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“Iran and the United States” from Global Perspectives on the United States

(c) Berkshire 2007

Statistical Snapshot of Iran

  • Capital Tehran
  • Government type theocratic republic
  • Area 1.648 million sq km; slightly larger than Alaska
  • Population 68,688,433 (July 2006 est.)
  • Population below poverty line 40% (2002 est.)
  • Infant mortality rate male: 40.49 deaths/1,000 live births

    female: 40.1 deaths/1,000 live births (2006 est.)

  • Life expectancy at birth male: 68.86 years

    female: 71.74 years (2006 est.)

  • Unemployment rate 11.2% (2004 est.)
  • Literacy male: 85.6%

    female: 73% (2003 est.)

  • Internet users; % of population 7.5 million (2005); 10.9%
  • Languages Persian and Persian dialects 58%, Turkic and Turkic dialects 26%, Kurdish 9%, Luri 2%, Balochi 1%, Arabic 1%, Turkish 1%, other 2%
  • Religions Shi’a Muslim 89%, Sunni Muslim 9%, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i 2%
  • GDP—purchasing power parity (PPP) $561.6 billion (2005 est.)
  • GDP—per capita (PPP) $8,300 (2005 est.)
  • Military expenditures—% of GDP 3.3% (2003 est.)
  • Oil consumption 1.425 million bbl/day (2003 est.)
  • Roadways 178,152 km

Iran is a large, populous, oil-producing country that borders the western edge of the Middle East and the eastern edge of Central Asia. Unlike its Middle Eastern neighbors, Iran is not an Arab country, though it does have a significant Arab minority. Its predominant ethnolinguistic group is Farsi (Persian) speakers, who comprise approximately 55 percent of the total population and who populate the vast central plain of Iran. Minority groups such as Kurds, Azeris, Arabs, Baluchis, and others comprise the remaining 45 percent of the population. The Farsi-speaking majority has traditionally dominated political and economic life in the country, while the minority communities that ring the mountainous periphery have occasionally expressed separatist sentiments that the ruling government has suppressed. The country’s overall population is quite large, and it is beset with demographic challenges (in particular an overall age distribution where the largest percentage of the population is under the age of eighteen) that the current government will be pressed to address in the twenty-first century.

As a major oil producer, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and a major supplier of oil to Western Europe and Japan, Iran is an important country on the world stage. Moreover, in OPEC Iran has historically been a key “price hawk,” pushing for lower production levels to keep world petroleum prices high. Iran also occupies a strategic position geographically, in that it can partially control shipping access to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, and Iran is a regional military power.

Iran is the world’s largest Shiite Muslim country (Shiism, or Shia Islam, is a type of Islam practiced by roughly 10 percent of the world’s Muslims), and after the 1979 revolution, which created an Islamic republic guided by the principle of rule in accordance with Islamic law, Iran became a model for Shiite Muslims throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Mohammed Ruhollah Khomeni (1900–1989), the primary figure of the 1979 revolution, Iran designated itself as an example for all Shiite Muslims and began to support insurgent and revolutionary movements among Shiite populations in an array of countries in the Middle East. This strained its relations with certain neighboring countries, namely, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, as well as with the United States. However, after the death of Khomeini and because of the considerable demographic changes that had been under way since 1980, Iran began to normalize relations with important industrialized countries, invited Iranians who had emigrated during the 1979 revolution to return, and signaled a quiet interest in forging better relations with the United States. With U.S. president George W. Bush’s (served 2001–present) declaration that Iran was part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address and the United States’ toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq in 2003, however, relations between Iran and the United States have remained chilly.

History of Relations with the United States

Since 1979 Iran and the United States have had no formal diplomatic relations, instead relying on third-party diplomacy, and U.S. economic sanctions, instituted in response to Iran’s alleged support of international terrorism, remain in place. The election of Mohammed Khatami (b. 1943), a supporter of reform, to the presidency in 1997 had fueled hope for better relations between the two countries, but Bush’s designation of Iran as part of the axis of evil as well as ongoing concerns that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon have signaled the return of acrimony between the two countries.

Modern Iran had its origins in a military coup that Reza Khan (1897–1944), the leader of the Persian Cossacks brigade, launched in February 1921. Reza Khan proclaimed himself Shah, or King, Reza Pahlavi in December 1925. In response to the shah’s expressions of affection for Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union occupied Iran from 1941 to 1945 and replaced the shah with his son, the crown prince Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980). Overall, however, U.S. involvement in Iran during World War II was limited.

