United States assistance to Iran in the 1950s was quite different than the superpower’s assistance to Taiwan, America’s bulwark against communism in the Far East.
Taipei received four times as much aid as Iran and was buffered from invasion from the mainland Chinese by the physical presence of the US Seventh Fleet.
In contrast, the US continued to believe that the threat to Iran came from within its own borders, citing the country’s politically unrepresentative regime and its unsound economy.
Although Taiwan’s regime was less representative than Iran’s during the 1950s and the US was pressuring the Taipei government for land and other reforms, the Taiwanese economy had improved over the course of the decade and was thought to be poised for “take-off.”
Officially, the US persisted in its belief that any American involvement should be predicated solely on avoiding a communist takeover.
In reality, US Senator Hubert Humphrey argued:
Do you know what the head of the Iranian Army told one of our people. He said the Army was in good shape, thanks to US aid — it was now capable of coping with the civilian population. That Army isn’t going to fight the Russians. It’s planning to fight the Iranian people.
As in Taipei, American advisory teams pressured for reform in order to strengthen Iran and subdue internal opposition. This insistence bolstered the domestic forces critical of the shah who were obsessed with the appearance of outside interference and who overestimated Washington’s influence on the regime.
Misperception of US motives behind the move for internal change led many to ignore the fact that the US cared about Iran’s domestic politics only so far as they impacted the superpower’s own national interest.
In the context of American grand strategy, this meant ensuring a strong Iran that would not be destroyed from within. This objective clashed with the understanding of the shah’s opponents and with the shah’s own interpretation of development and security.
Like Chiang Kai-shek, the shah regarded political independence and territorial integrity as his overriding external goal.
However, unlike Chiang Kai-shek, he was not willing to make demands of his own citizens, remaining reluctant to tax the wealthy and, instead, taxing the staples of peasant and working class diets.
While the shah articulated a need for social and economic reform, he assumed that “the root cause of Iran’s inadequate freedom of action in world politics as well as its domestic social, economic, and political problems was insecurity.”
This thinking posed a problem for Iran’s relationship with the United States since, unlike the case of Taipei, the US was not convinced that Iran faced imminent physical threat. It expected Iran to spend more of its own resources to fund its military and to pay for its economic and social development.
The shah, in contrast, was not willing to accept lesser amounts of assistance that other US allies, even given his country’s oil resources.
Since the monarch’s concept of security was defined primarily in military terms, the strengthening of the Iranian armed forces remained his highest priority. Instead of targeting his country’s oil revenues for widespread development projects, the shah chose to further strengthen his armed forces.
The shah’s action was consistent with his argument that security was the “first essential for advancement. Freedom-loving peoples forget — but the Communist powers never forget — that most of the world’s economically underdeveloped countries are also militarily underdeveloped.”
Unlike the case of Taipei, however, where a strong military dictator had absolute control over the population, where there was no legacy of democracy, and where political opposition was considered a national security threat because of perceived imminent danger from the mainland, the shah faced constant domestic criticism over his relationship with the US and his security objectives.
While American policy approaches were consistently applied in the two cases, the results were quite different.
By the onset of the 1960s, Taipei was an American-influenced city poised on the brink of unrivaled economic ‘take-off.’
In Isfahan, on the other hand, the US role was hotly contested.
As the 1950s ended, one scholar (James Bill) stated:
During the last decade . . . ., the United States had furnished Iran more than a billion dollars in economic and military aid. Like it or not, justly or unjustly, this has served to identify the United States with the Shah’s regime, together with the responsibility for what that regime has done, or failed to do. Also, however unjustly, popular opinion holds that the sums have been wasted as far as helpin the common people of Iran is concerned.