United States foreign policy in the Middle East

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A U.S. Marine stands guard duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaila oil field, Iraq, April 2003

United States foreign policy in the Middle East has its roots as early as the Barbary Wars in the first years of the U.S.'s existence, but became much more expansive after World War II. American policy during the Cold War tried to prevent Soviet Union influence by supporting anti-communist regimes and backing Israel against Soviet-sponsored Arab countries. The U.S. also came to replace the United Kingdom as the main security patron of the Persian Gulf states in the 1960s and 1970s, working to ensure a stable flow of Gulf oil.[1][citation needed]Since the 9/11 attacks of 2001, U.S. policy has included an emphasis on counter-terrorism. The U.S. has diplomatic relations with all countries in the Middle East except for Iran, whose 1979 revolution brought to power a staunchly anti-American regime.

Recent priorities of the U.S. government in the Middle East have included resolving the Arab–Israeli conflict and limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction[2] among regional states.


U.S. naval officer Stephen Decatur boarding a Tripolitan gunboat during the First Barbary War, 1804

The United States' relationship with the Middle East prior to World War I was limited, although commercial ties existed even in the early 19th century. President Andrew Jackson established formal ties with the Sultan of Muscat and Oman in 1833. (The Sultan saw the U.S. as a potential balance to Britain's overwhelming regional influence.) Commercial relations opened between the U.S. and Persia in 1857, after Britain persuaded the Persian government not to ratify a similar agreement in 1851.[3]

In comparison to European powers such as Britain and France which had managed to colonize almost all of the Middle East region after defeating the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the United States was "popular and respected throughout the Middle East".[4] Indeed, "Americans were seen as good people, untainted by the selfishness and duplicity associated with the Europeans."[5] American missionaries had brought modern medicine and set up educational institutions all over the Middle East. Moreover, the United States had provided the Middle East with highly skilled petroleum engineers.[6] Thus, there were some connections made between the United States and the Middle East before the Second World War. Other examples of cooperations between the U.S. and the Middle East are the Red Line Agreement signed in 1928 and the Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement signed in 1944. Both of these agreements were legally binding and reflected an American interest in control of Middle Eastern energy resources, namely oil, and moreover reflected an American "security imperative to prevent the (re)emergence of a powerful regional rival".[7] The Red Line Agreement had been "part of a network of agreements made in the 1920s to restrict supply of petroleum and ensure that the major [mostly American] companies ... could control oil prices on world markets".[8] The Red Line agreement governed the development of Middle East oil for the next two decades. The Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement of 1944 was based on negotiations between the United States and Britain over the control of Middle Eastern oil. Below is shown what the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt had in mind for to a British Ambassador in 1944:

Persian oil ... is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it's ours.[9]

King Ibn Saud converses with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy, after the Yalta Conference in 1945

On August 8, 1944, the Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement was signed, dividing Middle Eastern oil between the United States and Britain. Consequently, political scholar Fred H. Lawson remarks, that by the mid-1944, U.S. officials had buttressed their country's position on the peninsula by concluding an Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement that protected "all valid concession contracts and lawfully acquired rights" belonging to the signatories and established a principle of "equal opportunity" in those areas where no concession had yet been assigned.[10] Furthermore, political scholar Irvine Anderson summarises American interests in the Middle East in the late 19th century and the early 20th century noting that, "the most significant event of the period was the transition of the United States from the position of net exporter to one of net importer of petroleum."[11]

By the end of the Second World War, the United States had come to consider the Middle East region as "the most strategically important area of the world."[12] and "one of the greatest material prizes in world history," argues Noam Chomsky.[12] For that reason, it was not until around the period of World War II that America became directly involved in the Middle East region. At this time the region was going through great social, economic and political changes and as a result, internally the Middle East was in turmoil. Politically, the Middle East was experiencing an upsurge in the popularity of nationalistic politics and an increase in the number of nationalistic political groups across the region, which was causing great trouble for the English and French colonial powers.

