22. Editorial Note

On April 24, 1973, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger, forwarded a summary of a report submitted by Ambassador to Iran Richard Helms on the prospects for stability in the Persian Gulf. Kissinger passed along Helms’s view that Iran could undermine the regional order: “Arabs feel that Iranians in general and the Shah in particular are so contemptuous of them and are so arrogant in their dealings with them that true cooperation probably is not possible. The Arabs generally fear Iranian colonialism in the Gulf.” To ease the tensions between the Arabs and Iran, the United States should assume a mediating role. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 602, Country Files—Middle East, Iran, Vol. IV, September 1971–April 1973) Helms’s report, March 31, is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–9, Documents on Middle East Region; Arabian Peninsula; North Africa, 1973–1976.

On May 10, Kissinger issued National Security Study Memorandum 181, which ordered a review of U.S. policy in the Arabian Pe[Page 68]ninsula and the Persian Gulf. Among other questions, the study was to consider how to improve Saudi-Iranian cooperation and strengthen U.S. bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. NSSM 181 is scheduled for publication ibid. As National Security Council Staff members Harold H. Saunders and William B. Quandt observed in a memorandum to Kissinger on April 25: “The U.S. has no interest in being faced with a choice between Persians and Arabs, and our policy has been to promote their cooperation. That cooperation, however, is weak now and not at all to be taken for granted, partly because the Shah does not see Saudi Arabia as an effective partner. Without in any way working against Iran, the US has an interest in helping the Saudis play a more effective role.” Saudi Arabia might be granted a place in U.S. regional policy comparable to that of Israel, Iran, and Jordan. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–200, NSSM 181)

On July 19, Quandt sent Kissinger an Analytical Summary of the Department of State’s response to NSSM 181. In part, it reads: “The Shah is determined to make Iran the predominant military power in the region. In pursuit of this goal, the Shah is often overbearing and heavy-handed in dealing with his Arab neighbors, and the prospects for serious Iranian-Arab rivalry are considerable in the future. This could be accentuated when Iran’s oil production begins to peak out in the 1980s, while Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the UAE continue to increase oil production and earn revenues far in excess of Iran’s. It is this future imbalance between military power on one side of the Gulf and economic power on the other that poses dilemmas for the United States.”

Quandt summarized the paper’s two policy approaches for Iran. One was to press Iran toward policy coordination with the Arabs. Because it entailed restraining the Shah and propping up King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, this policy could put bilateral U.S.-Iranian relations at risk. The other alternative was to support Iran as the major regional power, which “could encourage the Shah’s more imperial fancies, resulting at worst in an over-extension of Iranian power and serious conflicts with Iran’s neighbors, perhaps including the Soviet Union. It is virtually certain that this policy would make Saudi-Iranian cooperation difficult to achieve.” The administration had already recognized Iran’s growing power and status; the question now became, “Would it make sense to begin trying to direct the Iranian armed forces toward a more sensible and less costly force structure designed more for Iran’s genuine defense needs than for prestige purposes? If not, how far are we willing to support the Shah if he begins to use his forces across the Gulf in ways that are bound to alienate Saudi Arabia and perhaps accelerate the radicalization of the Arab oil-producing states?” (Ibid., Box H–68, NSSM 181)

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Also on July 19, in a memorandum to Kissinger briefing him for a Senior Review Group meeting on NSSM 181, Saunders acknowledged that the second of the two policy alternatives for Iran was becoming de facto U.S. policy: “The basic issue to be discussed is the assumption which has been at the base of our policy to date—that Iranian-Saudi cooperation is the best guarantee of stability in the Gulf. The issues are whether the Saudis are showing the capacity to hold up their end of the cooperation and whether the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is good enough so that it is realistic to think in terms of such cooperation. The alternative into which we are drifting is to assume that the Iranians will take care of stability in the Gulf.” (Ibid., Box 1227, Harold H. Saunders Files, Chronological Files, Folder 1) For minutes of the Senior Review Group meeting, see Document 23. The National Intelligence Estimate on related Persian Gulf themes, NIE 30–1–73, “Problems in the Persian Gulf,” June 7, is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–9, Documents on Middle East Region; Arabian Peninsula; North Africa, 1973–1976.