The US and Iran: A History of Violence

Relations between the United States and Iran have been in ruins for much longer than the failed nuclear deal and Soleimani death. In fact, the origins go back to the previous century.

Early Tensions

At the beginning of the 20th century, oil fields were gradually developed in Iran, which Iran was sharing with Great Britain. The agreement changed rapidly when in 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh became the Prime Minister of Iran.

His government introduced an unprecedented degree of pluralism, freedom of expression as well as freedom of the press. In addition to the democratization of the political system, his National Front also nationalizes Iranian oil, which for Tehran is equivalent to fulfilling its pursuit of national sovereignty.

The decision, however, is an affront for Britain, which subsequently sued Iran at the International Court of Justice, claiming that a contract between the two countries of 1933 grants Britain access to oil for the next 32 years. In the end, and after a temporarily ruling Iran did not accept, the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction over Iran in this particular case.

The ruling left Britain with few options to regain control of the Iranian oil fields under the agreement. Nonetheless, London responded. With the support of the United States, it initiated an oil boycott against Iran to isolate the country economically. Most importantly, however, both conducted a clandestine plan, Operation Ajax, which started on August 19, 1953, intending to overthrow Mossadegh. They succeeded.

A New Beginning and a Rapid Fall

Besides the oil and the friendship to Great Britain, the US and notably President Eisenhower had another reason for it. Mossadegh’s “National Front,” also harbored a communist party, which, according to the Domino-Theory, could lead towards the influence of the Soviet Union. With the coup, the US gained political dominance in the Middle East that Britain previously commanded.

Mossadegh was replaced by Shah Reza Pahlavi, under which Iran’s relationship with the West and particularly the US increased drastically.

Unlike Mossadegh, however, Pahlavi pursued an increasingly repressive policy both against the liberal opposition and against the Shiite clergy of the mullahs, particularly against the progressive secularization and westernization that the modernization and industrialization program promoted by the Shah regime brought with it.

Conservatives and Shiite mullahs, however, see and oppose these reforms as an imperialist attack on the country’s national sovereignty, which forces the Shah in 1963 to stop an uprising by religious hardliners. A year later, the Shah regime recognized the political immunity of all US soldiers stationed in Iran, which made him the “American Shah.”

From that point forward, however, the relationship began to deteriorate, as the Shah began to impose his reign via increased corruption, oppression, and torture.

However, the tide turns from now on. Under the rule of the Shah, despotism, corruption, mismanagement, and oppression prevail, while Pahlavi has opponents locked up and tortured. As a result, Pahlavi’s amplified despotic tendencies, Democratic President Jimmy Carter, started to distance himself from him.

The Revolution of 1979

Pahlavi’s actions and the growing dissatisfaction in the country ultimately led to the end of his reign. When the violent revolution broke out in 1979, the Shah flees the country, while the mullahs around Ayatollah Khomeini take over Iran. Approximately a million educated Iranians to go into exile during this time, while the chorus “death to America” becomes part of the Iranian zeitgeist.

Moreover, two attempts to storm the American Embassy take place during the revolution. The first on February 14, 1979, known as Valentine’s Day Open House, when a militia unit stormed the compound. While the situation in the embassy was resolved within a few hours, the Iranians kidnapped a US soldier, whom they subsequently tortured and sentenced to death. However, in the end, he was released after six days.

The second and crucial attempt took place on November 4, 1979. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days. The terrorists demanded that the Shah is extradited. On April 24, 1980, the US’ attempt to free the hostages, Operation Eagle Claw, ended in a fiasco that killed 8 US soldiers. The hostages were finally released on January 20, 1981, on inauguration day of President Reagan, who undo President Carter’s four years of foreign policy incoherence.

Khomeini never opposed the storming of the embassy, nor did he attempt to solve the crisis. On the contrary, he approved of it. Iran’s violation of international law and diplomacy rules leads the US to cease all diplomatic relations with Teheran in 1980 and a gap in trust that has not been able to be bridged to this day.

Following the hostage crisis, the US supported Saddam Hussein in his move against Iran. Khomeini had previously called on the Shiites to rebellion against the Sunni regime (to which Hussein belonged), and his stated goal was to export his revolution.

In October 1981, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was elected president. During this time, Iran began to engage in conducting terrorist attacks via its proxies.

In 1983, for example, Hezbollah set up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, carried out terror attacks on US facilities in Beirut. A suicide attack on the US embassy in March killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. In October, trucks loaded with explosives hit the central US military base, killing 241 American soldiers and 53 Frenchmen.

Recent History

In early 2000, when Iran had established itself as one of the world’s leading terrorist sponsors, President George W. Bush rightly described Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, as the Axis of Evil. After the US invasion of Iraq, which eliminated Iran’s most dangerous enemy and did Teheran a kindness regarding Iran’s future role and hegemonic fantasies in the region, the Revolutionary Guards organized attacks on US troops.

Already in 2002, the international community found out that Iran operated two nuclear plants. In it, labels were removed from the facilities, and Iran prohibited the IAEA from making unannounced visits. As a result, the UN Security Council decided to impose sanctions on Iran, with the US being the leading actor.

President Obama attempted to avoid a possible war with Iran over the nuclear program and to improve the historically strained relationship with Tehran through the 2015 controversial nuclear deal. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, however, prevented rapprochement with the west, and under President Trump, the escalation then began with his exit from the agreement.

The latter terminated the nuclear agreement in 2018 and tightened the sanctions against Iran in a way that has crippled the Iranian economy severely. Allegedly cornered by Washington, Iran declared that it would begin to enrich uranium again, a violation of the agreement that the Europeans continued to abide by. Since then, the situation has escalated gradually and reached its temporary apogee with Iran’s statement that it will no longer feel obliged to the agreement.

With the killing of Soleimani, the mastermind of Iran’s terrorism spree has been neutralized by the US. Furthermore, while an outright war between Washington and Teheran remains unlikely at this stage, it raises the question if this conflict can ever end for good.