History scholar Jack Watson explains that "Europeans could not hold these lands indefinitely in the face of Arab nationalism".[13] Watson then continues, stating that "by the end of 1946 Palestine was the last remaining mandate, but it posed a major problem".[14] In truth, this nationalistic political trend clashed with American interests in the Middle East, which were, as Middle East scholar Louise Fawcett argues, "about the Soviet Union, access to oil and the project for a Jewish state in Palestine".[15] Hence, Arabist Ambassador Raymond Hare described the Second World War, as "the great divide" in United States' relation with the Middle East, because these three interests would later serve as a backdrop and reasoning for a great deal of American interventions in the Middle East and thus also come to be the cause of several future conflicts between the United States & the Middle East.[5]

Formation of Israel[edit]

In 1947, the U.S. and the Truman administration, under domestic political pressure, pushed for a solution and resolution on the Arab–Israeli conflict, and in May 1948 the new state of Israel came into existence. This process was not without its fights and loss of lives. Nevertheless, "the first state to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel was the United States; the Soviet Union and several Western nations quickly followed suit. No Arab state, however, recognized Israel."[16]

Syria: 1949[edit]

Syria became an independent republic in 1946, but the March 1949 Syrian coup d'état, led by Army Chief of Staff Husni al-Za'im, ended the initial period of civilian rule. Za'im met at least six times with CIA operatives in the months prior to the coup to discuss his plan to seize power. Za'im requested American funding or personnel, but it is not known whether this assistance was provided. Once in power, Za'im made several key decisions that benefitted the United States. He approved the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (TAPLINE), an American project designed to transport Saudi Arabian oil to Mediterranean ports. Construction of TAPLINE had been delayed due to Syrian intransigence. Za'im also improved relations with two American allies in the region: Israel and Turkey. He signed an armistice with Israel, formally ending the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and he renounced Syrian claims to Hatay Province, a major source of dispute between Syria and Turkey. Za'im also cracked down on local communists. However, Za'im's regime was short-lived. He was overthrown in August, just four and a half months after seizing power.[17][18][19][20]

Mosaddeq and the Shah[edit]

Supporters of Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1952

Opposed to foreign intervention in Iran and a keen nationalist, Mohammed Mosaddeq became the prime minister of Iran in 1951. Thus, when Mosaddeq was elected he chose to nationalize the Iranian oil industry, where previously British holdings had generated great profits for Britain through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Furthermore, prior to the nationalisation of Iranian oil Mosaddeq had also cut all diplomatic ties with Britain.[21] The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was opposed to the nationalisation of Iranian oil as he feared this would result in an oil embargo, which would destroy Iran's economy and thus, the Shah was very concerned with the effect of Mosaddeq's policies on Iran. Equally worried were workers in the Iranian oil industry, when they experienced the economic effect of the sanctions on Iranian oil exports which Mosaddeq's policies had resulted in, and riots were happening across Iran.[22]

Thus, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi asked Mosaddeq to resign, as was the Shah's constitutional right, but Mosaddeq refused, which resulted in national uprisings. The Shah, fearing for his personal security, fled the country but nominated General Fazlollah Zahedi as new Prime Minister. Although General Fazlollah Zahedi was a nationalist, he did not agree with the Mosaddeq's lenient attitude towards the communist Tudeh party, which the United States had also become increasingly concerned with, fearing Soviet influence spreading in the Middle East. Therefore, in late 1952, the British government asked the U.S. administration for help with the removal of Mohammed Mosaddeq. President Harry S. Truman thought Mossadeq was a valuable bulwark against Soviet influence.[23] However, Truman left office in January 1953, and the new administration of Dwight Eisenhower shared British concern over Mossadeq. Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, approved one million dollars on April 4, 1953 to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh"[24] Consequently, after a failed attempt on August 15, "on August 19, 1953, General Fazlollah Zahedi succeeded [with the help of the United States and Britain] and Mossadegh was overthrown. The CIA covertly funneled five million dollars to General Zahedi's regime on August 21, 1953."[24]

This CIA operation, often referred to as Operation Ajax and led by CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., ensured the return of the Shah on August 22, 1953.[22]

The Suez Crisis[edit]

