How Did US-Iran Relations Get So Bad?

Laura Mackenzie

7 mins

20 Jan 2020

Donald Trump’s authorisation of the 3 January 2020 targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, has pitched the Middle East to the brink of war.

While the assassination of the Iranian general represents an escalation of American aggression towards Iran, it was not an isolated event. The U.S. and Iran have been locked into a shadow war for decades.

Iranian protesters burn the U.S., Saudi Arabian and Israeli flags in Tehran on 4 November 2015 (Credit: Mohamad Sadegh Heydary / Commons).

So what are the reasons for this enduring animosity between the U.S. and Iran?

Pinpointing the start of the problems

When the U.S. and other world powers agreed in 2015 to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions being placed upon its nuclear activity, it seemed as though Tehran was being brought in from the cold.

In reality, it was unlikely that the nuclear deal alone was ever going to be anything more than a Band-Aid; the two countries have had no diplomatic relations since 1980 and the roots of the tensions stretch even further back in time.

As with all conflicts, cold or otherwise, it is difficult to determine exactly when the problems between the U.S. and Iran began. But a good starting point are the years after World War Two.

It was during this time that Iran became increasingly important to U.S. foreign policy; not only did the Middle Eastern country share a border with the Soviet Union – America’s new Cold War enemy – but it was also the most powerful player in an oil-rich region.

During the Cold War, highly dangerous military stand-offs between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and their allies took place in total secrecy, underwater. Find out more in the documentary Silent War: The Battles Beneath the Sea on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

It was these two factors that contributed to the first major stumbling block in American-Iranian relations: the U.S. and UK-orchestrated coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

The coup against Mosaddegh

Relations between the U.S. and Iran were relatively smooth in the first few years after World War Two. In 1941, the UK and Soviet Union had forced the abdication of the Iranian monarch, Reza Shah Pahlavi (who they considered to be friendly towards the Axis powers), and replaced him with his eldest son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Pahlavi junior, who remained Shah of Iran until 1979, pursued a pro-American foreign policy and maintained more or less consistently good relations with the U.S. for the duration of his reign. But in 1951, Mosaddegh became prime minister and almost immediately set about implementing socialist and nationalist reforms.

Iran’s last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, is pictured with U.S. President Harry S. Truman (left) in 1949 (Credit: Public domain).

It was Mosaddegh’s nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry, however, that got the U.S. – and the CIA specifically – really concerned.

Established by Britain in the early 20th century, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was the British Empire’s biggest company, with Britain reaping the majority of the profits.

When Mosaddegh began nationalisation of the company in 1952 (a move approved by the Iranian parliament), Britain responded with an embargo on Iranian oil that caused Iran’s economy to deteriorate – a tactic that foreshadowed the sanctions that would be used against Iran in the years to come.

Harry S. Truman, the then U.S. president, urged ally Britain to moderate its response but for Mosaddegh it was arguably already too late; behind the scenes the CIA was already carrying out activities against the Iranian prime minister, believing him to be a destabilising force in a country that could be vulnerable to a Communist takeover – as well as, of course, an obstacle to western control of oil in the Middle East.

In August 1953, the agency worked with Britain to successfully remove Mosaddegh via a military coup, leaving the pro-U.S. Shah strengthened in his place.

Britain had been meddling in the Middle East long before it became involved in orchestrating the Iranian coups of 1941 and 1953. Find out more about its underhand activities in the region during World War One in the documentary Promises and Betrayals: Britain and the Struggle for the Holy Land on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

This coup, which marked the U.S.’s first covert action to overthrow a foreign government during peacetime, would prove a cruel twist of irony in the history of American-Iranian relations.

U.S. politicians today may rail against Iran’s social and political conservatism and the central role of religion and Islam in its politics, but Mossadegh, who their country worked to overthrow, was a proponent of secular democracy.

But this is just one of many such ironies that litter the two countries’ shared history.

Another huge one often overlooked is the fact that the U.S. helped Iran to establish its nuclear programme in the late 1950s, providing the Middle Eastern country with its first nuclear reactor and, later, with weapons-grade enriched uranium.

The 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis

It has since been argued that the U.S.’s role in the overthrow of Mossadegh was what led to the 1979 revolution in Iran being so anti-American in nature, and to the persistence of anti-American sentiment in Iran.

Today, the idea of “western meddling” in Iran is often used cynically by the country’s leaders to deflect attention from domestic problems and establish a common enemy around which Iranians can rally against. But it’s not an easy idea to counter given historical precedents.

The defining event of anti-American feeling in Iran is undoubtedly the hostage crisis that began on 4 November 1979 and saw a group of Iranian students occupy the U.S. embassy in Tehran and hold 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days.

Iranian student protesters enter the American embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979.

