Middle Powers and American Foreign Policy:
A Model for Managing World Politics with Lessons from Irano-U.S. Relations, 1968-1978
Margaret M. Juergens
Centre College
Nayef H. Samhat
Assistant Professor of Government & International Relations Centre College
600 West Walnut Street Danville, KY 40422 (606) 238-5248
Paper Presented to the 36th Annual Meeting of the Kentucky Political Science Association, Bowling Green, KY, February 28- March 1, 1997


        Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the proclaimed end of the Cold War much discussion has focused on the direction of American foreign policy. The debate pits those espousing a continued activist role for America in world affairs against those who argue that our mission has been fulfilled and we must now look inwards to resolve domestic problems. Such a division in policy circles is not new, rather it is an enduring feature of American foreign policy debates ever since George Washington warned of entanglements in European affairs. This article seeks to address the issue by exploring a role for middle powers in international politics and American foreign policy. Specifically, we define three conditions most conducive to a middle power policy: 1) the absence of global conflict; 2) the willingness and capability of a middle power (or powers) to assume responsibility; 3) the willingness of a great power to structure the 'architecture' of regional security, including articulating a basis for common regional interests. It begins with the premise that a compromise may be attainable between the two seemingly irreconcilable positions by returning to the strategy expressed in the Nixon Doctrine. The working assumption is that the United States can not expect  to, nor should it be expected to, become directly involved in the maintenance of security around the globe. In place of this activist posture it may be more efficient and effective to cultivate relationships with the growing number of 'middle powers' in world politics - a policy that will permit the United States to exercise influence and pursue localized goals, while avoiding the potential for excessive entanglements that arise from a direct role.

        To explore the conditions for a middle power policy we examine the 'discovery' of Iran and its evolution as a middle power ally of the United States between 1963 and 1977, The case is not so odd as it may seem, several features of this relationship provide a valuable model on which to build.  First, in a positive vein, the architecture of the US-Iranian relationship is precisely the type of model that can guide American policy in the future. The Shah was willing to assume a large role in maintaining stability and the flow of petroleum in the Persian Gulf, while the United States found it cost effective and economically worthwhile, given the volume of arms sales, to rely on Iranian power. Second, Nixon's so-called 'two-pillar' policy proved to balance and link the interests of two regionally powerful states with opposing objectives, Saudi Arabia and Iran diverged on the issue of Israel, petroleum pricing policy, and the management of the Persian Gulf region, yet the United States effectively bridged this gap through its willingness to distribute regional responsibilities, albeit in differing forms, between the two states.

        On the other hand, the case is also instructive in a negative sense. Though relying on Iran to provide regional stability, the United States turned a blind eye to the repression and human rights abuses carried out under the Shah's regime. True, during the Cold War American leaders were prepared to accept such flagrant violations of political and human rights in order to prevent the spread of communism, but in the post-Cold War era the declaration by some that liberalism has triumphed places the United States in a unique position of influence. Given the vast amount of money spent by the Shah on American arms and the intensity of the relationship between the two bureaucracies, the responsibility to foster domestic reform lay with the superpower. Therefore any successful middle power policy that draws on the lessons of the US and Iran must ensure that the United States does not find itself supporting unpopular and repressive regimes.

        The article proceeds in three sections. First we briefly discuss the meaning of a middle power in international politics. Following that we examine the architecture of US-Iranian relations, including the significance of the Nixon Doctrine and the Two-Pillar policy. Last, the conclusion discusses some implications for middle powers and a middle power policy for United States foreign policy. In particular, we assert that such a policy can facilitate the spread of democracy by creating regional 'zones of peace'. [1]

Locating the Place of a Middle Power

        The idea of a middle power in international politics is constrained by the presence of political realism in international theory. The role of great powers in the classical realist tradition informed much scholarly discourse up to the era of the Cold War. European states dominated world affairs through the expansion, maintenance and decline of the their empires during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. After World War Two the rise of two superpower states did not lead to a transitional phase of international theory and policy, only a readjustment to the numbers of relevant great powers. Further support for this posture was provided by the wide acceptance of Kenneth Waltz's study, Theory of International Politics, which has since laid the foundation for international relations theory and practice. [2]

        For Waltz the concept of polarity described a world in parsimonious terms, attributing the quality and behavior within a states system to the most dominant actors thereby rendering lesser states insignificant. Focusing on the structure of an international system, Waltz emphasized the central role that anarchy and the distribution of power play in the maintenance of order. Yet it was precisely this logic that directed the argument away from regional political behavior, a domain in which localized power capabilities and interests are of paramount concern. The consequence of realist praxis was, in some instances, disastrous for the United States. In the Middle East, the desire to contain Soviet influence in the region led to what some argue was an excessive reliance on Israel to project American interests, thus ignoring legitimate issues of nationalism. [3] The Vietnam War was fought to combat the spread of communism, though few policy makers had any familiarity with the region and its history. [4]  And in Africa civil wars were intensified and prolonged in an attempt to use the combatants as proxies for a systemic struggle. [5]

        In fact, while it may be the case that the structure of the international system posits similar motivations among actors, the manner in which they interpret and act on these motivations will differ according to their capabilities, and these capabilities are relative to their field of action, irrespective of the type of system in existence. For the vast majority of states that field of action is limited by geography. Since the demise of the Cold War the restraints imposed by the superpower states on localized geopolitical behavior have been, for the most part, removed. The consequence is that regionalized international politics is acquiring a primacy in international relations heretofore neglected by theorists of the discipline and policy makers who too often interpreted events from a systemically oriented lens.

