by Paul Iddon.
While it almost seems ironic in retrospect, Iran was by far the biggest recipient of American, and British weaponry in the 1970s and was rapidly becoming a major power. Awash with petrodollars as a result of the global increase in the price of oil in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and at the height of his power the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi bought some of the most advanced weapons in the world for the Iranian military. While he did succeed in making Iran one of the best equipped militaries in the region, in terms of both quality and quantity, projections from the 1970s made it clear that he had grander plans to make Iran into one of the most powerful conventional military forces in the world.
1 – Buildup
The Shah openly said at the time that he wanted to make the Iranian armed forces “probably the best non-atomic” military in the world (Maziar Bahari, “Fall of a Shah – Part 1”, BBC World News, 2009). He essentially sought to make Iran the most powerful regional country as well as capable of projecting power far beyond the immediate Persian Gulf region.
Original projections from the time, widely reported in the Western press, showed just how insanely manic this buildup was in all sectors of the Iranian military. He sought to transform the Imperial Iranian Navy (IIN) into not only the predominate force in the Persian Gulf — following Britain’s departure from that strategic region in 1971 and the ensuing power vacuum — but a naval force capable of patrolling the Indian Ocean. He transformed the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) into the best equipped air force in the entire region, aside from Israel, and Iran was the only country in history the U.S. ever sold Grumman F-14 Tomcats air superiority fighter jets to. On the eve of the Iranian Revolution, the country’s army was the fifth largest in the world. Had the Shah’s ambitions been fulfilled, it would likely have been far larger with a truly enormous fleet of modern tanks and helicopters.
“By the early 80s, if Iran continues ordering at the pace of the past few years – and there is every reason to think it will – the total tank strength may well be more than 5,000. That is as many as are owned by Britain, France and Italy combined,” estimated one report from the time (Edward Cochrand, “Iran packs a new punch”, The Guardian, July 23, 1975). Britain sought to sell Iran as many as 1,200 Chieftain main battle tanks to augment an existing 1,360-strong armoured fleet, which would have given Iran’s ground forces approximately 3,000 tanks – primarily Chieftains and US-made M60 Pattons. “Only the U.S. and Russia, whose front-line tank strength usually is over the 15,000 mark, have larger tank forces,” noted another report at the time (Ernest Volkman, “Iran may buy 1,200 tanks”, Newsday, May 26, 1976). Ultimately it did not get that far: in the mid 1970s, Iran had 460 M60 Pattons’, supplemented by 400 older M47/48 Pattons’, and took delivery of almost 900 Chieftains before the revolution. Initially, Tehran wanted to buy more M60s but the Pentagon was busy replenishing its own stocks, having hastily shipped several of the tanks to Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
“The army’s fleet of more than 500 helicopters, soon to be 800, is said to be the largest anywhere outside the United States,” estimated another report from that period (Keyes Beech, “Shah of Iran Buys Way to Military Dominance”, Chicago Daily News, July 06, 1977). This helicopter fleet consisted of 205 AH-1J SuperCobra attack helicopters, a total of 90 CH-47C Chinooks built by Italy’s Elicotteri Meridionali, 20 of which were designated to serve in the air force, and an assortment of Bell helicopters (295 Bell 214 A, 50 AB-205A and 20 AB-206).
The Shah, himself a skilled pilot, also sought to make Iran’s air force one of the most powerful in the world in terms of both quality and quantity. His ambitions for this branch of the military were also enormous, as one estimate put it: “Iran plans, by 1980, to have more fighter-bombers than any member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization except the United States.” (Beech, 1977). The backbone of the IIAF consisted of 188 F-4D/E Phantom IIs and 166 F-5E/F Tiger II jets. Additionally, the Shah bought 80 F-14 Tomcats, taking delivery of 79 of them before his fall, along with hundreds of long-range AIM-54 Phoenix air-to-air missile to deter Soviet overflights of Iranian airspace, which they did using their then new MiG-25 Foxbats – until 1976, the fastest warplane in the world. This stupendously expensive Iranian order essentially saved the F-14 program since the Grumman Corporation hitherto hadn’t the capital to go ahead with the program. By late 1977 an average of six F-14s were produced each month, three of which went to the U.S. Navy and three to Iran, underscoring just how major an arms client Iran was at the time.
