By Greg Grandin
The only person Henry Kissinger flattered more than President Richard Nixon was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. In the early 1970s, the Shah, sitting atop an enormous reserve of increasingly expensive oil and a key figure in Nixon and Kissinger’s move into the Middle East, wanted to be dealt with as a serious person. He expected his country to be treated with the same respect Washington showed other key Cold War allies like West Germany and Great Britain. As Nixon’s national security adviser and, after 1973, secretary of state, Kissinger’s job was to pump up the Shah, to make him feel like he truly was the “king of kings.”
Reading the diplomatic record, it’s hard not to imagine his weariness as he prepared for his sessions with the Shah, considering just what gestures and words would be needed to make it clear that his majesty truly mattered to Washington, that he was valued beyond compare. “Let’s see,” an aide who was helping Kissinger get ready for one such meeting said, “the Shah will want to talk about Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, the Kurds, and Brezhnev.”
During another prep, Kissinger was told that “the Shah wants to ride in an F-14.” Silence ensued. Then Kissinger began to think aloud about how to flatter the monarch into abandoning the idea. “We can say,” he began, “that if he has his heart set on it, okay, but the President would feel easier if he didn’t have that one worry in 10,000 [that the plane might crash]. The Shah will be flattered.” Once, Nixon asked Kissinger to book the entertainer Danny Kaye for a private performance for the Shah and his wife.
The 92-year-old Kissinger has a long history of involvement in Iran and his recent opposition to Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, while relatively subdued by present Washington standards, matters. In it lies a certain irony, given his own largely unexamined record in the region. Kissinger’s criticism has focused mostly on warning that the deal might provoke a regional nuclear arms race as Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia line up against Shia Iran. “We will live in a proliferated world,” he saidin testimony before the Senate. In aWall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with another former secretary of state, George Shultz, Kissinger worried that, as the region “trends toward sectarian upheaval” and “state collapse,” the “disequilibrium of power” might likely tilt toward Tehran.
Of all people, Kissinger knows well how easily the best laid plans can go astray and careen toward disaster. The former diplomat is by no means solely responsible for the mess that is today’s Middle East. There is, of course, George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq (which Kissinger supported). But he does bear far more responsibility for our proliferated world’s disequilibrium of power than anyone usually recognizes.
Some of his Middle East policies are well known. In early 1974, for instance, his so-called shuttle diplomacy helped deescalate the tensions that had led to the previous year’s Arab-Israeli War. At the same time, however, it locked in Israel’s veto over U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. And in December 1975, wrongly believing that he had worked out a lasting pro-American balance of power between Iran and Iraq, Kissinger withdrew his previous support from the Kurds (whom he had been using as agents of destabilization against Baghdad’s Baathists). Iraq moved quickly to launch an assault on the Kurds that killed thousands and then implemented a program of ethnic cleansing, forcibly relocating Kurdish survivors and moving Arabs into their homes. “Even in the context of covert action ours was a cynical enterprise,”noted a Congressional investigation into his sacrifice of the Kurds.
Less well known is the way in which Kissinger’s policies toward Iran and Saudi Arabia accelerated the radicalization in the region, how step by catastrophic step he laid the groundwork for the region’s spiraling crises of the present moment.
Guardian of the Gulf
Most critical histories of U.S. involvement in Iran rightly began with the joint British-U.S. coup against democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, which installed Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne. But it was Kissinger who, in 1972, greatly deepened the relationship between Washington and Tehran. He was the one who began a policy of unconditional support for the Shah as a way to steady American power in the Persian Gulf while the U.S. extracted itself from Southeast Asia. As James Schlesinger, who served as Nixon’s CIA director and secretary of defense, noted, if “we were going to make the Shah the Guardian of the Gulf, we’ve got to give him what he needs.” Which, Schlesinger added, really meant “giving him what he wants.”
What the Shah wanted most of all were weapons of every variety — and American military trainers, and a navy, and an air force. It was Kissinger who overrode State Department and Pentagon objections and gave the Shah what no other country had: the ability to buy anything he wanted from U.S. weapons makers.
“We are looking for a navy,” the Shah told Kissinger in 1973, “we have a large shopping list.” And so Kissinger let him buy a navy.
By 1976, Kissinger’s last full year in office, Iran had become the largest purchaser of American weaponry and housed the largest contingent of U.S. military advisors anywhere on the planet. By 1977, the historian Ervand Abrahamian notes, “the shah had the largest navy in the Persian Gulf, the largest air force in Western Asia, and the fifth-largest army in the whole world.” That meant, just to begin a list, thousands of modern tanks, hundreds of helicopters, F-4 and F-5 fighter jets, dozens of hovercraft, long-range artillery pieces, and Maverick missiles. The next year, the Shah bought another $12 billion worth of equipment.
After Kissinger left office, the special relationship he had worked so hard to establish blew up with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the flight of the Shah, the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran (and its occupants as hostages) by student protesters. Washington’s political class is still trying to dig itself out of the rubble. A number of high-ranking Middle East policymakers and experts held Kissinger directly responsible for the disaster, especially career diplomat George Ball, who called Kissinger’s Iran policy an “act of folly.”
