Roham Alvandi is a professor of history at the London School of Economics and an expert on Iran.
Roham Avlvandi is author of Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War
Historian Roham Alvandi discusses Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s political relationship with President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger in the 1970s. Based on extensive archival research, and oral histories, Alvandi’s work examines U.S. Cold War policy in the Persian Gulf, how the Shah became a partner of the United States under the formulation of the Nixon administration’s foreign policy doctrine.
Dr. Alvandi is associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of “Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War,” which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best history books of 2014. He has written extensively on the history of Iran’s foreign relations and his current research focuses on global human rights activism and the origins of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
– How the United States helped give Iran a preponderance of power over Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.
– How the Iran was able to gain unimpeded access of the Shatt al-Arab waterway from Iraq.
– Iran’s support of the Iraqi Kurd’s against the regime of the Baathist regime in Iraq.
– How the Shah became a partner of the United States in the era of detente with the Soviet Union.
– Iran’s role in the Into-Pakistan War.
– The beginnings of Iran’s nuclear program.
Nixon, Richard. Address to the Nation on the Vietnam War. 3 November 1969.
National Security Decision Memorandum 92 (NSDM 92). 7 November 1970.
Jim Byron: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. My name is Jim Byron. I’m the assistant to the president at the Richard Nixon Foundation, and welcome to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Tonight’s speakers and tonight’s topic, I know, you will be very interested in. It’s relevant, it’s timely, and it breaks new ground.
Our program tonight will focus on Iran, long before it became the pariah state that many consider it today, alienated from the West. Indeed, for nearly 40 years, Mohammad Reza Shah worked with the U.S. as an American ally. The Shahs relationship with Richard Nixon began in 1953. And when Nixon became president, he would transform the U.S.-Iranian relationship into a partnership. Tonight Dr. Roham Alvandi will explore the nature of that partnership and how it impacted not only U.S. policy but Iranian, foreign, and domestic policies, and on a much larger scale, the Cold War itself.
Jussi Hanhimaki, a noted Finnish historian, calls this book “crucial reading for anyone wishing to understand the roots of America’s current policy in the Middle East.” It was selected also by the “Financial Times” as one of the top history books of the year. Dr. Alvandi is an assistant professor of international history at the London School of Economics. He’s an expert on Iran. His current research focuses on the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He serves on the Governing Council of the British Institute for Persian Studies and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. And before going to the London School of Economics, he worked on the strategic planning staff of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
And our moderator this evening is Jonathan Movroidis, who has been with the Nixon Foundation for nearly a decade and is now the Nixon Foundation’s director of research. Please welcome Dr. Alvandi and Jon Movroidis.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you all for being here. Thank you, Roham, for coming all the way from London for this talk. I urge everyone to read this book if you really wanna understand the U.S.-Iranian relationship today and Iran’s position in the world. But let me first ask you, what inspired you to write this…undertake this project?
Roham Alvandi: Well, first of all, can I just say thank you to the Nixon Foundation and to Jonathan for the very kind invitation to come. They’ve taken such good care of me. I haven’t been to California since I was a child. And I absolutely love it. I look out my office in London, it’s mostly raining, so to be here is a real pleasure.
So this book was a labor of love basically. I come from an Iranian family. I was born very shortly after the fall of the Shah. The Revolution and the Shah was something that was always discussed in my family and always debated. And so when it came time to write a PhD, I naturally gravitated towards that. And it happened to be the time when many of the documents from the Nixon administration were available. And my curiosity got the better of me. And I started to read these documents. And I was really surprised, because the image that came out of those documents of Nixon, of Kissinger, of the Shah, the relationship between these men was so different to what I had heard, was so different to the orthodox view in academia that I got hooked. And I spent the next three or four years living with these three men and studying them and trying to understand them.
Jonathan Movroydis: All of our audience is familiar with the backgrounds of Henry Kissinger and President Nixon, but who is Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi? What’s his background?
Roham Alvandi: It’s a good question. Well, he ascended the throne in Iran in 1941 in the midst of the Second World War. He was not born a prince. His father, Reza Khan, came to power in Iran in 1921 in a military coup. He’d been a military officer. And he became the Crown Prince of Iran after his father was crowned in 1925.
So he ascended the throne in possibly the most, you know, difficult circumstances that you can imagine. His country was under occupation by the Allied powers. The Soviet Union had occupied the north of Iran, Britain, the south. The United States Persian command had been established to supply the Soviet Union from the Persian Gulf. And so he barely managed to ascend the throne. The monarchy, you know, it was touch and go whether the monarchy would survive. And he was only 21 years old at the time. The first American president that he met was Franklin Roosevelt. So it’s an incredible life story. And he becomes, I think, a major political figure of the 20th century. I mean, somebody who played a role in world affairs throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s until his death in 1981.
Jonathan Movroydis: You begin your book by talking about the Second World War and the dawn of the Cold War and how the Allied powers had been occupying Russia in the north and Great Britain in the south. Can you talk a little bit about the context, the World War II and early Cold War context of Iran during that period of time? What was happening?
Roham Alvandi: Sure. Well, Iran was the first battleground of the Cold War. I mean, the first issue that was on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council after it was established was Iran. The Soviet Union under Stalin had occupied the north of Iran. And despite its commitment to leave Iran after six months after the end of the war, the Soviet Union didn’t withdraw. And this created a Cold War crisis, drawing in the United States, the Truman administration.
