Forty years ago this week, RN welcomed Persian Ally, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Middle Eastern giant whose attempts to modernize Iran and build bridges with the West resulted in one of the most impacting coups of the 20th century, to the White House for a series of talks.
Iran’s pivot toward the West in the late 1960s intrigued the Nixon administration, which had much to benefit from allying with an oil-rich Middle Eastern country open to Western influence and modernization. Nixon saw Iran as the primary player to maintain peace in a region that threatened superpower relations and held key energy resources.
He welcomed the Shah in a formal ceremony forty years ago today on the White House south lawn, embracing these themes:
It is significant to note that of all the areas in the world which pose a potential threat to peace in the world, that Iran is in a very key, central area.… I will have the benefit of your advice on the problems in this critical area of the world where with responsible leadership we can avoid war and build a new era of peace for the people of that area who deserve it.
A cordial relationship that began in 1953 – when one was a learning Vice President and the other a young monarch – blossomed into a friendship between the two leaders and paved the way for personal diplomatic forays. RN described the Shah in The Real War as “intelligent, dignified, quiet, and not too sure of himself,” but “a good listener, and he demonstrated a profound understanding not only of the problems in his own country but of the world around him as well.”
The Shah, too, felt like minded with Nixon, as both thought of themselves as practitioners of realpolitik, writing, “We found that we agreed over several very simple geo-political principles.”
The Shah’s vigorous reform-minded agenda delivered real results in Iran: his economic programs grew the economy at a rate of nine percent per year, and land reform programs allowed peasants to own land for the first time; he allowed workers to buy shares of stock in the economy; he organized an Iranian Peace Corps of sorts as an alternative to military service, to aid the rural poor; the number of schools and, in turn, literacy rates skyrocketed; and civil and political rights were extended to women over the fiery objections of Islamic fundamentalists.
Nixon witnessed these bold reforms firsthand on four trips to Tehran in the 1960s and again in 1972, noting that “in less than twenty years, he had brought Iran into the twentieth century.”
Still, as critics noted, political rights were not extended as widely as many in the West desired and political imprisonments did occur. Even Nixon noted that “Iran had no tradition of democracy, and his government still used what by Western standards were harsh measures to keep its political opposition in check.”
But the seeds of friendship had been planted, and the British withdrawal from East of the Suez in 1968 opened a power vacuum that required a proper security alliance in the Gulf to replace the so-called Baghdad Pact of Northern Persian countries and check Soviet influence.
Iran, the administration thought, may just fill that void.
With their flags in the foreground, RN and the Shah talk outside the Oval Office.
Thus maintaining American interests in the region – and preventing the Soviets from doing the same – were the primary focus of the July 1973 talks. Tensions were growing, as the Soviet Union was arming Arab countries and attempting to re-exert itself in Egypt after President Sadat expelled Soviet troops in 1972. As the Shah was the first world leader to meet with the President following his summit with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev only weeks earlier, RN was particularly fixated on the meetings in the days leading up to the Shah’s visit.
Though his predecessor was very cautious about Iranian power, and frankly donated little time to Middle Eastern issues, Nixon was more likely than Johnson to tilt American interests toward Iran. Johnson, not knowing the Shah personally as Nixon did, was hesitant to embrace any inkling of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East; Nixon, on the contrary, saw it as essential to containing Soviet influence.
The introduction of the Nixon Doctrine in June 1969 served to further this Iranian pivot, placing the U.S. on a forward-looking, post-Vietnam foreign policy as an “overseer” rather than an “engager” in world affairs. In doing so, the U.S. would provide arms and financial support to manage local conflicts and contain Soviet influence. The Shah proved in many ways to be more of an architect than an instrument of the Nixon Doctrine in the Persian Gulf, according to Middle Eastern scholar Roham Alvandi.
Nixon’s Middle Eastern strategy had Iran as the central player, and proved wildly successful in gaining allies and virtually expelling the Soviets from the region after their clients’ defeat in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. All the while Iran remained a powerful ally, having rejected OPEC demands to join the embargo against the U.S. in 1973; consistently supported Israel; prevented Iraq from joining the 1973 war; provided oil to American naval fleets; and wooed Afghanistan away from the communists.
Through an increase in trade and seven-fold increase in arms sales, “Richard Nixon’s presidency was the high-water mark of Mohammad Reza Shah’s relationship with the United States,” Alvandi wrote. Nixon elaborated in Leaders: “Many viewed his dependence on the U.S. as a fatal weakness. In fact these critics had it backward. In the modern era few smaller countries have managed to enter the international first rank without the support of major powers.”
The Shah pressed ahead through the 1970s with rapid modernizations and an increasing Westernization of his country. Though he was moving quickly, many Iranians – particularly young Iranians who had studied abroad in Western countries – pushed for even more rapid reform and an end to political strife. In doing so, they emboldened and mobilized the fundamentalist Muslim sects which were vehemently opposed to the more liberal Shah.
The mobilization sparked a revolution and coup in 1979, plunging the country – with all its reforms – into chaos and sending the Shah into exile. The Westernization ended, reforms were rolled back, and an important ally was lost.
RN visited the exiled Shah and his family in Mexico in 1979, shortly before his death the following year (Courtesy of Corbis).
“His power had been wrenched from his hands by the leaders of a movement that was sworn to reverse all that he had done and plunge Iran back into medieval darkness,” Nixon wrote. “The Ayatollah’s crimes against his people seemed to pain the Shah personally. He was a man who had been misjudged, misunderstood and misused, and his knowledge of this was eating away at him as devastatingly as his physical illness. So, too, was knowledge of the fate that had befallen so many who had worked with him.”
After the uprisings in Iran and ultimate overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Nixon and Pahlavi would remain friends. The two talked international affairs that year in Mexico and Nixon was the only American representative, in an unofficial capacity no less, at the Shah’s funeral in Cairo 1980.
Jimmy Byron is a Communications and Marketing Assistant at the Richard Nixon Foundation. He is a third-year student at Chapman University.