The Mosaddeq Era, 1950–1953

After World War II, Iran was plagued by political turmoil, and in 1950 the pro-British Iranian prime minister, Ali Razmara, was assassinated. He was succeeded two days later by the nationalist but democratic politician Mohammad Mosaddeq (1880–1967). Mosaddeq, a descendent of a prominent landowning family, was a founder of the National Front, a prominent political organization in Iran, and advocated democratic reforms and halting British interference in Iranian affairs. To that end, he passed a bill that fully nationalized the holdings of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The British government loudly protested this move and plotted to undermine Mosaddeq through an international boycott of Iranian oil and a secret plan either to depose the prime minister or to invade Iran.

At first the United States expressed public support for Mosaddeq, regarding him as an effective counterweight to Iran’s growing Communist movement, but soon it began to regard Mosaddeq and the nationalization plans with suspicion. In 1953, the CIA received the blessing of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi for a plan to remove Mosaddeq, and the shah played his part by formally dismissing Mosaddeq. Military officers launched a CIA-planned and financed coup d’état on 22 August 1953; Mosaddeq was arrested, while the shah was made an absolute monarch.

After the coup, the United States forged a strong relationship with the shah based on mutual economic and strategic interests. During the ten years following the coup, the United States provided Iran with $300 million in economic aid and $600 million in military aid, while in 1955 Iran joined the Baghdad Pact, a coalition of anti-Soviet Muslim countries that included Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan. The United States helped secure World Bank loans for Iran, and the shah provided the United States with a steady supply of oil and purchased large amounts of U.S. military equipment.

The 1979 Revolution

In the early 1960s, the shah engaged in a series of reforms he dubbed the White Revolution. These reforms were an attempt to modernize Iran; they involved land reform for peasants, the enfranchisement of women, modernization of the economy and the national infrastructure, the creation of a secular education system, and literacy and birth-control programs. Though applauded by Washington, the White Revolution alienated traditional Iranians, particularly among the traditional merchant class and the Muslim clergy. A formidable opposition movement grew, and when in 1963 the shah’s parliament passed a bill that extended diplomatic immunity to U.S. military advisers, violent demonstrations flared. These demonstrations were led by the radical opposition cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Ruhollah Khomeini, a highly revered seminary teacher. The shah’s police violently suppressed the demonstrations, and Khomeini was exiled first to Turkey and later to Iraq.

In January 1978 seminary students and faculty staged a protest against the shah in response to an article criticizing Khomeini in a government-run newspaper. The shah’s police restored order by firing into the crowd, beginning a cycle of violence that would bring down the Pahlavi dynasty once and for all. Protests increased during the course of the year, culminating in an October strike by oil workers and a general strike in Tehran. The shah left the country for the United States in January 1979, ostensibly for a holiday, carrying with him the funds of the Iranian treasury, and Khomeini triumphantly returned in February.

The 1979 revolution brought to power a government that was extremely hostile to the United States and to U.S. interests. A constitutional referendum in 1980 established Islamic law as the governing principle of the newly renamed Islamic Republic of Iran. Power was to rest primarily with the chief religious expert of the country, which was Ayatollah Khomeni himself.

Later in 1979, a group of militant students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held the embassy staff hostage for 444 days, demanding that the United States return the shah to Iran to face prosecution. The United States responded by freezing all Iranian assets in U.S. banks, imposing sanctions on Iran, and terminating diplomatic relations. The hostages were finally released after the United States agreed to relinquish one-half of the financial assets banked by the shah in the United States.

Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988

A second source of strained relations between Iran and the United States was U.S. support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, a bloody conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than a million Iraqis and Iranians. Hoping to counter the regional power ambitions of the Islamic Republic, the United States provided tactical military aid to the Iraqi regime. Official Iranian propaganda harshly condemned the United States for supporting Iraq. However, by 1987 it had been revealed through U.S. Congressional hearings regarding the so-called Iran-Contra scandal that the administration of Ronald Reagan (served 1981–1989) had secretly provided military equipment to the Islamic Republic, at first in exchange for Iranian assistance in securing the freedom of U.S. hostages held by Iranian-backed guerrillas in Lebanon and later for money funneled to a pro-U.S. guerrilla group in Nicaragua. Relations were further strained in July of 1988 when the USS Vincennes, a warship patrolling the Persian Gulf, mistook an approaching Iranian passenger jet for a military aircraft and shot it down, killing all 290 passengers and crew onboard.

