The Cold War was a great event in global history. The opposition of two leading superstates was crucial for that period as almost all countries were involved in the conflict and were affected by the blistering deterioration of relations between the USA and the USSR. The scale of the conflict and the threat of the nuclear war preconditioned the way the world evolved. For this reason, numerous researchers tried to investigate this issue and present their vision of the conflict. For instance, the book Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah, by Roham Alvandi could be considered one of these attempts. In the book, the author discusses the influence of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on the USA during the Cold War. Despite the depiction of the Shah as a puppet by some writers, Alvandi provides a more detailed and less black-and-white picture of the Shah and also addresses and examines events that transformed U.S.-Iranian relationships during the Cold War. In general, the book provides a comprehensive investigation of one of the aspects of this conflict and the way it contributed to outcomes we were able to observe.
The Cold War
The author suggests several arguments to justify his perspective on the issue and the way it impacted the conflict. As the author states at the beginning of the book, his aim was not to address U.S.-Iranian relations in the 1970s per se, but to focus on three historical episodes that can characterize the “rise and fall of the Nixon-Kissinger-Pahlavi partnership.”1 The author also offers the idea that the Cold War should be considered a complex issue that was impacted not only by the US and Soviet policies; however, numerous unknown factors resulted in the appearance of different global processes. For this reason, his investigation of Rezas contribution to the opposition could be considered an attempt to demonstrate another point of view and that background of the US-Iranian relations. Therefore, there is another important argument Alvandi uses to demonstrate the increased importance of his arguments. The fact is that the US administration was the first to fill the political vacuum that appeared since the British Empire left this land. For this reason, states of the Persian Gulf looked for new allies and America suggested its help.
Comparing the book with other readings that delve into the same issue, several aspects should be mentioned. First, unlike other authors, Alvandi does not pay much attention to oil prices and their impact on U.S. foreign policy. In this case, Alvandi’s approach is rather different from that of Melani McAlister, who researched the impact of the 1973 oil crisis on the USA in detail.2 McAlister emphasizes the importance of the oil embargo, focusing on the U.S. response toward it, which was “a sense of crisis and anger.”3 Alvandi, in contrast, focuses on the Nixon-Kissinger-Pahlavi partnership that reached its zenith in 1972, paying little attention to oil prices and their influence on international relationships; instead, Alvandi views them as an enabler of the Shah’s ambitions and as the means that helped Iran increase its wealth.
Alvandi addresses the origins of Iranian support for the Iraqi Kurds, focusing on the United States’ involvement in the Iranian operation in Iraqi Kurdistan. McAlister’s discussion is focused on the internal (American) perceptions of the oil crisis and U.S. access to oil, whereas the secret operation and U.S. support for the guerrilla war in Kurdistan are not only not addressed at length, these actions are not even mentioned. Nevertheless, McAlister brings up an interesting aspect of American influence on the Middle East and American policymakers’ perception of it. As the author notes, even though both the USA and the Soviet Union co-sponsored a UN cease-fire resolution, the USA was ready to send troops to the region only when the Soviet Union stated it might intervene to enforce a cease-fire.4 McAlister points out that such a reaction indicates how the Middle East was seen as an area of American influence by American policymakers, whereas the Soviet Union, according to the U.S. view, should not have had this region within its sphere of influence.
Alvandi provides extensive documentation and a detailed description of how the USA was drawn into the conflict, indicating that it was not easy for Iran to ensure American involvement, as the USA refused to participate in Iraq’s civil war for more than two decades.5 Despite the Soviet Union’s influence in Iraq, the USA did not perceive Iraq as a major threat to its influence in the Middle East; neither was it interested in participating in a distant conflict between Iraq and the Kurds. The Kurds, however, approached the U.S. embassy, attempting to ensure American backing, but were rejected several times.
Even after a failed assassination attempt on Mustafa Barzani, a Kurdish national leader, the USA still refused to participate in high-level discussions with the Kurds.6 The only person who was able to change the U.S. perception of the conflict and ensure its participation was the Shah. As Nixon gave a high priority to the relationship with the Shah, the Shah’s request for American assistance for the Kurds could not be ignored, as Kurdish envoys had been. Nevertheless, American involvement in the conflict was not achieved quickly. Barzani’s requests for meetings were again rejected, as Kissinger was afraid that U.S. support of the Kurds would adversely influence the planned summit in Moscow where Nixon would meet Brezhnev. Only after the Shah met with Kissinger and Nixon in Tehran on May 30 and 31 did the USA begin to consider the necessity of support for the Kurds and eventually agreed to provide it.