        Scholars have considered the role of middle powers in international politics, [6] and the relation of subsystem or regional politics to the larger international system. [7] Of particular concern here, however, is the linkage, rather than autonomy, of a middle power in a specific region to a greater power, such as the United States, and how the interests of both are mutually attainable.[8] This policy entails identifying a state that can be considered a middle power within a defined subsystem. The first task, then is to define the boundaries of a geopolitical region of equal concern to the middle and great power. In some instances, a great power such as the United States will have little interest in a region and thus little need to develop a middle power strategy. The central African and sub-Saharan region, for example, is thought by some to be of little geopolitical value and does not justify a commitment of significant resources (which may explain the neglect of these states since the end of the Cold War). [9]

        For the purposes here, a region like the Middle East can be divided into several different areas. The 'core' which comprises Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt; the North African zone which includes all those states from Morocco to Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula and its constituent states; and the Persian Gulf This last subsystem, the focus of the article, incorporates all of the littoral states, and the Straits of Hormuz, extending into the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Indeed, the diversity of subsystems in the Middle East reflects the complexity of national security politics in the region which, as Leonard Binder once noted, 'is only vaguely related to the security problem in the major international system.' [10] The essential task for a mutually rewarding strategy is to recognize and exploit that 'vague relation' with an appropriate middle power.

        Historically the Persian Gulf was primarily an appendage of the Middle East core. However, as the world economy grew increasingly dependent on the region's oil exports, the Persian Gulf developed relations with the international system that were distinct from the rest of the Middle East. This ultimately led to a shift in what might be called the 'balance of relevance' to world politics; where, in the 1960s, Egypt wielded substantial influence in the Arabian Peninsula, notably Yemen, by the mid-I 970s such influence had waned, giving way to a greater role for the monarchies. The shift is attributable solely to the accumulation of oil wealth which endowed them with the ability to 'moderate with money' states such as Syria and Egypt, as well as influencing the relative strength of various Palestinian factions (and, for a time, Iraq in the 1980s).

        It is also the case that prior to 1973 patterns of interactions were occurring that distinguished the Persian Gulf from the balance of the Middle East. Irano-Iraqi disputes over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, continental shelf rights, and conflicting territorial claims to Bahrain, Kuwait and various islands in the Gulf were self-contained political interactions. The Arab-Israeli dispute was not the primary source of security concerns, and once the threat of Egypt receded after the 1967 war, core state issues became substantially decoupled from emergent Persian Gulf issues. This pattern was reinforced after the British announcement in 1968 of its intention to withdraw from the region. The power vacuum created and left to be filled generated a dynamic distinct from the Middle East core which exists to the present.

        The evolution of the Persian Gulf subsystem occurred simultaneously with the emergence of Iran as a middle power. To note a particular period, one might refer to 1962-1963 and Iran's rapprochement with the Soviet Union and the Shah's consolidation of power in conjunction with the 'White Revolution.' During the 1960s as Iran experienced economic growth with the rise of oil revenue, it sought a more prominent regional role in the Persian Gulf. The post-1973 accumulation of oil wealth accentuated the disparities between the Gulf subsystem and traditional core Middle Eastern states placing Iran, as the largest of the regional actors, in a preeminent position to exercise its influence. To be sure, this influence was engaged on the dual foundations of Iranian autocracy and rising oil wealth which facilitated rapidly growing military expenditure.

        American policy in this area promoted Iran's power through arms sales. Between 1950 and 1965 $697 million of military grant aid was provided to Iran, and an additional $145 million of military grants provided from 1966 and 1972. [11] Yet the Johnson Administration shifted this approach with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries. Under the agreement Iran was expected to purchase arms for cash while the United States government agreed to facilitate credit arrangements. This was a recognition of the increasing purchasing power of Iran based on its oil revenue, hence the military grant assistance program was phased out by 1969. As a consequence, US arms sales grew steadily, from orders worth $68 million in 1965 to $239 million in 1969, to $2.1 billion in 1973, before the oil crisis. [12] These expenditures continued throughout the 1970s and from 1973 to 1978 Iranian purchases of US military equipment averaged over $2 billion annually. The enormous commitment of resources and the willingness on the part of the United States government to rely on the Shah's regime to provide security in the region generated a unique concession on the part of the former to allow Iran to purchase any conventional weapons system that it wanted. Thus, by the early 1970s, recognition of Iran's regional role was evident in not only the intensifying military relationship - which extended into the private sector as well, [13] but also in the articulation of a 'twin-pillar' policy whereby Saudi Arabia and Iran would share the burdens of regional defense.