Relations after Khomeini

Iran agreed to a United Nations Security Council peace treaty with Iraq in 1988, and in 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini died. Khomeini’s death and the end of the Cold War in 1991 provided a unique opportunity to improve relations between Iran and the United States. U.S. president Bill Clinton (served 1993–2001) at first pursued a familiar adversarial relationship with Iran, and in 1996 the U.S. Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which imposed financial penalties on any foreign corporation that invested $40 million or more in Iran’s oil and natural-gas sectors. However, enormous changes were in the wind in Iran, and in 1997 the reform-minded Mohammed Khatami won a landslide victory in presidential elections. Washington was cautiously optimistic: it toned down its anti-Iran rhetoric, waived some provisions of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act for some European companies, and removed some warships from the Persian Gulf. All of these moves were celebrated by the Iranian people and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted that better relations with Iran could be built over time.

The hope for a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran was dashed when, in his 2002 State of the Union speech, George W. Bush labeled Iran part of an axis of evil (along with Iraq and North Korea) that posed a grave danger to the security of the United States and the world. Bush cited Iran’s continued support for international terrorism and its attempts to develop nuclear weapons as features that made Iran an enemy of the United States and Western civilization. The U.S. president’s comments sparked universal outrage in Iran, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 further inflamed negative attitudes toward the United States. Meanwhile in Iran, Khatami’s conservative critics won back control of the Iranian parliament in February 2003 and in August 2005 President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was elected, adding to the tensions between the U.S. and Iran, especially in regard to international concerns over Iran’s alleged attempt to build nuclear weapons and Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq.

Perspectives on the United States

In general, Iranian perspectives on the United States have been quite negative since the 1950s. Iranians resent U.S. involvement in the toppling of Mosaddeq and the reinstallation of the shah’s regime in 1953, U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq conflict of 1980–1988, and the United States’ long-standing alliance with Israel. In contemporary Iran, however, there are divisions between hard-liners, or conservatives, who regard the United States as the “Great Satan,” and moderates, or reformers, who support improving relations between the two countries. Moreover, in the early 1990s, affluent and educated Iranians who had migrated to the United States during the 1979 revolution began to return to Iran, and globalization has opened the Iranian economy to U.S. consumer goods and has exposed Iranian youth to U.S. popular culture.

But past events, coupled with a renewal of tensions after the September 11 attacks, have created a formidable barrier to rapprochement within Iran that scholars have come to refer to as a “culture of distrust.” For many Iranians, the United States is a malignant force constantly seeking to undermine their country. This perception is exemplified by a popular Iranian opinion regarding U.S. participation in the 1999 civil war in Kosovo. Though most Iranians favored NATO’s use of military force to protect the Muslim Kosovars from Serbian death squads, the United States’ participation in the action prompted open skepticism about the true intentions of the defensive operations. Many Iranians, having been conditioned to see the United States as the ultimate adversary of Iran and the Islamic Republic, wondered if the NATO intervention in the Balkans was really intended to block Iranian influence in the conflict—Iran had attempted to ship arms to Bosnian Muslims in the 1992-1995 war—and to stem the influence of Islamism in Europe.

Historical Roots of the Culture of Distrust

Popular Iranian opinion towards the United States had been quite positive prior to the ousting of Mosaddeq. Iranians had formed a favorable opinion of U.S. society through the example provided by U.S. teachers, missionaries, archeologists, and administrators. Moreover, many Iranians regarded the United States after 1945 as a bastion of freedom that they contrasted sharply with imperialistic Great Britain. The United States enhanced this image by supporting the principle that Iran had the right to control its own oil resources, but that goodwill was replaced by shock and outrage when the United States reversed course under President Eisenhower and replaced Mosaddeq with the unpopular shah.

To Iranians the United States had become an imperial power just like Britain, and the legitimacy of the shah’s regime was permanently damaged. Perceptions that the shah was a U.S. puppet were enhanced by the entry of Iran into the anti-Communist Baghdad Pact and by his unpopular, pro-Western economic and social reforms. Popular slogans from the 1979 revolution illustrate the resentment of many Iranians towards the United States: “death to America,” “The world-devouring, imperialist America,” and “America, the world arrogance.”

The new Islamic Republic, led by the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini, made liberal use of anti-U.S. propaganda. It publicly cast the United States as the Great Satan that sought to impose its immoral, secular values on the Muslim world, thwart the success of the Islamic revolution, and support Iran’s enemies, Israel and Iraq. Popular resentment against the United States grew during the “War of the Cities” phase of the Iran-Iraq War, when the United States provided satellite intelligence to Iraq, enabling Saddam Hussein’s military to target urban areas with missile attacks. Most Iranians lost family members or friends either at the front or in the War of the Cities, and hostility remained strong in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century.

