Cold War in the Middle East

Published 29 Jul 2016

If the chief natural resource of the Middle East were bananas, the region would not have attracted the attention of U.S. policymakers as it has for decades. Americans became interested in the oil riches of the region in the 1920s, and two U.S. companies, Standard Oil of California and Texaco, won the first concession to explore for oil in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s.

They discovered oil there in 1938, just after Standard Oil of California found it in Bahrain. The same year Gulf Oil (along with its British partner Anglo-Persian Oil) found oil in Kuwait. During and after World War II, the region became a primary object of U.S. foreign policy. It was then that policymakers realized that the Middle East was “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

Subsequently, as a result of cooperation between the U.S. government and several American oil companies, the United States replaced Great Britain as the chief Western power in the region. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, American gains were British (and French) losses. When the awakening countries of the Middle East asserted control over their oil resources, the United States found ways to protect its access to the oil. Nearly everything the United States has done in the Middle East can be understood as contributing to the protection of its long-term access to Middle Eastern oil and, through that control, Washington’s claim to world leadership. The U.S. build-up of Israel and Iran as powerful gendarmeries beholden to the United States, and U.S. aid is given to “moderate,” pro-Western Arab regimes, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, were intended to keep the region in friendly hands. That was always the meaning of the term “regional stability”.

The government sought foreign sources of oil during World War II because it believed U.S. reserves were running out. Loy Henderson, who in 1945 was in charge of Near Eastern affairs at the State Department, said, “There is a need for a stronger role for this Government in the economics and political destinies of the Near and the Middle East, especially in view of the oil reserves.” During the war, the U.S. government and two American oil companies worked together to win concessions in Iran. That action brought the United States into rivalry with Great Britain and the Soviet Union, both of which had dominated Iran in the interwar period, though Reza Shah Pahlavi had succeeded in reducing foreign influence from its previous level. With the Soviets and the British occupying Iran and both favoring the decentralization of that country, the Tehran government sought to involve American oil interests as a way of enlisting U.S. support for Iran’s security and stability. The U.S. government aided the companies, by providing facilities for transportation and communication along with other help, and dispatched advisers to the Iranian regime. In 1942 Wallace Murray, a State Department official involved in Near Eastern affairs, said, “We shall soon be in the position of actually ‘running’ Iran through an impressive body of American advisers.”

The first U.S. intervention in the Middle East after World War II grew directly out of U.S. participation in that conflict. During the war, U.S. noncombatant troops were stationed in Iran to help with the transfer of equipment and supplies to the Soviet Union. The Red Army occupied the northern part of the country in 1941; the British were in central and southern Iran. In the Tripartite Treaty of January 1942 (not signed by the United States), the Soviet Union and Great Britain had said that their presence there was not an occupation and that all troops would be withdrawn within six months of the end of the war. At the Tehran conference in late 1943, the United States pledged, along with Great Britain and the Soviet Union, to help rebuild and develop Iran after the war. Those countries gave assurances of Iranian sovereignty, although that may have been a mere courtesy to a host country that had not even been notified that a summit would be held on its soil.

The Soviet Union broke its promise about withdrawing. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin viewed the part of Iran that bordered his country as important to Soviet security, and he was aware of the U.S. and British designs on Iran, which had traditionally sided with the Soviet Union’s enemies. Although the Soviet Union had much oil, Stalin was concerned about the size of its reserves and so was interested in the northern part of Iran as a potential source of oil. But as State Department official George Kennan sized up the situation at the time, “The basic motive of recent Soviet action in northern Iran is probably not the need for the oil itself, but the apprehension of potential foreign penetration in that area.” The Soviets meddled in Iranian government affairs, oppressed the middle class in the north, and helped revive the suppressed Iranian Communist (Tudeh) party. When the war ended, the British and U.S. forces left Iran, but the Soviet troops moved southward. They by then had established two separatist regimes headed by Soviet-picked leaders (the Autonomous People’s Republic of Azerbaijan and the Kurdish People’s Republic) and kept the Iranians from putting down separatist uprisings. (The Azerbaijanis and Kurds, members of large ethnic groups that live in several countries, had long hated the rulers in Tehran.) Negotiations between the Soviets and Iran’s prime minister, Qavam as-Saltaneh, won Moscow the right to intervene on behalf of the Azerbaijani regime, an oil concession in the north, and the appointment of three Communists to the Iranian cabinet.