Middle Power International Relations: 1963-1977

        With the onset of the Cold War the United States pursued its interests in the Persian Gulf with a 'Northern Tier' strategy, best reflected in the decision to join the Baghdad Pact in 1955. For the Shah this welcome development provided access to greater military assistance, while ensuring a degree of external security allowing him to consolidate a domestic base in the wake of the Mossedegh coup.  This confidence was shaken, however, after the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq and later the Kennedy Administration's rush to recognize the Yemeni Republic in 1962, founded with the help of Egypt's President Nasser. In the former instance, it became clear to the Shah that the United States regarded the pact as an instrument to fight communism rather than protect friendly regimes. In the latter case, the US and Iran diverged on the Yemeni conflict, with the Kennedy Administration recognizing Egypt's, and, in particular, Nasser's, importance in the Middle East, while the Shah feared his anti-monarchical politics.[14]

        These perspectives reflected differences in the level from which each viewed international politics and here is to be found the advantage of our first condition, the absence of global conflict.  For the United States the primary threat was the Soviet Union and reaction to events within the Persian Gulf were premised on the implications for the larger global conflict. For the Shah the late 1950s and 1960s represented a period of consolidation. Threats were regional in origin and scope, so while in a global context the American recognition of the Yemeni regime was rational, for the Shah it was seen as a poor way to discourage Nasser's ambitions in the Arabian Peninsula. [15] It is clear, therefore, that perceptions vary in accordance with particular strategic horizons. However, in a post-Cold War atmosphere, this variance of perception between a global power and middle power is not as acute. To the degree that an imperial policy - in Hans Morganthau's sense, the overturning of the status quo - is undertaken by a state, it is now confined to a regional context. In other words, as a global power the United States is in a unique position to interpret and respond to events in their localized contexts in a manner that leaves it unconstrained by the imperatives of global conflict.

        This difference is significant, for as a consequence of divergent perceptions and the uncertainties that derived therefrom, the Shah pursued an 'independent national policy,' one characterized in design, if not, in fact, by dealignment with the United States, rapprochement with the Soviet Union, and activism in the Persian Gulf [16] This Iranian stance was stimulated by new offshore oil leases and the need to protect traditional trade routes, as well as the developing bond among local monarchies in their antipathy toward Nasserist expansion and growing Iraqi adventurism in the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, the Shah also feared that the collapse of traditional governance in the Gulf would tighten the link between events in the Persian Gulf and the central Arab-Israeli conflict. [17]

        The turn towards the Soviet Union was greatly facilitated by American ambivalence. On a 1962 visit the Shah learned of the Kennedy Administration's decision to severely curtail aid which, in conjunction with the decision to remove intermediate range missiles from Turkey later that same year, created considerable alarm over the sense of American disengagement from the northern tier.  The Shah's pledge in 1962 not to station missiles on Iranian territory initiated a rapprochement with the Soviet Union extending into the late 1960s. For the Soviets, this policy revealed a willingness to subordinate local communist party interests to its larger geopolitical goals. In turn the Shah was left with a relatively free hand to silence domestic opposition from the communist Tudeh Party. [18]  Like the United States, the Soviet Union's use of a middle power was designed to insert itself in the Persian Gulf in competition with the United States rather than to maintain regional stability. The purpose was to detach Iran from CENTO (the renamed Baghdad Pact) and the West, a move accompanied by increased economic aid.[19]  For the Shah, it was a demonstration of independence from the West and was instrumental in the refocusing of security towards the Gulf.

        The American ambivalence during these years is notable for the gradual loosening of bi-polarity beginning in the early 1960s.[20]  The growing preoccupation with Vietnam meant that the presence of British forces in the small states of the Gulf provided a degree of security, minimal though it was, that the United States was not prepared to reinforce. The consequence was an Iran at once disillusioned and opportunistic. Disillusionment stemmed from the relative lack of American commitment to CENTO and its apparent acquiescence to Nasserist adventurism; opportunism surfaced in Iran's decision to renew relations with its northern neighbor thereby permitting the consolidation of domestic power and directing its attention to the Persian Gulf.

        By the middle of the decade, then, America effectively disassociated itself from a role in the Persian Gulf, and in so doing motivated the Shah to assume an independent posture. In so far as relations with the Soviet Union were improving, the Soviets were seen as a selective status quo power, satisfied with a friendly and 'non-aligned' Iran to the south. It was, in fact, this acceptance of the status quo by both the US and the USSR that created the space for Iranian ascendancy in the region in the late 1960s. During this time there was a growing convergence among superpower and middle power interests on an Iranian role in the Persian Gulf This pattern was encouraged by growing superpower involvement and interest in the Arab-Israeli dispute - in effect, removing temporarily the Persian Gulf region from the larger global struggle. Hence, local circumstances of the moment approximated post-Cold War conditions - the reduction of superpower tension and global conflict in the specific region of the Gulf.

        Given this new environment, other local events acquire significance. First, the affinity of interests amongst the region's monarchies generated attempts at alliance building through Islam; for example, the 1965 call for an Islamic conference by the Shah and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was intended to isolate and contain Nasser on the basis of religion. Indeed, this commonality of interests plays an important role in the formation of an American two-pillar strategy and, as well, provides yet another important lesson for the future. The ability of a global power to bring together in an alliance two regionally dominant actors heretofore coexisting uneasily can significantly reduce local tensions and moderate strategies of mutual destabilization, thereby promoting overall regional stability. A second event, the 1967 British withdrawal ffom Aden and the establishment of the People's Republic of South Yemen, possibly hastened by Nasser's involvement, created concern among the monarchies who feared it would reoccur in the Gulf. [21]  But the British decision also created a regional power vacuum that required filling. Finally, the June 1967 War compelled Egypt to retreat from the peninsula and address its own domestic crises, a policy that included seeking a rapprochement with Iran. At this point Iran fulfills our second condition: the willingness and capability of a middle power to assume responsibility. Under the sustained loosening of bipolarity and the departure of Egypt and Britain, Iran began not only to assert its interests, but also defining for itself a role as regional guarantor to the exclusion of Great Powers. It would begin to demonstrate a willingness to confront indirect subversion of Gulf regimes, thus maintaining the status quo, and its policy of superpower exclusion satisfied both the US and USSR by limiting their mutual direct involvement in regional security affairs.

