Key Historical Facts
1. 1953 - U.S. coup destroys Iranian democratic movement to protect Big Oil profits
2. 1950s-1978 - U.S. supports Shah's dictatorship
3. 1979 - U.S. embassy personnel captured
4. 1980 - Saddam invades Iran in 8 year war, supported by U.S.
5. 1983 - U.S. sends troops to Lebanon after Israeli invasion and supports Israel, provoking nationalist attacks on troops with Iranian support
6. mid-1980s - Iran-contra fiasco increases mutual distrust
7. 1987 - U.S. shoots down Iranian civilian airliner
8. 1993 - U.S. campaign to isolate Iran
9. 1996 - terrorist attack against Americans in Saudi Arabia blamed on Iran
10. 1997 - U.S. offers negotiations with preconditions and Iran refuses
11. 1998 - Iran suggests cultural exchanges
12. 2001 - Iran helps U.S. defeat Taliban
13. 2002 - Bush labels Iran part of "axis of evil"
14. 2003 - Iran offers to negotiate all bilateral issues and U.S. refuses
In the heady early days of anti-colonialism just after WWII, an old but liberal patriot, Mossadegh, decided to take his country into the modern world, so in 1953 he stood up to Big Oil and tried to nationalize the wealth his poor people needed to modernize. Big Oil, Washington, and London were of course infuriated at this insolence and when the conservative, landowning mullahs, who disliked democracy just as much as the Western elite, cut a deal with them, Washington and London were able to overthrow the patriots and put Iran firmly in their pockets for another generation.
Puppets of foreign powers tend to distrust their people, and the people tend to resent governance for the benefit of foreigners. This contradiction leads to a drift toward mutual extremism. The extremism of the Shah’s secret police generated the extremism of Khomeini. By the time the mullahs won power, they were no longer content to be simply rich landowners running a peasant society. Now, they wanted a Shi’ite calliphate. They wanted to lead both their own mistreated country and all of the outcast Shi’ite minority in Islam into a new society governed according to their own preferences – not under the thumb of Sunnis and certainly not under the thumb of Big Oil.
Events moved quickly. When hotheads kidnapped U.S. diplomats during the early, disorganized days of the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini saw his chance to cement his personal control over the new revolutionary regime by exploiting the crisis. Khomeini was able to seize control…at the cost of provoking extreme resentment in the U.S. Next, up-and-coming Iraqi dictator Saddam took advantage of the chaos of Iran’s revolution to attack, and Washington saw its chance to punish Iran by supporting Saddam. Global support for Iraqi aggression left Iran feeling that it could trust no one and would have to rely on itself for survival.
In the midst of the war with Iraq, the 1983 U.S. military intrusion into Lebanon that rapidly shifted from peacekeeping to supporting the Israeli invaders provoked Iran to provide support to the anti-Israeli uprising of the poor Shi’ite South Lebanon. The Lebanese nationalists not only formed an anti-Israeli resistance movement that battled Israel until it withdrew from Lebanon some 19 years after its 1982 invasion but also attacked a U.S. marine barracks, killing over 200. Americans, deep in denial, refused to see this attack as a Lebanese effort to defend its sovereignty provoked by the American pro-Israeli bias, deepening the gap in perceptions.
Iran’s foreign policy focus for the rest of the decade, however, was fighting Saddam – first resisting his invasion and then trying to get even. Playing both sides of the street, Reagan’s ludicrously inept efforts to sell arms to Iran even as the U.S. helped Iraq militarily only reinforced distrust on both sides. The U.S. not only armed Iraq but shot down an Iranian civilian airliner killing all 290 on board and refused to make a clear apology, thereby sending the signal that the U.S. attack had been not the claimed “accident” but an intentional act of state terrorism. Whatever the truth, the impact on Iranian perceptions was as negative as the impact on the US of the Soviet attack on a Korean airliner.
Both sides made occasional efforts to improve relations during the 1990s, but they were uncoordinated, inconsistent, and ultimately fruitless. In 1993 Clinton launched a campaign to isolate Iran. Clinton greeted the election to the Iranian presidency of Khatami in 1996 with a demand for preconditions as the price of diplomatic recognition (withdrawn after the Islamic Revolution). In 1997 Clinton requested Iranian help in solving a bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 that killed 19 Americans; argument about Iranian complicity in this bombing continues. In 1997 Clinton also offered negotiations – but with preconditions; Iran declined. In 1998, reminiscent of ping-pong diplomacy, Khatami advocated cultural exchanges to mitigate distrust.
9/11 changed the tone – temporarily toward cooperation, rapidly followed by U.S. hostility. Tehran immediately condemned al Qua’ida’s attack and followed up by helping the U.S. invade Afghanistan. Bush responded by insulting Iran twice – not only by calling it a member of an “axis of evil” but also by the fact that this put Iran on the same level as its despised enemy Saddam. Nevertheless, Iran offered to negotiate all bilateral issues in 2003, an offer the U.S. spurned, thereby fatally undermining the moderates, who suffered defeat in the next Iranian presidential elections; the U.S. continues to reject negotiations without preconditions, ie., it continues to demand Iranian surrender first, negotiations later.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq, even though this completed a U.S. military encirclement of Iran, Tehran acquiesced, occupying itself by supporting Dawa and SCIRI, the two leading Shi’ite parties making up Iraq’s government that the U.S. also supports.
With the lesson that non-nuclear enemies of the U.S. are subject to invasion now clear to all, Iran’s efforts to gain the technical ability to produce nuclear weapons intensified. Suggesting that security rather than a desire to commit aggression was indeed primary in Tehran’s reasoning, Iran and the European Union agreed that Iran would give up its uranium enrichment program, despite its legal right under the NPT to conduct it, in return for EU security guarantees, but the EU did not fulfill its side of the bargain. Later, El Baredei, head of the IAEA, proposed a deal giving Iran a full enrichment cycle plus monitoring. Washington appears to have been responsible for scuttling both plans.
After soft-spoken Khatami was replaced by outspoken Ahmadinejad, the tone of relations became characterized by inflammatory rhetoric and emotion on both sides. Ahmadinejad found irresistible the temptation to exploit the rising pro-Israeli bias in Washington and blatant Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people in order to portray himself as the natural leader of Mideast Islamic nationalism. Choosing to interpret this rhetoric, which was making Ahmadinejad’s political reputation in the Islamic world, as indicating an Iranian military threat against the regional superpower Israel, Israeli and U.S. advocates of nuclear war to protect Israel became steadily more strident. By 2007, Washington’s pressure on Iran was publicly intensifying, as Washington sought to excuse its increasingly obvious failure in Iraq by blaming its problems on Iran, as though neighboring Iran had no right to support its traditional friends in Iraq while the distant U.S. should have a free hand remaking Iraq.
The underlying reality of bilateral relations in the 21st century was determination in Washington to achieve dominance over the Mideast clashing with determination in Tehran to become a regional power that the world would treat with respect. Day-to-day relations by 2007 were focused on accusations by each side over the other side’s intentions, a problematic foundation for resolving disagreements after a half century of interactions leaving each side with a profound distrust of the other.