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Richard Nixon, Great Britain and the Anglo-American Alignment in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula

Making Allies Out of Clients

Tore T. Petersen is Professor of International and American Diplomatic History at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He is the author of The Middle East between the Great Powers: Anglo-American Conflict and Cooperation, 1952–7, and The Decline of the Anglo-American Middle East, 1961–1969.

i Analyzes Anglo-American relations in the Middle East from Eisenhower to Nixon.

iGives a detailed discussion of international oil diplomacy in the period 1969-1973.

i Provides an extensive study of the Nixon administration's and the Heath government's policy towards the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.

When the British Labour party announced the withdrawal of British forces from the Persian Gulf in January 1968, the United States faced a potential power vacuum in the area. The incoming Nixon administration, preoccupied with the Soviet Union and China, and the war in Vietnam, had no intention of replacing the British in the Gulf. To avoid further military commitments, the US encouraged Iran and Saudi Arabia to maintain area security. A critical policy decision, overlooked by most scholars, saw Nixon and Kissinger engineer the rise in oil prices between 1969 and 1972 to enable Saudi Arabia and Iran to purchase the necessary military hardware to serve as guardians of the Gulf. For all their bluster about reversing Labour’s withdrawal decision, after their surprise victory in the election of June 1970 the Conservatives adhered to Labour’s policy. But in contrast to Labour’s wish to cut the umbilical cord of empire, the Tories wanted to retain influence in the Persian Gulf, pursuing policies largely independent of the US by the creation of the United Arab Emirates, deposing the sultan of Oman, and trying to solve the dispute over the Buraimi oasis with Saudi Arabia. By trying to maintain its empire on the cheap, Britain turned into an arms supplier supreme. But offering and selling arms does not a foreign policy make, leaving Britain in the long run with less influence in regional affairs. This was true also for the US, whose arms sales were to prove no realistic an alternative to foreign policy. The US hid under the Iranian security blanket for almost a decade. Given the weakness of the regime and the Shah’s nonsensical dreams of turning Iran into one of the top five industrial and military powers in the world, the policy was cavalierly irresponsible. Similarly, leaving Saudi Arabia wallowing in oil money and medieval stupor – a seedbed for Islamic fundamentalists – created major future problems for the United States, as evinced by 9/11.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-277-8
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $79.95
Release Date: April 2009
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-466-6
Paperback Price: £22.50 / $34.95
Release Date: April 2011
Page Extent / Format: 272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


Cast of Characters
List of Illustrations and Abbreviations
Maps of the Gulf Region and the Arab Peninsula

Introduction: Richard Nixon and the Anglo-American Approach to the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula
Prologue: From Colonial Confrontation to Political Cooperation

1 The Unimportance of Oil
2 American Pillars and British Unilateralism in the Persian Gulf
3 Islands to Desire
4 Making Allies out of Clients: The Iranian Pillar
5 Saudi Arabia: The Second Pillar in the Persian Gulf
6 Oman: British Imperialism as Transition to Modernity,

Conclusion: An Anglo-American Grand Strategy in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula?


Petersen joins the debate about how to make sense of events during and after the October War of 1973 and the round of OPEC oil price rises associated with the Arab oil boycott. Conventional accounts see the moment as a setback for putative vital US interests, whether in terms of cheap energy or the end of the Western oil companies’ control of Persian Gulf oil reserves. These facts, which stress the US’s increasing dependence on foreign oil, serve as explanations for the Nixon administration's acquiescence to this defeat. Petersen argues that recently declassified records from the Nixon administration strengthen the revisionist case. The US played an active role in the oil price rises, with the higher prices going to pay for arms purchases and base building that both protected the post-Vietnam budget and enmeshed the Iranian and Saudi client states turned allies in security ‘special’ relationships. Petersen argues that scholars have misunderstood the course of events and the transformations in oil states and markets. Recommended.