        Certainly the most significant event of the post-1967 period was the British decision to withdraw from the Persian Gulf.  Iran wasted little time in establishing its policy, as Premier Huvayda asserted that 'The most powerful state in the entire Persian Gulf, naturally Iran, is greatly interested in the stability and security of the Gulf area and to that end Iran is prepared to cooperate with any littoral state that desires cooperation'. [22] The United States, on the other hand, was reluctant to fill the void left by Britain's departure. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield questioned American resolve and capacity noting that 'I don't know how we are going to do it [fill the vacuum] because I don't think we have the means or the resources for it'. [23]  Indeed, America reaffirmed its intention to assist Iran in the development of its armed forces and agreed that the security of the Gulf was best assured by the 'cooperation of powers bordering the Gulf. [24]  This sentiment was made explicit by William Brewer, country director for the Arabian Peninsula at the State Department, who argued that  'the countries and peoples that border the Gulf will in the future have to deal with their problems without outside tutelage or intervention'. [25]

        Notably, the constraints on American activism cited by Mansfield and which informed Brewer's argument are not altogether different from contemporary conditions; whereas Mansfield's concern was the Vietnam War, today the consequence of 'winning' the Cold War and budgetary pressures is the reemergence of neo-isolationist threads in foreign policy discourse. Precisely because of these parallel sentiments the logic of a middle power strategy acquires relevance for today. As Iran was a natural choice to counterbalance any expansion of Soviet influence beyond Syria and Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s, [26] identifying regional middle power states whose policy alignment meshes with that of the United States can promote local stability around the globe. Hence the American strategy devised in 1969 to balance foreign policy tensions in the domestic political arena is instructive for similar dilemmas today.

        The framework for this policy was enunciated in the Nixon Doctrine [27] announced in June 1969. The Doctrine was a declaration of American retrenchment in global affairs, redefining the means whereby regional commitments and stability were to be maintained. Essentially the US was to keep its treaty commitments, furnish a nuclear shield for those states deemed vital to American interests, and be prepared to provide military and economic assistance to states suffering from aggression, though those states had to furnish the manpower for their defense." This policy further underscored the importance of military sales and assistance programs to regimes friendly to American interests - an economic factor with great implications today. In the case of Iran, it was not only able to pay for its weapons, but it was also, consistent with the new doctrine, willing to assume responsibility for its own defense and that of the Persian Gulf Indeed, the Shah continued to assert unequivocally that the 'United States should not and could not step into the vacuum created by the British withdrawal'. [29]

        In conjunction with the doctrine, the US also articulated a new 'two pillar' policy that would link regionally dominant - and potentially antagonistic - states into a common strategic framework. The administration sought to defend Western interests through its long-standing support of Iran and Saudi Arabia, a combination that was potent financially and militarily, Both states were wary of Iraqi activity and its growing ties to the Soviet Union, culminating in an April 1972 Treaty of Friendship. Yet the Soviets recognized the unique position of Iran in the Persian Gulf and made clear later in 1972 their acceptance of the 'principle that Gulf affairs should be settled by the states of the region without outside interference.[30]  Thus, Soviet acquiescence to Iranian preeminence in the region led to restraint regarding Irano-Iraqi disputes over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, including mutual attempts at destabilization through Kurdish activities, [31] and Iran's seizure of the Abu Musa and Tumbs islands in 1971.

        The sum of the two-pillar policy and the Nixon Doctrine fulfills our third condition: the willingness of a great power to structure the regional security 'architecture' and harmonize interests among relevant states. With these initiatives, Iran's role as a middle power in the Persian Gulf subsystem was firmly established. Its importance was recognized by both superpowers as a crucial element of regional stability whose interest in excluding outsiders was consistent with their own goals, The United States found itself relying on the Shah to protect and defend American interests in the region. The Shah, however, had a clear conception of Iran's interests which varied on occasion from those of the United States. For example, the US sought to cultivate ties with the Gulf Arab states who reacted adversely to Iranian claims to the islands of Abu Musa and the two Tumbs - a claim defended by the Shah on grounds of strategic defense.[32]  Nonetheless, the convergence of security interests between Iran and its regional allies, particularly the latter's fear of Iraqi (and by extension Soviet) activities provided a foundation for mutual cooperation. This outcome was consistent, and remained so, with an American policy that tended to identify Iran's goals with its own, As Henry Kissinger stated before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee September 1976: 'On all major international issues, the policies of the US and the policies of Iran have been parallel and therefore mutually reinforcing'. [33]  And though the Soviet Union continued to cultivate ties with Iraq and support the rebellion in Oman, it also sought to preserve its relationship with Iran as a means to limit a direct American presence in the region.

