Since 1953, the United States and Iran have maintained a complicated relationship. As the current situation indicates, that relationship periodically becomes tense and threatens to flare into armed conflict. As we cautiously observe what seems to be a de-escalation of tensions, it is instructive to examine the history of the relationship with an eye toward understanding how it works and how we have arrived at where we are today.
In August of 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) initiated Operation Ajax, dedicated to the overthrow of popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh and to cementing the power of the Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. This operation was to ensure that Western oil companies could operate without government interference. The coup was successful and resulted in the pro-American, pro-Western, Shah being more solidly in power than ever before. During the years between 1953 and 1978, the Shah reigned in a curiously mixed fashion, concurrently promoting modernization in Iran and embracing the more fundamentalist tenets of Islam to pacify the more conservative elements within his own country. He also rather ruthlessly suppressed his enemies, imprisoning some and executing others who threatened his status. No matter the domestic policy he engaged in, the Shah continued to cultivate a close relationship with the United States, recognizing that American support helped him to remain in power. He also served as a pro-American stabilizing agent in the often-unsettled Middle East during the 1960s and ’70s. Due to his autocratic rule and harsh repression of his enemies, he faced growing internal tensions and, eventually, open revolution. After a year of opposition in 1978, led by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a fundamentalist Islamic religious leader, the Shah abdicated his throne and left Iran in January of 1979.
After the Iranian Revolution, the Shah lived in exile in several places, including the Bahamas and Mexico. Complicating his exile was the fact that he suffered from terminal cancer and wished to be admitted to the United States for treatment. President Carter was reluctant to admit the Shah to the United States, even for cancer treatment, but faced political pressure to do so. In October of 1979, Carter relented and allowed the Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment. On November 4, Iranian student protestors in the capital city of Teheran stormed the United States Embassy there and, in protest of the Shah’s presence in America, took 52 American embassy personnel hostage. Despite diplomatic efforts and a spectacularly unsuccessful military rescue attempt, those hostages remained in Iranian hands for 444 days. President Carter spent a great deal of time and energy trying to obtain the release of the hostages. His inability to do so was one factor in his defeat by Ronald Reagan in the election of 1980. To his credit, President Carter kept working on the situation, even after his electoral defeat, but the Iranians continued to hold the hostages in order to further humiliate Carter, whom the Ayatollah viewed as weak and ineffectual. The hostages were eventually released on January 20, 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as President of the United States.
During the hostage crisis, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran and placed the Iranian government under an arms-sales embargo. The arms embargo became a serious problem for Iran during its decade-long war against Iraq from 1979 to 1989. The Iranian need for more and better weapons intersected with the desire by certain elements of the Reagan Administration to assist the Contras, a group of anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. Since both assisting the Contras and selling weapons to Iran had been prohibited by Congress, members of the Reagan intelligence apparatus covertly sold weapons to the Iranians and funneled the proceeds to the Contras. When these secret arms sales surfaced in 1987, there was a major scandal in the Reagan administration known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Eventually, Colonel Oliver North and several other officials were convicted of various crimes. Many of them were later pardoned.
Further complicating the relationship over the years has been Iran’s sponsorship of various terrorist organizations and actions. Most notably, the Iranian government has supported the Hezbollah organization, which has had a hand in many notorious terrorist attacks, such as the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen. The United States has had a policy of opposing both terrorism and state sponsorship of terrorist acts, leading to a nearly constant low-level tension between the two countries since the 1980s.
More recently, the relationship between Iran and the United States has focused on the U.S.-led effort to prevent Iran from procuring or developing nuclear weapons. In 2015, the United States, Iran, and several other countries agreed to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement that would prevent nuclear proliferation by Iran and would, in exchange for Iranian compliance, relax international economic sanctions against Iran. The agreement remained in force for nearly three years until President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018. President Trump cited the JCPOA as “a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made” and ended American participation in the agreement. Even more recently, tensions increased again after a drone strike by the U.S. Air Force in Iraq resulted in the death of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Division and a major player in the Iranian military. In response, the Iranian government launched a number of missiles against Iraqi air bases housing American servicemen, doing some damage but inflicting no casualties.
For 65 years, Iran and the United States have existed in a tense relationship. In recent days, it has been more strained that usual. However, as we have seen, there is the chance to coexist peacefully if the leaders involved remain calm and continue to be dedicated to achieving that peaceful state.