President Eisenhower press conference about the crisis, 9 August 1956

Today more than a quarter of the world's oil is shipped through the Suez Canal.[25]

Although accepting large sums of military aid from the United States in 1954, by 1956 Egyptian leader Nasser had grown tired of the American influence in the country. The involvement that the U.S. would take in Egyptian business and politics in return for aid, Nasser thought "smacked of colonialism."[26] Indeed, as political scholar B.M. Bleckman argued in 1978, "Nasser had ambivalent feelings toward the United States. From 1952 to 1954 he was on close terms with U.S. officials and was viewed in Washington as a promising moderate Arab leader. The conclusion of an arms deal with the USSR in 1955, however, had cooled the relationship between Cairo and Washington considerably, and the Dulles-Eisenhower decision to withdraw the offer to finance the Aswan High Dam in mid-1956 was a further blow to the chances of maintaining friendly ties. Eisenhower's stand against the British, French, and Israeli attack on Egypt in October 1956 created a momentary sense of gratitude on the part of Nasser, but the subsequent development of the Eisenhower Doctrine, so clearly aimed at 'containing' Nasserism, undermined what little goodwill existed toward the United States in Cairo."[27] "The Suez Crisis of 1956 marked the demise of British power and its gradual replacement by USA as the dominant power in the Middle East."[28] The Eisenhower Doctrine became a manifestation of this process. "The general objective of the Eisenhower Doctrine, like that of the Truman Doctrine formulated ten years earlier, was the containment of Soviet expansion."[29] Furthermore, when the Doctrine was finalised on March 9, 1957, it "essentially gave the president the latitude to intervene militarily in the Middle East ... without having to resort to Congress."[30] indeed as, Middle East scholar Irene L. Gerdzier explains "that with the Eisenhower Doctrine the United States emerged "as the uncontested Western power ... in the Middle East."[31]

Meanwhile, in Jordan nationalistic anti-government rioting broke out and the United States decided to send a battalion of marines to Lebanon in case of possibly having to intervene in Jordan later that year. Moreover, attempting to keep the pro-American King Hussein of Jordan in power, the CIA started to make secret payments of millions of dollars a year to King Hussein. In the same year, the U.S. supported allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and sent fleets to be near Syria as Syria's government had executed nationalistic and pro-Soviet policies the same year.[32] However, 1958 was to become a difficult year in U.S. foreign policy; in 1958 Syria and Egypt were merged into the "United Arab Republic", anti-American and anti-government revolts started occurring in Lebanon, causing the Lebanese president Chamoun to ask America for help, and the very pro-American King Feisal the 2nd of Iraq was overthrown by a group of nationalistic military officers.[33] It was quite "commonly believed that [Nasser] ... stirred up the unrest in Lebanon and, perhaps, had helped to plan the Iraqi revolution."[34]

The Six Day War and Black September[edit]

In June 1967 Israel fought with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six-Day War. As a result of the war, Israel captured the West Bank, Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. The U.S. supported Israel with weapons and continued to support Israel financially throughout the 1970s. On September 17, 1970, with U.S. and Israeli help, Jordanian troops attacked PLO guerrilla camps, while Jordan's U.S.-supplied air force dropped napalm from above. The U.S. deployed the aircraft carrier Independence and six destroyers off the coast of Lebanon and readied troops in Turkey to support the assault.

The American interventions in the years before the Iranian revolution have all proven to be based in part on economic considerations, but more so have been influenced and led by the international Cold War context.[35]

Iran–Iraq War[edit]

Support for Iraq[edit]

Support for Iran[edit]

Saudi Arabia[edit]

President Obama with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 27 January 2015

Saudi Arabia and the United States are strategic allies,[36][37][38] but relations with the U.S. became strained following September 11 attacks.[39]

In March 2015, President Barack Obama declared that he had authorized U.S. forces to provide logistical and intelligence support to the Saudis in their military intervention in Yemen, establishing a "Joint Planning Cell" with Saudi Arabia.[40] The report by Human Rights Watch stated that US-made bombs were being used in attacks indiscriminately targeting civilians and violating the laws of war.[41]

Afghanistan and Pakistan[edit]

