Guide: The History of Iran-US Relations

Guide: The History of Iran-US Relations

The relationship between the United States and Iran has taken many turns. The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations since 1980, and they are currently entangled in a political conflict, as well as a longstanding military standoff with the American government imposing economic sanctions and a trade embargo against Iran, and both countries flexing their military capabilities.

The History of Iran-US Relations: From Alliance to Conflict

Early Relations Between the United States and Iran

During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Iran, then known in the Western world as Persia, considered the U.S. a more trustworthy foreign power than the perceived self-serving colonial interests of Britain and Russia. Nonetheless, the early US-Iran relationship remained positive during and after the Second World War, and further until the later years of the government of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

It is also interesting to note that the American government assisted in creating the nuclear program of Iran. To be specific, as part of its Atoms for Peace initiative, the U.S. provided Iran its first nuclear reactor and nuclear fuel in 1957. The Americans further provided weapons-grade enriched uranium after 1967. Western European governments also participated in the U.S. initiative, thus giving the Iranian government further assistance.

Note that Mosaddegh was overthrown by a coup organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Intelligence Service or MI6. However, the Americans maintained a healthy alliance with the reigning Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. But the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew Pahlavi and saw the end of the Persian monarchy resulted in disagreements that drastically reversed the relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

Iran-US Relations During the Iranian Revolution of 1979

The stance of the American government toward Iran during the Iranian Revolution can be confusing for some. Remember that the U.S. supported the Shah. Because of this, 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 affecting Iranian culture.

However, the support for the Iranian monarchy was actually diminishing under the administration of U.S. President Kimmy Carter. The pronounced support of the Shah to the series of petroleum price increases made by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries starting in 1973 did not sit well with Carter and his government.

The Shah was eventually deposed and exiled in Egypt in February 1979. In late October of the same year, he went to the U.S. for cancer treatment. The Iranian government headed by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and leftists group demand for the American government to return the former monarch to Iran for trial and execution.

On 4 November 1979, a group of young Islamists who called themselves the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line barged in the U.S. embassy compound in Tehran, seized its facilities, and held 52 diplomats for 444 days. This incident marked the beginning of longstanding tension between the United States and Iran.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter issued Executive Order 12170 ten days after the hostage crisis in Iran had started. It effectively froze about USD 12 billion in Iranian assets held within the U.S. However, the Algiers Accords signed on 19 January 1981 eventually resulted in the release of the hostages and the partial release of the frozen assets.

Escalation of Tensions During the Iran-Iraq War

The relationship between Iran and the U.S. did not improve even after the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. During the Iran-Iraq War that began on 22 September 1980, the U.S. government under the administration of President Ronald Raegan opted to support Iraq by arming the Iraqi forces, establishing full diplomatic relations with Saddam Hussein, and pursuing sanction bills against Iran.

Several critical events marked the history of Iran-US relations during the Iran-Iraq War. For example, the U.S. government criticized Iran for supporting the Islamist group Hezbollah, which was allegedly responsible for carrying out anti-American attacks since 1983. These attacks include the bombing of the 198 U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983 and the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983, among others.

There were attempts to repair relations between the two countries. For example, the Iran-Contra Affair Scandal that surfaced in 1986. A PBS report explained that senior officials of the Reagan administration facilitated arms sales with Iran despite an embargo. Then National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane explained that the transaction would improve Iran-US relations and increase American influence in the Middle East.

However, Iran and U.S. remained in conflict. Near the end of the Reagan administration, the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis on 18 April 1988 that involved a naval combat operation within the Iranian territorial waters in retaliation to the mining of the Persian Gulf. The tension worsened when the U.S. Navy via the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988 and killed 260 civilians.

From Goodwill Gesture to the Axis of Evil Branding

The administration of President George H. W. Bush that spanned from 1989 to 1993 marked another attempt to establish goodwill with Iran. During his inaugural speech on 20 January 1989, he announced a “goodwill begets goodwill” gesture. Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser of the Bush administration, said in 1991 that it was likely to reduce sanctions Iran, take it off from the terrorist list, and extend compensation from the Flight 655 incident.

No positive developments emerged between the two countries under the Bush administration. When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Iran-US relations became more problematic due to the dual containment foreign policy of the U.S. The administration saw an opportunity to contain Iran and Iraq to ensure no single country would become powerful in the Middle East. The U.S. specifically placed Iran under a trade embargo in 1995 and actively appealed to European countries and Japan to deny the country access to global capital and arms markets.

Tensions escalated further under the administration of President George W. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the president gave his infamous “Axis of Evil” speech on 29 January 2002 that included Iran alongside Iraq and North Korea as part of a so-called axis of evil. He said that the proliferation of long-range missiles in these countries constituted terrorism and endangered the national security of the U.S. The speech outraged the Iranians.

Concerns about the nuclear program of Iran started to surface in 2003. The U.S. government alleged that Iranians were developing nuclear weapons. However, Iran maintained that its nuclear program centered solely on electricity generation. The Bush administration still imposed sanctions against Iranian institutions beginning in 2006 alongside covert operations aimed at destabilizing the religious leadership in the country.

Modern Developments in the History of Iran-US Relations

There were some positive developments between the two countries under the administration of President Barack Obama. After several standoffs, Iran, the permanent members of the United Nations, and the European Union signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran Nuclear Deal. Under the deal, the U.S. would lift the sanctions on Iran while the Iranian government would agree to give up its nuclear program and allow UN workers to conduct regular facility inspections.

However, beginning the administration of President Donald J. Trump in 2017, numerous events strained Iran-US relations once again. Executive Order No. 13769 signed in January 2017 banned Iranian citizens and others from entering U.S. soil. President Trump also slammed the Iranian Nuclear Deal, calling it the “worst deal ever negotiated.” He decided to pull out of the deal in May 2018, thus announcing he would reimpose economic sanctions later that year.

Tensions escalated beginning in May 2019 when the U.S. deployed military assets to the Persian Gulf after receiving reports that Iran and its proxy militias were planning to target U.S. forces in the Gulf region and control oil shipping across the Strait of Hormuz. The two countries exchanged threats and counter-threats alongside key events such as the incident over the Gulf of Oman in May and June 2019, the shoot-down of U.S. throne by Iranian forces in June 2019, and attacks in American bases in Iraq by militias groups allegedly supported by Iran.

Nonetheless, one of the highlights of the history of Iran-US relations under the Trump administration was the assassination of Qasem Soleimani on 3 January 2020. Dubbed as one of the most powerful figures in Iran and the Middle East, Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Forces, a unit specializing in unconventional warfare, extraterritorial military, clandestine operations, and military intelligence. The Trump administration explained that the top Iranian general had been planning further attacks on American diplomats and military personnel


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