Why Donald Trump’s stance on Iran signals a shift in GOP thinking

By Darius Wainwright

Since 1945, American policymakers have regarded the maintaining of diplomatic dialogue with Iran as crucial to their wider interests in the Middle East. In the early and middle stages of the Cold War, the US government regarded ties with the Iranian government  as necessary to countering the Soviet Union’s presence in the Middle East. Presently however, the United States’ political motives for engaging with Iran differ. The emergence of Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the so-called Islamic State – who oppose the US and Iran in equal measure – concerns both countries. It is this mutual anxiety that compelled the United States and Iran to sign an April 2015 agreement, where the Middle Eastern country halted its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. These had been in place since 1979, when the pro-western monarchy in Iran was toppled by a popular revolt.

Yet not everyone involved in American politics possesses a belief that the United States and Iran share mutual interests. The Republican Party presidential nominee, Donald Trump, opposes the agreement reached by the US and Iran. According to Trump, Washington should be wary of dealing with Tehran. The deal agreed by current President Barack Obama is financially stacked in the Middle Eastern country’s favour, reflecting the fact that Iranians are supposedly better negotiators than their American counterparts.[i]


Such orientalist rhetoric is far removed from the stance taken towards Tehran by Republican Presidents before 1979. Indeed, the 1952 election of Dwight D. Eisenhower is regarded as a ‘watershed moment’ for US-Iran relations.[ii] The international standing of Britain – the dominant western power in the Middle East since the Eighteenth Century – was on the wane, compelling US policymakers to take a greater interest in the region’s affairs. To both Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, relations with Iran were pivotal to American diplomatic interests in the Middle East. Arab Nationalist governments, closely aligned to the Soviet Union, emerged in Egypt, Iraq and Syria during Eisenhower’s presidency. Ties with the anti-communist Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, then, were crucial to maintaining the United States’ regional standing. The American government sought to bolster the Iranian monarch’s grip over Iranian affairs. In August 1953, the then Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddeq – who had challenged the Shah’s authority by calling for Iran to remain neutral in the Cold War – was removed from office by a joint CIA-MI6 backed coup. Subsequent years would see the Eisenhower Administration approve the supply of considerable amounts of American military equipment to the Iranian armed forces, elevating the Middle Eastern country to a prominent regional power.

It was during Richard Nixon’s presidency however that US-Iran collaboration reached its zenith. In part this was down to the wider US diplomacy of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Crippled by the on-going conflict in Vietnam, American policymakers adopted the Nixon Doctrine, pledging to extensively support – but not directly intervene in the affairs of – international allies. More crucial though was the close rapport shared by both leaders. Before becoming President, Nixon was a frequent guest of the Shah, with the Iranian monarch donating heavily to the Californian’s ill-fated 1960 presidential campaign. In a May 1972 meeting in Tehran, Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, gave the Shah and his advisors a ‘blank cheque’.[iii] This not only gave the Iranians access to an unlimited supply of advanced American weaponry (nuclear weapons aside), but gave Iran the freedom to exercise US foreign policy in the Middle East on Washington’s behalf.

nixon and shahMay 1972 meeting between Richard Nixon and the Shah

Of course Republican Presidents since 1979 have been less willing to engage with Iran. The replacing of a pro-American monarchy with an Islamic government sceptical of the west was bound to increase tensions, as was the November 1979 storming of the US Embassy in Iran and the taking of hostages. But where Trump differs GOP Presidents of the past – before and after 1979 – is his disregard for the value of a US-Iran diplomatic dialogue to US Middle Eastern interests. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush – despite the latter including the country in his ‘axis of evil’ – maintained an unofficial communication with the Iranian government. The former used clandestine deliberations to temper the activities of the Tehran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, while the latter relied on Iranian intelligence during the US-UK invasion of Afghanistan. A Trump win in November clearly would signal a dramatic shift in American foreign policy in the Middle East. Ties with Iran – historically a crucial tenet of US diplomacy in the region – would no longer be seen as crucial.

[i] Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah: the United States and Iran in the Cold War (Oxford, 2014).

[ii] Steve Marsh, ‘Reinterpreting the policies of the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations towards Iran, 1950-54’, Journal of Cold War Studies 7/3 (2005), 79-123.

[iii] Ishaan Tharoor, ‘Donald Trump repeats stereotype of about Iranians when attacking Obama’ The Washington Post, 3 April 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/04/03/donald-trump-repeats-stereotype-about-iranians-when-attacking-obama/

This entry was posted in American History, Cold War History, News, US Election 2016 (blog posts) and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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