Opinion: A shorthand history of U.S.-Iran relations

Frederic S. Pearson
Protesters burn a U.S. flag during a demonstration over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 3, 2020.

U.S.-Iranian relations are conditioned by their mutual history, their individual leaders, and the geopolitics of the relevant nearby regions.

The relevant U.S.-Iran story begins around 1953, when the Eisenhower administration, along with Great Britain, covertly overthrew the democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossaddegh, who had nationalized the country's British-controlled oil industry. The shah/emperor, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was brought from exile to rule the country. Iran then joined a Western alliance aimed at opposing Soviet influence in the region. 

Many Iranians never got over the shock and bitterness of this “neo-colonial” implant. Though in many respects a modernizer, the shah ruled in a highly authoritarian and repressive manner, including the use of a secret police force called Savak.

Under the post-Vietnam War "Nixon Doctrine," the U.S. sought to build up strong regional powers to help repress revolutionary movements. The shah’s Iran was seen as an ally in the Middle East, and Washington lavished massive amounts of weaponry on his regime, even as the internal Iranian opposition continued to boil. Unexpectedly, in 1979, despite all its military capability, the shah’s government fell to a popular rebellion stirred by an exiled Shi’a Muslim religious leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. 

President Jimmy Carter initially tried to establish positive relations with the new “Islamic Republic of Iran.” However, he also took advice from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the architect of the Nixon Doctrine, not to renege on an old ally; the shah was invited into the U.S. for cancer treatment, infuriating the new Iranian regime and its thousands of youthful supporters. Strong protests erupted and the U.S. embassy was seized by the protesters, a clear violation of international law which prohibits the arrest or mistreatment of diplomats. 

Much of the world, even including the Soviet Union, agreed with the U.S. demands for the 52 captured diplomats to be released. Washington imposed financial sanctions on Iran, including a freeze on their assets in U.S. banks; the hostages were finally released but only to the incoming Reagan administration. 

Reagan spoke of more cooperative U.S.-Iranian relations, and eventually settled on a questionably legal scheme to seek Iranian help in freeing other U.S. hostages, including the CIA station chief in Lebanon. This became known as the Iran-Contra Affair, a failed attempt featuring the covert offer of U.S. arms to Iran, despite the 1979 sanctions, in return for money to fund “Contras” (rebels) to overthrow leftist Central American governments.

During the decade-long Iran-Iraq border war of the 1980s, the Iranians turned to, of all countries, Israel for needed U.S. military equipment, despite having labeled Israel, along with the U.S. and Soviet Union, as “Great Satans.” In 1988 the U.S. naval cruiser Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing 290 passengers. 

Iranian troops march at a military parade marking 39th anniversary of outset of Iran-Iraq war, in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019.

Washington’s Iraqi invasion in 2003 brought Shi’a political parties to power in Iraq, and resulted in a prolonged anti-American insurgency composed mostly of Sunni militants; some Shi’a militia, several with ties to Tehran, also harassed American forces. A region-wide Iranian-Saudi rivalry also ensued.

Arguably, Iraq would not exist as a separate country today without Iran's involvement in the anti-ISIS fight during the Obama administration. Additionally, given Saddam Hussein's overthrow by the U.S., it is not surprising that Iran, fearing “regime change” efforts, began in 2005 to develop its own nuclear weapon research, alarming a number of countries. 

Although responses ranging from preemptive military strikes to diplomatic sanctions or negotiations were considered, Washington finally concluded a six-country agreement, including NATO partners, Russia and Iran, to suspend Tehran’s weapons grade uranium processing for at least 10 years in return for an easing of economic and commercial sanctions, including a return of funds impounded in 1979.

An Iraqi soldier stands guard as smoke rises from a fire set by pro-Iranian militiamen and their supporters in the U.S. embassy compound, Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020.

One of the Trump administration’s first acts, however, was to withdraw from the agreement, blaming President Barack Obama for this “bad deal.” The other parties resolved to remain in the pact, until Tehran suspended all participation when a U.S. drone killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, whose forces had attacked some U.S. outposts, in early January 2020.   

The up-and-down U.S.-Iranian relationship, at times teetering on the brink of war, is highly complicated and fraught with historical memories; it cannot be characterized simply as black and white/good and evil. Recent developments indicate that with the crackdown on Iran and its militias, as well as Washington’s blow to Kurdish forces in Syria with the green light to Turkish occupation of their zones, the U.S. has essentially weakened the two most effective anti-ISIS forces, while stirring up massive anti-American popular responses in Iran, Iraq and Yemen.  

Frederic S. Pearson, is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University.