How Did US-Iran Relations Get So Bad?

Laura Mackenzie

8 mins

28 Aug 2018

Donald Trump has been giving off some rather mixed messages when it comes to Iran lately. After pulling the United States out of a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran earlier this year, he then offered to meet with the Iranian president at the end of last month – without preconditions.

Though made in Trump’s typically off-the-cuff style, the offer suggested that relations may be thawing between the two countries and presidents. But, never one for consistency, within days the US president was back at it again with the anti-Tehran rhetoric, tweeting that anyone doing business with Iran would “NOT be doing business with the United States”.

It’s easy to dismiss such statements as reckless blundering by Trump, especially given his poor track record when it comes to diplomacy. But anti-Iran rhetoric is hardly new for the US – and vice versa. In fact, it was Trump’s offer to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without preconditions that was arguably the most surprising of the two comments.

Iranian protesters burn the US, 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 US and Iran?

Pinpointing the start of the problems

When the US 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. But not only had the deal proved a hard slog to seal, it had also largely been framed by the US as the best chance of containing the threat from Iran rather than being the overture to a blossoming friendship.

Although Barack Obama famously shook hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the UN general assembly that year, a meeting between the then US president and Rouhani never materialised – despite the reams of column inches devoted to whether or not one would happen.

Diplomats announce the Iran nuclear agreement on 14 July 2015. US Secretary of State John Kerry is on the far right, while Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is third from right. Credit: / Commons

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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US and UK-orchestrated coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

The coup against Mosaddegh

Relations between the US 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 US 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 US President Harry S. Truman (left) in 1949.

It was Mosaddegh’s nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry, however, that got the US – 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 US 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-US 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 US’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; US 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 US 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 US’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 US 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 US for cancer treatment. Then US 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 US 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 US-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 the US’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 US 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 US 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 US’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 US and French peacekeepers in Beirut in 1983. The Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hizbollah was blamed for the attack and the US subsequently imposed sanctions on Iran.

From 1983, US 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 US 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 US as the common enemy.

Today, the walls of the compound that formerly housed the American embassy in Tehran are covered with anti-US 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 US 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, US-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.

US-Iranian relations seems to have come full circle following the election of Trump. Credit: Gage Skidmore / Commons

But relations between the two countries appear to have come full circle following the election of Trump and his withdrawal from the agreement. US economic sanctions on Iran were reinstated just this month and the value of the Iranian rial has plummeted to historic lows.

Meanwhile, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejected Trump’s recent offer of unconditional talks and turned on the government of reformist Rouhani, accusing it of mismanaging the economy in the face of the reimposed US sanctions.

It seems a case of one step forward, two steps back for US-Iranian relations.