The Shah’s ambitions to make the IIAF a world-class air force did not stop there. He had grand plans to gradually phase out Iran’s F-4 and F-5s with F-16 Fighting Falcons and a proposed land-based variant of the F-18 Hornet (then under development) that ultimately never saw the light of day. Tehran sought 300 F-16s in two delivery batches. The first batch consisted of 160 of the jets which the Shah did successfully order. Then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sought to deflect concerns at the time that Iran simply did not have the technical know-how and skilled personnel to absorb large numbers of advanced equipment by stressing that only 10 of the jets, for use as trainers, would begin arriving in 1979 while the other 150 would be delivered by 1984 (Bernard Gwertzman, “U.S. to sell Iran 160 F16 fighters”, New York Times Service, August 28, 1976). Ultimately Iran never received a single unit of the iconic jet fighter due to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Even before that, however, there were doubts that the second batch of 140 F-16s would ever be delivered following the electoral victory of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who sought to curb foreign arm sales during his campaign — during which he severely criticized Iran’s vast arms purchasing (“Half of Iran’s F16 order may never arrive”, UPI, June 10, 1977).
Tehran also wanted a whopping 250 F-18s. The U.S. Navy at the time wanted 800 F-18s for its aircraft carriers. Iran proposed providing the Northrop Corporation $8 million to develop the land-based variant, referred to in the press at the time as the F-18L, which would have been lighter than the naval version (“Iran Offers F18 Aid”, UPI, October 28, 1976). This was quite unusual since the Pentagon never permitted a foreign government to finance the creation of a warplane. The Shah ultimately proved no exception to this rule. While the U.S. Navy supported the development of the F-18L for Iran, believing that it would reduce the cost of production for its own F-18As, the Carter administration ruled out the sale. Carter did not want to promote foreign sales to lower the cost of equipment for the U.S. military, sought to prevent arms sales that did not contribute to U.S. security and outright forbid the “development or significant modification of advanced weapon systems solely for export.” (Charles W. Corddry, “US denies Iran’s bid for 250 jets”, Washington Bureau of The Sun, June 18, 1977). Furthermore, the Pentagon clearly never took the idea very seriously. “The Pentagon’s relaxed treatment of the matter is evident in its failure even to estimate the total price of 250 Northrop F-18Ls, including spare parts, ground-support equipment and crew training,” noted one news report. “Mr. Carter nevertheless stands to gain from this seeming early test of his new policy on foreign arms sales. And by informed accounts, the Shah of Iran probably is not miffed.” (Corddry, 1977).
Tehran also tried to buy seven Boeing 707 AWACS for $1.2 billion, which would have enabled it to coordinate its enormous air force more effectively to intercept any airbourne intruders, or potentially plan a major offensive action against its neighbours (“AWACS for Iran”, The New York Times, September 9, 1977).
The Shah’s naval ambitions were not just limited to Iran’s Persian Gulf shores. The Iranian ruler was also “formulating plans to make his nation a permanent maritime presence in the Indian Ocean by 1980.” In the mid-1970s he “talked of the possibility of a trilateral security force composed of Australian, South African and Iranian warships to protect the sea lanes.” (“Iran’s Navy Becoming Formidable Force”, The Associated Press, October 6, 1975). In the Gulf, Iran had 14 British-built hovercrafts along with four Saam-class frigates, which it planned to augment with at least four Spruance-class destroyers from the U.S. and three Tang-class vintage diesel submarines. While Iran never received those last two orders it did later, under the current regime, purchase 3 Russian-made Kilo-class submarines in the 1990s. A naval exercise in the Gulf in November 1972 saw no fewer than 40 ships participate, including “two new British-built destroyers”. (“Iran shows navy’s strength”, The Associated Press, November 9, 1972).
Iran’s hovercraft fleet consisted of British-built 8 SR.N6s and 6 BH.7 Wellingtons. The BH.7s could carry over 50 tons while the SR.N6s could carry a much more modest 10 tons. While lightly armoured they were speedy and could drop troops at the other side of the Persian Gulf in about a half an hour. They were based on Iran’s Kharg island in the northern part of the Gulf. (Anthony H Cordesman, “Iran’s Military Forces in Transition: Conventional Threats and Weapons of Mass Destruction”, March 30, 1999, p. 195).
