Nixon-Ford Administrations, 1969-1976Humiliated by the Six Day War, Egypt, Syria and Jordan tried to regain lost territory when they attacked Israel during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur in 1973. Egypt regained some ground but its Third Army was then surrounded by an Israeli army led by Ariel Sharon (who would later become prime minister).
The Soviets proposed a cease-fire, failing which they threatened to act “unilaterally.” For the second time in six years, the United States faced its second major and potentially nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union over the Middle East. After what journalist Elizabeth Drew described as “Strangelove Day,” when the Nixon administration put American forces on the highest alert, the administration persuaded Israel to accept a cease-fire.
Americans felt the effects of that war through the 1973 Arab oil embargo, rocketing oil prices upward and contributing to a recession a year later.
In 1974 and 1975 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated so-called disengagement agreements, first between Israel and Syria, then between Israel and Egypt, formally ending the hostilities begun in 1973 and returning some land Israel had seized from the two countries. Those were not peace agreements, however, and they left the Palestinian situation untouched. Meanwhile, a military strongman called Saddam Hussein was rising through the ranks in Iraq.
Carter Administration, 1977-1981Jimmy Carter’s presidency was marked by American Mid-East policy’s greatest victory and greatest loss since World War II. On the victorious side, Carter’s mediation led to the 1978 Camp David Accord and the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, which included a huge increase in U.S. aid to Israel and Egypt. The treaty led Israel to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. The accord took place, remarkably, months after Israel invaded Lebanon for the first time, ostensibly to repel chronic attacks from the Palestine Liberation Organization in south Lebanon.
On the losing side, the Iranian Revolution culminated in 1978 with demonstrations against the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and culminating with the establishment of an Islamic Republic, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on April 1, 1979.
On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian students backed by the new regime took 63 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran hostage. They’d hold on to 52 of them for 444 days, releasing them the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president. The hostage crisis, which included one failed military rescue attempt that cost the lives of eight American servicemen, undid the Carter presidency and set back American policy in the region for years: The rise of Shiite power in the Middle East had begun.
To top things off for Carter, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, eliciting little response from the president other than an American boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
Reagan Administration, 1981-1989Whatever progress the Carter administration achieved on the Israeli-Palestinian front stalled over the next decade. As the Lebanese civil war raged, Israel invaded Lebanon for the second time, in June 1982, advancing as far as Beirut, the Lebanese capital city, before Reagan, who had condoned the invasion, intervene to demand a cease-fire.
American, Italian and French troops landed in Beirut that summer to mediate the exit of 6,000 PLO militants. The troops then withdrew, only to precipitately return following the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemeyel and the retaliatory massacre, by Israeli-backed Christian militias, of up to 3,000 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, south of Beirut.
In April 1983, a truck bomb demolished the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. On Oct. 23, 1983, simultaneous bombings killed 241 American soldiers and 57 French paratroopers in their Beirut barracks. American forces withdrew shortly after. The Reagan administration the faced several crises as the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite organization that became known as Hezbollah took several Americans hostage in Lebanon.
The 1986 Iran-Contra affair revealed that the Reagan Administration had secretly negotiated arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, discrediting Reagan’s claim that he would not negotiate with terrorists. It would be December 1991 before the last hostage, former Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, would be released.
Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan Administration supported Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territories. The administration also supported Saddam Hussein in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, which ended in 1988. The administration provided logistical and intelligence support, believing, wrongly, that Saddam could destabilize the Iranian regime and defeat the Islamic Revolution.