Iranian relations with the West — in particular with Britain and the United States — have been historically rocky since the discovery and exploitation of Iranian oil. To properly understand the resentment against Western ideals and interference, it’s imperative to view Tehran’s foreign policy from a 20th century historical perspective.
Iran’s Oil Troubles Begin …
The troubles began in 1901 with the creation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This British firm monopolized the Iranian oil industry and enjoyed the wealth of its endeavors while leaving Iran with table scraps. Eventually, public backlash against British control of their oil industry led to the Iranians electing Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, a strong nationalist who took steps to nationalize the company. Naturally, the British were not in agreement with this and together with U.S. support, the two Western governments orchestrated a coup which failed the first time, but was ultimately successful.
The Shah and His Son
Complicating matters, Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran from 1925 to 1941, had instituted a series of reforms aimed at Westernizing Iran. His reforms notably included a ban on Islamic garb in public including women’s hijabs and niqabs along with allowing both sexes to mix in public. While some of his ideas seemed good on paper, many women actually disapproved of them and eventually protested in the revolution due to the perceived forced-Westernization of their culture.
His son and successor, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, made matters worse with his White Revolution. These program was described by the shah himself as a path towards Westernization and focused more on land and economic reform. However these ambitions backfired by expanding the urban and working class while also increasing their political power.
The situation surrounding the shah’s appointment had also engendered ill will towards Britain and the US, as his father’s ouster was part of the 1953 coup that also saw Mossadegh overthrown. This American CIA orchestrated coup that was fully backed by US President Dwight Eisenhower and members of his administration. With the shah’s father forced to abdicate and Mossadegh dismissed from his post of prime minister, the Western allies installed a government in Tehran that would further their economic interests while simultaneously continue a trend of westernisation.
The Rise of the Ayatollah
All of these events led to the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. An ardent opponent of the Shah’s White Revolution, the Ayatollah became a revolutionary figure through his preaching. His Islamic messages inspired Iranian backlash against Western ideals and eventually to rebel against the government. During 1978, protests and armed conflicts between revolutionary factions and the government plagued Iran. The general public made clear their wishes, however, especially with a large turnout of women voters and protesters.
The Shah fled in exile on February 3, 1979, never to return to his homeland. In March, a referendum was held that called for the replacement of the monarchy with an Islamic republic. After an overwhelming vote in favor of shedding the monarchy for good, Khomeini consolidated his power as the de facto leader of the country, despite the people voting for presidents. Through constitutional and clerical reforms, Khomeini’s strict implementation of Sharia law has widely reigned supreme. His successor and president under Khomeini, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Kahmeni, has retained control over almost all aspects of Tehran’s government since assuming office in 1989.
Iran vs. the World
Following the Islamic Revolution, a series of international conflicts have defined Iran – U.S. relations, including the 1979 hostage crisis and the and downing of Iran Air Flight 655. Furthermore, Iranian-backed Hezbollah rose to global prominence with bombings in 1983 on the U.S. embassy and barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. After the Iran – Iraq War which saw the U.S. side with Iraq and install Saddam Hussien to power, relations were completely severed between Washington and Tehran.
The U.S government continued to sanction Iranian exports, companies, and individuals until the latter years of President Barack Obama’s administration. In 2017, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action designed to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities and provide significant oversight of its program in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.
The agreement gained widespread support among both Iranian and American citizens and showed a promising economic impact for Iran. Diplomatically, the UK reopened its embassy in Tehran and Iran released four American hostages. Four international entities including the European Union, International Atomic Energy Agency, and governments of Russia and China all verified that Tehran had continuously adhered to the terms of the deal in regards to nuclear capabilities.
US Withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal
US President Donald Trump took a different approach to Iran, however, and pulled the US out of the agreement, which had been renewed for another decade by the outgoing members of Congress under Obama. Trump also restored sanctions on Iran and temporarily banned its citizens from entry to the US Under the pretense of Iranian-supported terrorism and unproven allegations of illegal uranium enrichment, Trump single-handedly reversed several years of progress.
Following two rounds of sanctions in 2018, Iran largely remained diplomatic in its responses. It continued to adhere to the nuclear accord and remained in compliance even as recently as May of this year. Trump’s administration, however, has continued to leverage sanctions against Tehran in an effort to force it to agree to a 12-point including the withdrawal of all state-sponsored support for Iranian proxies across the Middle East.
On face value, the demands seem designed with the US – Saudi Arabian relationship in mind as Trump has worked to build close ties with the Middle Eastern ally. Saudi Arabia alongside the United Arab Emirates are have been engaged in a two-year long Yemen Civil War. While the US and its allies support the Yemeni government, Iran has backed Houthi rebels.
In addition to the Saudi alliance, the political ideology of US National Security Advisor John Bolton has pushed an anti-Iran agenda in Washington. Bolton famously authored an opinion article calling for the US to bomb Iran preemptively to prevent the rise of its nuclear program.
On May 5, Bolton announced that the US would deploy an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the region due to unspecified threats against US forces in the region. While Iran does have a significant web of regional proxies situated in a number of countries hosting US troops, to date there have been no attacks on American forces.
A week later, four oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman prompting the deployment of 1,500 additional US troops for military intelligence and missile defense. Following Trump’s state visit to Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Iranian leaders in Tehran for the first ever official meeting between the two nations. Japan’s role as an intermediary has had limited effect thus far.
During Abe’s visit, another two tankers were attacked including a Japanese ship. As with the prior attacks, Tehran’s government denied all responsibility and no conclusive evidence was found to directly implicate Iran. The US responded by sending another 1,000 troops to the Middle East.
Then, on June 20, Iran shot down an unmanned US reconnaissance drone. Iranian officials claim the drone was flying over their airspace while American authorities insist it was flying over international waters. The drone strike was the first sign of military aggression by Iran towards the US in what Trump called “a very big mistake.”
The Pentagon immediately drew up strike plans on Iran which Trump authorized after teasing an American military response. However, Trump called off the strike shortly before its execution citing the casualties would be a disproportionate response to the downing of the US drone.
Snapshot of the Situation Today
The international community has largely condemned any retaliatory strikes as members from the EU states and even Japan continue to advocate for deescalation. The US and its allied forces have waged war in the Middle East since the September 11 terrorist attacks and few governments support another military incursion.
Saudi Arabia and Israel are the only states that continue to itch for military operations against Iran. Both have been longtime foes of Tehran and would welcome a US-led war.
Any sign of peace negotiations has been largely absent despite Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declaring they each do not wish for war. It remains to be seen how last week’s events will unfold on the diplomatic level as the international community continues to yearn for a peaceful solution.