2 – Support
Such an enormous build-up of large quantities of sophisticated hardware in such a short space of time obviously needed skilled personnel to help train the Iranians on how to operate and maintain their new weapon systems. Indeed, one recurring theme in press reports from the 1970s concerned Iran’s reported inability to absorb such advanced hardware in such short notice. “Some estimates are that 150,000 Americans will be in Iran by 1980 performing defence-related roles,” complained U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers. “Are we sacrificing our training needs and consequently our preparedness by making these sales?” (Peter J. Ognibene, “Should We Be No. 1 in Arms Sales?”, Syndicated column, July 10, 1977). The U.S. General Accounting Office also concluded that Washington “extensive sale” of military equipment and know-how “could adversely affect the readiness status of United States forces.” (Jack Anderson and Les Whitten, “U.S. Fears Shah Plans Oil Takeover”, Syndicated column, July 31, 1975).
Bumpers’ prediction, made in 1977, demonstrably shows how the Shah’s manic military build-up required tens-of-thousands of U.S. contractors and military advisors to sustain. The estimates for the total number of U.S. military personal “including advisors, mechanics and maintenance personnel” at the end of 1973 was a mere 1,200 (“U.S. Helping Iran Military Program”, UPI, July 4, 1973). At 52,000 American citizens in the country circa 1977, Iran was home to the largest American expatriate community in the world. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimated that “it is unlikely that Iran could go to war in the next five to 10 years […] without U.S. support on a day-to-day basis.” (Ognibene, 1977).
It was not uncommon in the mid to late 1970s to have large amounts of hardware and munitions simply “piling up on Iranian docks and fields”. As a result of this “Iranian air crews simply can’t be trained fast enough to operate all the aircraft that the eager Shah has thrust upon them,” wrote journalist Jack Anderson at the time. “They were just learning to fly the F-4s when the Shah began buying F-5Es. Before the F-5E crews are broken in; the still more advanced F-14s will begin arriving. […] The Shah has bitten off more than he can digest,” a source told Anderson while another admitted that, “[w]e are projecting a massive snafu.” (Jack Anderson, “U.S. Will Cure Iran’s Military Headache”, Syndicated column, September 25, 1975).
It was also estimated in 1976 that if the U.S. immediately stopped selling arms to Iran “although the Shah is considering buying 250 to 300 more U.S.-fighter planes, plus much other equipment — it would be five years or more before Iran could have the necessary expertise to operate the weapons systems she already has.” (Tom Wicker, “President and Shah”, The New York Times, August 9, 1976).
The Grumman Corporation released a promotional video in 1977 showcasing its projects in Iran, including the modern 1970s suburban homes built for its contractors in Iran and the durable F-14s Iran was beginning to operate. It points out that most of the students in the program had little more than a “high school education” (see after 10′ in the video above). One instructor shown in the video points out that they were there to ultimately “work ourselves out of a job” (see after 12’29” in the video above).
Around the same time reporter James Yuenger visited Iran, including the massive Khatami Air Base outside of Isfahan, and made similar observations to those by Anderson. “Without another decade of extensive on-the-spot training by thousands of American personnel ranging from computer analysts to grease monkeys, the shah of Iran cannot hope to make use of all the billions of dollars worth of sophisticated U.S. weapons he has purchased and is hoping to purchase,” Yuenger wrote. He also cited a systems programmer who went so far as to say that the U.S. “was trying to run space-age programs in a medieval society.” (James Yeunger, “Costly war machine needs Yanks to crank it”, Chicago Tribune, January 9, 1978).
In late 1977 one of Iran’s F-14s stalled and went into a flat-spin. Fearing that they could not pull out of it on time the pilot and his backseat radar intercept officer ejected leaving the plane to crash. One anonymous observer confided to Yuenger that “[a]fter they bailed out the goddamnest thing happened: That aircraft pulled out of the stall and levelled out by itself. The avionics in there are so good that there’s no way they should have ejected.” [Emphasis in original]. “So the plane flew along for a while,” he continued. “And then, of course, because the pilot had bailed out, it crashed. And there went 25 million bucks down the tube. Stupid!” (Yeunger, 1978).
The year beforehand the Shah himself went to see a test firing of an AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile fired from six miles away. Instead of hitting its designated target, it made a “ninety degree” turn and headed toward the pavilion where the Shah and his accompanying generals were surveying the test hitting the ground and exploding nearby, the shock-waves almost collapsing the pavilion structure. Unfazed the Shah ordered an immediate resumption of tests, which were all a success (Andrew Scott Cooper, “The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran”, August 2, 2016, p.30).