        Perhaps the most significant negative lesson of Irano-American relations concerns human rights and democratization. Strong American support of his foreign policy allowed the Shah to continue, and even intensify, the repression of his own citizens. Throughout the 1970's the power of SAVAK, the Iranian secret police, increased while policies of repression targeted dissidents, intellectuals, and increasing numbers of Shiites. Yet, instead of muting dissent as intended, the policies encouraged the identification of prominent martyrs, which only deepened the revolt against the regime. US officials were well aware of these policies but believed that the need for Iran as a geopolitical ally outweighed any concern for human rights. Nixon and Kissinger continued to permit escalating Iranian arms purchases despite admonitions from Congress and the Pentagon. It was their perception that Iranian and American interests converged across issue-areas, providing the justification for unconditional support for a trusted local power to defend US interests in the Persian Gulf. [34]  This attitude led to further strategic cooperation in Kurdish and Israeli relations.

        Although neither the US nor Iran (nor any other state in the region, for that matter) wanted to Kurdish resistance movements to realize their goal of an independent state, both countries had reasons to support Kurdish aspirations in Soviet-supported Iraq. Iran sought to weaken Iraq to improve their regional position, while the US tried to counter the perceived spread of Soviet influence in the region, The Shah willingly served as a channel for the CIA to funnel money and arms to the rebels in Iraq in yet another proxy war intended to challenge the Soviet Union. However, by 1975, with the Irano-Iraqi rapprochement and the subsequent waterways agreement, the US acquiesced to the Iranian desertion of the Kurds, a decision designed to gain more favorable terms in the Algiers agreement with Iraq. The US chose to accept the Iranian position especially as the latter proved a valuable ally in its support for Israel.

        In early 1975, for example, the Shah met with Kissinger in Zurich and consented to provide Israel with additional Iranian oil if they agreed to Kissinger's plan for a withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. Two weeks after the Zurich meeting, in an apparent quid pro quo, Kissinger and Hushang Ansary, the Iranian Minister of Economy and Finance, signed a $15 billion economic agreement. This encouraged further Iranian support for Israel, which was one reason why it received special consideration from key US senators such as Jacob Javits and Abraham Ribicoff of New York.  The Kurdish and Israeli policies exemplified the reciprocal nature of US-Iranian relations, illuminating the positive role of a middle power to secure interests that are mutually reinforcing while, at the same time, the consequences of a failure to encourage domestic reform. This latter result was, in particular, due to American fears of Soviet expansionism in the Persian Gulf

        The cohabitational dimension of US policy continued under the Carter presidency which, despite a very public emphasis on human rights, maintained unconditional support for the Shah's regime. A close relationship was forged between Carter and the Shah, that carried over into the economic and military domains. In addition to major purchases of arms - which served to reduce development costs for new weapons -Iran also played a major role in the moderation of OPEC oil prices at a time when the US economy was experiencing high rates of inflation and unemployment at home, and continued to supply needed oil to Israel. These issues took precedence over the many flagrant human rights violations committed by the Shah's regime; indeed, violations were often passed over by American officials. Such was the case when Secretary of State Cyrus Vance visited Tehran in 1977 but mentioned only briefly the issue of human rights to the Shah, as there were 'many more important issues to be discussed.' [35]  By any measure, the American administration's determination to maintain close ties to the Shah were extraordinary, reflecting a growing and dense network of military and economic linkages on the one hand, and the careful cultivation of personal relationships between the Shah and political and economic elites in the US. When placed in the context of a global superpower conflict, the reluctance to criticize the Iranian human rights record or encourage political reform may seem justified for the near term geostrategic ends this middle power relationship served.  However, as domestic pressures within Iran mounted and the Shah's regime was slowly eroding, American attempts to urge political liberalization came too late. The opportunity lost has confounded US foreign policy in the Persian Gulf to this day.

Middle Powers and Regionalism: Lessons

        Identifying one or more middle powers within a specific region is a strategy for the United States that can be integrated into a previously articulated 'architecture' of foreign policy based on enlargement - the expansion of democracy. [36]  The lessons of evolving Irano-American relations reveal that mutual accommodation provides a basis for regional peace and stability in both a positive and negative sense. In the first instance, the Iranian case illustrates that a middle power, in conjunction with the United States, has the ability to maintain order and protect mutually identifiable interests in a given region. True, certain conditions prevailed in the Persian Gulf that fostered common goals among local states, including the protection of monarchical governance, which limited the spread of unacceptable external influence, mainly Soviet, and ties to the United States. Yet the presence of these commonalties did not mean that all the local actors acquiesced to the Shah's assertiveness, rather it fostered some resentment. But the United States acted as the bridge that forged relatively harmonious relations, and so, for example, disputes over the Persian Gulf islands were settled without protracted enmity. Equally important, the United States structured regional security through the two dominant monarchies in the region with its 'two-pillar' strategy. Iran and Saudi Arabia constructed common interests under American guidance, attenuating extensive and self-destructive conflict between the two while promoting regional stability. Finally, elements of the Nixon doctrine provided a stable outlet for American arms sales and influence.