Iranian Perceptions of the U.S. after Khomeini

The death of Khomeini set the stage for the growth of a reform movement that culminated in the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, a sweep of parliamentary elections by reformers in 2000, and Khatami’s reelection in 2001. Khatami and the reformers recognized that Iran could not afford to remain diplomatically and economically isolated from the United States. In a historic address to the American people, Khatami praised the achievement of U.S. civilization, hinted at sorrow for the 1979–1980 hostage crisis, and condemned terrorism. Washington was cautiously optimistic: It toned down its anti-Iran rhetoric, waived some provisions of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act for some European companies, and removed some warships from the Persian Gulf. All of these moves were celebrated by the Iranian people, and the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Madeleine Albright, noted that relations with Iran could grow better with time.

The reform phenomenon was underscored by momentous changes within Iranian society. Iranians had begun to connect with the United States through popular culture transmitted via satellite dish television and popular U.S. movies, and a large number of Iranians had worked or studies in the United States or remained in contact with the sizeable Iranian émigré community in Los Angeles. A baby boom in the late 1980s created a generation of young Iranians who were not alive during the shah’s regime and had no first-hand memory of U.S. interference in Iranian politics. Moreover, one prominent scholar on Iran described a creeping “revolutionary fatigue” among the Iranian public after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. There was a solid popular belief that the anti-U.S. rhetoric of the government could not continue to postpone discussions of Iran’s numerous social and economic problems.

September 11, Iraq, and the Nuclear Crisis

However, the terrorist attacks on the United States and events thereafter complicated the softening of hostilities and substantially strengthened the hand of anti-U.S. extremists in Iran. Iranians expressed public sympathy for the families of victims of the September 11 attacks through mass candlelight vigils and were initially sympathetic to the United States after the attacks, but popular resentment reappeared with the Bush Axis of Evil speech and the deeply unpopular 2003 war in Iraq. Iranians living and studying in the United States found themselves denied visas after September 11 and were subjected to intrusive scrutiny, and Washington politicians and political journalists began to suggest that after Iraq, Iran might be a military target in the war on terror. After 2001 most Iranians, while remaining open to rapprochement, resent being demonized by the United States. They also resent Washington’s blocking of International Monetary Fund loans, a position they feel punishes the ordinary Iranian citizen. Foreign journalists in Iran report that many Iranians feel threatened by the U.S. military presence in Iraq, seeing the occupied Iraq as a possible staging ground for an invasion of Iran, and popularly regard the United States’ actions after September 11, 2001 as a general war against Islam.These sentiments are reinforced by Iran’s heavily state-controlled media and were displayed in August 2004 public demonstrations against the United States organized by hard-line government officials. This has caused a conundrum for Iranians who hope to improve relations with the United States and has ensured that rapprochement between the United States and Iran remains far off.

Hopes for a revitalization of the Iranian reform movement and better U.S. relations were dashed when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline former mayor of Tehran, defeated the more moderate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the June 2005 presidential election. Endorsed by anti-U.S. clerics and supported by poor Iranians skeptical of Rafsanjani’s platform to further open Iran to international investment, Ahmadinejad shocked the United States and the West by publicly advocating the destruction of the state of Israel and stating that the Holocaust was “a myth.” However, these statements, and Ahmadinejad’s general anti-Western platform and persona, were well received by conservative and poorly educated Iranians who form the backbone of support for hardline politicians.

An ongoing source of tension between Iran and the United States—and the West in general—are Iranian plans to build nuclear facilities and enrich uranium. In 2004 the United States and the European Union alleged that Tehran was clandestinely building nuclear facilities in order to produce nuclear weapons in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while the Iranian government maintained that the nuclear program is intended for peaceful, commercial energy production. Efforts by the United States in 2006 to have sanctions imposed on Iran through the United Nations Security Council and rumors that Washington planned to conduct military strikes against suspected nuclear sites in Iran deeply frustrated many Iranians who believed that the real objective of the United States was to undermine Iranian national security, thwart Iranian economic, and perhaps military development and to provide political cover for U.S. intervention in the region.

James Piazza

Further Reading

  • Abrahamian, E. (1993). Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Bill, J. (1988). The eagle and the lion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Esposito, J., & Ramazani, R. K. (2001). Iran at the crossroads. New York: Palgrave.
  • Gasiorowski, M. (1990). U.S. foreign policy and the shah: Building a client state in Iran. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Keddie, N., &Richard, Y. (1981). Roots of revolution: An interpretive history of modern Iran. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Maloney, S. (2003). Ayatollah Gorbachev: The politics of change in Khatami’s Iran. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
  • Zonis, M. (1991). Majestic failure: The fall of the shah. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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