Tehran also employed U.S.-civilians to teach its military helicopter tactics. Delk M. Oden, a retired U.S. Army Major General, the then president of Bell Helicopter International put together a 1,500-man civilian task force “to help create the Iran Sky Cavalry brigade, a strike force using helicopter gunships and assault helicopters modeled after the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division that fought in Vietnam’s highlands.” The contract to provide those helicopters, however, was made directly between Bell Helicopter and Tehran. Iran bought 489 Bell helicopters in 1973 “but the aviator task force did not come under U.S. government control because no weapons were involved.” (“Iran’s Army Trained by Ex-Army Aviators”, The Associated Press, February 11, 1975).
Aside from U.S. helicopter pilots one industrial recruiting firm put an ad in “The Washington Post” in 1977 seeking to recruit 20 former U.S. Navy F-14 pilots to train Iranian pilots. Ted Raymoud, the president of the recruiting firm, General Devices Inc., received several phone calls from reporters inquiring about what it was about. “They probably thought we were trying to start a war,” he said, going on to stress that, “[t]hese are no mercenaries. They’re strictly to teach, to instruct.” (“Wanted: Some pilots for Iran”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 11, 1977). Any qualified American F-14 pilot who signed up, would have received a $50,000 salary (worth over $200,000 today) plus free accommodation and other benefits. Raymond explained how difficult it was to find qualified personnel as well as convince them to move to Iran for the duration of the program. Living in Iran “is okay as long as you can acquire a taste for the local food – rice, lamb, yogurt. But if you want to buy a jar of peanut butter, it’ll cost you $5,” he noted.
3 – Reactions
Such a huge program, unsurprisingly, drew mixed responses and a fair amount of skepticism and criticism in the U.S. Government and the U.S. press. An editorial written by a senior staff member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University in late 1974 cited several “double standards” in press coverage. The analyst argues that, “even though India’s economy is in shambles and starvation is blighting its population centers, Prime Minister [Indira] Ghandi’s decision to invest scarce resources in a nuclear option generally seems to have been taken in stride by American observers. By contrast, the Shah’s purchases of conventional weapons – purchases that, incidentally, he can afford – evoke charges of ‘irrationality’.” [Emphasis in original] (Alvin J. Cottrell, “Explaining Iran”, Washington Post Service, December 23, 1974).
A 1976 editorial in the Christian Science Monitor also questioned if the U.S. was getting the best deal possible for selling billions worth of weapons to Iran while the Shah sought to keep the price of oil high. The article noted that “[i]f Saudi Arabia needs to buy some $2 billion worth of American weapons a year, a case can certainly be made for Iran needing even more”, and went on to point out that Iran had a far larger population and sat on strategic territory long coveted by the Soviet Union. However, it pointed to the fact that Riyadh at that time had “consistently restrained those OPEC countries who have been loudest for higher prices” while “Iran has usually been loud in its demands for the higher prices.” (Joseph C. Harsh, “U.S.-Iran arms-oil swap: Are we getting the best deal possible?”, Christian Science Monitor News Service, August 20, 1976).
The author went on to argue that it is within the U.S. interest to keep supplying Iran to make it a strong enough power “to defend itself and to contribute to stability in the Persian Gulf”, citing the common argument at the time that if Iran did not get its weapons from the U.S. it would get them from elsewhere, possibly even Moscow “as a last resort”. The articles concludes by arguing that “it is reasonable to hope that if they are to get all the super weapons they have on order, they will from now on be a force working toward oil-price restraint.” (Harsh, 1976).
A Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee panel also investigated, in the summer of 1976, the beginning of the Shah’s vast arms build-up during the Nixon administration and argued that there is little evidence to suggest that neither U.S. President Richard Nixon nor U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger “recognized the far-reaching policy implications of the U.S.-Iranian military relationship.” A staff report of the subcommittee, headed by U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey, also pointed to the lack of trained personnel Iran had to operate its hi-tech F-14s and even warned of the potential of U.S. advisors becoming “hostages” in Iran were a military crisis to develop (“Panel is looking into fighter-jet sale to Iran”, The Associated Press, August 8, 1976). An editorial shortly thereafter evaluated U.S. military sales to Iran and concluded by suggesting that “Congress would do well to monitor and question the arms sales to Iran, but not summarily cut them off. Available evidence indicates the United States will continue to need Iran as a defense buffer, and as a friend, in a troubled region where we otherwise are toothless.” (“Iran’s arms buildup”, Arizona Republic, September 2, 1976).
