tehran today — rather than work within the international order, the Islamic Republic rejects it. This is no small difference. Arab states along the Persian Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia, undoubtedly fear a return to Iranian supremacy in the region under the auspices of an Islamic Republic or even a non-theocratic successor regime. What’s more, structural factors like oil-production continue to promote competition, not collaboration, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is an ironic twist of history that the Saudi monarchy is now the primary anchor of U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf, given the Shah’s penchant for telling the United States that Saudi Arabia had “no inclination to reform” its own conservative policies.

Worse, the Islamic Republic shows no proclivity for the “pragmatism and judiciousness” that Alvandi correctly ascribes unto the Shah. Time and again, while furthering a factional interest or ideological notion, the Islamic Republic has ignored or openly flouted decisions that would have been in the interest of the Iranian state. Realists like the Shah, Nixon, and Kissinger would have realized that long ago.

Nonetheless, my criticisms do not detract from the scholarly merits of Alvandi’s work, which is a well-written account of personality-driven politics against the backdrop of the Cold War. Alvandi’s book surveys a broad swath of time and place. But the power of this volume remains centered in its story: the promise and plight of nations as a result of the men who led them. Future generations of students and scholars will be thankful for the author’s ascription of agency to protagonists like the Shah. In Alvandi’s words, “[t]he Shah’s mistakes, like his triumphs, were his own.”


Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The opinions expressed in this review are his own.