Earlier in the year, a series of popular strikes and protests had resulted in the pro-American Shah being forced into exile – initially in Egypt. Monarchical rule in Iran was subsequently replaced with an Islamic republic headed by a supreme religious and political leader.

The hostage crisis came just weeks after the exiled Shah had been allowed into the U.S. for cancer treatment. Then U.S. President Jimmy Carter had actually been opposed to the move, but eventually bowed to intense pressure from American officials.

Carter’s decision, coupled with America’s earlier interference in Iran, led to growing anger amongst Iranian revolutionaries – some of whom believed that the U.S. was orchestrating yet another coup to overthrow the post-revolution government – and culminated in the embassy takeover.

The ensuing hostage crisis went on to become the longest in history and proved catastrophic for U.S.-Iranian relations.

In April 1980, with the hostage crisis showing no signs of ending, Carter severed all diplomatic ties with Iran – and these have remained severed ever since.

From America’s perspective, the occupation of its embassy and the taking of hostages on embassy grounds represented an undermining of the principles governing international relations and diplomacy that was unforgivable.

In April 1980, Arab gunmen opposed to the rule of Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei (pictured) took over the Iranian embassy in London, seizing 26 hostages. Find out more in the programme Great SAS Missions: The Iranian Embassy Siege on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

Meanwhile, in yet another irony, the hostage crisis resulted in the resignation of the moderate Iranian interim prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and his cabinet – the very government that some revolutionaries had feared would be ousted by the U.S. in another coup.

Bazargan had been appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but was frustrated by his government’s lack of power. The hostage-taking, which Khomenei supported, proved the last straw for the prime minister.

Economic repercussions and sanctions

Before the 1979 revolution, the U.S. had been Iran’s biggest trading partner along with West Germany. But that all changed with the diplomatic fallout that followed the hostage crisis.

Late in 1979, the Carter administration suspended oil imports from the U.S.’s new enemy, while billions of dollars in Iranian assets were frozen.

Following resolution of the hostage crisis in 1981, at least a portion of these frozen assets were released (though exactly how much is dependent on which side you talk to) and trade resumed between the two counties – but only at a fraction of pre-revolution levels.

Things hadn’t quite reached rock bottom for the two countries’ economic ties just yet, however.

Smoke rises following the bombing of barracks housing U.S. and French peacekeepers in Beirut in 1983. The Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hizbollah was blamed for the attack and the U.S. subsequently imposed sanctions on Iran.

From 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s administration imposed a series of economic restrictions on Iran in response to – among other things – alleged Iranian-sponsored terrorism.

But America continued to buy billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil every year (albeit through subsidiaries) and trade between the two countries even began to increase following the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988.

This all came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s, however, when U.S. President Bill Clinton imposed broad and crippling sanctions against Iran.

Restrictions were eased a bit in 2000, in a modest nod to the reformist government of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, but concerns over Iran’s development of nuclear energy subsequently led to new sanctions targeting individuals and entities believed to be involved.

Proponents of sanctions argue that they forced Iran to the negotiating table over both the hostage crisis and the dispute over nuclear energy. But the economic measures have undoubtedly also exacerbated the poor relations between the countries.

The impact of sanctions on Iran’s economy has fomented anti-American feeling amongst some Iranians and only served to bolster the efforts of Iranian politicians and religious leaders in painting the U.S. as the common enemy.

Today, the walls of the compound that formerly housed the American embassy in Tehran are covered with anti-U.S. graffiti (Credit: Laura Mackenzie).

Through the years, chants of “Death to America” and the burning of the Stars and Stripes flag have been common features of many protests, demonstrations and public events in Iran. And still occur today.

American sanctions have also limited both the economic and cultural influence of the U.S. on Iran, something that is quite extraordinary to see in today’s ever globalising world.

Driving through the country, you won’t come across the familiar golden arches of McDonald’s nor be able to stop off for a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks – all American companies that have a significant presence in other parts of the Middle East.

Going forward

Since the early 2000s, U.S.-Iranian relations have come to be dominated by American allegations that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

With Iran consistently denying the allegations, the dispute had entered something of a stalemate until 2015 when the issue looked to have finally been resolved – at least temporarily – by the landmark nuclear deal.

U.S.-Iranian relations seems to have come full circle following the election of Trump (Credit: Gage Skidmore / CC).

But relations between the two countries appear to have come full circle following the election of Trump and his withdrawal from the agreement.

U.S. economic sanctions on Iran were reinstated and the value of the Iranian rial plummeted to historic lows. With its economy deeply damaged, the Iranian regime showed no sign of caving and instead responded with its own campaign to force the lifting of sanctions.

Relations between the two countries have been teetering on the edge of calamity since Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign, with both sides ramping up their aggressive rhetoric.

Featured image: Qasem Soleimani receiving the Zolfaghar Order from Ali Khamenei in March 2019 (Credit:  Khamenei.ir / CC)