A history of U.S.-Iran relations

John Ghazvinian, interim director of the Middle East Center and an expert on Iran/U.S. relations, talks about the countries’ historical relationship and what led to the current situation.

Pedestrian on the sidewalk walking past the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran.
The former U.S. embassy in Tehran.

A week after a United States drone strike killed a prominent Iranian military commander, it appears that both nations are de-escalating tensions. Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. positions in Iraq earlier this week led to no casualties, and despite tough talk, neither country is moving forward with military conflict.

John Ghazvinian, interim director of the Middle East Center and an expert on Iran/U.S. relations, has a new book slated to publish later this year called “America and Iran: A Passionate Embrace, from 1720 to the Present.” He spoke to Penn Today about the countries’ historical relationship and what led to the current situation.

What was the relationship like between the U.S. and Iran before the 1979 revolution?

The United States and Iran have had a very long relationship. I think one of the things that is frequently missed is how deep that relationship is. There is a tendency among people who study this history to fixate on two canonical dates: 1979 and 1953. The former being the Iran hostage crisis, when radicalized students stormed the U.S. embassy and took American diplomatic personnel hostage for over a year, and the latter being the year in which the CIA-backed coup against the popular and constitutionally elected Prime Minister Mossadegh. I think that’s a shame because there’s a much longer and richer history that precedes 1953 or 1979.

There is a long history of mutual fascination and admiration dating back to the 18th century, when colonial Americans had a sort of romanticized image of Persia, and dating into the late 19th century, when generations of Iranian reformists were fascinated by and inspired by American democracy and constitutionalism.

Probably the highest point in the relations between the two countries came in the first 20 years of the 20th century, when you had a very popular treasurer general by the name of Morgan Shuster, who was sent over in 1911 to reorganize Iran’s finances and became a sort of hero to the Iranian constitutional movement. As well as in 1919, when the Wilson administration quite forcefully and vocally opposed British attempts to turn Iran into a de facto protectorate. There were pro-American riots in the streets of Iran in 1919. That’s only 100 years ago. That was the world that was lost after 1953, and I think too much of a fixation on recent events and times obscures that fact that this has been a long and very positive relationship in many ways.

What led to the 1979 revolution?

In 1968, the British announced they were going to move out of all of their positions in the Middle East east of Suez by 1971. The United States found itself during that same period fighting a very difficult war in Southeast Asia, and the general approach of both the Johnson and Nixon administrations was to try to identify regional proxies. They identified Saudi Arabia and the shah of Iran.

Iran had been a close ally of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s as well, but by the 1970s that alliance became much more robust. It happened to coincide at a time during which the shah’s rule became increasingly dictatorial, as well as a time when vast sums of money were flowing into Iranian coffers following the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which Iran did not fully observe and benefitted from enormously financially.

You had an economy that was overheating, an increasingly corrupt elite, an increasingly dictatorial ruler, and an increasingly close relationship of those elites with the United States, and that was not a good combination. It resulted in an enormous backlash in 1979. You also had in the 1970s the increasing religiosity, part of a broader regional trend toward Islamist political ideologies. All those things combined it sort of is what became to be known as the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Why did things become tense after the revolution?

The revolution didn’t start out as an anti-American revolution, and that’s one of those things that’s easy to forget about. It was an Iranian revolution; it was a revolution against the shah first and foremost. However, the shah was very closely associated with the United States. He was perceived as having owed his throne to the CIA, which was a bit of an exaggeration, but popular opinion saw him that was as the United States gave vigorous backing to the shah in the 1970s.

It could have remained a largely anti-shah revolution, but there were unfortunately a few missteps by the United States during the revolution. The Carter administration tied itself closely to the shah, was relatively restrained in its criticisms of the Shah, right down to the bitter end, certainly gave the impression of wanting to preserve his regime in place for as long as possible. Even after the revolution the U.S. seemed somewhat tone deaf to what had happened. The big mistake that was made in the end of October 1979 was the admission of the shah to the United States for cancer treatment, which helped set off the hostage crisis. That is the history that is more familiar to people.

Relations were formally severed in April 1980 in the midst of that hostage crisis, and they’ve never been re-established since.

Why have relations never been re-established?

That is a very large and complex question but it’s gone in waves. It’s never been a friendly relationship of course, but it has often been the case that when one country was more interested in rapprochement and moderation, the other seemed unready in some way or another.

In very broad brushstrokes I would say in the 1980s it’s easier to look at Iran as sort of the recalcitrant element in the story, but I would say since the 1990s the United States more often has been the recalcitrant actor in the story.

In the 1980s, Iran was in its most radical phase. It was the Reagan administration that was quite keen to find backdoor channels to Iran’s more moderate leadership in the form of weapons sales which they hoped would pave the way to better relations. Of course this blew up in everyone’s face in the form of the Iran-Contra scandal, but it’s easy to forget now that Ronald Reagan came on the air in 1986 in a televised address to the American people to explain what had happened and among other things said what I’ve always found a rather memorable phrase. He said, “Between Iranian and American basic national interests, there need be no permanent conflict.” He said the Iranian revolution is a fact of history. That’s the kind of language we haven’t seen much from American presidents since.

In the 1990s, it was different. A reform-minded president was elected and served two terms in Iran, Mohammad Khatami, who was a sort of darling of western liberals for some time for his intellectual, open, friendly-faced kind of approach to the Islamic republic and his attempts to merge his deep ideological commitment to the Islamic revolution with his deep admiration for the western philosophical tradition, for civil society, and for openness.

He did a famous interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in which he lavished praise upon American culture, American history, and American constitutionalism and expressed regret for the hostage crisis.

At the time the Clinton administration was caught a little on the back foot partly because they didn’t know what to make of him and partly because they were distracted by the Monica Lewinsky crisis and moved a little bit too late and in a slightly ham-fisted kind of way to support Khatami. By the time they did, Khatami was increasingly being weakened by hardline enemies at home, and the U.S. inadvertently gave the impression that they were trying to sow division in Iranian politics by supporting one faction against the other, so it backfired. A more hardline president was elected in Iran in 2005, coinciding with a more hardline administration in the United States.

What has caused the escalating tensions we have seen in recent weeks?

I want to emphasize that I have never thought that the United State and Iran were going to go to war, and I think events of recent days have proven that that is true.

I think there’s been a tendency to think this administration has been fixated on war and regime change in Iran. Regime change? Possibly. War? No. I think that their approach has always come out of a genuine belief that they can actually get a better deal with Iran. I think that there’s a belief if they apply enough pressure to Iran there can come a point in which the Iranians will back down, will capitulate, and will give in completely and come to the table to renegotiate a whole different deal even more favorable to the U.S. Then Trump can claim a victory and say that Obama was weak.

It’s not a realistic strategy at all. If you know anything about Iran or the Islamic Republic, you know that is simply not going to happen. It is not within the logic of the revolution or the current leadership or how they came to power to simply capitulate to the United States in that way. It’s not going to happen.