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The Reluctant Realist: Jimmy Carter and Iran

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This is an excerpt from Realism in Practice: An Appraisal. An E-IR Edited Collection.
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Reflections on Jimmy Carter’s one term as US president (1977-1981) often place him as a principled idealist who fell prey to geopolitical events and gradually converted to a more strategically minded president midway through his term. The events that mark this out are usually seen as the November 1979 Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the following month. Following these events, Carter seemed to harden in his language, tone and policymaking – most visible in the creation of the Carter doctrine. Announced officially in Carter’s State of the Union Address in 1980 in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter Doctrine made it very clear to the Soviets and to the entire world that US foreign policy was very much dedicated to containing the Soviet Union, and that the US would use force, if necessary, to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf.

This approach by Carter was a marked departure from the initial tenets of what Carter had intended his foreign policy to be. Early in his tenure, Carter wanted to take focus away from the strategy of containment and to move American focus to issues such as human rights. Upon taking office, however, Carter realised just how difficult such a move would be, and more, that abandoning or eroding containment would threaten America’s interests abroad and provide the Soviet Union with the opportunity to spread its sphere of influence into key areas of US geostrategic interest. In essence, Carter quickly understood that foreign policy could not ignore the realities of the international system, and that realism rather than idealism would have to be the driving force behind foreign policy decisions. The Carter Doctrine in many ways epitomised realism by identifying an area of American national interest and promising to effectively balance against Soviet aggression if the Soviets demonstrated an intention to expand into the region. Further, the bolstering of regional allies through economic payoffs, arms deals, and the promise of American military intervention if regional allies were threatened heralded back to the ideas originally proposed in National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68) and the Truman Doctrine, but Carter updated both the language and context for his own time.

This chapter seeks to explore one key aspect of Carter’s realism, being American relations with Iran. The decisions made during the Carter Administration regarding arms sales towards Iran more broadly reflect the balancing act that leaders must navigate in the divide between domestic and international politics. It is not enough to dismiss Carter’s foreign policy as a tale of utopian beliefs in human rights becoming scattered in the midst of the Cold War. Instead, closer study of the Iran case demonstrates a foreign policy that was motivated by a realist sense of strategic necessity far more than domestic, or personal, political ideology. In this light, this chapter shows but one example that regardless of the circumstance, all leaders’ decisions are limited in foreign policy-making due to the constraints posed by the anarchic structure of the international system. Regardless of personal ideology, party affiliation, or driving personal motivation, realist ideas about the role of the system in foreign policy decision making have timeless value, and Carter’s sale of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) to Iran – used as an example later in this chapter – is a valid example of realism’s core tenets. Together with the broader focus on Carter advanced here, the AWACS case opens up a new understanding of Carter as a president who displayed realist tendencies, albeit reluctantly, much earlier in his tenure than is typically observed. In assessing Carter’s approach to Iran through a realist lens, it becomes clear that, despite an overall expectation that he would reduce arms sales, his grander ambitions for arms limitation would be doomed. Consequently, Carter’s Iran policy, rather than resembling one of a liberal mind-set, came to reflect the more strategically minded policy path inherited from his predecessors.

Arming Iran: Accident or Reluctant Realism?

Iran had become America’s largest arms customer long before Carter’s emergence as a presidential candidate. Due to Iran’s geographical location it became a focal point in US containment policy in the 1940s. It was a frontier state that stood between the Soviet Union and the oil reserves of the Persian Gulf. A US-UK coup was staged in 1953 to ensure that Iran remained governed in a way favourable to the western powers, with the Shah at the centre of affairs. Soon afterward, a pattern of economic and military aid became entrenched with Iran becoming a client state of the US. This support for the Shah’s regime was enhanced by a series of arms sales in the mid 1960s as the Shah began to use his growing oil income to build beyond prior arrangements (McGlinchey 2013a, 2014). Two decades after the coup, in 1972, Richard Nixon travelled to Tehran with Henry Kissinger and agreed to unlimited and unmoderated arms sales with Iran – with the exception of nuclear weapons. This gesture, the so-called blank cheque, gave the Shah the freedom to buy whatever advanced US weaponry he chose, so long as he could pay for it. It was a unique arrangement for a foreign leader due to the lack of any effective domestic oversight for the arrangement in the US. It was also a test case for Nixon’s reimagining of US Cold War strategy based on outsourcing the costs of Cold War containment to able allies and clients – the so-called Nixon doctrine (McGlinchey 2013b). The agreement catapulted Iranian arms purchases from approximately $150 million dollars in the late 1960s to being measured in the multi-billions per annum from 1972 onwards (State Department Report). Nixon’s imperial style of leadership left Congress in the dark for several years on the finer details of arming Iran, something that would eventually haunt Carter as Congress sought to exercise its advice and consent role more effectively in later years.

The pattern Nixon set in place was cognisant of the strategic realities the US found itself in during the 1970s. The Vietnam War had shown the limits of the direct application of US military power. It had left America overstretched militarily, and also economically due to structural problems in the US economy that would fester through the 1970s. Passing the costs of US security to able allies in selected cases, such as Iran, was therefore a sound strategic decision. Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford agreed and continued the multi-billion dollar arms sales pattern that Nixon had established with Iran. This cemented a path that a new president would find hard to break. As a result, Carter’s general predilection towards arms control was overruled in the case of Iran, as were his human rights concerns. Both these positions were the cornerstones of Carter’s election campaign, a signal that he was a different candidate. Hence, the seemingly contradictory picture of the Carter administration continuing a high profile arms relationship........

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