And this was a formative experience for the Shah, for a whole generation of Iranians who realized that a policy of neutrality was not enough to defend Iran, and that Iran had to look to a third power to preserve its independence and its sovereignty against the imperial ambitions of Britain and Russia. In the 1930s, Iran had looked to Germany to play that role. And after the Second World War, a whole generation of Iranian statesmen, including the Shah, look to the United States as a country that had no imperial ambitions and no history of colonialism in the region. They hoped that an alliance with the far superpower, the superpower that was on the other side of the world, would help defend them and protect them from the near superpower, the Soviet Union, with whom Iran shared a 1,500 kilometer border.
Jonathan Movroydis: There’s a debate in Iran about this policy of [inaudible 00:08:16] balancing between the powers who wanted to exploit Iran’s oil interest. Can you touch a little bit about that and where the Shah and other leaders, mainly Mohammad Mossadegh, come into the picture?
Roham Alvandi: Well, I mean, the left in Iran was very active, the Tudeh Party, the Communist Party of Iran. It was the first political party in the country, had a military network, and was supported by the Soviet Union. At the same time, the Iranian nationalist figures, whether they were republican or monarchist or liberal or conservative, they looked to the United States as a country that would be able to support the cause of liberty in Iran.
Now there were some who thought that allying with the United States unnecessarily antagonized the Soviet Union. There were others who thought that the [inaudible 00:09:31] strategy that you mentioned, the balancing strategy, effectively surrendered Iran sovereignty to these great powers. Because, I mean, the substance of that policy was giving one concession to Britain in order to balance a concession they’d given to the Russians, right? And so Mossadegh’s position was that, well, this is like, very famously he said that, well, this is like a man who has had one arm cut offed cutting off the other arm in order to have balance, you know.
But even Mossadegh looked to the United States. He placed great faith in President Truman to help Iran resist British influence, and British imperialism really. During the oil crisis of the 1950s, he hoped that the United States would back Iran’s claims to sovereignty and control of its own oil. And that worked for a while. But unfortunately, as Iran became more and more unstable, ultimately, the United States backed its ally, Britain, rather than Iran.
Jonathan Movroydis: So Mossadegh Falls. How does the Shah emerge in 1953 out of this crisis?
Roham Alvandi: Well, 1953 is a huge trauma for Iran. After a three-year battle between Britain and Iran for control of Iranian oil, Iran is able to nationalize its oil industry. Iranian oil finally belongs to the Iranians. But it comes at a price. Britain and the United States work together covertly to overthrow Mossadegh’s there’s government. Britain because they fear the consequences of allowing Mossadegh to stay in power, not just for their interests in Iran but throughout their whole empire, and the United States because they fear that a continuation of Mossadegh’s government would lead to instability and the communist takeover in Iran.
And so the role of outside power is in the fall of Mossadegh. And the installation of the Shah as an absolute ruler rather than a constitutional monarch very much undermines the legitimacy of the monarchy in Iran and creates… Not only that. It also undermines the well of goodwill that existed for the United States and Iran prior to 1953. And it’s something that the Shah never really manages to escape. No matter how much the substance of the U.S.-Iran relationship changes over the years, the popular perception of the Shah as a dictator installed by the United States, that narrative is so powerful and so difficult for him to shake. And the figure Mossadegh looms in the background constantly, you know, as the authentic Iranian nationalist as opposed to the Shah who is an instrument of American power in this sort of popular view.
The argument I make in the book of course is that this is a myth, that actually the substance of the relationship was not like that at all, and that the relationship between the United States and Iran evolved over time. But we can get to that.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the Gulf policy of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations? You know, it’s interesting that you brought up that, you know, he was thought of as a puppet. I think it was the Shah who said that the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations treated him as a concubine rather than a wife.
Roham Alvandi: That’s right.
Jonathan Movroydis: Can you characterize Gulf policy during that period of time?
Roham Alvandi: Well, in the 1950s and the 1960s or the early 1960s, Iran was a Cold War liability for the United States. It was not a country that could really contribute to American strategies of containment. The issue was Iran’s place in the Cold War was to act essentially as a bulwark against Soviet penetration into the Persian Gulf. So the objective of American policy was to keep the Shah in power, maintain a pro-American government in Iran.
And if you read the documents from the Kennedy period or the Johnson period, the debate is all about that. How do we ensure that? How can the United States preserve the Shah’s government? What’s the most effective way of doing that? Under Eisenhower, the policy is largely one of supplying Iran with arms and economic aid to maintain stability. During the Kennedy administration, it’s a policy of pushing the shot to modernize and reform in the hope of preventing some kind of popular revolution.
So the Shah is not an asset. He’s a liability in that view. And as far as his ambitions for Iran are concerned, his ideas about Iran being a great power, exercising influence throughout the region, I mean, none of that is really taken very seriously by any of these administrations. Consistently, his argument to various American presidents as well, Iran needs more money, Iran needs more arms, Iran faces a threat from the Soviet Union and from its allies in the Arab world.
And more often than not, the response from the Eisenhower administration or Kennedy or even Johnson was that, well, you should worry less about the Soviet Union and worry more about the internal problems in your country. Get your house in order rather than worrying about a Soviet invasion of Iran. Because after all, if there’s a Soviet invasion of Iran, even with all the arms in the world, you’re not gonna be able to stop them, right? So that will be up to the United States to do that.
Jonathan Movroydis: And how did the U.S. at the time view Saudi Arabia, Iran’s large rival to the south of the Persian Gulf?