By the following summer Carter was president and the potential sale of AWACS planes to Iran invoked substantial debate in the U.S. Congress. One editorial pointed out that the AWACS planes were at that time “the exclusive property of the U.S. intelligence services” and can “keep track of air warfare and in some ways control it.” The editorial also noted that U.S. “introduction of the new weapon to the Persian Gulf area would cause greater destruction should a war break out there”, warning that “Iran could use the AWACS offensively; the weapon could convince the Shah he is able to start a war.” It addressed another point raised by critics and skeptics of the sale at the time, the prospect that the Soviets could somehow procure the technology. “Mismanagement, crashes or Soviet spying could result in a breach of national security,” it warned, before going on to lambast the Shah as a tyrant “who probably does not deserve the kind of American help he has been getting.” (“Case Strong Against AWACS for Iran”, The Decatur Daily Review, August 9, 1977)
U.S. Senator John Culver, went so far as to call Carter’s proposed sale “insane”. While testifying during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the subject the senator “dropped a freshly lighted cigar to repeatedly attack the plan to sell the AWACS to Iran as ‘insane’ and ‘ridiculous’.” Culver’s main concern was the aforementioned potential of the Soviets acquiring the technology, arguing it would enable them to “punch the eyes out” of the U.S. military, adding that he didn’t “want to go to those funerals”. He also presciently went on to question what he called the “superficial stability” of the Shah’s regime. “We don’t know which way the guns will point if the regime changes hands over night.” (“Culver calls plan to sell AWACS to Iran ‘insane'”, The Register’s Washington Bureau, July 19, 1977).
U.S. Senator Henry M. Jackson, on the other hand, argued in a report prepared by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, that the U.S. had “a direct interest” in seeing to it that Iran has sufficient military forces to prevent the Soviets “or radical forces from taking power in any of the oil-rich Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia.” The report went on to suggest “that the United States should condone an Iranian invasion of Saudi Arabia in certain circumstances”, in particular “[i]f Iran is called upon to intervene in the internal affairs of any (Persian) Gulf state, it must be recognized in advance by the United States that this is the role for which Iran is being primed.” (“Senate Report Backs Iranians Against Saudis”, The Washington Post, December 25, 1977).
Little more than a year later U.S. Senator William Proxmire, a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, who was famous for his critiques of government overspending, said that the U.S. should deny an Iranian request for more F-14s and for over one hundred F-16s. He argued, in a statement released from his office, that “Iran has no further need for sophisticated aircraft unless it is for aggressive purposes. […] Iran is loaded with American military equipment – far beyond its own defensive needs.” He added that none of its regional neighbours posed a “direct threat. Only the Soviet Union could challenge and overwhelm Iran militarily. And no amount of U.S. aid or sales could redress that fact of life.” (“Proxmire asks Iran F-14 request denied”, UPI, May 28, 1978).
4 – Arms races
The Shah’s enormous arms build-up was motivated by a variety of factors. For one Iran was engaged in a tense border dispute with Iraq in the 1970s over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The Shah consequently oversaw a covert supply program to the Iraqi Kurds to keep Baghdad bogged down within its own frontiers and then cynically dumped them to make a deal, the Algiers Agreement of 1975, over the status of the strategic waterway with then Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein to buy time and make the Iranian military even stronger.
Aside from tensions with Iraq, which ultimately sparked the vicious Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s shortly after the Iranian Revolution, the Shah also saw India as a potential threat and feared the Pakistani state fragmenting and openly said he would contemplate intervening forcefully if that happened. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which saw Pakistan’s exclave “East Pakistan” secede from Islamabad and become Bangladesh, clearly worried the Iranian monarch. “We saw organized armies crossing international boundaries and nobody did anything about it, not even the United States, while the mass media for the most part applauded this illegality, I opposed Pakistan’s military intervention in Bangladesh,” the Shah said in retrospect. “But the India-Pakistan war more than ever reinforced our resolve to strengthen Iran’s defenses.” [Emphasis by the author] The Shah’s stated goal throughout the 1970s was to make Iran strong enough to defend against any adversary in a non-nuclear war. “That’s my ultimate aim,” he said. “Some people laughed when I started off this program. But now I estimate we are only five years away from our goal.” Pahlavi even reserved the right to seize Pakistan’s Baluchistan territories if the country were to fragment. “We must see to it that Pakistan doesn’t fall to pieces,” he insisted, before adding that, “[t]he least we could do [in such a situation] in our own interest would be some kind of protective reaction in Baluchistan.” (“Iran keeps its powder dry”, The New York Times, April 26, 1973).
