Progress or Peril
The History and Implications of US-Iran Relations
- Despite some contacts occurring as early as the 19th century and an American teacher still being recognized over a century later for playing a central role in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution, the US-Iran relationship began in earnest in June 1941 when Allied forces seeking a land bridge to Russia removed Reza Khan, the first Shah, or king, of the Pahlavi dynasty, and replaced him with his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was perceived to be more amenable to Western interests. When the Second World War ended, Iran became an issue once again for the US and the UK when a populist Prime Minister leading a coalition that included a wide range of political factions galvanized popular opinion surrounding the lucrative British oil interests that had long had a deleterious impact on locals in a number of forms. The Shah, who had not faced popular political pressure until that point, fled the country amid unrest and was returned to power by the joint CIA-MI6 Operation Ajax, full details of which are still coming to light.
- Safely back on the throne, the Shah embarked upon a rapid social and economic modernization campaign that triggered protests in 1963 when an upstart cleric named Khomeini broke the tradition of separation between mosque and state. Once order was restored and Khomeini was sent to exile in neighboring Iraq, the Shah continued his campaign while simultaneously implementing a police state and embarking on a massive military development campaign fueled by soaring oil prices.
- By mid-1978, signs of potential domestic challenges to the Shah’s government had become clear and were driven by multiple factors, especially the perception that as the Shah held extravagant parties and hobnobbed with Western celebrities, economic inequality had left millions of Iranians behind. The decision by the Shah’s longtime critic Khomeini to move to France with his entourage of young Western-educated aides allowed him to have easier access to both world media and to an increasingly restive Iranian public. As unrest increasingly spiraled out of control and amid international pressure to leave the country, the Shah departed in January 1979 and 2,500 years of monarchical rule came to an end.
- Within months, the Carter administration’s decision to admit the ailing Shah for medical treatment sparked the taking of hostages at the US Embassy, which lasted for 444 days until Ronald Reagan took office. The American and European funding of Saddam Hussein and the supplying of his forces with conventional and unconventional weapons further affected US-Iran relations. However, the Reagan administration and Iran also engaged in the Iran-Contra negotiations that held larger importance than conventionally believed. Among the lesser-known aspects of the Iran-Contra story are the role Israel’s conservative government played in nudging Washington to pursue it and that then-junior diplomat and future President Hassan Rouhani met with White House officials led by National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane in Tehran in 1986 during the presidency of future Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Perhaps most striking is the late night White House tour given to the nephew and chief of staff of Iran’s powerful then-Parliament Speaker and future president by National Security Council official Oliver North in which they discussed larger strategic issues such as the future of Iraq.
- It was during the Reagan administration that Iran made the strategic decision to engage in the Civil War in Lebanon to organize the country’s Shiite population into the Hezbollah paramilitary force. Groups tied to Hezbollah were implicated in the captivity of Westerners and the 1983 bombing of the Beirut barracks housing US Marines and French forces present as part of a peacekeeping force. This gamble paid dividends when the Civil War ended in 1990 and Hezbollah became part of the post-war consensus that endures in ever more shaky form to this day.
- In 1990, the release of US hostages from Lebanon nearly prompted detente between the Bush administration and the Iranian president whose nephew and chief of staff had visited the White House for a late night discussion in 1986. However, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft’s urging that the discussions be pursued further was ultimately overruled in favor of a continued hard line.
- Under Bill Clinton, the US adopted a dual containment policy under which both Iran and Iraq were put under pressure. The surprise election of moderate Mohammad Khatami, who was more overtly and ideologically in favor of dialogue than his predecessor, who was primarily pragmatic in his approach, did not elicit the response from DC that some in Tehran had hoped it would.
- In 2001, Khatami, with the approval of the Supreme Leader, responded to George W. Bush’s call for global unity in the war on terror by sending their UN Ambassador Javad Zarif, who had been educated in the US by the same professors under whom US Secretaries of State Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright had studied, to provide information about Afghanistan and ties to the Taliban’s Northern Alliance adversaries that DC did not have on its own. Despite a still-controversial 2002 letter presumably sent by the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, who was also then-President Khatami’s nephew, offering a full and nearly unconditional reset in US-Iran relations, the Bush administration’s Axis of Evil speech scuttled any remaining possibility that the dialogue would continue let alone expand.
- The Iraq War rid Iran of its primary enemy in the region and allowed it to exert influence on the majority-Shiite country, while the surprise election of moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in 2013 allowed for a rare thawing of long-frosty ties with the US which had the approval of the Supreme Leader that all major decisions in Iran require, culminating in the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, popularly termed the Iran deal.
- At the same time that Rouhani was pursuing dialogue with the US and other nations, Iran made the strategic decision to intervene in Syria in support of the embattled Assad government, which eventually paid dividends when Russian intervention resulted in Damascus retaking most of the country from rebel forces.
- It is conventionally believed that the odds of sustained detente and perhaps eventual normalized relations in the long term between the US and Iran diminished with the election of Donald Trump and his pursuit of a “maximum pressure campaign” before completely disappearing with the decision to target the commander of Iran’s international expeditionary force in January 2020. However, extensive anecdotal evidence accumulated by the author through a decade of substantive conversations with knowledgeable individuals in dozens of countries indicated an openness well into 2020 in Tehran by moderates and conservatives alike to pursue negotiations provided the path back to the table allowed them to save face. Indeed, an offer for talks was made as late as June 2020 and rejected by US officials as multiple previous offers had been. Extensive anecdotal evidence as well as public statements in August made in the nuanced fashion typical of Iranian political culture in response to repeated comments by US President Donald Trump clearly display that Tehran remains conceptually open to dialogue with Washington and the GCC states despite escalatory events in July and a near-exclusive focus in Washington on expanding the “maximum pressure” policy to Syria and Lebanon rather than assessing the results or lack thereof achieved thus far.
- Contrary to the factually unsupported conventional wisdom in Washington and allied capitals, Tehran will in almost no circumstances completely shut the door to dialogue with Washington and Gulf Arab states as well as a tacitly understood cold equilibrium with its arch rival Israel. Indeed, it is of note that as both major candidates in the forthcoming US presidential election speak of a push for talks, the likely victors of the 2021 presidential election in Iran and the early elections that appear increasingly likely to occur in Israel resemble their predecessors of three decades ago in certain key respects.