Roham Alvandi: Well, in the 1960s, especially after what the Shah called his White Revolution of reforms, an image emerges of Iran as a modernizing country and of the Shah as a kind of modernizing monarch. It was a something of a sort of contradiction. You can’t, at the same time, claim to be wearing the mantle of Cyrus the Great in 2,500 years of monarchy and also claim to be a radical reformer who’s thoroughly modern. These things don’t sit well with each other.
But in any case, in the 1960s, the Shah, you know, was perceived, especially in Washington, as being on the right side of history. And the Saudis, the House of Saud, even during the reign of King Faisal, were seen as a very conservative monarchy, unwilling to reform, very religious, and sort of destined for the dustbin of history. Well, of course, they couldn’t have got that more wrong. The Shah falls in 1979, and the House of Saud is still ruling Saudi Arabia. But at the time, there was a perception that, you know, the Shah’s reforms would allow Iran to weather the storms and that the Saudi’s reluctance to reform made their monarchy very brittle and a sort of a bad bet. And this a narrative of the Shah constantly reiterated to Washington, you know, to convince them to back Iran as the dominant power in the region.
Jonathan Movroydis: President Nixon becomes president in January 1969. But he first meets the Shah as vice president in 1953 on his first foreign trip. Can you describe their first meeting?
Roham Alvandi: Yeah, it’s a very memorable trip. It was in December of 1953. It was just about five or six months after the coup against Mossadegh when Vice President Nixon goes to Tehran. And from his minutes, from his notes of those meetings, and the reports that he gave to President Eisenhower when he returned to Washington, the impression you get of the Shah is of a very timid and shy character and that the real power in Tehran is in the hands of General Zahedi, the prime minister who had essentially led the coup effort in Tehran…a military officer who’d led the coup effort.
But Nixon does say that, “Well, you know, I did sense something in him. I did sense that we would be hearing more about this man.” And they seemed to get along very well on a personal level. There seemed to be a good rapport between them. The interesting thing is that they would maintain that relationship throughout the 1950s, throughout the 1960s, even when Nixon was out of office.
Jonathan Movroydis: They meet again in his wilderness years in April ’67.
Roham Alvandi: That’s right, yes.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did the two men changed? Was there a change in policy between the two men? Were they more politically mature?
Roham Alvandi: I don’t know that they had changed so much. Certainly, the Shah was a much more confident figure by the time we get to the late 1960s. He was older. He’s more experienced. Iran itself had developed quite a lot. So he was much more safe on his throne.
What had really changed was the Cold War, was the context in which they were meeting. The United States was involved in the Vietnam War. The Shah was quite frustrated and disillusioned at what he perceived as a sort of abdication of American leadership in the Cold War. He worried about the decline of American power and what this would mean for Iran. And he was quite hopeful that a man like Nixon could resurrect U.S. leadership.
And their meeting in Tehran is really extraordinary. First of all, the Shah’s advisors told him not to meet with Nixon of course, because they worried that he would be seen as sort of taking sides in American domestic politics. What if Hubert Humphrey or any other Democratic candidate were to win that election, what would be the consequences for the U.S.-Iran relationship? But nonetheless, the Shah dismissed these concerns, and he insisted that he would meet Nixon, who was his friend. And they have a really wide ranging discussion for two hours discussing everything from the situation in the Horn of Africa to Vietnam. You can just imagine these grand geopolitical thinkers very well-versed, very well-informed, really good on the substance discussing these issues.
But there’s a very revealing moment when the Shah says to Nixon, you know, “I’m really tired of these Harvard boys telling me how to run my country.” And of course he’s talking about the Kennedy administration, the Johnson administration, and the people who was still in the White House. And of course this must have been music to Richard Nixon’s ears. And he’s very effusive in his praise for the Shah. He comes back to the United States and makes a very complimentary speech about the Shah. And I think that really lays the groundwork for the kind of relationship that’s gonna exist once Richard Nixon assumes the presidency.
Jonathan Movroydis: Seven months or six months after he assumes the presidency, he watches the Apollo-11 astronauts splashdown in the South Pacific. Right after that, on July 25th, 1969, he goes to the island of Guam and pronounces his first foreign policy doctrine, articulates it. There was no news. There’s only news reporters that day. There’s no television coverage. But he rearticulates that vision again on November 3rd, 1969 when he rallies support for his policy in Vietnam, properly known as the “Silent Majority” speech. Can we cue that up?
Richard Nixon: Before any American troops were committed to Vietnam, a leader of another Asian country expressed this opinion to me when I was traveling in Asia as a private citizen. He said, “When you are trying to assist another nation defend its freedom, U.S. policy should be to help them fight the war but not to fight the war for them.”
Well, in accordance with this wise counsel, I lay down in Guam three principles as guidelines for future American policy toward Asia. First, the United States will keep all of its treaty commitments. Second, we shall provide a shield if a nuclear power threatens the freedom of a nation allied with us or of a nation whose survival we consider vital to our security. Third, in cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments, but we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.
After I announced this policy, I found that the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, other nations which might be threatened by communist aggression welcomed this new direction in American foreign policy. The defense of freedom is everybody’s business, not just America’s business. And it is particularly the responsibility of the people whose freedom is threatened. In the previous administration, we Americanized the war in Vietnam. In this administration, we are Vietnamizing the search for peace.
Jonathan Movroydis: Now he’s talking about Vietnam and Southeast Asia there, but what does this mean broadly in the context of American Cold War policy during the next administration?
