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The Shah Of Iran Wanted The Strongest Military In Asia

March 4, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

A little more than a half century ago, one valuable US ally was proving to be a thorn on the side of Washington, DC. The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was restored to power in 1953 and nurtured an intense fondness for the imperial armed forces that propped up his reign. He believed the Artesh, equipped with the most advanced weapons money could buy, had a vital role securing the Persian Gulf and this was proven correct when the Shah ordered his army to put down the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman. The administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson were believers too; if only the Shah stopped demanding new fighter jets and an enormous aid package to pay for them.

By 1966, the great Iran-US arms deal ballooned to a multi-year $100 million line of credit for Phantom jets and Patton tanks, but the Shah wanted more. Out of frustration, and as a rebuke to LBJ, he bought weapons from the Soviets.

Although the MiG-21 cost a fraction of the high tech F-4 Phantom, the Shah preferred US-made fighter aircraft for his prized air force, who were among the first to operate the F-86 Sabre in the Middle East. But Tehran still paid Moscow for BTR-50/60 APCs, RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launchers, and ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns. Then the Shah turned to Washington, DC once more. Were his coveted fighter jets ready?

In May 1972 Iran was granted a “blank check” by the Nixon administration for its military assistance. The goodwill was unprecedented and it helped that President Richard Nixon was a close friend of the Iranian monarch. Washington, DC’s patronage of Iran didn’t end with the Watergate scandal, however, and the Ford administration was so generous that a report in 1976 titled US Military Sales to Iran noted looming problems in this special relationship, going so far as to call it “out of control” and “poorly managed.” It even implied how the large presence of American expatriates–military advisers and technical consultants–risked inflaming “socio-political problems.”

The report, which has long drifted to the public domain and is a free download from the Internet Archive, offers a wealth of data on Iran’s military strength just a few short years before the revolution that overthrew the Shah. What it reveals is an unprecedented military buildup with an ambiguous goal. But the US had no choice but to support Tehran because the security of the Middle East demanded it.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Hard Power

Throughout much of the 1960s Iran’s army fielded surplus World War 2 kit handed over by the US. This meant Iranian soldiers were issued the M1 Garand rifle, fought alongside M4 Shermans, and bombarded their enemies with 7-inch mortars and 105mm howitzers. A sweeping transformation unfolded towards the end of the decade, however, when its arsenal began resembling NATO’s as Washington, DC granted on average $100 million in Foreign Military Sales (FMS) credit to Tehran from 1967 until 1969. This was deliberate as Iran, along with Turkey and Pakistan, formed the short-lived Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) to check Soviet expansion in the Middle East and South Asia. Another dubious alliance was the Baghdad Pact that proved unworkable because of the animosity between Iran and Iraq over disputed borders and the Kurds.

Beginning in 1966 the Artesh switched to the Heckler & Koch G3 battle rifle and the MG3 machine gun as their main infantry weapons. The impressive British Chieftain tank was also snapped up to compensate for the inadequate M47M and M48A5 Pattons (totaling 550 tanks) the Shah received from the US since the 1950s. Besides, Washington, DC only approved the sale of 480 M60A1 Pattons and these weren’t enough to fight set piece battles across Iran’s vast frontier. With its coffers overflowing from oil exports, Iran may have placed the largest known order for main battle tanks by a developing country in 1971. Of the 2,250 Chieftains it paid for less than half the total had arrived by 1976 with further deliveries scheduled up to 1981. The Chieftains were accompanied by 250 Scorpion recce vehicles and 358 M113A1 APCs. All told, the Artesh had more than a thousand tanks at its disposal before the 1979 revolution.