        However, the case of Iran demonstrates that such influence is not absolute; that it did not want to appear, and did not appear, as dependent on America for survival. Nonetheless, the US developed substantial ties to Iran that served as a unique, though often unutilized instrument of leverage. In fact, it is the failure to utilize influence to certain ends that represents the negative lesson of American middle power policy in the Persian Gulf While appearances of domestic interference foster resentment and resistance, the United States developed with Iran extensive military, economic and political networks that offered numerous opportunities to encourage domestic reforms and respect for human rights in that country. The presence of the Soviet Union may have provided a restraint on such influence in the past, but today there are no alternative superpowers to which a state can turn. Hence, the contemporary international environment represents a most important condition for an effective middle power policy and is a unique opportunity for the United States to extend and exercise its influence in a variety of regions. There would appear to be no excuses for silence, wherein knowledge of ongoing human fights abuses, feeble pluralism and growing inequities of wealth in Iran all implicated the United States with a leadership whose disregard for its own people was, if not unprecedented, shameful.

        The middle power strategy is, then, intimately tied to a broader strategy of gradual 'enlargement,' the diffusion of democracy around the globe on the premise, increasingly accepted, that democratic states do not fight each other. Yet, this assumes that either the regional environment is sufficiently stable so as to allow democratic forms of governance to emerge, or that the regional environment is irrelevant. A central dilemma results as William Thompson argues: 'neither the apparent logic, nor the empirical findings, nor the sanctity of some two hundred years of discussion mean that the argument is accurate in linking subsequent peaceful tendencies to antecedent types of political system. It may be that scholars have given too much credit to regime attributes when other important factors deserve acknowledgment.' [37]  Focusing on geopolitics, Thompson contends that most states becoming democratic in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were located in 'relatively cooperative niches that insulated them from extremely competitive regional international politics'. [38]  An important variable, he notes, was that the early exhaustion of the pursuit of regional hegemony or constraints by extra-regional circumstances facilitated conditions for decentralized democratic structures.

        This theoretical point has significant implications for the middle power strategy articulated here. In essence, cultivating regional conditions that promote stability and simultaneously constrain larger - middle - powers from pursuing regional hegemony enhances opportunities for the construction of 'zones of peace' thereby reducing the externally generated logic of centralized domestic political structures antithetical to democracy. Peace may lead to democracy, according to Thompson, rather than the other way around. If this is the case, a middle power policy that integrates and constrains locally dominant states, providing the framework for peaceful regional cooperation with America as the 'chaperon' can also foster strengthened prospects for democracy.  Indeed, as a concept based on the identification of mutual interests, a clear understanding of the methods and techniques to manage conflict - in particular, to keep it from spreading and to respond to the collapse of internal order, this particular role for the United States could satisfy both the internationalist, whose commitment to world affairs is unshakable and the reluctant isolationist.

        For the internationalist, it is a rational architecture of foreign policy fused with a renewed and purposeful commitment to the world. It is rational in the sense that American relations are premised on what might be best characterized as a 'hub and spoke' pattern of international relations. This structure relies on the forging of ties to a locally dominant power or group of powers, in the latter case, linking and thereby harmonizing security relationships among states. The goal is to construct a broader regional security environment that is orderly, stable, and capable of being managed through the identification of common interests. This process has the potential to create precisely the kind of 'zone of peace' that Thompson speaks of, facilitating the conditions whereby democratic institutions can develop, albeit with the new instruments and networks of American encouragement that exist as a result of the middle power relations It is certainly a more efficient, logical and predictable means to manage world order as opposed to ad hoc responses that characterize American foreign policy in the present. The implication is that a well-known, well articulated and continuous commitment of the United States to global affairs can promote stability and peaceful coexistence, and it is only the US that has the capability to do so. A position of leadership, rather than withdrawal is best expressed in a middle power strategy.

        Of greater importance, however, is convincing isolationists of the merits of this type of engagement. Most recently, for example, Eric Nordlinger's recent book, Isolationism  Reconfigured, [39]  argued for a policy of selective involvement around the world. The logic of this approach is that a state with limited resources must be discrete in identifying and distinguishing real from apparent interests as a means to make the best available use of its 'capital.' Such selective processing is, to be sure, reasonable, though it is premised on an argument that resists an active American role for the role for the world. A vacuum is created at points where the United States feels its interests do not call for direct involvement. Of course, the attractiveness of a middle power policy is in its limited and balanced character. It is designed as a strategy to exert influence, preserve order, without the kind of significant direct American engagement feared by isolationists. The key is to foster peace by tailoring regional security architectures to specific local circumstance and integrating a middle power or powers into a consensual framework of interests and cooperation. We need to be prepared for events like those in Africa, where the breakdown of state and society in Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi, for example, have fallen prey to unpreparedness. A middle power strategy lays the foundation for dealing with situations such as internal wars that may spread and threaten neighboring states. Furthermore, this kind of policy promotes a consensual interpretation of regional security and establishes important institutional linkages that can deepen regional relationships and thereby reduce the risk of conflict.

