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Iranian & U.S. Relations ~ In Context

January 13, 2020

During assembly on Monday, January 13, Current Events Club members Isa Rosario-Blake '21 and Ethan Kalishman '20 shared the modern history of U.S.-Iranian relations. Here are their prepared remarks:

Given the events of the past week, we thought that it would be a good idea to discuss some background information about American relations with Iran, because to understand what happened last week, it’s imperative to think about the entire relationship between these two nations.

Although modern Iranians may sometimes refer to the United States as “the Great Satan,” the relationship wasn’t always antagonistic. There was some friendly contact in the 19th century between the young United States and what was then called Persia, and this relationship became strengthened after World War II when American interest in oil and the Middle East developed. Similarly, many Iranians initially viewed the United States as an ally who could help them rid their country of British and Russian influence.

In 1953, the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran was concerned that Britain had too much control over Iranian oil so he nationalized British oil holdings. The British then told the United States that he was a socialist in league with the Soviet Union. In response, the Eisenhower Administration, listening to their Cold War ally, ordered the CIA to overthrow the Prime Minister and install a ruling monarchy under the new Shah, named Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This coup, codenamed “Operation Ajax,” was the United States’ first post-WWII attempt at removing a democratically-elected leader in the Third World and also the first one outside of the western hemisphere.

Later during the Cold War, the Shah’s government was favorable to the United States (since oil and government contracts flowed to the United States) and the Shah was a valuable ally in the region against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but many Iranians felt that the Shah was oppressive to the Iranian people. As the Shah continually westernized Iran, discontent from within grew.

This internal political dissent, often sourced from a distinctly religious fundamental perspective, intensified, and a growing number of Iranians sought to expel foreigners. Notably, when the Shah left Iran to seek cancer treatment in the United States in January 1979, students under the Ayatollah Khomeini administration revolted. They demanded that the Americans return the Shah for trial. President Carter refused, and Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979. A rescue attempt failed and the Islamic Republic held 52 American hostages for 444 days, finally releasing them on the day President Reagan was inaugurated.

American relations with Iran quickly deteriorated from here. The United States-backed Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s, and mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger jet killing all 290 aboard, ultimately paying $60 million in compensation to Iranian families. Iran saw itself as a Middle East power and disliked the close American relations in the region, especially with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iranians and their Middle Eastern allies took more Americans hostage. President Reagan secretly sold the Iranians weapons to secure the release of those hostages. The United States issued sanctions against Iran in the 1990s and accused the Iranians of spreading terrorism throughout the Middle East and plotting against America’s ally, Israel.

Other international incidents and various political actions of the two nation’s leaders were also often responsible for the waning and flaring of tensions between Iran and America. For example, relations were more healthy when President Clinton eased some sanctions in 1997 after Iran elected a more moderate President and also when there were incentives for the two countries to work together against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, at least before President Bush referred to Iran as part of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea. And on the contrary, when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Iranians helped Iraqis fight Americans and a more hard-lined Iranian President in 2005 denounced Israel and the United States. Both Presidents Bush and Obama introduced sanctions as well.

Soon, relations twisted even more. In 2013, when the Iranians elected another moderate leader, President Obama actually called him, marking the first official contact between the two nations since the 1979 Revolution. That thawing of tensions led to a deal in which Iran agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons and to allow international inspections to ensure this promise. In exchange, President Obama agreed to lift sanctions and to return the $1.7 billion that Iran paid the United States for military equipment that had not yet been fulfilled by the US. This deal occurred in the wake of the 1979 Revolution. American leaders changed, too, and once again, relations shifted as President Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban irritated the predominantly-Muslim nation, as did his withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018.

The tensions that culminated over last week really began to escalate last summer. In June and July of 2019, Iran attacked some international oil tankers and captured others in the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman. Iran also claimed to have shot down an American drone. President Trump threatened a response, but he did not take action, and for a time, things seemed to be calmer, at least until December. Last month, a group of Iraqis who were backed by Iran, fired missiles at a military base that houses both Iraqis and Americans, which resulted in the killing of an American defense contractor. President Trump responded by launching airstrikes at the Iraqi militia who, in turn, attempted to storm the American embassy in Iraq. President Trump then ordered a drone strike to kill Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian leader who was involved with a network of regional armed groups that were backed by Iran. President Trump also stated that Soleimani was planning attacks against the United States. Directly after that, Iran fired missiles at American-Iraqi bases last week but failed to take any American lives. President Trump opted to place additional sanctions on Iran rather than respond with further military options. And that’s where we are now.

Everything, from current events to long-term relationships, has a history, and our perspectives are often limited by the information that we possess. We don’t have access to as many Iranian documents as we would like at this point, so perhaps future scholars will be able to discern more about this relationship. For now, however, it appears as though tensions have de-escalated, but as we have seen, the nature of future American-Iranian relations can be completely uncertain.