In this analysis, the U.S. — Iranian relationship will be examined from a historical perspective. The analysis will explain key political, intelligence, and militaristic events that shaped why the two nations are bitter adversaries today. Furthermore, this article will illustrate how the events unfolded and their significance to the U.S.- Iranian relations.
Starting with a joint clandestine operation by American and British intelligence branches, the overthrow of the 35th Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, laid the groundwork for the pivotal 1979 Islamic Revolution.
PM Mossadegh was a prominent Iranian political figure. He was democratically elected and took office in 1951 till he was overthrown in 1953. This event dubbed “TPAJAX” was a joint effort by the American CIA and the British MI6. The reasoning on why Mossadegh was overthrown by the CIA and MI6 is twofold.
The first, and perhaps most important, is that PM Mossadegh wanted to nationalize Iranian oil. This meant that the American and British corporations would have a capped profit since the majority of the money would go to the Iranian Government. The Iranian Government would then distribute its resources and profit accordingly; focusing on infrastructure, education, health, and the prosperity of Iran.
Mossadegh wanted to hold great powers accountable and “believed that Iran’s main problem at that time was that it was a country basically ruled by foreign empires (NPR).”
The second reason is that Mossadegh was accused of being pro-Soviet Union and the U.S. did not want the Iranian resources to fall into Soviet hands. This reasoning is unfortunately a casualty of Cold War Politics. The ousting of Mossadegh meant that the U.S. could install an obedient government that would be loyal and competent. That government was under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who would become the Shah (King in Iranian) and the Prime Minister, General Fazlollah Zahedi. Under this government, Iran would retain a secular yet oppressive and brutal administration that ruled with an iron fist for 26 years until 1979.
By being aggressive and meddling in Iranian affairs, the U.S. would eventually create its future enemy.
In 1979, the rise of the Islamic Revolution would engulf Iran in instability and religious fervor. Cries for democracy would ring around Tehran. The Shah Pahlavi would be forced to flee to the U.S. due to his worsening health. The religious cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, would be crowned as the Supreme Leader of Iran.
Any forces loyal to the Shah were crushed by rebels and the Iranian people would vote in a national referendum to become the Islamic Republic. The people of Iran demanded the Shah return to be tried for his crimes against the Iranians. However, the United States rejected Iran’s demand. As a result, Iranian students and revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. There, 52 American’s were held hostage for 444 days. This event would go down in history as the first divider of U.S. — Iranian relations.
In order to further understand the significance of this event, the current political environment should be revisited. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union is rapidly deploying support to Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, and Cambodia. It is a blitzkrieg of Soviet resources. The hostage situation grows in tension and complexity when the Soviet Union invades a dangerously close neighbor, Afghanistan.
Domestically, the U.S. is caught in a bureaucratic turmoil with the Department of State and the National Security Council (NSC) being at a war of ideologies. The Department of State traditionally favors a more diplomatic approach and the NSC favors a more direct and confrontational approach. Faced with several conflicts, both departments are unable to agree on an approach causing a heated confrontation.
In 1980 the National Security Advisor (NSA), Zbigniew Brzeziński, had supported a task force to rescue the hostages from the embassy. Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, had strongly opposed this mission and asked Brzeziński to call it off. The mission was given the green light by the NSA despite Secretary Vance’s opposition. This would become a historical miscalculation by Brzezinski.
Three of the five rescue helicopters were not operational and the mission was urgently aborted. As U.S. rescue forces were returning to base, a helicopter crashed into an American C-130 transportation aircraft, forcing both into a fatal collision. The 1980 mission, coined “Operation Eagle Claw” or Tabas (عملیات طبس) in Persian, would end in the death of 8 American servicemen.
That same year on September 22nd the situation would spiral into greater hostility. Iran would clash with Saddam Hussein and the secular Iraqi forces in the extremely controversial Iran-Iraq War. The war on the surface is seemingly uninteresting but the Iran-Iraq War would snowball into several key events that prove to be a pivotal decider in the future of U.S.- Iranian relations and the Middle East.
The U.S. involvement would be supporting a vibrant Saddam who was leading a Ba’athist Iraq against the theological Iranian’s and the Ayatollah. Thanks to American support, Iraqi would eventually come out on top and Saddam’s use of chemical nerve agents would help. It is important to note that the U.S. remained unresponsive while knowing Iraq's use of chemical agents. This gave Saddam the decisive opportunity to kill with impunity.
Once more, America proved to be in opposition to Iran. These events would inspire the rise of a new group named the Islamic Jihad. According to intelligence reports of 1983, Islamic Jihad is a front for Hezbollah, a Shite Lebanese terrorist group. The Islamic Jihad is supported by the Iranian’s, consequently prompting the State Department to label Iran as a sponsor of terrorism in 1984.
Islamic Jihad attacked the American barracks in Beirut, Lebanon by using suicide bombers on October 3rd, 1983. Resulting in the highest single-day death toll since the Tet Offensive of Vietnam was recorded, including 241 U.S. soldiers. After the Beirut barrack bombings, Ronald Reagan would be faced with another hostage situation, this time involving Hezbollah taking Americans hostage in Lebanon. This led to the infamous Iran Contra scandal. Congress had prohibited selling weapons to Iran and enacted a weapons embargo. Nevertheless, Reagan continued to sell weapons illegally to Iran and used the money to fund right-wing Contra insurgents in Nicaragua. In spite of the Americans, Hezbollah killed two hostages and released the others after an arduous period of time.