At the same time Baghdad Radio was attempting to stir-up separatist sentiments among Iran’s own Baluch population in the southeast. The Shah himself feared his covert war with Iraq could quickly escalate into an actual war. A U.S. intelligence assessment noted that Tehran’s support to those Kurds “reached a level comparable to that of Indian involvement with the Bengalee [sic] rebels in East Pakistan just prior to the 1971 war.” (Roham Alvandi, “Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the the Cold War”, Oxford University Press, November 2016, p. 110).
Tehran’s military buildup, even before it was accelerated in the aftermath of the oil crisis, “frightened India into revising its calculations of its own defence needs.” (“Pakistan’s protective ally, Iran”, The Economist, July 19, 1973). By 1974 India had demonstrated to the world that it possessed a nuclear capability through its “Smiling Buddha” bomb test on May 18, 1974. Earlier U.S. and European officials feared that Tehran’s conventional build-up, which in the early 1970s was turning it into “the primary military power between Israel and India”, coupled with the Shah’s “protective attitude” to Pakistan “could promote an arms race between Iran and India.” It was noted in 1973 that while the Indian military was larger it was nevertheless “in some vital areas, less sophisticated.” The Indian Army had 826,000 troops at the time while Iran had a far smaller 160,000. New Delhi possessed “1,700 tanks and 842 combat aircraft, compared with Iran’s 920 and 145.” Nevertheless, were Tehran to have deployed its modern air force along with its fleet of Chieftains, it would have had “a qualitative edge in both weapons systems.” (“Iran arms race with India is feared”, New York Times News Service, July 22, 1973). However, India’s possession of an actual arms industry, which enabled it to domestically build MiG-21 fighter-bombers among other things, and shortly thereafter the nuclear bomb, arguably would have compensated for Iran’s technological edge were a major war between them to actually break out.
While in the 1970s the Shah’s primary aim was no longer to combat a direct Soviet threat to Iran, relations were quite cordial by that time, he still worried that his country “might be outflanked – by Soviet support of Gulf Arab ‘liberation’ movements or conversely, by a Soviet ideological drive to the east through Afghanistan to aid separatist movements in Pakistan’s Baluchistan.” (“Iran Seeks to Extend Power Sphere”, Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1975). The Shah intervened in Oman to help Muscat crush a Communist insurgency. He was also later revealed to have offered to return the exiled Afghan monarch Zahir Shah to Afghanistan, have him request Iranian support to reinstall him, and then militarily intervene in the country – where he sought to preempt any potential Soviet incursion. That never materialized. (Mentioned in Professor Abbas Milani’s 2011 lecture: “The Shah and Ayatollahs: Ruptures and Continuities in Iranian Politics”, Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan, 17.03.2011, 42’57”.)
In 1973 the Shah also sought to exert his control over the Persian Gulf by controlling shipping through the strategic Strait of Hormuz entrance in partnership with Oman. The proposal came a week after the Shah expressed his displeasure to Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin “over the presence of Soviet military ships in the Gulf” and also “about Soviet involvement in the building of a new Iraqi port at Um Qasr.” (“Iran trying to control Persian Gulf shipping”, Washington Post News Service, March 23, 1973).
In the mid-1970s, the Shah’s bid to buy nuclear reactors to further modernize his country led to some projections that he would soon have the potential to make Iran a nuclear power. Journalist Frances Fitzgerald even predicted, in December 1974, that “[i]n a few years Iran will have the capacity to manufacture the atom bomb, and by then it will have the delivery system that can reach all the way to Moscow. It will also have the depth of military equipment to fight a protracted conventional war against one or more of its neighbours.” (Frances Fitzgerald, “Giving the Shah Everything He Wants”, Harper’s Magazine, December 1974).
When the Carter administration refused to sell the Shah Pershing missiles, Iran engaged in a secret program with Israel, known as Project Flower, to build its own missiles. At that time Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman advised Iranian General Hassan Toufanian that “[a] country like yours, with F-14s, with so many F-4s, with problems surrounding you, [must have] a good missile force.” (Trita Parsi, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States”, Yale University Press, December 3, 2007, p.75). Ultimately Project Flower, which was to see Israel provide the technology in return for oil, never saw the light of day as a result of the Iranian Revolution.