By this example, Alvandi shows how far-reaching the influence of the Shah on the Nixon administration was. Furthermore, the request made by the Shah relied, in the Shah’s view, on a specific perspective on the Kurdish conflict. Instead of presenting it as a long-standing conflict between Iran and Iraq over possible supremacy in the region, the Shah presented it as a Cold War struggle whose aim was to hinder Soviet penetration into the Persian Gulf.7 As for the USA, possible outcomes were obvious. There were the two choices: either to participate in the conflict and provide the USSR with the right to suggest military help to Iraq; or not to enter the war but observe the Kurds collapse and predominance of the Bath party along with the shifted balance of power. Both of these options were not appropriate.
As can be seen, the Shah’s ability to act quickly, present information, and frame the conflict in a way that could benefit Iran and his attention to opportunities provided by his ties to the Nixon administration eventually helped him ensure American support for Iran in the Kurdish conflict. Alvandi’s attention to this factor is what makes the contributions of his book highly valuable to scholarly debates. As Klein notices in her speech, the process of “othering,” i.e. disregarding and denying the humanity of another culture or geographical region, is what allows first-world countries “the writing off of entire nations and ancient cultures.”8
A similar, although the possibly not as violent and bloody process is happening in scholarly debates over the role of the Shah and Iran in the Cold War. Some researchers see the American interventions as steps taken to fulfill American interests in the Middle East, and not as the Shah’s lobbying for Iranian objectives in the Kurdish conflict. For example, Toby Jones views the intervention of the USA in the conflict as “a sign of its superpower status and a demonstration of its limits.”9 The author describes American actions in the Gulf in the 1970s as an attempt to build up and empower surrogates that eventually transformed into the gateway for more direct projections of U.S. military power.10 The role of the “surrogates” is observed only about the USA, with no regard to the aims and objectives these surrogates could have as well.
The perception of the USA as a country that influences others but cannot be influenced by them is also addressed in the book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The book has sparked significant controversies among scholars, researchers, policymakers, and historians because it depicts Israel as a state that deliberately lobbies for specific policies and actions, using its image as an isolated state in its favor (i.e., to receive American military and financial support).11 That being said, it does not mean that the Israel lobby (which consists of a variety of organizations and individuals) aims to benefit Israel only. As Mearsheimer and Walt point out, those Americans who lobby the U.S. on foreign policy matters to benefit Israel also believe that their actions will benefit the USA as well.12
Although it cannot be denied that the USA is a powerful state that has conducted several successful military operations after 1989 (e.g., enforcing a ceasefire in the Yugoslav Wars and preventing a more violent conflict), the American intervention in Iraq was not “war for oil,” as it has often been called in research papers and the press, but rather an action at least partly motivated by the “desire to make Israel more secure.”13 As can be seen, Alvandi was not the only author who believed that the USA’s decisions to take part in conflicts were not only rooted in the state’s objectives. Instead, as in the 1970s, the USA participated in the conflict due to serious lobbying from powerful individuals who represented the interests of Israel, as Mearsheimer and Walt argue.14 Contrary to what was commonly believed, Saddam Hussein was not a major threat to the USA; however, he did pose a danger to Israel. Therefore, the Iraq war is yet another example of how another country was able to influence the USA and draw it into a conflict to support its (in this case Israel’s) interests.
As can be seen, the contribution to the scholarly debate of the books by Alvandi and by Mearsheimer and Walt is significant, as they provide a new perspective on the involvement of the USA in different local conflicts. Even though the USA is often perceived as the major player in a conflict, there are other powers and lobbyists often omitted from research. Alvandi’s book is an excellent example of how an author can significantly transform a perspective rarely debated in historical research.
- Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War (New York: OUP USA, 2014), 5.
- Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 125-154.
- McAlister, Epic Encounters, 135.
- Ibid., 134.
- Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War (New York: OUP USA, 2014), 76.
- Ibid., 79
- Ibid., 90
- Naomi Klein, “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World,” London Review of Books 38, no. 11 (2016): 12.
- Toby C. Jones, “America, Oil, and War in the Middle East,” The Journal of American History 99, no. 1 (2012): 210.
- Jones, “America, Oil, and War…,” 210.
- John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 8.
- Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby, 147.
- Ibid., 230.
- Ibid., 231.