By Hank Beckman -
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and the end of the Pahlavi dynasty that had ruled the nation since 1925.
The overthrow of the Shah of Iran is remembered as a time when militant “students” held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, the radical cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the fundamentalist Islamic Republic of Iran and the modernization of the nation which began under the Shah’s father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, came to an abrupt end.
The revolution is rightly considered by many as a turning point in modern history. Historians often mark it as the beginning of a new age of open conflict between the West and the Muslim nations of the Greater Middle East.
But last month’s Christmas Eve marked another significant, if lesser-noted 40th anniversary: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The invasion was in response to uprisings against the Soviet-backed Marxist regime that had gained power only the year before. Although the regime was deeply unpopular with most of the Muslim population, the Soviets were determined to enforce the Brezhnev Doctrine: an attack on one socialist state is to be repelled by all socialist states.
The invasion’s effect on United States policy for the region was immediate and serious.
President Carter, in the beginning of a reelection campaign and being heavily criticized for being soft on foreign policy, made it clear to Moscow that there would be a line in the Middle East sand beyond which the United States would not tolerate Soviet encroachment.
“Let our position be absolutely clear: any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on vital interests of the United States and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force,” Carter told the nation in his Jan. 23, 1980, State of the Union speech.
While it turned out that Carter only had a year left in office and thus had little time to enact what came to be described by historians as the Carter Doctrine, it was the beginning of the policy shift away from Washington being content to rely on allies and proxies to protect the nation’s interests in the region. In the future, our military would play a more active role.
The United States had obvious strategic interests in the Middle East, but hadn’t really established a significant military presence in the region, preferring instead behind the scenes maneuvering like having the CIA assist in a coup that installed the Shah back in power in 1953.
President Eisenhower sent the Marines to Lebanon in 1958 when Egypt and Syria threatened a pro-Western government there. Lyndon Johnson is thought by many to have secretly helped Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Richard Nixon replenished Israeli supplies during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and raised our global nuclear profile to Defcon III when it looked like the Soviets would intervene militarily. And in 1981 U.S. Navy fighters splashed a couple of Muammar Gaddafi’s Soviet-made fighters in the Gulf of Sidra.
But aside from a small naval base in Bahrain, the U.S. military footprint in the region was small.
As historian Andrew Bacevich wrote in Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, ”Until 1980, the U.S. military footprint in what is commonly called the Greater Middle East was so light as to be almost invisible.”
Carter’s Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force was designed for personnel from all service branches to be capable of quick, mobile strikes and operate without forward bases or support from allied countries. But the RDJTF was never much of a factor in military operations and in 1983 morphed into the United States Central Command (Centcom) under the Reagan Administration.
The creation of Centcom was the first time American planners designated the Greater Middle East as an Area of Concern (AOC), and it signaled to the world that the United States reserved the right to defend its interests in the region militarily.
The threat of Soviet meddling in the area had long been a concern of U.S. policymakers, just as Russian influence in the Middle East is today. The second order of business ever brought before the United Nation’s Security Council in 1946 was prompted by the Soviets refusing to leave Iran after World War II.
So the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—with its proximity to Iran—looked like another attempt to gain a foothold in the region where the world got so much of its oil.
The first large American operation in the new AOC, Operation Earnest Will, came during the Iraq-Iran War when U.S. warships protected Kuwaiti shipping from the Iranians in the Persian Gulf.
Then came the First Gulf War when U.S. policymakers determined that we were the only real option to stop Saddam Hussein who, broke from his decade-long fight with the Iranians, snatched oil-rich Kuwait and cast a greedy eye toward the oil fields in Saudi Arabia.
The Soviet Union ultimately pulled out of Afghanistan and disintegrated soon after, but the U.S. remained, conducting no-fly zones over Northern and Southern Iraq. Then came 9-11, which led to taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ill-fated attempt to turn the Greater Middle East into a Jeffersonian democracy.
And we’re still there today, careening from one crisis to another, with bases throughout the Middle East—five in Saudi Arabia alone.
Of course, even without the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. might still have been drawn into a large, permanent military presence in the region, such was the importance of the area to the world’s energy supply.
But we’ll never know, because the Soviets forced our hand by trying to save their commie allies in the country often described as the graveyard of empires.