That Soviet conduct irritated President Harry S Truman. He said he feared for Turkey’s security and criticized “Russia’s callous disregard of the rights of a small nation and of her own solemn promises.” The United States formally protested to Stalin and then to the UN Security Council. Those actions succeeded in getting the Soviets to leave, although Truman may also have threatened to send forces into Iran if Stalin did not withdraw his troops. In late 1946 the Truman administration encouraged Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who succeeded his father in 1941, to forcibly dismantle the separatist regimes the Soviets had left behind. In 1947 the administration objected to the use of intimidation (by others) to win commercial concessions in Iran and promised to support the Iranians on issues related to national resources. As a result, the Iranian government refused to ratify the agreement with the Soviets on the oil concession in the north.

Truman’s high-profile use of the United Nations and his bluster against the Soviets were the beginning of U.S. post-war involvement in the Middle East. In 1947 Truman issued his Truman Doctrine, pledging to “assist free people in working out their own destinies in their own way,” ostensibly to thwart the Soviets in Greece and Turkey. In reality, it marked the formal succession of the United States to the position of influence that Great Britain had previously held in the Middle East.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1953, his administration had one overriding foreign policy objective: to keep the Soviet Union from gaining influence and possibly drawing countries away from the U.S. orbit. To that end, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, crafted a policy the primary principle of which was the impossibility of neutrality in the cold war. In the Dulles worldview, there was no such thing as an independent course; a country was either with the United States or against it. That principle helps explain much of the Eisenhower administration’s conduct in the Middle East, for if there was one region in which the United States strove to prevent what it called Soviet penetration, it was the Middle East.

The earliest direct U.S. involvement occurred in Iran. Even before Eisenhower took office, political turbulence in that country was on the rise, prompted by discontent over Iran’s oil royalty arrangement with the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. A highly nationalist faction (the National Front) of the Majlis, or parliament, led by Moham med Mossadegh, nationalized the oil industry. Mossadegh, whom the shah reluctantly made prime minister after the nationalization, opposed all foreign aid, including U.S. assistance to the army. He also refused to negotiate with the British about oil, and in late 1952 he broke off relations with Great Britain. The turmoil associated with the nationalization-stimulated activity by Iranian Communists and the outlawed Tudeh party. At a rally attended by 30,000 people, the Communists hoisted anti-Western, pro-Soviet signs, including ones that accused Mossadegh of being an American puppet. In the United States, officials feared that loss of Iranian oil would harm the European Recovery Program and concluded that the communist activity in Iran was a bad omen, although the Soviets did not intervene beyond giving moral support. The Mossadegh government hoped that the United States would continue to deal with Iran, but the Truman administration put its relations with Great Britain first and participated in an international boycott of Iranian oil–although Washington did give Tehran a small amount of aid. U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorated, as did the Iranian economy. Under that pressure, Mossadegh resorted to undemocratic methods to forestall the election of anti-government deputies to the Majlis. When he tried to control the Ministry of Defense, he was forced to resign, but he soon returned to power when his successor’s policies triggered virulent criticism from Mossadegh’s supporters. Mossadegh came through the crisis with increased, and in some ways authoritarian, powers. On August 10, 1953, the shah, unable to dominate Mossadegh, left Tehran for a long “vacation” on the Caspian Sea and then in Baghdad. But he did not leave until he knew that a U.S. operation was under way to save him.

London had first suggested a covert operation to Washington about a year earlier. The British were mainly concerned about their loss of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but in appealing to the United States, they emphasized the communist threat, “not wishing to be accused of trying to use the Americans to pull British chestnuts out of the fire.”

The covert operation began, appropriately enough, with assurances to Mossadegh from the U.S. ambassador, Loy Henderson, that the United States did not plan to intervene in Iran’s internal affairs. The operation then filled the streets of Tehran with mobs of people–many of them thugs– who were loyal to the shah or who had been recipients of CIA largesse. In the ensuing turmoil, which included fighting in the streets that killed 300 Iranians, Mossadegh fled and was arrested. On August 22, 12 days after he had fled, the shah returned to Tehran. Mossadegh was sentenced to three years in prison and then house arrest on his country estate.

Later, in his memoirs, Eisenhower claimed that Mossadegh had been moving toward the Communists and that the Tudeh party supported him over the shah. Yet a January 1953 State Department intelligence report said that the prime minister was not a Communist or communist sympathizer and that the Tudeh party sought his overthrow. Indeed, Mossadegh had opposed the Soviet occupation after the war.

Those were the historical scenes of the Cold War in the Middle East before the Israeli army invaded Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip on October 29, 1956, and the Suez Crisis began.


  • Foreign Relations of the United States (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1945), vol. 8, p. 45.
  • Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Oriqins of the Cold War and the National Security State (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), p. 180.
  • Gabriel Rolko, The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreian Policy, 1943-1945 (1968; New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), p. 311.
  • Harry S Truman, Memoirs of Harry S Truman, vol. 2: Years of Trial and Hope (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1956), p. 95
  • James A. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 72.
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1963), p. 163;
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