US involvement in Iran is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until after World War II, Britain was the predominant Western power in the region.
- American and British interests in Iran were aligned; both supported the Shah and his pro-Western policies. Oil concessions were negotiated on terms favorable to the British-held Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, similar to those enjoyed by the US Arab-American Oil Company in nearby Saudi Arabia.
- In 1953, with the Shah’s power and British oil interests imperiled by Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, the CIA helped British Intelligence foment a coup in Tehran. The coup removed Mossadegh and reinstalled the unpopular Shah.
- During the 1950s and 1960s, the US built up its military presence in the region, maintaining several large naval carrier groups in and around the Persian Gulf.
- In 1971, Britain removed its forces from the area, leaving the US develop what became known as its Twin Pillar strategy for the region: bolstering Iran and Saudi Arabia as the two “pillars” of American influence.
The US and the Islamic Republic of Iran
In 1979, discontent with the Shah’s autocracy, corruption, and Western loyalties erupted into a revolution.
- With the toppling of the Shah and the seizure of the American Embassy, the US was rendered powerless in the new Islamic Republic.
- In response, the US expanded its military presence throughout in the Middle East by supplying friendly Arab regimes and gaining access to bases in the region.
- The US also sought to isolate Iran with sanctions; all formal diplomatic channels between the two countries were closed.
- The US and Iran fought proxy battles in the region, resulting in American casualties at the hands of Iran-backed terrorists in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
- The two countries also skirmished in the Persian Gulf, where the US mistakenly shot down an Iranian commercial airliner.
- Oil often played a part in the drama, as seen in the oil embargo of the 1970s that took a toll on both economies.
- The only significant dialogue between the US and Iran during this period resulted in the ill-fated Iran-Contra Hostage Crisis.
The US-Iran-Iraq Triangle
- During the Cold War, the US played historic enemies Iran and Iraq against each other in an effort to keep Soviet influence out of the Gulf.
- When Iran and Iraq went to war in the 1980s, the US supported Iraq. In response, Iran fomented proxy terrorist attacks in Lebanon, where suicide bombings succeeded in driving the US from the country.
- Soon, US policy turned against Iraq as well, and the US treated both Iran and Iraq as states hostile to American interests. Sanctions were imposed on both, and military intervention was undertaken against Iraq in the first Gulf War.
- In the 1990s and early 2000s, both nations were suspected of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Further inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were conducted in Iraq, and its seeming lack of compliance led to the American invasion in 2003.
- The 2003 war removed Saddam Hussein, one of Iran’s greatest enemies in the region, from power, and elections in Iraq ultimately resulted in a Shia-dominated government. As the world’s first Arab Shia state, it was natural that Iraq would gravitate toward the Persian Shia state next door.
- US-Iranian tensions increased as a result of suspected Iranian involvement in the ongoing conflict in Iraq, including Iranian support for terrorist groups in the region.
- Concern over Iran’s increasing nuclear activity resulted in the imposition of broad sanctions and an increase in inspections, similar to what had been imposed against pre-war Iraq.
Iran and the Global War on Terror
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Iran presented a particular challenge to US leaders as they developed plans for the war on terror.
- Immediately following 9/11, Iran’s leaders expressed sympathy toward the United States and officially suspended anti-American rhetoric in state speeches.
- Iran has traditionally feared Sunni extremist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda as much or more than the US, and almost went to war with the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996.
- As the US prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran was immensely helpful to Washington, providing key connections to the Taliban’s foes in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance. The early months of the war saw considerable US-Iranian cooperation, from help with US troop logistics to Iranian offers to conduct search and rescue missions for American pilots.
- Iran was probably instrumental in negotiating the installation of Hamid Karzai as the President of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Both Washington and Tehran sent representatives to Geneva to plan for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
US-Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan was part of a broader rapprochement that had taken place between Iranian President Khatami and President Clinton.
- However, in January 2002, President Bush invoked the name of Iran in his Axis of Evil speech, which ignited violent anti-American protests in Iran and humiliated the Khatami Administration.
- The US-led invasion of Iraq exacerbated tensions as Iran became more involved in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
- Washington and Tehran entered a “new Cold War,” complete with mutual suspicion and efforts to contain each others’ power in the region.
- Skirmishes took place via Iranian proxies in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories, and Lebanon.
- In 2003, Iran was identified by the IAEA to be in violation of its nuclear obligations under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Subsequent inspections revealed a decades old clandestine program to create nuclear weapons capacity. The US enacted unilateral sanctions and campaigned for multilateral sanctions in the United Nations Security Council.
The US-Iran-Israel Triangle
- The US is Israel’s biggest supporter, providing billions of dollars of military aid.
- Iran is perhaps Israel’s greatest foe, seeking through proxies to counter Israeli power in the Middle East.
- Having previously won several wars against hostile Arab states, Israel in 2006 and 2008 fought two wars only to a stalemate, against Iranian supported Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. These were perceived in the region as Iranian victories.
- Israel is a “non-official nuclear power,” meaning its nuclear weapons program is widely known, but not formally acknowledged. Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. It has never faced international sanctions, inspections, or discipline for having nuclear weapons. The international community has accepted the existence of Israel’s bomb with the informal understanding that it will only be used defensively.
A Climate of Mistrust
US-Iranian relations are characterized by deep mistrust.
- The Iranians blame the US for the 1953 coup that removed Mossadegh from power, which they believe was an egregious act of foreign intervention. American officials have issued a quasi-apology for US involvement in the coup.
- The US harbors similar enmity over the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in the early months of the 1979 Revolution and the taking of US hostages. Though no hostages were harmed, the hostage-takers were viewed as heroes of the Revolution.
- The former American Embassy today houses a museum of Iranian grievances against the US and a training facility for the Revolutionary Guard. The museum store sells souvenirs of the hostage crisis, including “Documents from the US Espionage Den.”
- There are some in Iran who believe Al Qaeda to be an American creation designed to counter Shia influence in the world. Conspiracy theorists in Iran believe that 9/11 was orchestrated by the US and Israel to provide an excuse for sending American troops into the Islamic world.
- Official sermons in Iran are filled with references to the US as the Great Satan; billboards and crowds at rallies proclaim Death to America.
Next: Iran on the World Stage - US-Iranian Relations: US-Iranian Relations at the Start of the Obama Administration