An equally gargantuan arms deal was for a fleet of AH-1J Cobra attack helicopters at a time when most US allies were prohibited from acquiring these combat proven rotorcraft. Iran, on the other hand, received 202 gunships between 1974 and 1977 and remained its largest operator outside the US for decades. Beyond advanced weapon systems, among the lesser-known transfers of arms to Iran involved the US’ premier artillery pieces. By 1975 the Artesh received 440 M109 155mm self-propelled howitzers, adding to an unspecified number of “super heavy” M107 and M110 self-propelled howitzers. In a complete departure from its traditional military assistance for regional allies, Washington, DC approved the sale of 2,333 BGM TOW anti-tank missile launchers with 15,000 missiles and the new M-47 Dragon portable missile launcher with 10,000 missiles. These were justified as replacements for the Artesh’ antiquated bazookas and recoilless rifles. The generosity extended to air defenses, with 37 batteries of Improved-Hawk SAMs and 1,800 missiles delivered in record time.

As if Washington, DC weren’t generous enough to the Shah, licensed production for both the BGM TOW and the Dragon were established with state-owned companies. This was a gross miscalculation in the long run as the Islamic Republic now boasts a sophisticated optoelectronics industry whose products include copies of the TOW and the Dragon. Iran’s current penchant for reverse-engineering has proven successful thanks to its abundant stocks of US-made missiles like the Hawk, the RIM-66, and the Phoenix–all duplicated and readied against Washington, DC’s possible aggression.

An Iranian AH-1J gunship.

Tomcats and Submarines

To give the Artesh the needed logistical reach for complex operations, the Shah circumvented the US and amassed a huge armada of helicopters with Italy’s help. While Washington, DC allowed the sale of 326 Bell 214 utility helicopters, it was the Italian aerospace firm Agusta S.p.A. who supplied an additional 312 helicopters including licensed copies of the CH-47 Chinook. But rather than bankrupting the Shah, whose arms imports topped $10 billion by the mid-1970s, military spending went unchecked despite Iran’s nominal GDP, in today’s dollars, totaling just $77 billion in 1978. This too was abetted by the US and the authors behind US Military Sales to Iran did their best to explain why.

“The foregoing perception of US interests combined with a policy decision by the US in the late 1960s not to replace the British with a direct US presence in the Persian Gulf and Iran’s desire to develop a deterrent capability to protect its own interests and oil lifeline, are the factors that explain the positive US responses to Iranian arms requests,” they wrote.

No wonder the Nixon and Ford administrations rubber-stamped Iran’s most extravagant arms deal yet involving 79 F-14A Tomcats together with hundreds of cutting-edge AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. As an incentive, Washington, DC guaranteed the Shah access to the early F-15, F-16, and F-18 programs so he could take his pick among the US Air Force’s next-generation multirole fighters. The logic behind splurging on the untested F-14A Tomcat, which was meant as a carrier-based fighter, was never articulated by the Shah nor anyone in his regime. In 1976 the Imperial air forces’ manpower had ballooned to 74,000 men, the bulk of them ground service personnel, spread between eight sprawling bases with reinforced hangars.

Before the first Tomcats had arrived, the air force already flew 209 F-4D/E Phantoms and 169 F-5E/F Tigers. Combined, the two latter models were sufficient for patrolling either the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. The requirement for a half dozen P-3F Orion surveillance aircraft, a dozen K-707 aerial refueling tankers, and 56 C-130 medium-lift transports went above and beyond reasonable national defense. It was apparent the Shah craved a dominant position in the Middle East and this explained the sudden shift, beginning in 1975, to establishing a military-industrial sector with foreign assistance.

As Imperial Iran was convulsed by protests in 1978 arms deals worth $1.5 billion were still underway. Washington, DC owed four Spruance-class destroyers and three aging Tang-class diesel submarines for the Shah’s navy. Meanwhile, London had a thousand “Shir 2” tanks left to deliver that were caught in limbo. Once the Pahlavi’s abandoned their homeland in January 1979, the Artesh fell apart and the Shah’s dreams of martial grandeur evaporated, leaving behind a terrible lesson for rulers obsessed with building armies.

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