        As an example, one possible area for the contemporary use of a middle power policy is found in the Indo-Pakistani dispute. India and Pakistan fit the middle power profile - they are both prominent actors in the clearly defined subsystem of South Asia. Their rivalry, dating from Indian independence in 1947, was recently noted by a Senate panel which placed the two at the top of a list of countries likely to stumble into unwanted war.' [40]  In a manner similar to the twin-pillar policy used with Saudi Arabia and Iran, the US is in a position to intercede as an external neutral power to encourage the cooperative distribution of regional security responsibilities, thus helping to alleviate tension in the region. Currently planned talks between India and Pakistan are dependent on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's decision to extend an official invitation. Given the length and intensity of the rivalry between the two, and the domestic constraints leaders have typically faced in this conflict, the mere initiation of discussions by one party is often interpreted as signaling weakness. Under these conditions an American middle power policy that constructs a harmony of interests while providing 'maneuvering space' for Indian and Pakistani leaders to begin a process of reconciliation without appearing weak would be most appropriate.

        For the US, there are a myriad of interests in South Asia worthy of attention. Besides the economic appeal of a market approaching one billion customers, there is an opportunity to strengthen a Pakistani democracy under stress, as well as supporting the world's largest democratic system, Furthermore, the maintenance of regional stability is essential to prevent two nuclear states from inadvertently escalating their level of engagement. By establishing the conditions for peaceful and stable interaction the logic of nuclear armament will be lessened considerably while discussions on outstanding issues, particularly the Kashmir dispute, can be reinvigorated under an American umbrella.

        A potential middle power strategy might contain several elements. The US can sponsor negotiations between the two countries on a wide variety of issues of mutual concern: Kashmir, nuclear disarmament, or economic trade, for example. In addition, developing close security linkages may be a means to expand arms sales to both countries with the intention of enhancing security coordination and cooperation. Finally, the extension of other forms of military, but more importantly, economic assistance would solidify and deepen relationships amongst the three states at variety of levels. The explicit reliance on a two-pillar strategy would thus provide the foundation for the harmonization of regional interests across a broad spectrum of issue areas, thereby promoting the environmental conditions necessary to foster stronger democratic institutions - a particular concern of late in Pakistan. Ultimately, the main American objectives in the South Asian region - stability, disarmament, and democracy - are not inconsistent with the individual interests of either state, thus involvement with these middle powers is intended to recognize and build upon commonalties too often lost in conflict.

        For some in the United States this may appear an unwanted extension of activity into regions that, in the post-Cold War world, seem to have no beating on our well being. However, Barry Schutz has demonstrated the potential effectiveness of regionalism in fostering new security regimes.[41]  In such a 'restructured global system' the United States does have the capacity to support local efforts through key states. This rationale extends Robert Chase, Emily Hall and Paul Kennedy's argument on pivotal states - those whose collapse would lead to 'transboundary mayhem.' [42]  We contend that more than merely buttressing a pivotal state as a means to promote regional security, the object of US foreign policy should be to encourage through these states the creation of regional security regimes, The tools are available - U.S. Agency for International Development programs, trade and investment, support for the development of civil institutions, and establishing intelligence and military relationships. In a real sense, then, constructing zones of peace and implementing a policy of enlargement is a process that should initially emphasize key regional states that contribute to subsystem order through military security and democratization, then diffuse this sense of security and institutional reform locally. As we identified in the case of Irano-American relations, there are three conditions for the pursuit of such a policy: the absence of global conflict, the willingness and capability of a middle power to assume responsibility, and the willingness of a great power to structure a regional security architecture and harmonize interests among local states. The contemporary international environment and the emergence of locally powerful states such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Israel, Thailand, and Australia, for example, in the post-Cold War system fulfill two conditions.

        The last condition relies on the willingness of the United States to engage the world. Given the domestic constraints on broad American activism in international affairs, we believe that a strategy predicated on the forging of relations with regional middle powers can provide a useful foundation for an American foreign policy that remains uncertain as to its long term posture. As Joshua Muravchik suggests in his challenge to neo-isolationists, the Vietnam or Somalia syndromes, meaning the public reluctance to intervene as a result of the tragic experiences in these places, divert attention from the potential role of the United States as a moral and humanitarian force in global affairs. [43]  While the dangers of excessive moralism are ever present - European attempts to civilize the world, or, more recently, the rejection (for many reasons) of Westerns by Islamist movements - the US contains an enormous pool of political capital, what Joseph Nye has called 'soft power.' Responsible and structured American activism, as a promoter of peace in conjunction with local states, as a model of democracy, and as a supporter of human rights will demonstrate that the lessons of Irano-American middle power relations have been learned quite well.


1. William R. Thompson, 'Democracy and Peace: Putting the Cart Before the Horse?' International Organization 50(1) Winter 1996: 141-174.

2. Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979).

3. For a concise overview of the Arab-Israeli conflict, see Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab- Israeli Conflict, 3rd. Edition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996).

4. See Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Vintage, 1996).

5. J. P. D. Dunbabin's The Post-Imperial Age: The Great Powers and the Wider World (New York: Longman, 1994); provides an overview of great power conflict beyond the European stage.

6. Carsten Holbraad, Middle Powers in International Politics (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984), Iver B. Neumann, ed., Regional Great Powers in International Politics (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), Cranford Pratt, ed., Middle Power Internationalism (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990).

7. Michael Haas, International Conflict (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), Jan F. Triska, ed., Dominant Powers and Subordinate States: The United States in Latin America and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1986); J. E. Dominguez, 'Mice that Do Not Roar: Some Aspects of International Politics in the World's Peripheries.' International Organization 25(2) Spring 1971: 208.