Afghanistan and Pakistan, though situated in South Asia, are considered part of the Greater Middle East. U.S. intervention in both Afghanistan and Pakistan started with the Carter Administration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The relations of the U.S. with Afghanistan and Pakistan have been closely tied to the War on terrorism that has happened there. American policy has been instrumental in coordinating the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. In recent times, political situations of both countries have been bracketed under a single theater of operations, denoted by the newly coined American term "AfPak."[42]

Iraq (2003–present)[edit]

Libya (2011–present)[edit]

Syria (2011–present)[edit]


President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey in October 2017

Coup attempt (2016)[edit]

On 15 July 2016, a coup d'état was attempted in Turkey by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces against state institutions, including, but not limited to the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Turkish government accused the coup leaders of being linked to the Gülen movement, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the Republic of Turkey and led by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish businessman and cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, United States. Erdoğan accuses Gülen of being behind the coup—a claim that Gülen denies—and accused the United States of harboring him. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the head of United States Central Command, chief General Joseph Votel[43] of "siding with coup plotters," (after Votel accused the Turkish government of arresting the Pentagon's contacts in Turkey).[44]

American allies[edit]

Autonomous provinces

Hostile/sore relations[edit]



Protest against U.S. involvement in the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen, March 2018

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=81402&page=1
  2. ^ https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/04/america-trump-kennedy-syria-atomic-war/523092/
  3. ^ Fain, W. Taylor (2008-06-15). American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 17–18. ISBN 978-0-230-60151-2. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
  4. ^ Fawcett, L., (2005) The International Relations of the Middle East, UK: Oxford University Press, p. 284
  5. ^ a b Fawcett, L. (2005) The International Relations of the Middle East UK: Oxford University Press p 285
  6. ^ Rugh, W. A. (2005) American Encounters with Arabs: The Soft Power of U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East U.S.: Praeger Publishers Inc. ISBN 978-0-275-98817-3 pp 25–26
  7. ^ Le Billon, P., El Khatib, F. (March 2004) "From free oil to 'freedom oil': terrorism, war and U.S. Geopolitics in the Persian Gulf", Geopolitics, Volume 9, Issue 1 p. 109
  8. ^ Review (Winter 1982): "State Power and Industry Influence: American Foreign Oil Policy in the 1940s", International Organization 36, no. 1 p. 168
  9. ^ Yergin, D (1991) The Prize: The Epic quest for Oil, Money and Power New York: Simon and Schuster p 401
  10. ^ Lawson, F. H. (Aug., 1989) "The Iranian Crisis of 1945–1946 and the Spiral Model of International Conflict" International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 p. 310
  11. ^ Anderson, Irvine.(1981) Aramco, The United States, and Saudi Arabia. Princeton University Press. p. 36
  12. ^ a b Chomsky, Noam (January/February 2005) "Imperial Presidency", Canadian Dimension, Vol. 39, No. 1 p. 8
  13. ^ Watson, J. B. (1981) Success in Twentieth century World Affairs since 1919 Norwich: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd p. 295
  14. ^ Watson, J. B. (1981), Success in Twentieth Century World Affairs since 1919, Norwich: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd p. 295
  15. ^ Fawcett, L. (2005), International Relations of the Middle East UK: Oxford University Press, p. 284
  16. ^ McWilliams, W, C, Piotrowski, H, (6th ed.)(2005) The World since 1945: A History of International Relations U.S. Lynne Rienner Publishers p 154
  17. ^ Douglas Little (1990). "Cold War and Covert Action: The United States and Syria, 1945–1958". Middle East Journal. 44 (1).
  18. ^ "1949–1958, Syria: Early Experiments in Cover Action, Douglas Little, Professor, Department of History, Clark University" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-10-09.
