The Shah's Folly

  September 13, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Shah's Folly
The military buildup of the shah made very little sense. For example, he purchased the latest equipment—really lethal weapons, on the order of supersonic jets and fast battle cruisers.

This led many to wonder against whom he was intending to use such weapons. In the Gulf, there was really no one who could threaten the shah in a fashion to require a buildup of this order. Certainly not the small states of the lower littoral, none of which had a population above a few hundred thousand, and no military establishment to speak of. Saudi Arabia? Hardly. The Saudis have never sought to maintain a formidable armed force. They mainly are concerned with suppressing internal dissent, for which they have need of little other than a strong constabulary.

The shah often defended his immense buildup by claiming it was needed to stop the Soviets, in the event they decided to advance on the Gulf. There was really no likelihood that the shah’s army could stand up to the Soviets, no matter how much up-to-date equipment it had. That left Iraq. To be sure, the Iraqis did eventually develop into something of a threat to Iran. But that development came comparatively late. In the early 1970s, when the shah’s military buildup began, the Iraqi army was like the Saudis’, really just a robust police force.

There was another mystery about the shah’s arms purchases: How was his military to deploy the weapons he was purchasing? F-14 jets and Spurance battle cruisers need rigorous maintenance by competent crews. The shah’s military was composed mainly of raw recruits from the rural areas who could not read or write, let alone cope with the weapons’ field manuals, all of which were in English. The shah’s answer to this problem was to import American technicians. And this, caused enormous problems, as the U.S. presence became such that it offended Iranian nationals.

In sum, we may say that the shah’s weapons program was not only inappropriate, it was—in important respects—dysfunctional. This situation eventually drew criticism from opposition figures inside Iran. Abol Hasan Bani Sadr, Iran’s first president under the Islamic Republic, devised an ingenious explanation for the strange course that the shah seemed to be following in buying arms. He theorized that the Iranian armed forces were set up primarily to serve Western interests. Iran, with its immense riches from oil, was in effect helping the imperialists to keep open their weapons production lines and buoying the West’s economy.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made essentially the same criticism. The shah, he said, was committing treason against the Iranian people. He was giving their oil to the Americans and in return they were building military bases for themselves in Iran. They gave Iranians arms intended for U.S. use. Unfortunately there is some truth to these charges. From at least 1972 numerous officials inside and outside the Pentagon questioned the propriety of selling the shah weapons for which he had little use. It was particularly deplored that under the scheme worked out by Nixon there was not even a check on his arms purchases; the shah was unique in his ability to buy directly from the U.S. arsenal without review. As one observer noted, the shah gave Nixon a blank check, against which he could purchase virtually anything he pleased, and no one in the United States could gain say him.

The most likely explanation for this extraordinary state of affairs is that the United States needed the money. Its economy was experiencing severe dislocations, and cash purchases by the shah helped to ease some of the discomfort. So, as Bani Sadr has suggested, there was a conspiracy of sorts functioning. U.S. military suppliers fed the shah’s insatiable need for weapons; the shah fed cash into the U.S. economic system; and few thought about the long-term consequences of what was going on.