Kissinger is deft at deflecting attention from this history. After a speech at Annapolis in 2007, a cadet wanted to know why he had sold weapons to the Shah of Iran when “he knew the nature of his regime?”
“Every American government from the 1950s on cooperated with the Shah of Iran,” Kissinger answered. He continued: “Iran is a crucial piece of strategic real estate, and the fact that it is now in adversarial hands shows why we cooperated with the Shah of Iran. Why did we sell weapons to him? Because he was willing to defend himself and because his defense was in our interest. And again, I simply don’t understand why we have to apologize for defending the American national interest, which was also in the national interest of that region.”
This account carefully omits his role in greatly escalating the support provided to the Shah, including to his infamous SAVAK torturers — the agents of his murderous, U.S.-trained secret police-cum-death-squad — who upheld his regime. Each maimed body or disappeared family member was one more klick on the road to revolution. As George Ball’s biographer, James Bill, writes: considering the “manifest failure” of Kissinger’s Iran policy, “it is worthy of note that in his two massive volumes of political memoirs totalling twenty-eight-hundred pages, Kissinger devoted less than twenty pages to the Iranian revolution and U.S.-Iran relations.”
After the Shah fell, the ayatollahs were the beneficiaries of Kissinger’s arms largess, inheriting billions of dollars of warships, tanks, fighter jets, guns, and other materiel. It was also Kissinger who successfully urged the Carter administration to grant the Shah asylum in the United States, which hastened the deterioration of relations between Tehran and Washington, precipitating the embassy hostage crisis.
Then, in 1980, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran, beginning a war that consumed hundreds of thousands of lives. The administration of Ronald Reagan “tilted” toward Baghdad, providing battlefield intelligence used to launch lethal sarin gas attacks on Iranian troops. At the same time, the White House illegally and infamously trafficked high-tech weaponry to revolutionary Iran as part of what became the Iran-Contra affair.
“It’s a pity they can’t both lose,” Kissinger is reported to have said of Iran and Iraq. Although that quotation is hard to confirm, Raymond Tanter, who served on the National Security Council, reports that, at a foreign-policy briefing for Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan in October 1980, Kissinger suggested “the continuation of fighting between Iran and Iraq was in the American interest.” Having bet (and lost) on the Shah, Kissinger now hoped to make the best of a bad war. The U.S., he counselled Reagan, “should capitalize on continuing hostilities.”
Saudi Arabia and the Petrodollar Fix
Kissinger’s other “guardian” of the Gulf, Sunni Saudi Arabia, however, didn’t fall and he did everything he could to turn that already close relationship into an ironclad alliance. In 1975, he signaled what was to come by working out an arms deal for the Saudi regime similar to the one he had green-lighted for Tehran, including a $750 million contract for the sale of 60 F-5E/F fighters to the sheiks. By this time, the U.S. already had more than a trillion dollars’ worth of military agreements with Riyadh. Only Iran had more.
Like Tehran, Riyadh paid for this flood of weaponry with the proceeds from rising oil prices. The word “petrodollar,” according to the Los Angeles Times, was coined in late 1973, and introduced into English by New York investment bankers who were courting the oil-producing countries of the Middle East. Soon enough, as that paper wrote, the petrodollar had become part of “the world’s macroeconomic interface” and crucial to Kissinger’s developing Middle Eastern policy.
By June 1974, Treasury Secretary George Shultz was already suggesting that rising oil prices could result in a “highly advantageous mutual bargain” between the U.S. and petroleum-producing countries in the Middle East. Such a “bargain,” as others then began to argue, might solve a number of problems, creating demand for the U.S. dollar, injecting needed money into a flagging defense industry hard hit by the Vietnam wind-down, and using petrodollars to cover mounting trade deficits.
As it happened, petrodollars would prove anything but a quick fix. High energy prices were a drag on the U.S. economy, with inflation and high interest rates remaining a problem for nearly a decade. Nor was petrodollar dependence part of any preconceived Kissingerian “plan.” As with far more of his moves than he or his admirers now care to admit, he more or less stumbled into it. This was why, in periodic frustration, he occasionally daydreamed about simply seizing the oil fields of the Arabian peninsula and doing away with all the developing economic troubles.
“Can’t we overthrow one of the sheikhs just to show that we can do it?” hewonderedin November 1973, fantasizing about which gas-pump country he could knock off. “How about Abu Dhabi?” he later asked. (Imagine what the world would be like today had Kissinger, in the fall of 1973, moved to overthrow the Saudi regime rather than Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende.) “Let’s work out a plan for grabbing some Middle East oil if we want,” Kissinger said.
Such scimitar rattling was, however, pure posturing. Not only did Kissinger broker the various deals that got the U.S. hooked on recycled Saudi petrodollars, he also began to promote the idea of an “oil floor price” below which the cost per barrel wouldn’t fall. Among other things, this scheme was meant to protect the Saudis (and Iran, until 1979) from a sudden drop in demand and provide U.S. petroleum corporations with guaranteed profit margins.
Stephen Walt, a scholar of international relations, writes: “By the end of 1975, more than six thousand Americans were engaged in military-related activities in Saudi Arabia. Saudi arms purchased for the period 1974-1975 totaled over $3.8 billion, and a bewildering array of training missions and construction projects worth over $10 billion were now underway.”