The relationship between Iran and the United States has taken many turns. Two countries have no formal diplomatic relations since 1980, and they have been involved in several political and military conflicts that involved economic sanctions, geopolitical maneuvering, and armed confrontations.
Factors Behind the Conflict Between Iran and the United States
1. Criticism of the Influence of the United States in Middle East Affairs
Note that the American government maintained a healthy alliance with the reigning Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, during the 1970s. Iran was also the foremost economic and military partner of the U.S. However, the Iranian Revolution took place in 1979, which overthrew Pahlavi and saw the end of the Persian monarchy.
The protesters perceived the reigning monarch as a puppet of a non-Muslim Western power, particularly the U.S. They also deemed that Western influence was negatively affecting Iranian culture. Hence, the aftermath of the revolution saw disagreements and a drastic reversal in the relationship between Iran and the United States.
Iranian-American policy analyst Karim Sadjadpour mentioned that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei considers the American government as an arrogant foreign power keen on establishing a global dictatorship and furthering its political and economic interests by dominating other countries and trampling their rights.
The Supreme Leader of Iran believes that an oppressive power such as the U.S. naturally views the Islamic system as an enemy and intolerable rival. Essentially, the conflict and confrontation between Iran and the U.S. are natural and unavoidable.
It is also worth mentioning that the U.S. government has constantly meddled with affairs in the Middle East and the Gulf, thus angering most Iranian figures. For example, the Clinton administration launched the dual containment foreign policy aimed at containing the influence of Iran and Iraq.
2. Designation of Iran by the American Government as a Terrorist
Throughout the history of Iran-US relations, the American government has repeatedly accused Iran and influential Iranian figures as terrorists and supporters of terrorist factions in the Middle East and the specific Gulf region. For example, the U.S. repeatedly criticized Iran for supporting the Islamist organization Hezbollah.
Several American courts have ruled that both Iran and Hezbollah were involved in several anti-American terrorist attacks abroad, including the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, the 1983 bombing of foreign military Barracks in Beirut, and the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
Note that Iranian general Qasem Soleimani has been credited for supporting and arming several proxy militias across the region. As the commander of Quds Forces, an Iranian military and intelligence unit, he was considered as one of the most influential figures in the Gulf. The Trump administration assassinated him on 3 January 2020.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. soil in 2001, President George W. Bush branded Iraq as part of the Axis of Evil alongside Iraq and North Africa during his 2002 State of the Union Address. Though al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, Bush noted that the three countries harbored long-range missiles that endanger American national security.
3. Alleged Nuclear Weapon Development via the Iranian Nuclear Program
Another important cause or reason behind the conflict between Iran and the United States is concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation in the Gulf region. It is important to note that the U.S. government assisted in creating the nuclear program of Iran.
The U.S. actually provided Iran its first nuclear reactor and nuclear fuel in 1957 as part of its Atom for Peace Initiatives. The Americans provided further weapons-grade enriched uranium after 1967. Western European governments also participated in the U.S. initiative, thus giving the Iranian government further assistance.
However, as the relationship between the two countries went south, the U.S. began suspecting in 2003 under the Bush administration that Iran was using its nuclear program to develop nuclear weapons. The allegations stemmed in part from studies conducted by Iranian researchers centering on military applications of its nuclear program.
Iran has repeatedly denied the accusations, maintaining that its nuclear program centered solely on electricity generation. Nonetheless, under the Obama administration, Iran, the permanent members of the United Nations, and the European Union signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran Nuclear Deal. The agreement marked an improvement in Iran-US relations.
But the Trump administration slammed the Iran Nuclear Deal and announced that the U.S. government would exit from the deal in May 2018. He also brought back the economic sanctions that were lifted under the terms of the agreement. The Iranian government noted that the American government violated the deal.
4. Iran and the Promotion of an Anti-American Stance to Repress Democracy
On the other hand, an op-ed article by journalist Laura Secor argued that the cause of conflict between Iran and the U.S. also comes from the need of the Iranian government for an external bogeyman. An anti-American and anti-Israeli stance provided the government with a pretext for repressing domestic democratic forces while binding the loyalty of hardliners.
Nader Hashemi, a subject-matter expert on Middle East affairs, also explained that Iran uses not only religious arguments but also anti-imperialist nationalism and neo-Stalinist repression to deflect human rights criticism, justify violence, and suppress democratic ideologies.
Criticizing Western culture and the dominance of its influence has enabled the Iranian government to establish and maintain a nationalist identity through the identification of what seems to be a common enemy. Essentially, the incessant meddling of the U.S. and other Western powers to Middle East affairs has provided Iran with reason to rally its people.
Remember that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believes that the conflict and confrontation between Iran and the U.S. are natural and unavoidable.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Ali, A. 2011. “Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani: A Biography.” Middle Eastern Outlooks. 1:2. Available via PDF
- Hashemi, N. 2019, December 18. “How Iran Justifies Violence.” The New York Times. Available online
- Indyk, M. 2009. Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East. New York: Simon & Schuster
- Sadjadpour, K. 2009. Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- Secor, L. 2009, April 1. “Charm Offensive.” The New Republic. Available online