Tore Petersen has succeeded in producing an innovative, thought-provoking and insightful study of an important, but neglected, aspect of the Nixon presidency. His book will be essential reading for those interested not merely in Anglo-American relations in the era of decolonization, but also the development of the modern Middle East.
Simon C. Smith, University of Hull, author of Britain’s Revival and Fall in the Gulf: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States, 1950–71

This is an important book, not only because of the new empirical material presented but equally, because of its intellectual ambition. It offers the reader not only a clear case study in the machinations of Realpolitik, but, just as importantly, an insight in to the more contemporary dilemmas that undue reliance on arms sales have come to pose for relations between the West, the Arab Gulf states and Iran.
Clive Jones, University of Leeds, author of Britain and the Yemen Civil War 1962–1965

A number of aspects of Petersen’s volume make it highly accessible to readers that are not familiar with the topics he addresses, while simultaneously it is engaging enough to appeal to readers that are acquainted with the Middle East and Anglo-American foreign policy practices in the region. To begin with there are useful aids and features such as maps, illustrations, and a listing of historical figures. Secondly, it is more than evident that this volume is a scholarly work; his footnotes and extensive bibliography indicate the high level of research put into the project. Thirdly, Petersen has produced an engaging narrative. His writing style is not overly elaborate, his explanations are to the point, and his coverage of the historical figures and the events themselves are balanced. Finally, Petersen convincingly unravels the complex web of diplomatic relations that involved not only the governments of the U.S. and Great Britain, but also the specific regimes in southwest Asia. It is for these reasons that this volume provides important coverage of a region and historical period that has been somewhat neglected in recent years.
... As indicated in the title, the book commences with the Nixon administration and the Heath government. While not providing a psychological profile of Nixon, Petersen does manage to give the reader a sense of how the president viewed himself, those around him, and the office which he held. The peculiarity of his character, his Machiavellian qualities, and his obsession with posterity—what the verdict of history will be on him and his tenure as president—are all handled compellingly. The author’s claims are supported by an impressive array of primary source excerpts and historiographical coverage. Petersen for example makes the case that Nixon’s underlying ambition was “to put the international system on a new footing … and to build a global structure of peace.”(2) Of course in the context of the early 1970s this makes quite a lot of sense; the U.S. at the time was struggling to remove itself from its failed war in Vietnam without having it appear that the U.S. was defeated. Simultaneously the U.S. was still engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and therefore, Nixon was compelled to ‘fight’ that war. Hence, the Nixon doctrine, which stated that the U.S. “would honor its treaty obligations and provide nuclear cover to its allies and economic and military assistance in lieu of American troops” (6) served as a clear message to the Russians that the Cold War was still ‘on.’ In order to successful execute this war, the U.S. had to improve its relations with Great Britain which had suffered setbacks since the 1956 Suez crisis when the U.S. condemned the joint British–French–Israeli operation in Egypt. Nixon was keenly aware that the U.S. could not do it alone and required allies (a point not lost for Petersen to emphasize and note the contemporary failures of the Bush administration on the issue of working together with allies). The key point that the author focuses on throughout is the American strategy to have allies, not clients in the Persian Gulf. And it is here that the countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia enter Petersen’s narrative.
... One main concern of the U.S. and Great Britain was the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf and the countries that comprised the region. Clearly this had a lot to do with ensuring that the flow of oil would reach the western-industrialized world without interruption. The oil embargo of 1973 was a rude awakening for many western governments which had to contend with a host of economic problems created by the increase in oil prices. However, Petersen endorses a very interesting notion that the OPEC oil embargo (which was initiated by Arab states and others as a result of U.S. support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War) was not a development which ‘surprised’ the U.S. Specifically, there was U.S. knowledge of the planned embargo and a muted response to it from the Nixon administration. In short, if the U.S. was to have allies in the Persian Gulf, especially in lieu of the British military withdrawal from the region in 1971, they (Iran and Saudi Arabia) would have to have the financial capabilities to purchase military equipment, ideally from American defense contractors. To enable these countries to make these purchases “Nixon deliberately broke up the long and successful partnership between the major western oil companies and the western powers, to increase oil prices so that rapidly increasing oil revenues could pay for the necessary military hardware” (3). Linked to this change in the cost of energy and in accordance with U.S. designs was the intended effect of reducing Japanese and Western European economic growth so that the U.S. would maintain its economic hegemony in the world (27). This pursuit of short term interests over long term stability and security was the hallmark of the Nixon–Kissinger foreign policy-making team. Their version of realpolitik as practiced in the Persian Gulf region through a reliance on Iran and Saudi Arabia was built on a foundation of sand which the U.S. in the years to follow would ultimately face as ‘blowback’—that is, the unintended consequences of foreign policy actions taken in which the American public was not privy to. (The classic example would be U.S. support for anti-Russian mujahideen in Afghanistan which included among their numbers a man by the name of Osama Bin Laden).
... In the process of articulating these positions, Petersen moves the reader around chronologically, providing the essential post-World War II groundwork and probing beyond the 1970s into the contemporary period. He carefully weaves a diplomatic history of the region which for some readers might be somewhat unappealing. This is perhaps the single shortcoming of this book. Alongside the traditional, standard diplomatic historical discourse centered on realist/neorealist models, critical theoretical approaches with a post-structuralist flavor could have been incorporated. The inclusion of such perspectives would have added a distinctive dimension to Petersen’s narrative. Regardless, the desired effect of bridging the past and present and to account for some of the dismal realities that exist today in the Middle East is achieved in a very convincing and compelling manner. Throughout this very informed narrative is the underlying theme that behind the scenes both the U.S. and Great Britain manipulated regimes in the region for their own national interests and the maintenance of Western hegemony, in short, making the Persian Gulf an 'Anglo-American lake.’ This message, that despite over a half a century of intensified relations and interventions in the region, that both powers have failed to solve the area’s problems, is a message that needs to be heeded if long-term stability and security for the region is to ever be achieved.
Joseph Michael Gratale, The American College of Thessaloniki, in the European Journal of American Studies