Roham Alvandi: Yeah, I mean, I can almost hear the Shah saying exactly those words. He would frequently tell Nixon that unlike many other countries, you know, we don’t want to fight until the last American, you know. Look, the Nixon Doctrine was part of a comprehensive foreign policy strategy. It was one half of the strategy, the other half being detente. The goal of the administration was to redirect American resources and attention away from what they perceived as needless engagements, unnecessary commitments towards the issues that mattered, by which they really meant relations between the great powers, China and the Soviet Union and the United States. So how to achieve that?
Well, the United States would have to pick and choose where in the world it confronted the Soviet adversary rather than allowing the Soviet Union to determine where those battles will be fought. But this is a very difficult thing to do. Because if you are a global superpower, you have global interests. So even the most obscure conflict in some faraway place suddenly takes on very important significance, global significance? So how do you do that? Well, they resolve that dilemma with the Nixon Doctrine, that America is partners in these various regions, would be given the resources, the arms, the support to be able to confront the Soviet Union and its local allies in those regions without direct American military intervention.
And this was music to the Shah’s ears. This is exactly the role that he wanted for Iran, a strong regional power with the full support of the United States, able to contribute to American strategies of containment, to be an asset rather than a liability in the Cold War.
Jonathan Movroydis: Over the course of the next year from 1969 to 1970, President Nixon, Henry Kissinger reevaluate Gulf War policy. And Henry Kissinger issues National Security Decision Memorandum 92 in which evaluates all the different American strategy options. Just a couple of bullets here on the screen.
Assuming the United Kingdom’s role as protector ourselves back when Iran as our chosen instrument, the keeper of stability in the Gulf, promoting Saudi-Iranian cooperation, dealing directly with new states of the lower Gulf, and actively promoting a regional security pact. They evaluate all those different options, and they come up with a determined course of action. Here they are, “To promote Saudi-Iranian corporation as the mainstay of a stable regional system, but to recognize that Iran is in fact preponderance power in the Gulf and to do what we can to develop a working relationship with the new political entities in the lower Gulf.” How did the Nixon administration come to this conclusion?
Roham Alvandi: It was a very long process. It took at least two years. In part, it reflected the political realities of the Persian Gulf. Britain had withdrawn. The United States was unable to take on that role because of the Vietnam War, and the only country in the region that had both the will and the resources to be able to maintain regional stability was Iran, which was a close ally of the United States. The only other option of course was Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis did not have the military capability to play that kind of role, nor were they particularly willing to play that role. They didn’t want to open themselves to the accusation from the nasserists, from the Arab nationalists of being a sort of proxy for the United States. Whereas the Shah had no such qualms and was quite happy to take on that mantle of regional primacy.
But I would argue that that is not really a sufficient explanation. Because the Johnson administration, in 1968, faced exactly the same dilemma and came to a very different conclusion to the one that you’ve just listed. They decided to continue with the policy of balancing Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their idea was that a balance of power between Iran and Saudi Arabia was the best way to maintain stability in the region. This was the famous Twin Pillars Policy. The Nixon administration abandoned that policy and ships to one of what I call Iranian primacy. They still pay lip service to the Saudis, but in effect, everybody knows that the reality is that the Shah has assumed the mantle of regional primacy.
So why do they do that? The conclusion that I come to is that it has a lot to do with that personal relationship between Richard Nixon and Mohammad Reza Shah. That relationship that went all the way back to 1953, there was a mutual respect, there was a trust, I would even say an esteem between the two men that gave Nixon the sort of confidence that he could trust the Shah to play that kind of role.
Jonathan Movroydis: You brought up the nasserists and the Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to cozy up to the United States. There is another track in the Nixon administration of pursuing a Middle East peace plan between the Arabs and the Israelis. How did supporting Iran primacy fit in with those objectives?
Roham Alvandi: Well, the ultimate objective of course was to diminish Soviet influence in the Middle East. In the minds of Nixon and Kissinger, and not just them, I think, most of the foreign policy establishment at that time. This was one theater of a global Cold War. Of course that’s not how the actors in the region saw it now. They don’t see themselves as just a theater in the global Cold War. They’re fighting their own battles for their own reasons to do with sometimes very very local issues.
So the Rogers plan, and Secretary Rogers’s approach to the region, and his sort of portfolio really was the Arab-Israeli issue, not so much Iran and the Persian Gulf, but in any case, his approach really was the more of the regional one. He was trying to solve I think a regional issue, the Arab-Israeli issue, to try to gain some traction and some momentum. This was not something I think that was of great interest to either Nixon and Kissinger unless it had some kind of consequence for the global Cold War. Whereas their policy in the Israeli issue, you know, under Rogers had this kind of regional approach, in the Gulf, it’s the global one. It’s the Cold War approach. And the Shah understands this perfectly. And he uses the language of the Cold War. He uses the threat of the Soviet Union to get what he wants, to get what he wants from Washington, to present himself as an asset for the United States in strategies of containment.
Now ultimately, he succeeds, and the Rogers’ plan fails. So that tells you something about which approach has more traction in Washington. And I think that probably applies as much today as it did back then. Where you stand depends on where you sit, as they say. And the Shah just did that very, very well.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that on May 30th, 1972, following President Nixon’s historic trip to Moscow, where anti-ballistic missile treaty was ratified, and they talked, became a doctrine of both the United States and Russia during that period of time. Nixon, upon returning from that trip, he goes to Tehran, May 30th. And you write that that doctrine of Iran’s primacy was ratified during that meeting in Tehran. Wouldn’t detente have made Iran much more vulnerable to the Russians?
Roham Alvandi: You know, they have two meetings in Tehran on the way back from Moscow. And one of the first things that Nixon says to the Shah is that Iran shouldn’t see detente as something that weakens Iran. In other words, the United States is not going to sell out Iran to the Soviet Union as part of some grand bargain.
