The Shah as Policeman: Power Struggle in Middle East

  September 12, 2021   Read time 2 min
The Shah as Policeman: Power Struggle in Middle East
There seems to be no question of what was in Nixon’s mind when he set up the shah as the Gulf’s policeman: He wanted him to be just that, some one who would keep peace in the area.

On the other hand, the shah seems to have believed that he could turn the Gulf into his own private preserve. For this he had to establish his undisputed hegemony over the region. Indeed, the shah had been working hard since at least 1968 to accomplish just this. In 1969 he unilaterally abrogated the treaty that Britain had brokered between Iran and Iraq over the Shatt al Arab.10 Under the treaty, Iraq controlled the whole of the waterway and could deny it to anyone at any time. The shah sent his gunboats, flying Iran’s colors, into the channel, a direct challenge to the Ba’thists’ authority. The Ba’thists did not assert themselves in this instance—other than to complain to the United Nations, which did nothing—and thus Iran was free to come and go in the waterway.

In 1970, the shah sponsored a coup against the Ba’thists, who frustrated his attempt. But once again they took no effective action against him. They merely expelled large numbers of expatriate Iranians, the bulk of whom had been residing in the southern, Shia-dominated province of Basrah. In 1971, the shah took another step that, although not directly aimed at the Ba’thists, antagonized them nonetheless. He revived an irredentist claim to the island of Bahrain. Bahrain then, as now, was ruled by a princely Arab family; and the Ba’thists, as Arab nationalists, felt themselves duty bound to resist attempts to alienate land from Arab control.

As it turned out, they had no need to act because the shah was made to withdraw his claim under pressure from Britain and the United States. Washington has enjoyed basing rights for elements of its fleet in Bahrain since 1948, and so was unwilling to have the island’s status disturbed in any way. Immediately after this, the shah resurrected another ancient claim, this time to three small islands in the Strait of Hormuz. These islands, the property of two of the tiny emirates that later became the UAE, were strategically located and, the shah maintained, in radical hands could become bases from which oil supplies moving out of the Gulf could be interdicted. To forestall any such radical takeover, the shah appropriated them.

The Ba’thists’ response to this maneuver was to break off diplomatic relations with Iran and Great Britain, which they accused of collusion in the seizure. They also assisted Arab guerrillas fighting to topple the sultan of Oman, who maintained a close relationship with Great Britain. Partially in response to the Iraqis’ stepped-up aid to the guerrillas, the shah sent an expeditionary force to Oman to assist the sultan.

By this time the competition between the shah and the Ba’thists had become intense. Increasingly apprehensive about arms supplies from the United States to the shah, the Ba’thists resolved to match his buildup man for man, tank for tank, and plane for plane. This set off a frenzied arms race in which the Iraqis’ principal supplier was the Soviet Union.

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