That new American policy would eventually solidify in the early 1970’s around a ‘twin pillars’ policy of fortifying Saudi Arabia and Iran to act as lieutenants in the area, checking the spread of the Soviet influence southwards. This was in the spirit of the Nixon Doctrine which highlighted the extent to which America could not be expected to act as Eisenhower’s doctrine had imagined. Instead America would endeavor to support and strengthen allies in order for them to take on the burden of their own security.
... Tore T. Petersen takes this focus, and narrows in on the politics of oil (or rather the ‘Unimportance of Oil’ as he refers to it) to construct his latest monograph, Richard Nixon, Great Britain and the Anglo American Alignment in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. With valid reason, Petersen maintains at the outset that the ‘twin pillars’ policy was heavily weighted towards Iran, with Saudi Arabia playing a lesser role both qualitatively and quantitatively. Burgeoning, record-breaking American arms sales to Iran, totaling almost $11 billion during the 1970’s underlined neatly the extent to which Iran was deemed the senior regional partner, as Saudi deals barely registered in comparison, and the general reception given to Saudi Arabia was consistently less familial.
... The most controversial claim in Petersen’s monograph is a revoicing of a Saudi Arabian conspiracy theory, that Richard Nixon deliberately allowed oil prices to rise, despite the deep problems this caused within America and its allies, so that Iran would be able to raise the revenue necessary to fund its modern war machine. Therefore Petersen hedges heavily on the Realpolitik of the Nixon/Kissinger approach, claiming that their strategic desire to securitize the Gulf was deemed of higher importance than economics or domestic popularity. Unfortunately, Petersen only offers second-hand accounts, together with fairly circumstantial evidence for this claim, whereas elsewhere his research is more firmly rooted in the documentary sources he frequently cites. Such points that US officials pressed to the Shah that oil price was not the major issue for America, but rather that it was the security and consistency of supply do not adequately explain why a 400% price rise would have been mandated and orchestrated by Washington, and to this reader imply that a moderate price increase was the intention – not the dramatic and often crippling spikes that actually occurred in the early 1970’s, bringing the American economy to its knees.
... Briefly harking back to Fain’s treatment of the withdrawal of the British, Petersen disagrees – noting that the withdrawal was firmly ideological, based on the prevailing beliefs of the ruling Labour party. Hence the problems of inflation and economic difficulty were simply convenient excuses. Petersen goes further still, noting that although the Labour administration in Britain paid lip service to Anglo-American relations and a continued global role East of Suez, it cared little for either.
... Where Petersen’s monograph comes into its own is in the fascinating chapters on the emerging roles of Iran and Saudi Arabia, as both moved from client states and relatively primitive sleeping giants into a maturation process (incredibly rapid and deeply flawed in Iran’s case) towards fulfilling the American desire for both nations to become twin pillars of stability in the region. Petersen’s work is thereby a fascinating companion to Fain and Barrett in providing a more complete and satisfactory account of the rise of American power in the Persian Gulf.
e-International Relations