8. Barry Schutz notes the importance of autonomous regional dynamics shorn of superpower conflict as central to the creation of local security regimes.  Our argument recognizes regional autonomy but asserts that the United States can utilize this context to further its own security needs.  See Barry M. Schutz, 'The Role of Region in a Restructured Global System,' in Robert O. Slater, Barry M. Schutz & Steven R. Dorr, eds., Global Transformation and the Third World (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1993).

9. In their recent study of 'pivotal states,' Robert Chase, Emily Hill and Paul Kennedy identify Algeria and Egypt in North Africa, and South Africa in Southern Africa, as key states. They do not identify any state in central Africa as being pivotal to United States foreign policy. See Robert S. Chase, Emily B. Hill, and Paul Kennedy, 'Pivotal States and US Strategy,' Foreign Affairs. 75(1) January/February 1996: 33-51.

10. Leonard Binder, 'The Middle East as a Subordinate System.' World Politics 10(3) 1958: 420.

11. Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, U.S. Military Sales to Iran (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1976): 4.

12. See Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Military Sales to Iran, and U.S. Department of Defense, Foreign Military Sales and Military Assistance Facts (December 1980).

13. From 1972 to 1976 the resident American community in Iran increased from 15,000 to 31,000 persons, half of whom were from the private sector. Many of these private sector firms were engaged in the training of military personnel or the maintenance of military equipment. Bell Helicopter Company and McDonnell-Douglas, for example, maintained substantial operations within the military. See C. Paul Bradley, Recent United States Policy in the Persian Gulf (1971-1982) (Grantham, NH Tompson & Rutter, 1982): 35-36.

14. Nadav Safran, From War to War: The Arab-Israeli Confrontation, 1948-1967 (New York: Pegasus, 1969): 131-133.

15. Shahram Chubin & Sepehr Zabih, The Foreign Relations of Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974): 96.

16. Rouhollah K. Ramazani, Iran's Foreign Policy, 1941-1973 (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1975): 311-394.

17. Alvin J. Cottrell, 'Iran, the Arabs and the Persian Gulf' Orbis 17(3) Fall 1973: 985.

18. Fred Halliday, Iran: Dictatorship and Development (New York: Penguin Books, 1979): 258-263.

19. In December 1962 an agreement was reached to reopen a land route from Iran to Westem Europe through the USSR. In June 1963 an economic and technical cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries providing for credits of 35 billion rubles to be used towards development projects in Iran. Most important, though, was the 1966 agreement for the construction of a steel mill and natural gas pipeline. See A. Yodfat and M. Abir, In the Direction of the Persian Gulf (London: Frank Cass & Company, 1977): 56., and Ramazani, Iran's Foreign Policy: 330-338.

20. On this point see, for example, John Mueller, 'The Cold War Consensus: From Hostility to Wary Contempt,' in Richard A. Melanson and Kenneth W. Thompson, eds., Foreign Policy and Domestic Consensus: The Credibilily of Institutions, Policies and Leadership (New York: University Press of America, 1985).

21. Fred Halliday, Revolution and Foreign Policy: The Case of South Yemen, 1967-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 140-177.

22. Quoted in Rouhollah K. Ramazani, 'Iran's Search for Regional Cooperation.' Middle East Journal 30(2) Spring 1976 174.

23. Quoted in David E. Long, 'U.S. Policy Toward the Persian Gulf.' Current History 68(402) February 1975: 71.

24. Department of State Bulletin. (1539) December 23, 1968 661-662.

25. William D. Brewer, 'Yesterday and Tomorrow in the Persian Gulf.' Middle East Journal 22(2) Spring 1969: 158.

26. See J. C. Hurewitz, 'The Persian Gulf British Withdrawal and Western Security.'Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (401) May 1972.

27. The policy is also referred to as the Guam Doctrine, since it was proposed on a visit to that island.

28. A Report to the Congress by Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970's: Building for Peace. February 25, 1971: 12-14.

29. Dana Adams Schmidt, 'Key Role for Iran Seen in Gulf Area,' New York Times April 26, 1970: 9.

30. Press Release, Text of Joint Iran-Soviet Communique (New York: USSR Mission to the United Nations, October 23, 1972): 4.

31. James Bill, The Eagle and the Lion (Yale University, 1988): 204-208.

32. Middle East Monitor. July 15, 197 1.

33. See Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: 319-424. The quote by Kissinger is on p. 203.

34. Ibid.

35. lbid., p. 227.

36. See, for example, NSC Advisor Anthony Lake's speech at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced Intemational Studies, Washington, D.C., September 21, 1993, 'From Containment to Enlargement.' Vital Speeches of the Day, p. 13 -19.

37. Thompson, 'Democracy and Peace': 142.

38. Thompson, 'Democracy and Peace': 142.

39. Eric A. Nordlinger, Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

40. See 'Senate Panel Hears Testimony on World Hot Spots,' Reuter Press, February 6, 1997.

41. Schutz, 'The Role of Region in a Restructured Global System.'

42, Chase, Hill, and Kennedy, 'Pivotal States and US Strategy.'

43. Joshua Muravchik, The Imperative of American Leadership: A Challenge to Neo-Isolationism (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1996).