A Legacy of Abuse: America’s Relationship with Iran

A hot topic issue, the Iran talks have provided Obama critics ample opportunities to make their voices heard.  Likewise, the overwhelming amount of criticism, blurring party lines, comes off of hostility towards Iran and an imagined existential threat aided by a strong hint of Islamophobia.  The Iran Nuclear Deal, facilitated by the P5+1, was arrived at after long months of negotiations and represents just the latest incident in the rather mutually-abusive relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Albeitly, this deal represents a more positive outlook and a desire for peace and lasting goodwill at the behest of Iran once again submitting to U.S. and international demands.  In this article I will examine the history, context, and legacy of U.S.-Iran relations and how they are characterized and shaped by a large power disparity.  

Iran can lay claim to being home of one of the world’s oldest civilizations; likewise, Iran has a long history of abusive relationships that have sullied her reputation and given way to forms of retaliation.  Iran’s national sovereignty and borders were violated by colonial empires, consistent with many of her neighbors in the Middle East and in Central Asia.   Again, like so many weaker nations, Iran was not allowed to remain neutral during WWII, being invaded and occupied by Anglo-Soviet forces due its strategic location and its supply of oil.  The relationship became more tense and coercive when Anglo-Soviets forces pressured the Shah to abdicate in favor of his young son, who would be easier to reign in with Allied demands.  The British and Soviets, along with Americans, continued to occupy Iran throughout the end of WWII.  The Soviets also backed and supported opposition and independence movements and founded a communist party in hopes of turning Iran in a communist state.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union emerged the unrivaled superpowers from the ashes of WWII.  Their battle for the monopoly on hegemony was re-enacted in many arenas: China, Germany, Vietnam, and the Middle East.  U.S.- Iran relations from the get-go were based upon an imbalance of power and the U.S.’s ability and willingness to use its strength and influence to achieve its demands.  In 1953, joint British and U.S. intelligence agencies orchestrated a coup d’etat to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq.  Mossadeq, elected in 1951, had begun instituting many reforms, but the most offensive to Western powers was the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, which had been controlled by British interests for 4 decades.  The coup came off the heels of notable Cold War losses for the U.S. in Asia: Korea and China.

The Shah, Mohammad Pahlavi, was marked by his predominantly secular rule and his desire to modernize and Westernize his country in effect to make it a global power.  Several elements of this included women’s suffrage and an expansion of availability of education.  The Shah enjoyed good relations with Western powers and was strongly backed to the point of military assistance by the U.S., he also had regional allies in Israel and Egypt.  Despite this, he sometimes shirked the sway and authority of the U.S. such as through Iran’s role in OPEC and his capitalization on the ‘73 oil crisis.  Given our own cultural values, we may view many of these elements as a positive for Iranians; however, the Shah’s rule was also characterized by his oppressive policies.  SAVAK, his secret police, was utilized to detain, silence through torture, or kill political opponents to the regime.  Many groups and organizations had their memberships razed by SAVAK, whether they were Islamic, communist, or democratic.  This harsh policy of human rights violations, coupled with the Shah’s symbolism of Western dominance continued to increase his unpopularity with many different elements of Iranian society.  

The period of the Shah’s rule signified a relatively stable yet unequal partnership between the U.S. and Iran.  With our ability for historical hindsight, we can see that political upheaval was inevitable, but the 1979 Islamic Revolution was one that surprised many in the international scene including U.S. intelligence.  Protests and demonstrations built up over the span of months and small amounts of fighting took place between revolutionaries and those loyal to the Shah’s regime; it was a quick, popular, and relatively non-violent revolution that stands as exception to the “Rule of Revolutions”.  The Shah, was ousted and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader, returned from exile, took power, and became the Supreme Leader under the newly founded Islamic Republic.  Perhaps the Revolution would’ve conveniently slipped by the attention of most of the American public, such as most Middle East events do, if not for the storming of the U.S. embassy and subsequent capture of 53 American diplomats who remained hostage for well over a year.  The hostage-taking, organized by Islamist students, came after the exiled Shah was admitted to the U.S. for cancer treatment.  The U.S. enacted sanctions against Iran and the relationship that was so precariously upheld through diplomatic coercion and the Shah’s regime came to an abrupt end.  The split and beginning of hostilities between the two countries became the dominant public memory of U.S.-Iran relations and their portrayal in American mass media that still persists today, as we can aptly note by the vitriolic reactions to the Iran deal.  

In 1980 President Carter did attempt to rescue the hostages in Operation Eagle Claw, which was more of a debacle than anything, and was cancelled due to numerous developmental problems that also saw 8 U.S. servicemen killed.  The hostages were later freed, minutes after President Carter’s term ended and Reagan’s started, within the ramifications of the Algiers Accord, a measure occurring within the context of the Iraqi invasion of Iran and the start of the Iran-Iraq War.  Achieving limited success early on, Iraqi forces were soon strongly repelled by Iran and began an offensive of their own, which began to devolve into a stalemate.  The Iran Hostage Crisis is considered a rather crowning moment in Carter’s presidency; likewise, Reagan’s legacy is also noted by his own Iran controversy (conveniently omitted by conservative narratives of their paragon).  The Iran-Contra Affairs was an attempt to negotiate the release of hostages held by Lebanese militants and to sully favor with Iran’s current regime.  To achieve this, U.S. arms would be traded and sold, through Israel, to Iran. The money then would be siphoned off and used to fund militant groups in opposition to Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista regime, violating both the U.S. arms embargo and the Boland amendment.  The scandal broke in ‘86 and ultimately the result being that the selling of U.S. arms to Iran and funding of the Contras was the primary successful elements of the dealings.  In 1988, an Iranian commercial jet was shot down by a U.S. cruiser, resulting in 290 deaths, further worsening relations.

During the 90’s U.S.-Iran relations continued in a downward spiral, culminating in increasing economic sanctions.  Iran again found itself a focal point of U.S. policy and potentially a target when President Bush gave his “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002, following the invasion of Afghanistan.  Iran was able to gain regional power and influence through both the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  From occupied Iraq, U.S. forces have been able to launch many intelligence operations into Iran despite protest from Tehran.  The past decade and a half have seen “tit-for-tat” incidents between the U.S. and Iran involving military excursions, drone surveillance, hostage-taking, opposition funding, and strong radical defamations of the other side.  The Iran-Deal, achieved not only by the back of the U.S. but also co-facilitated by leading members of the international community represents a landmark in relations.  Personally, I hope that it will set a framework for future relations that will be dictated by peace and diplomacy, rather than fear, force, and coercion.  It has and will continue to play a strong role in domestic politics well past through the September 17th vote and into the 2016 presidential election.  Therefore, I think it is paramount that all informed Americans and conscious should seek to educate themselves on the issue and its nuances.