Richard M. Nixon is clearly one of the most controversial US presidents and an individual who held office at a particularly difficult time in American history. He is known as a foreign policy president who sought to end the Vietnam War and build a structure of peace that included the other major global powers. The Middle East was never one of his leading foreign policy priorities, and his Middle Eastern policy is often understood primarily in terms of the Arab–Israeli conflict and particularly the October 1973 Arab–Israeli war and its aftermath. There was, however, a lot going on in the Middle East besides the Arab–Israeli conflict and particularly the October 1973 Arab–Israeli war and its aftermath. There was, however, a lot going on in the Middle East besides the Arab–Israeli conflict during the Nixon presidency. These other factors have usually not been studied as closely with the exception of some dimensions of US-Iranian relations. Tore T. Petersen has attempted to help correct this deficiency with a detailed examination of the US and British approach to Gulf Arab and Iranian issues during this time frame. He also occasionally discusses non-Gulf oil producers such as Libya in order to provide important context for US and British policies toward that region. Throughout this work, Petersen makes extensive use of primary sources including large numbers of diplomatic cables and de-classified State Department and inter-agency correspondence. While this approach sometimes makes the work a bit choppy, it is also highly authoritative and exceptionally well reasoned.
... A central theme of this book is that the Nixon Administration sought to establish a new international framework in which it could advance the President’s version of the US national interest. Henry Kissinger, who served as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and eventually as Secretary of State, is well-known as the President’s partner in all of his significant foreign policy efforts. The core of their policy for the Gulf was the well-known “Nixon Doctrine,” whereby the US leadership hoped to reduce its overseas commitments by bolstering the security role of local allies in a variety of regions. In the case of the Gulf, these powers were identified as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Petersen points out that Nixon’s efforts to empower these states sometimes led to particularly unexpected policy turns. The Republican president, for example, broke with the traditional business interests of Western oil companies by allowing and even encouraging Middle East nations to negotiate increased oil prices. These revenues could in turn allow US and British military sales to be realized with recycled petrodollars. This approach was designed to support Western defense contractors while encouraging local powers to play a larger role in providing for regional security. Petersen even maintains that the United States was not particularly concerned with the1973 Arab oil embargo due to Washington’s desire to support local allies. Rather, he suggests that Nixon was prepared to accept Saudi acts of assertiveness as the price of maintaining stable allies that could not be identified as Western stooges. The limits of their independence would be regulated by their hunger for arms among other factors. The overall policy framework of this approach nevertheless included some anomalies such as the US government’s willingness to sympathize with some of the demands of theLibyan revolutionaries who overthrew King Idris in 1969. Petersen has no use for such a strategy and repeatedly uses the word “appeasement” to describe US policies toward Colonel Qadhafi and his associates in discussions over oil and other matters (pp. 33, 46). He does this while noting that the ousted Libyan king had always been a particularly accommodating US ally.
... Petersen also considers the dynamics of the US/UK relationship as it applied to the Gulf during this time frame. The British are portrayed as taking clever advantage of their 1956 Suez humiliation by the United States, and pleading weakness to avoid commitments that they did not want to make. American actions that infringed on British interests could be met with Prime Minister Macmillan’s statement, “You are doing a Suez on me” (p. 20). The United States leadership was susceptible to this argument and had no desire to end the British role in the region. Later, US leaders from both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations were quite disturbed by actions leading to the British decision to withdraw their military forces from the Arab Gulf states. In this new environment, the British felt free to advance their interests with minimum input from the United States. Most dramatically, London deposed Oman’s aged and reactionary Sultan Taymur in 1970 without informing the United States in advance.
... Petersen further maintains that the Nixon Doctrine as applied to the Gulf did not achieve many of its declared aims. Certainly no long-term stability in the region resulted from the Nixon Doctrine and short-term problems with Iraq, South Yemen, and Oman continued to require US and British attention. He also notes that the US presence in the region continued to expand in the form of advisors and technicians required to help the “twin pillar” states of Iran and Saudi Arabia absorb their military equipment and manage their efforts at military modernization. These actions deepened US involvement rather than minimizing it. Most dramatically, the problems of expecting the shah to become a dominant force in establishing regional security were to become strikingly apparent less than five years after Nixon left office. Still, Nixon was not totally wrong in recognizing that the era of oil company dominance could not go on indefinitely and allies such as King Idris may have been loyal, but they hardly seemed the wave of the future. While Nixon’s policies were clearly flawed in retrospect, this does not necessarily make him the “shallow but persistent thinker” (p. 129) that Petersen characterizes him as. Rather, Nixon’s problems serve as a continuing warning that the Middle East is a particularly difficult area to fit into the grand policy designs of Western political and security thinkers who pay too much attention to their own visions for peace and not enough to local conditions and values.
Middle East Journal

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