  19. ^ Gendzier, Irene L. (1997). Notes from the Minefield: United States Intervention in Lebanon and the Middle East, 1945–1958. Columbia University Press. p. 98. Retrieved February 13, 2012. Recent investigation ... indicates that CIA agents Miles Copeland and Stephen Meade ... were directly involved in the coup in which Syrian colonel Husni Za'im seizedpower. According to then former CIA agent Wilbur Eveland, the coup was carried out in order to obtain Syrian ratification of TAPLINE.
  20. ^ Gerolymatos, André (2010). Castles Made of Sand: A Century of Anglo-American Espionage and Intervention in the Middle East. Thomas Dunne books (MacMillan). Retrieved February 13, 2012. Miles Copeland, formerly a CIA agent, has outlined how he and Stephen Meade backed Zaim, and American archival sources confirm that it was during this period that Meade established links with extremist right-wing elements of the Syrian army, who ultimately carried out the coup.
  21. ^ Dionisi, D, J(2005) American Hiroshima: The reasons why and a call to strengthen America's Democracy, Canada: Trafford Publishing, ISBN 1-4120-4421-9, pp 30–38
  22. ^ a b Immerman, R. H., Theoharis, A. G. (2006) The Central Intelligence Agency: Security under Scrutiny U.S.: Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-33282-7, p. 314
  23. ^ "Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran". National Security Archive. Retrieved 19 February 2014.
  24. ^ a b Dionisi, D, J(2005) American Hiroshima: The reasons why and a call to strengthen America's Democracy, Canada: Trafford Publishing, ISBN 1-4120-4421-9, p. 40
  25. ^ Fiscus, J, W (2004) War and Conflict in the Middle East: The Suez Crisis, U.S.: The Rosen Publishers Group, ISBN 0-8239-4550-2, p. 5
  26. ^ Lesch, D, W(ed.) (2003) The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassesment U.S.: Westview Press, p. 94
  27. ^ Bleckman B, M, Kaplan, S, S (1978) Force Without War: U.S. armed Forces As a Political Instrument U.S.: The Brookings Institution p 249
  28. ^ Attie, C. C. (2004) Struggle in the Levant, Kings Lynn: The Centre for Lebanese Studies, Oxford p 1
  29. ^ Attie, Struggle in the Levant, p. 109
  30. ^ Attie, Struggle in the Levant, p. 110
  31. ^ Gettleman, M, E, Schaar, S (2003) The Middle East and Islamic World Reader, U.S.: Grove Press p. 248
  32. ^ Ambrose, S, E (1980) The Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy, 1938–1980 New York: Penguin Books p. 463
  33. ^ Eisenhower, (1965) White House Years, vol. 2: Waaina Peace 1956–1961 New York: Doubleday, p. 268
  34. ^ Owen, R, Louis, R(2002) A Revolutionary year: The Middle East in 1958, U.K.: I.B. Tauris & Co,. Ltd, ISBN 1-86064-402-3, p. 2
  35. ^ Watson, J. B. (1981) Success in Twentieth century World Affairs since 1919 Norwich: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd p. 301
  36. ^ "How strained are US-Saudi relations?". BBC News. 20 April 2016.
  37. ^ "Old friends US and Saudi Arabia feel the rift growing, seek new partners". Asia Times. 2 May 2016.
  38. ^ "Gulf allies and 'Army of Conquest". Al-Ahram Weekly. 28 May 2015.
  39. ^ Madawi Al-Rasheed (2010). A History of Saudi Arabia. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-521-74754-7.
  40. ^ "Saudi Arabia launces air attacks in Yemen". The Washington Post. 25 March 2015.
  41. ^ "Saudi airstrikes in Yemen violate laws of war, rights group says". mcclatchydc. Retrieved 13 July 2015.
  42. ^ Terry H. Anderson, Bush's Wars (Oxford University Press; 2011) on Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001–2011
  43. ^ "Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter". Retrieved 2016-09-14.
  44. ^ "U.S. general denies involvement in Turkish coup attempt". Reuters. 2016-07-29. Retrieved 2016-09-14.
  45. ^ Cyprus although a member of the European Union, is sometimes categorized as a Middle Eastern due to its geographical location
  46. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/business/turkey-erdogan-economy-lira.html
  47. ^ https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/04/world/europe/turkey-erdogan-sanctions-us.html
  48. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20060712173350/http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/37191.htm

Further reading[edit]

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