Nearing the end of the Iran-Iraq war toward 1988, the U.S. would accidentally shoot down a perceived fighter jet, which was later identified as Iran Air Flight 655. The missile cruiser USS Vincennes was engaged with Iranian gunboats when it noticed Flight 655 on its radar. The ship misidentified the civilian flight for a hostile F-14. Regardless of the identification, any plane flying in a warzone would have been a threat.
The officer of the USS Vincennes claimed that the ship sent various distress signals to the flight but to no avail. According to the U.S. Navy, the plane began descending in altitude, and simultaneously the ship tried to communicate with the pilots but received no answer. The Captain (Will C. Rogers III) and his crew sent 7 distress signals, 3 via international emergency distress frequencies, and 4 via a military channel.
Several weeks after Vincennes shot down Flight 655, the Pentagon released a report citing Iran as responsible for allowing a civilian flight to take off in a war zone from Bandar Abbas (also a military airfield). The tragedy ultimately boils down to 6 key factors according to the report.
(1)The Vincennes was actively fighting Iranian boats on the surface.
(2) Flight 655 was rapidly heading directly towards the Vincennes.
(3) The unknown aircraft radiated no definitive electronic emissions.
(4) Flight 655 did not answer its distress signals.
(5) The Captain needed to make a decision extremely quickly and under duress.
(6) Finally, Captain Rogers had every right to suspect that the contact was related to his engagement w1th the IRGC boats — until proved otherwise, and the proof was never supplied.
What is truly deplorable is the inability of both sides to accept any responsibility for an incident that seems to conclude with both parties at fault. The stark and apathetic comments made later on during George H.W. Bush’s campaign for the presidency, “I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are.” rightfully antagonized Iran.
These fatal events would prove to be disastrous for all parties involved and subsequently create a domino effect of instability and bloodshed.
Fast-forward past CIA operations, sanctions, the first and second Persian Gulf Wars, to 2013. America under the passive presidency of Barack Obama tried to improve the longtime rocky relationship. George W. Bush, unlike Obama, called Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the “Axis of Evil.” He further went on during his 2002 State of the Union Address to say that Iran “aggressively pursues [weapons of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” This left President Obama to deal with the difficult task of negotiating peace after two consistently uncompromising Bush Administrations.
He would be the president that helps revive open dialogue between the U.S. and Iran with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Obama tried to ensure a peaceful Iranian nuclear program by relieving nuclear-related sanctions. To the Iranians, nuclear energy production, and the ability to undertake a nuclear program would help obtain recognition and legitimacy among the international community. There would also be constant and transparent monitoring of Iranian nuclear programs with the International Atomic Energy Agency and UN task forces.
However, after Obama’s term would end, the hostility to the United States would return. Here we find the presidency of Donald Trump. In May of 2018, Trump would unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA, claiming that the agreement did not adequately cover the wide array of American concerns about Iranian actions and nuclear weapon capabilities. This move would destabilize Iran and further incite economic unrest, pursuing a “maximum pressure” policy.
All the while, applying additional sanctions to cripple the Iranian purchasing power, oil exports, and inflate its currency. The unbearable conditions eventually caused protests among Iran’s inhabitants, forcing harsh security crackdowns on Iranians to restore the grip on power. The maximum pressure policy seeks to punish and destabilize Iran from within. This is opposed to the Obama strategy of careful rehabilitation and reintegration into the international community.
Furthermore, Trump labeled the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). This was an unprecedented move by the Trump administration as no other formal military force had been labeled as such.
Shortly after, Trump labeled Iran “a nation of terror” after the IRGC seized British Oil tankers and attacked two others in June of 2019. Iran also retaliated by shooting down a U.S. surveillance drone. These small skirmishes are symptoms of a much larger issue at hand, the lack of active and meaningful dialogue between the U.S. and Iran. When politics fail, violent conflict occurs. This has become the way that the two countries communicate.
Iran did not back down and sought to send an even stronger message that showcased their capabilities by supplying Houthi Rebels in Yemen sophisticated drones. These drones were used to attack Saudia Arabia’s government-run oil fields (Saudi Aramco) in September of 2019.
The oil production at Abqaiq and Khurais located in the Northeast of Saudi Arabia has been significantly reduced to only five million barrels a day which is almost half of the Kingdom’s output. Both oil-producing facilities are responsible for 8% of the global oil supply, meaning this attack implies serious threats for the future of energy and security infrastructure in the Middle East and globally as well.
Finally, the U.S. responded by killing a top Iranian General, Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRCG’s Quds Force. He was the second most important individual in Iran after the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. The U.S. also managed to kill Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al- Muhandis and 7 other Iranian and Iraqi personnel. That’s the equivalent of Iran killing the U.S. Secretary of Defense and a U.S. General along with Canadian personnel.
Truth be told if Iran had attacked the U.S. in the same manner, Americans would be calling for war. Currently, U.S. aggressiveness has prompted Iran to increase intensity on its nuclear program and have threatened to assassinate U.S. Ambassador to South Africa. It has also given Iran the justification for continued involvement in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.
The U.S. is repeating the same approach that was taken with the hostage situation in 1979. History has proven that aggression is not the answer when addressing Iran. The approach to use is diplomacy, soft power, and constant dialogue. These conflicts unfortunately highlight the tragedy of great power politics.