Defusing the Bomb: A Historical Look at US-Iran Relations

(from the November issue)

By Vishal Narayanaswamy


Iran is a country that often strikes fear in the hearts of many
Americans. In the past few decades, the theocratic state has spearheaded an internationally-condemned nuclear program and made itself a sworn enemy of the West. However, at the United Nations General Assembly in September, newly-elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced his intentions to reopen negotiations over his country’s nuclear program. At its core, this move seeks to resolve lingering tensions between the US and Iran. In this time of both uncertainty and optimism, it is important to look back on the storied history of US-Iranian relations.

The tensions between Iran and the west can best be described as stemming from mutual distrust. Following the discovery of large petroleum reserves in southern Persia in the early 20th century, British investors flocked to Iran. Economic agreements between the British and the Iranians declined in the 1950s as the Iranian population voiced dissent against British hegemony in the region. These anti-imperial feelings prompted Iranians to elect Mohammad Mossadeq, a proponent of Iranian sovereignty, as Prime Minister in 1951. In 1953, a coup d’état secretly orchestrated by British and American intelligence services deposed Mossadeq and installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the monarchical Shah of Iran.

Under the Shah, the Iranian government forged close ties with the United States and reversed the oil nationalization seen under Mossadeq, inadvertently fueling a strong opposition movement. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the Shah lived in splendor while ruling his country with an iron fist. As protestors decried his luxurious lifestyle and non-democratic rule, Pahlavi used the secret police force SAVAK to torture and execute the regime’s opponents. In no time at all, Iran descended into chaos. In 1979, the Shah was driven out of power by an Islamist-backed popular revolution. A religious cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini, who had served as the figurehead of the revolution, took control as Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran. It was in November of that year, when Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage, that the US and Iran severed formal diplomatic ties. The Revolution and its lingering effects, as seen in the 2012 film Argo, are mainly the cause of today’s diplomatic stalemate.

In the past few decades, several events have further contributed to the US-Iran split. The two sides have long engaged in covert tactics that have fueled mutual disengagement. In the 1980s, Iran fought a decade-long war with Iraq, a country that was supplied chemical weapons by the United States. The accidental destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf by an American missile cruiser in the midst of the war only further exacerbated tensions. As recently as October 2011, the Iranian government has been connected to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and a botched plot to assassinate a Saudi Arabian ambassador on US soil. The two nations have mainly been at odds over Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran has historically claimed is for peaceful energy purposes only. Under the leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the last decade, Iran has seemed poised to utilize this nuclear development for offensive purposes against countries like Israel. Additionally, Iran’s crackdown on protestors in 2009 has led to international economic sanctions against the regime.

President Rouhani’s appeal to the UN represents a chance for peace and potential solution to the tensions between the US and Iran. The two nations must acknowledge their respective pasts in order to avoid the dangers of continued covert action and nuclear development. An approach guided by respect and trust can successfully avoid the historical problems of US-Iranian relations. Indeed, diplomatic engagement with Iran, rather than isolation through sanctions, may turn the Ayatollah’s frightening regime into a friendlier ally in the future.



Vishal Narayanaswamy (’15) is a junior and contributor to The Sword & Shield. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s