Effective Bulwarks or Pillars of Sand? Benefits and Risks of the Twin Pillars Policy

CSPS Fellow Steven Wachter cautions against the revival of America’s “Twin Pillars Policy” in the Middle East, pointing to the inherent weaknesses of its previous iteration in the 1970s.

For much of the 1970’s the United States sought to protect its interests while avoiding direct intervention and new commitments in the Persian Gulf by acting through regional partners. Known as the Twin Pillars Policy, the US relied on Iran and Saudi Arabia to protect American interests while it was overstretched and faced challenges around the globe. While the policy proved effective in the early 1970s, it also had inherent challenges and risks that made relying on the Twin Pillars Policy indefinitely unwise and ultimately led to its failure.

Like the late 1960s, policymakers today must formulate a strategy to defend US interests and achieve their aims while facing resource constraints, competing priorities, and a public wariness of overseas commitments. While the Nixon Administration adopted the Twin Pillars Policy, the Biden Administration may be tempted to adopt a similar strategy. The Biden Administration’s recent National Security Strategy suggests that this might be their inclination when it calls for empowering allies and partners in the Middle East while reducing the region’s demands on US resources. This may also underlay their current push for an Israeli-Saudi peace deal and diplomatic normalization. As a result, the US role in the Middle East could shift from direct regional engagement to instead supporting regional partners, with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the forefront as they take the lead as a loose coalition to uphold the regional order, linked by their alignment with the US and a shared concern over the threat posed by Iran. Before committing to this policy, US policymakers should recall the costs and benefits of the Twin Pillars Policy when considering the rebalancing of US engagement across multiple regions.

Pursuing an approach analogous to the Twin Pillars Policy may appear attractive. In its early years, the policy enabled the US to traverse a trying period of the Cold War with its core interests intact at an acceptable cost. Its successes included frustrating Soviet inroads into the Middle East, Iran checking Soviet-backed Iraq, preserving the Arab Gulf Monarchies, and defeating a communist-backed revolt in Oman. These were not trivial accomplishments and supported the US’ primary interests of ensuring regional stability, limiting Soviet influence, and ensuring western access to the Gulf’s energy sources.

However, the Twin Pillars Policy had inherent challenges and risks that must be considered. The most significant challenge is that the more the US relies on a partner, the more autonomy and leverage that partner will have. This should give modern policymakers pause; while the US may avoid the costs of regional intervention, it may come at the price of US influence in resolving regional issues and the full consideration of its views. The extent of this challenge will vary with the degree the US is reliant on its regional partners but will be ever-present since even if the US and its partner’s interests and preferences converge, they will almost certainly not entirely overlap. Even with a high degree of convergence, the US should not be shocked if a partner sacrifices US interests or preferences when they differ from their own. The greater the US reliance and the longer it is extended, the larger the risk that US policy aims, interests, and preferences may be compromised by partners pursuing theirs.

For example, in the 1970s the Iranian Shah was not the “unconditional ally” that Nixon and Kissinger believed him to be, but harbored his own goals that sometimes ran counter to Washington’s. One notable dispute centered on the Shah’s pursuit of an Iranian nuclear program in the face of US opposition, with the Ford Administration’s reliance on Tehran leaving it few effective means to address the situation. Similarly, the Carter Administration, like its predecessors, largely refrained from criticizing the Shah’s human rights record in order to help secure Iran’s cooperation as a regional partner and out of a desire for Iran’s aid in lowering oil prices. In cases across administrations, US policymakers were forced to compromise on issues of significant concern lest they risk Iran’s role in the Twin Pillars Policy.

The Twin Pillars Policy’s most serious risk was its reliance on regional allies and their political leaderships. This was demonstrated in 1979 when the policy collapsed alongside the Shah’s regime in what historian Gregory Gause describes as “…an unmitigated disaster for the United States, the most damaging single blow to American interests in the Middle East in the post-World War II period.” This left the US strategically exposed in the Persian Gulf and Washington scrambling to develop the capabilities to respond to the crisis itself and to defend its broader regional interests.

In sum, the Twin Pillars Policy was an effective short-term strategy to protect American interests in the early 1970s at a time of strategic overstretch while facing a global array of challenges. However, as time went on, the risks associated with the Twin Pillars made it an increasingly questionable strategy. As the US gradually recovered from its overextended geopolitical position and the strains of the Vietnam War receded the risks and costs of the Twin Pillars Policy should have been reevaluated. The policy had protected US interests in a period of crisis but as time went on the significant reliance on regional partners added to their autonomy, decreased US leverage, and eventually left the US strategically vulnerable in 1979. Should modern US policymakers choose to pursue a similar strategy, they would be wise to carefully mitigate against the inherent risks by retaining at least some US capability to act independently in the region. Above all, they should remember that despite being useful situationally it proved unwise to rely so heavily on regional partners indefinitely.


Steven Wachter is a second-year graduate student pursuing his MA in International Security at the Schar School.  He holds a BA in History with a minor in International Studies from American University.  His research interests include grand strategy, US foreign policy and national security, and international security.  After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in foreign policy and national security.

Photo can be found here.