The Shah has anticipated this. He has his own strategy of dealing with the Soviet Union in the communist world. He has already normalized relations with the Soviet Union in 1962. He’s trading oil and gas with Soviet Union, with communist countries of Eastern Europe. His strategy is to deal with the detente by making Iran indispensable to the Communist bloc, by supplying them with oil.
So for example, one of the countries that Iran had the closest relationship with in the 1970s was Ceausescu’s Romania. And Iranian oil, this is extraordinary, I mean, Iranian oil would reach the Mediterranean via the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline that went through Israel to the Mediterranean coast from the Red Sea, and then would be shipped to Romania where the oil would be refined in Romanian refineries and sold throughout the Communist bloc. And this was a way for the Shah to integrate himself both into the east and to the west and to buy something of an insurance policy against detente.
Moreover, detente was also an opportunity for a country like Iran, a middle power like Iran. A relaxation of tensions by the two superpowers creates more space for countries like Iran to be able to assert themselves on the global stage. It reduces the barriers, the restrictions that are in place on Iran flexing its muscles. Because when tensions are really high between the superpowers, the smallest action by Iran could have very drastic consequences. For example, a conflict between Iran and Iraq could very quickly escalate into a superpower confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. But when those tensions are low, it allows a country like Iran to maybe take some more risks and be able to assert itself more strongly. So the Shah did a very good job of responding to detente and taking advantage of it.
Jonathan Movroydis: In that context, you write of a really interesting exchange between President Nixon and the Shah in which the president says during the same meetings on May 30th, Nixon says, “Protect me.” What did he mean by that?
Roham Alvandi: Yeah, it’s really extraordinary. He looks at the Shah, and he says, “Protect me.” And I think this must have been the best day in the Shah’s life, you know. The President the United States had come to Tehran to ask him to protect him.
What did it mean? I think it meant that, well, protect the interests of the Western world in this really vital strategic theater, help maintain the stability of the Gulf, keep oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz. Now that wasn’t just the United States’s interest. That was also Iran’s interests. I mean, Iran’s economy depended on its ability to be able to produce an export its oil to global markets. And the Shah was very happy to play that role. And in fact, that’s a policy that really hasn’t changed even after the Revolution. That is a consistent Iranian interest and policy. So, yeah, I just remember the first time I read that document. I mean, just extraordinary.
By the way, the only record we have of those meetings are Henry Kissinger’s minutes, because only these three men were privy to what was said in those meetings. The Shah would never allow any other official to be present when he met with such important heads of State. It was another way for him to be able to control the flow of information, you know, within his government. So I guess it depends on how honest Henry has been in those minutes.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s turn to Iraq for a moment. It was a client of Moscow on the Persian Gulf. And in 1937, the Shah’s father, Reza Shah, signed a treaty in Tehran that gave, under pressure from the British, that gave this waterway called the Shatt al-Arab right off the Persian Gulf gave the early Iraqis complete sovereignty of it. Then the current Shah, the son, wanted to abrogate this treaty, and he wanted to get this whole waterway back. Why was this so significant to the Shah to take at least a portion of it back from the Iraqis?
Roham Alvandi: It’s crucially important because, at that time, Iran’s largest oil refinery, the Abadan oil refinery that have been built by the British, was located on the Shatt al-Arab. The Iranians called it the Arvand Rud, but I use the term Shatt al-Arab. So it was absolutely vital. Whoever controlled that waterway controlled the lanes through which Iranian oil was shipped into the Persian Gulf and ultimately into global markets.
Now for the Iraqis, it’s particularly important. I mean, as you can see on that map, Iraq has a very small coastline on the Persian Gulf, a very tiny opening through which it can export its oil. Iran of course has a very long coastline that goes all the way past the Strait of Hormuz into the Arabian Sea. So it’s always been a very sensitive and important border. And of course, having a waterway as a border is always a bad idea. Because any of you that know about waterways, they shift over time. They move. They’re not fixed. They change in seasons. They change over time.
I don’t know if you remember, but fairly recently, some British sailors were arrested by the Iranians for apparently wandering onto the wrong side of the of the Shatt al-Arab, you know. So it’s a very sensitive and important waterway. And the Shah didn’t like the fact that Iran had given this concession to the Iraqis, or then the Ottoman governments, that Iraq would have sovereignty over the entire waterway, that the border, in other words, would be on the Iranian Shore. And what he wanted was the convention, the standard practice internationally, which was to have the border in the middle of the waterway, what was called the thalweg, which is the deepest navigable channel in the waterway.
But this is something the Iraqis really weren’t willing to concede until of course we have a crisis in 1969, where matters come to a head, and the Shah uses very resolute military force. He sails a frigate down the Shatt al-Arab flying the Iranian flag with a full military escort. And lo and behold, the Iraqis don’t resist. They don’t put up any resistance. And that establishes de facto Iranian sovereignty, at least on their half of the Shatt al-Arab. This is ratified of course in 1975 in an agreement between Saddam Hussein and the Shah, the Algiers Agreement.
Jonathan Movroydis: Another sticking point between Iran and Iraq is the status of the Kurds, who encompass the mountainous regions of both areas. In 1972, the Shah covertly supports that Kurds and their war against the United Arab Front in Iraq. Now why does he do that?