Iran’s military build-up even inspired a fictional scenario whereby the Shah would use his newfound wealth to make Iran a world power of the kind it was in the times of Ancient Persia and destroy the Western world’s industrialized economies in the process. Writer Paul Erdman’s 1974 story was called “The Oil War of 1976: How the Shah Won the World”. In it he used publicly available information about Iran’s military arsenal to write what he deemed a realistic war scenario. Erdman’s story is a retrospective of the 1976 war from the then future modern day of 1984. The Shah’s build-up of the day is even compared with Hitler’s military buildup before invading Europe. Erdman quoted real-life statements made by the Shah at the time and accurately described the weapon systems he was buying – the story adds one major fictional element, the Shah’s leasing of the aircraft carriers USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation. The Iranian leader begins his war by making a deal with the Soviet Union to stand aside while he uses his massive arsenal of U.S.-American weapons to preemptively attack Iraq and then seize the entire Persian Gulf region. “Iran would make a preemptive strike,” he tells Soviet representatives in the lead up the story’s war, at a secret meeting in Switzerland. “Not just against Iraq. We would simultaneously neutralize Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, as well as the northern tip of Oman. We will have the entire Persian Gulf – both sides – in our hands before the Americans even find out. After that they, and their friends the Saudis, will be finished in the Middle East […] provided your country does not intervene.” (Paul Erdman, “The Oil War of 1976: How the Shah Won the World”, New York Magazine, December 2, 1974. p. 43). In the story, the Shah sought to placate Soviet objections over invading Iraq by arguing that Tehran is a better ally to Moscow than Baghdad since it gets large amounts of natural gas from the regional power. He even offers Moscow one or two of his F-14s to examine.
Erdman’s war scenario ultimately lasts two days, he calls it the “Two Day War”, and results in a rapid defeat of the Iraqi military, prompting Baghdad to surrender. Iran uses its air power to devastating affect like Israel in the Six-Day War. Erdman goes so far as to write that it exceeded “even Israeli performance a few years back in terms of turnaround time and operational techniques.” Ironically, Saddam opened his real life preemptive attack invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980 by trying to replicate Israel’s tactics but failed to afflict any serious damage to the Iranian air force thanks to Tehran’s construction of hardened aircraft shelters to prevent its air force suffering the same fate as Egypt’s on June 5, 1967. The Shah’s takeover of the entire region concludes with the Americans second-guessing if he has nuclear weapons or not and realizing it was potentially too risky to push him back. The Shah insists he remains a friend of the United States. Another oil price ensues as a result of the Iran’s aggression resulting in a 1929-esque financial crash, that bankrupts Britain and Italy, causes a famine and the collapse of Western economies in, ironically, 1979 “and ultimately, the end of the Industrial Era”.
In the real world 1976, Western intelligence reports suggested the Shah could seize Saudi Arabia if he wanted to, something they feared he might try and do were his oil reserves, then estimated to be only enough to last another two decades, become depleted. While the Shah at that time, thanks to the Nixon Doctrine, was the predominate military force in, and “protector” of, the Persian Gulf – especially since the British withdrawal in 1971 – the Gulf monarchies were “beginning to wonder who will protect them from their protector” (Jack Anderson, “Shah could take the Saudi fields”, Syndicated column, March 26, 1976).
As a result of the Algiers Agreement of the previous year, Iran and Iraq were at peace at that time. Analysts believed this peace would be shattered were the Shah to invade Saudi Arabia, predicting that Iraq would then have broken its agreement with Tehran to side with the Saudis, potentially sparking a major regional war in which “from a great distance, Egypt and Jordan would also be expected to back Saudi Arabia.” (Anderson, 1976)
CBS host Mike Wallace quoted to the Shah from a CIA psychological profile which mentioned the prediction that he might invade regional oilfields. The Shah initially denied knowledge of the report before outright dismissing it. “I think there is lots of imagination in that,” he casually remarked (see video below).
Ultimately, noted author Thomas A. Petrie in retrospect, what Erdman “and much of the rest of the world did not know was that by 1978, the Shah would become terminally ill, and thus, he would be the initiator of the next disruption by virtue of his absence (or more correctly, his abdication) rather than by his overwhelming military presence.” (Thomas A. Petrie, “Following Oil: Four Decades of Cycle-Testing Experiences and What They Foretell about U.S. Energy Independence”, University of Oklahoma Press, July 2015, p. 40).