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Iran and the USA in the 1970s

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Iran and the USA in the 1970s The Iranian revolution began in January 1978 and ended with the Shah's replacement by an Islamic fundamentalist government in February 1979. The subsequent seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, together with the failed rescue attempt and the Iran-Contra 'arms for hostages' scandal, represented a humiliating and painful period for American diplomacy, and is all the more remarkable for the extremely close relations previously enjoyed by the two countries. The traumatic collapse of the Pahlavi regime gravely damaged the power and credibility of the U.S. in a critical part of the world and led to a fundamental reappraisal of America's world-wide strategic commitments. This essay will analyse the long-standing relationship between Iran and the United States and argue that it was the peculiar nature and depth of this relationship, together with inter-agency conflict, which led to such a reversal of attitudes following the revolution. THE ROAD TO REVOLUTION Iran, at the head of the Persian Gulf and stretching along its northern and eastern shores, has long served the western powers as a barrier against Russian ambitions toward the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Peninsula. In the nineteeenth century Persia, as Iran was formerly known, served as a pawn in the 'great game' between the British and Russian empires. However, following the Second World War Iran came under the influence of successive American administrations and became a valuable ally of the USA in its policy of containment against the USSR. Supplementing its strategic importance was its vast oil and gas reserves: possessing 10% of all known oil deposits and being the worlds second largest producer up until the revolution in 1979.


Protecting that region from radical Arab states allied to Moscow was of tremendous importance to the West, and the pro-western Pahlavi regime was the lynchpin for this policy. The Shah embraced this new relationship with alacrity: in the four years between 1972-76, the Iranian government ordered $9 billion worth of sophisticated weaponry from the United States, and with it came tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel. Joining the military advisors came thousands more civilian contractors, engaged on various industrial and social programmes designed to usher a deeply traditional society into the twentieth century at breakneck speed. The strong commercial and military ties remained unchanged under the Carter administration. Despite rumblings from Congress, and well documented human rights abuses, the policy of an 'open-door' for the Shah's military demands remained virtually unchanged. Iran was regarded as too powerful an ally, and too important to U.S. business, for Carter to offend gratuitously. The vast oil revenues available to the Pahlavi regime were also instrumental in accelerating the controversial modernisation programmes: in a dash for modernity and economic growth, comfort and control was sacrificed for expediency. The modernisation policies engendered massive social and cultural upheaval and ushered in a period of spiralling inflation and widespread corruption. The Shah's defence programme, his industrial and economic transactions, and his security and oil policies towards the hated Israelis, were all considered, by informed Iranians outside of the bureaucratic elite, to be faithful executions of American instructions. Among both elites and non-elites, there was little acceptance of the Shah's legitimate right to rule; his authority rested on coercion rather persuasion.


" The crisis that came in 1978 developed rapidly, but not so suddenly as to have precluded a careful assessment of U.S. options and the formulation of a policy to enhance American interests." (Sullivan:p.176) However, to decide among these options required a full understanding of the nature of the revolution that was sweeping Iran; the magnitude of the dissatisfaction with the Shah, and its deep historical roots. Instead of an attempt at constructive dialogue with the opposition groups and a full analysis of all available information, institutionalised conflict, commercial interests, and lack of good intelligence, led to an exercise in futility which severely damaged America's prospects in its future relations wth Iran. CONCLUSION In this essay we have acccounted for the United States transition from being Iran's most powerful ally in the early 1970s to being her most hated enemy by 1980. In essence, it was because the Iranian-American relationship was largely bound and determined at the very top - it was an elite-to-elite connection. The Iranian opposition, radicalised by the Shah's authoritarian policies since the CIA had helped destroy the nationalist movement in 1953, viewed him as an American puppet. While the United States saw him as a reliable partner in their policies of containment. The Nixon Doctrine merged effortlessly with the Shah's dreams of being a regional superpower, and massive oil revenues allowed the Pahlavi regime to modernise Iran. Therefore, America's foreign policy became inextricably entwined and associated with the Shah's domestic agenda. The mistake that the American policymakers made was to associate the aspirations of the Shah with his people. The United States consistently failed to understand the broad range of social and cultural forces at play in Iran and paid the price for this ignorance in 1979.

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