Roham Alvandi: Yeah, I mean, Iranian intervention in Iraq is nothing new. The ties between Iran and Iraq are very very old. They go back to the era of the Ottomans in the [inaudible 00:41:58], you know, in 15th, 16th century. In the 1970s, the Shah’s goal essentially was to paralyze the Iraqi army, to keep the Arab nationalists, Iraqi governments busy fighting the Kurds in the north of Iraq rather than making trouble for Iran in the south in the Shatt al-Arab and Persian Gulf.
The support for the Iraqi Kurds begins in the early 1960s in cooperation with Israel. Iran’s intelligence service, SAVAK, and the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, begin a covert operation to support the Iraqi Kurds. It’s very important that Iran has a role here, because the Iranian border was the only way for the Israelis to actually be able to access Kurdish territory. There’s no other way to physically get in there.
But of course, for the Iranians, it’s very sensitive, because Iran has its own Kurdish population, and the last thing that the Shah wanted was an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, which could create all kinds of problems in Iran. So he played this very, some would say, cynical game of supporting the Kurds enough to keep them fighting against the Iraqis, but never enough for them to actually triumph and achieve independence. And this was a strategy that he played throughout the 1960s into the early 1970s.
Of course the Kurds and their leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, this kind of epic man on horseback heroic type figure, they’re not fools. I mean, they understand exactly what the Shah is doing. And they start to flirt with the idea of making some kind of peace with the Iraqis, some kind of deal with Saddam Hussein that would end the war, and help them achieve their objectives. And this makes the Shah a very nervous. How can he keep this war going? How can he maintain this stalemate that paralyzes the Iraqis? He has to provide Barzani with some kind of guarantee. He needs to give Barzani some kind of insurance policy that Iran is not gonna sell them out. Well, there’s only one country that can provide that kind of guarantee, and that’s the United States. It’s the only country that Barzani would trust.
And so the Shah asks Nixon and Kissinger to come into the covert war in Iraq for the CIA to provide money and arms to the Kurds, but more importantly, to establish contact with the Iraqi Kurds and express sympathy for their goals. And this would represent a break with the policies of all previous administrations who had resisted getting drawn into this war in Iraq. After all, the United States is fighting a war, another civil war, in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The last thing anybody wants is to get involved in another obscure conflict in someplace that most Americans have never heard of.
And not surprisingly, the entire foreign policy establishment in Washington advises the White House to not do that, to say no, to resist getting involved. But interestingly, Nixon and Kissinger overruled them. And on the advice of the Shah, they agreed to become involved in the Kurdish war in 1972 during those meetings in Tehran.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there a Soviet Cold War context to their involvement?
Roham Alvandi: Absolutely. The argument that the Shah makes to them is that the Iraqis are backed by the Soviet Union. If the Kurds and the Ba’ath of the Arab nationalists in Iraq come to terms, this will represent Soviet domination of Iraq. And this must be prevented. And the only way to prevent that is by the United States becoming involved in the war.
But here’s the question that I find really interesting. Why does the president and his national security advisor trust the advice of the Shah over the advice of the Secretary of State, the director of the CIA, the Secretary of Defense? Why is it that they placed so much faith in the wisdom of the Shah? My argument is that it has to do with that relation, that rather unique relationship that existed between Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah.
The United States didn’t really have an Iraq policy. It had an Iran policy. And what they did with the Kurds was a subset of that policy. United States policy was to support the Shah. If the Shah said that this needed to be done, then it should be done. That is how the process evolved. I think if that relationship had not been there, the Kurd’s appeals for help from the United States would have been ignored by the Nixon administration, just like they were by the Johnson administration and Kennedy and all the rest before them.
Jonathan Movroydis: So how does this war end?
Roham Alvandi: It ends in 1975. The problem is that as much as the Iranians and the Israelis want to keep this conflict hidden and covert, it escalates over time. One reason for that is the massive increase in oil prices after 1973, after the October war. This gives both Iran and Iraq tremendous resources to be able to prosecute this war. And this escalates the war to the point that Iranian forces actually crossed the Iraqi border. Dressed as Kurds, the Iranian soldiers cross into Iraq and actually engage with the Iraqi forces.
And the Shah is very worried that this will lead to a full-scale war between Iran and Iraq. At a time when his American ally has been weakened by Watergate, by the Vietnam War, his fear is that Iran will find itself in a position where they have to confront Iraq without the support of the United States and with the Soviet Union supporting the Arab nationalist in Iraq.
So he has a choice. Either he escalates the war or he makes a deal. And what he does is he makes a deal. He meets with Saddam Hussein on the sidelines of the Algiers OPEC summit, and they issue a communique in which, this is in March, 1975, he issues a communique in which Iran essentially agrees to seal its border with Iraq, in other words, to cut off supplies to the Kurds. And in exchange, Saddam agrees to make the territorial concessions in the Shatt al-Arab that the Shah had been demanding.
Jonathan Movroydis: So the Shah, he comes out more powerful as a result of this war. And Iran gets everything they want at the end of things. You write that Iran has ambitions of becoming even a greater power in the region, perhaps even a nuclear power. Could you talk a little bit about Iran’s nuclear ambitions during that period of time?
Roham Alvandi: Yeah, I mean, the Iranian nuclear program begins under the Shah. It was a very modest program in the 1950s under the Eisenhower administration’s Atoms for Peace program. They built a very small research reactor in Tehran. But in the 1970s, with all of this oil money flowing into Iran, the Shah makes a decision that Iran is going to join the nuclear club. It’s gonna be one of the few countries in the world that can produce electricity from nuclear power. And you have to remember, in the 1970s, this was considered the height of modernity. I mean, it was a very exclusive club of countries that could do this, that only the most advanced economies in the world had this technology.
