I’ve found as a lawyer that I use historical analysis to understand and advise on proposed client deals and  decisions.

Like business law, history involves gathering evidence principally documentation, putting it into order usually chronological, and letting examination produce results.

In business law this approach helps study proposed business and legal relationships. In history relationships can be between ideas, actors, forces and responses. In business law they involve entities, rights, obligations, and prohibitions. Same, same but different.

I read a lot of law and a lot of history, they inform each other. One of my favourite sources is the Conversations with History series on YouTube from the University of California, Berkley. It has a great format, a scholarly interview for an hour or more usually with a historian who has written a recent book.

In this series the latest video is titled “U.S. Iran and Saudi Arabia with Andrew Scott Cooper“. Cooper is the author of the book, “The Oil Kings“. Cooper originates from New Zealand. It focuses on the geopolitics of the relationship between Nixon/Kissinger and the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941–1979). I’ve put only a slash between Pres. Richard Nixon and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, because on Cooper’s reading little distinguishes them for the purposes of his story.

The linchpin for Cooper’s story is at 33 minutes into the video. It is the remarkable revelation that Nixon pre-approved the Shah’s decision to raise the price of oil in 1973. With this decision achieved by negotiation and consent, Cooper puts it this way, a “superpower creates a super client”.

The great game

"risk-management-plan"Cooper states that in agreeing to approve the Shah raising the price of oil, Nixon wished to assist the Shah to finance his ambitious arms-buying plans for Iran and thereby to empower Iran to be the U.S. client state in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.

In the Nixon/Kissinger view the Shah was to be the U.S. superpower’s “gladiator” in the region. As Cooper says he was to help the post-Vietnam weakened U.S. state secure West Asia away from the perceived USSR threat, and U.S. access to Gulf oil, so what the Shah needed he was to get.

Hence Nixon and the Shah together consented to removal of two Cold War levers of control held by the U.S. over Iran – the capping of the oil price and the Pentagon-imposed capping of arms sales to Iran. Elsewhere we know from Iranian-American historian, Abbas Milani, that the U.S. and Israel helped Iran in the 1970s gain the technological facility to develop nuclear energy, and potentially from that the capacity to become a developer of nuclear arms.

Nixon and the Shah sought to use Iran to control other geo-political forces, be it Gulf oil, Soviet-influenced states such as India buffered for the U.S. by the “chronically unstable” Pakistan, Iraq as it leaned towards the USSR, or the USSR monitored in northern Iran in the 1970s by three CIA listening posts.

Economic unravelling

Following the Nixon/Kissinger/Shah 1973 decisions, the unexpected began to play out on a massive and global scale, especially in the sphere of economics. Relevant now too was the 15 August 1971 Nixon administration decision to unilaterally terminate the convertibility of the dollar to gold based on the Bretton Woods system.

In both the U.S. and Iran, Cooper indicates a critical driver of change became loss of control over unleashed economic forces, eg caused by oil price escalation. Here is an image from Wikipedia of oil price changes from 1861 to 2006. Note the rise from 1973."oil-price-1861-2006"

We have the the OPEC oil embargoes from October 1973; inflation escalating world-wide, eg in the October 1974 quarter in Australia to above 16%; Nixon’s Watergate-triggered resignation on 9 August 1974; and meanwhile rising inflation, escalating unplanned urbanisation, and widening economic inequality in Iran.

These forces arising from poor decision making renched power from Nixon/Kissinger and in time from the Shah and his regime.

Lessons from failure

The lessons Cooper draws from the mutual decision to un-cap oil prices and arms sales by Nixon/Kissinger and the Shah are noteworthy for decision making beyond politics and public policy.

  • "risk-management-plans-iStock"Cooper sees on the part of those decision makers a blindness to the risk of unintended consequences, a risk which often arises from lack of thoroughness and process in risk analysis.
  • Personality played a part. Cooper says Nixon and the Shah were myopic in the scope of considerations for their decision making, Cooper says they were “auto-intoxicated” by the game of geo-politics. Nixon for example did not consider the national, religious, cultural, ethnicity and most importantly economic impact in Iran of uncapping the oil price and arms sales. Political interests and a very narrow review of U.S. economic interests drove his decision making to uncap oil prices and arms sales.
  • Nixon and the Shah were autocratic in their style of decision making, they did not widely or openly consult their national administrations says Cooper. The uncapping decisions in Iran and the U.S. did not involve cross-departmental risk analysis. For example on the U.S. side, the U.S. Treasury was hardly consulted on the implications of agreeing to oil price rises. Also, Cooper says Nixon/Kissinger at times spent as much time fighting people in their own country and on their side as they did their expressly stated opponents abroad. Autocratic decision making in the U.S. and in Iran introduced blind spots for both sides.

Commenting on the position today, Cooper’s view is that the U.S. remains structurally addicted to oil. U.S. dependency has been ignored by each successive U.S. administration. This is hopeless leadership and risk management.

Cooper’s core message is that in realpolitik risk management should have a realistic and wide breadth of focus. Politics should not just be about wielding power to be seen as a decision maker. It is dumb to to be, as Cooper says Kissinger was, someone who does not take thorough heed of the impact of economics.

The same can be said about good decision making about business and legal issues. They should involve gathering evidence principally documentation, putting it into order usually chronological, and getting to results after examination, broad-ranging when appropriate.

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Noric Dilanchian