He didn’t necessarily want nuclear weapons. Every indication I’ve seen is that he thought that if Iran developed nuclear weapons, it would actually undermine Iran’s position as the leading power in the region. Because if Iran develops nuclear weapons, then so will the Iraqis, and so will the Saudis, and then everybody’s equal, and everybody is equal, in other words, equal deterrence. It will eliminate Iran’s advantages as the largest country in the region with the largest conventional force.
But nonetheless, he was of the view that Iran should have the scientific base and access to the necessary technology to be able to develop a nuclear weapon if one of its adversaries did so. If the Iraqis suddenly one day have a bomb, then Iran should be able to respond.
Of course things have changed dramatically since the 1970s. Iran no longer has the conventional superiority over its neighbors that it did back then. I mean, the Iranian military is very feeble compared to Israel or Saudi Arabia who are armed in the latest technology, latest weapons. So I’m sure the calculation is somewhat different now. But the ambitions are very similar, you know. Iran is a country with a long history, with a memory of empire, of greatness. And that is something that’s really central to the Iranian view of their place in the world.
Of course, at the same time, and the irony of course is that, like, not dissimilar to, say, China or Russia, Iran also sees itself as a victim of history. They’re two sides of the same coin. They see themselves as a victim of colonialism and imperialism, yet at the same time, they have this memory of their empire and of their greatness. And I think these two things, in a way, actually reinforce each other.
And for the Shah, the challenge was how can Iran’s ambitions be integrated within an American world order. And do these things necessarily have to conflict with one another? Is there a way that the United States can accommodate an ambitious Iran, and is there a way that Iran’s ambitions can reinforce American interests? And Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah found a way to do that. And it worked very effectively, as long as these three men were in power. Of course it all falls apart after the Iranian Revolution. Whether that’s possible today, I’m very skeptical. But I do see a great deal of continuity.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you very much, Roham.
Roham Alvandi: Pleasure.
Jonathan Movroydis: We have some time for questions.
Moderator: Let’s give a round of applause first. Jonathan, Roham, thank you very much.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you.
Moderator: We are gonna take a few questions. I’d like to ask a question. And it’s basically the relationship between both men post-presidency, post-exile. What was it like?
Roham Alvandi: It’s funny you ask that, because I’ve just been here looking at the chock of papers. I mean, the relationship didn’t end with the fall of the Shah, with Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. When the Shah went into exile in January of 1979, Nixon and Kissinger worked very hard to try to secure a safe haven for the Shah in the United States. They were highly critical of the Carter administration for not allowing the Shah to come to the United States, or very reluctantly. And in fact, Kissinger secured a safe haven for the Shah in Mexico, in the Bahamas. They visited him when he was staying in Cuernavaca in Mexico. President Nixon drove up from California to see him.
And when the Shah died in 1981 in Cairo, one of the few heads of State to attend the Shah’s funeral was President Nixon, who made a point of being there, and was a highly, highly critical of President Carter when he arrived in Cairo. He referred to Carter’s policy as one of the black pages in the history of American foreign policy.
Moderator: Our next question.
Lou: Yeah, hi. My name is Lou. Why is there so much hatred in the current Iranian regime toward Israel? I mean, I’ve heard that they say if they had a nuclear bomb, they would destroy Israel tomorrow or yesterday. Why is that hatred there? What provoked that?
Roham Alvandi: I think it’s a very cynical instrumental policy. Iran is a country in a region where it’s in a minority. It’s a Shia countrya, and it’s a Persian country, surrounded by Sunni Arab states, who have a pretty historically antagonistic relationship with Iran. So if you want to make a case for leadership, for Iranian leadership, you need an issue which is gonna allow you to rally support. And the issue of Israel is, one, that the Iranians use very effectively in the past to rally support.
Now that strategy has now totally collapsed because of the Arab Spring. Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria has completely undermined its support in the Arab world. But I think it’s a very cynical policy, because the same government that professes to hate Israel was quite happy to do arms deals with Israel in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War and is quite happy to engage in a sort of cold war with Israel as long as there’s no actual Iranians doing any fighting, you know. So it’s a very instrumental policy. I really wonder if there’s anyone left who really even believes in it anymore to be honest with you.
Moderator: Next question.
Man 1: Good evening, sir, Wayne Scott. The U.S. has a long history of one administration standing behind a foreign leader in support of U.S. national policy. And then over time, that leader, possibly corruption, possibly some type of an internal insurgency fighting against them, and then a future administration withdraws that support. That leadership is deposed, collapses, end up being replaced by a government that’s very hostile to the United States. Vietnam, Iran, Philippines, Egypt, there are several.
Roham Alvandi: Absolutely.
Man 1: How do we stop repeating this pattern?
Roham Alvandi: I remember when during the Shah’s first state visit to Washington during the Nixon’s presidency, he had a number of demands, and he was asking for this and asking for that. And Kissinger said to him, “Well, look, it’s much easier for the imperial ruler of Iran to make policy than for us here in the United States,” Because the United States is a democracy. And it’s subject to all of the vagaries of domestic politics. And it seems like there’s an election year here every year. So that makes it very very difficult to have a consistent long-term foreign policy that’s based on the national interest.
There’s only really one way of doing that, and that is to do everything in secret, which is what the Nixon administration did for the most part. I mean, most of the biggest achievements in foreign policy were done in total secrecy and presented as a fait accompli. But of course that has its own pitfalls, because then you fail to build public support for your policy. And it can backfire very badly.
So how do you resolve that dilemma? I think it’s very very difficult. I think the only real way to do it is to appeal as a leader rather than trying to appeal to people’s worst instincts, is to treat people intelligently and to speak in substance to people. And I think that’s something that has been completely lost, to be honest with you, in politics. I mean, it’s so rare that you see a political leader that has enough respect for people to be able to discuss the substance of policy rather than small sound bites and vagaries of these are the good guys, and these are the bad guys, you know.
Moderator: Back row to your right.
Man 2: Last night at the other Presidential Library here in California, they had a GOP debate. And I’m not sure if you watched it. They all had an opinion about what they would do with the Iran deal. Some of them, they would rip it up or make a first phone call, did you have any thoughts in regards to that and the new president who might come in in the whole Iran deal?
Roham Alvandi: I did watch it. It was a mixed performance. Let’s put it that way. Well, foreign policy is often about making the best out of a very bad situation and choosing the least worst option. I think the deal with Iran is our least worst option. The alternatives are so much worse that it’s worth giving this a try and seeing if it works. I don’t think anyone can say with 100% confidence that this is going to work and it’s all gonna turn out as we expect, especially as this is a deal which has a 10 or 15-year horizon. I mean, trying to predict what’s gonna happen in a year is difficult enough let alone in 10 or 15 years.
The Middle East is a region that is rife with instability. Every country in the region either seems to be imploding in a state of civil war or conflict. Iran is the one country that seems to be fairly stable, has a government that’s…the Rouhani government, which was elected in 2013, which is somewhat pragmatic and seems to want to reintegrate itself into the international system, into the world economy. It seems to me that it would be foolish to rip that up and to add even more fuel to the fire in the region.
Now that doesn’t mean of course that you, you know, let you fool yourself in terms of the intentions of Iran or the policies of the Iranian government, both domestically and kind of globally. But I think, as I say, I think it’s the least worst option, and it’s worth trying.
Man 3: The Iranians and the Iraqis were at war for 8, 10 years, whatever that time period is. Now it seems that the Iranians are helping the Iraqis. How did they go from such animosity to this coalition between the two?
Roham Alvandi: Well, you know, that animosity between Iran and Iraq was really an animosity between two regimes. I don’t think at the popular level there was any ever any real animosity between Iranians and the Iraqis. Of course, what happened was the 2003 war in Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam’s government allowed a Shia government to come to power in Iraq, which has, you know…And many of those people in that government had long-standing relationships with Iran. And so the relationship between the two countries improved dramatically because of that. Since then, it has been a mixed picture. Some of the things that Iran has done in Iraq have been very destructive. Some of the things they’ve done have been very constructive at times. But that’s the nature of foreign policy, the back-and-forth of it.
But I think the bigger question is whether it’s realistic to imagine a world in which Iran has no influence in Iraq, a country with which it has hundreds of years of relations, with which it has many common cultural links. I think that’s not really a realistic strategy. Actually, as far as the United States is concerned, Iran and the United States have many common interests in Iraq when it comes to fighting ISIS, when it comes to maintaining stability in the country. The question is whether Iran is going to encourage a direction in Iraq that is inclusive of the Sunnis or whether it’s going to be a sort of winner-takes-all strategy, and that remains to be seen, I think.
Moderator: We have time for one more question. But before we get to that question, I wanna let everybody know that Roham will be available up in the front lobby to sign copies of his book, which are available for sale, just down the colonnade. Last question.
Man 4: One has the question, that this gentleman in the back asked, about the current Iran deal but in a different way. I was 20 years old when the Iranian Revolution came about. And by the way, before I get to that, be happy about all the rain in London. Over here it’s a problem that we don’t have it. But since then, it’s always seemed to be that there’s been this underlying thread of wanting to get back and work with Iran, whether it’s the Reagan administration with arming them up or to today’s deal. What is it about us wanting to take another run at Iran to see what we can do to make friends with them under the fray that’s going on out there that says, you know, “Death to America, death to all this other stuff.” What is it about that?
Roham Alvandi: It’s fundamental reality that Iran is a very important country economically, politically, historically, and culturally. This is not a country that can be ignored. And the U.S. policy, since the hostage crisis, understandably has been to contain Iran, to isolate Iran. And that strategy has consequences. It hasn’t worked very well. In a way, it creates more problems than it solves. And so every administration, as you said, over time, flirts with the idea, well, maybe we can engage with them, maybe we can talk with them, maybe it’s possible to have some kind of deal.
We came very close during the Clinton administration. I mean, there was a real meaningful…They talk between the Hatami government in Iran, which was a reformist government and the Clinton administration. But any attempt at detente, any change in the status quo, is going to upset a lot of vested interests. There are many many other countries, many domestic players, both in the United States and Iran, who benefit from the status quo, who are invested in it, and who will fight tooth and nail to prevent it from happening.
So with the current engagement effort, to be honest with you, I am quite amazed that it’s gotten this far, that we are really at this point, where the U.S. Secretary of State and the Iranian Foreign Minister regularly talked to each other, and where American diplomats and the Iranians sit and negotiate and come to agreement. I mean, that’s really extraordinary after 30-something years of never even talking to each other.
In the very, very long run, there has to be some kind of relationship between the United States and Iran. These are two important countries who have very significant interests in a very important region. So the idea that there can never be some kind of [inaudible 01:07:31] I think is unlikely. But when that actually happens, when the conditions will be right for that to happen, I don’t think anybody can foretell with any confidence.
Moderator: Thank you, Roham.
Roham Alvandi: Thank you.