During World War II, the shah declared Iran neutral. Britain asked Iran’s permission to use its railway to transport supplies to the Soviet Union. When the shah refused, Russian and British troops again occupied Iran. They made the shah step down and his son, Mohammed Riza Pahlavi, assumed the throne. The new shah supported the allied cause in the war.
After the war, British troops left. But Russian troops remained in northern Iran and helped set up two communist republics. Iran negotiated a treaty with Russia, agreeing to give Russia oil rights in exchange for Russia withdrawing its troops. When the troops left, the two republics crumbled and Iran retook control of the north. Iran’s parliament then rejected the treaty granting Russia oil rights.
But a British oil company still controlled most of Iran’s oil fields. In 1951, Iran’s parliament, headed by Mohammed Musaddiq, voted for the government to take over ownership of Iran’s oil fields. The British reacted by boycotting Iranian oil, which crippled Iran’s oil industry.
The United States, which had paid little attention to Iran before World War II, attempted to mediate this dispute. Since entering a Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States was trying to contain the Soviets. It took great interest in any country bordering the Soviet Union. Throughout the lengthy negotiations, the United States focused on making Iran politically strong enough to resist a communist takeover.
Eventually, the United States concluded that Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlavi was the only Iranian leader who could keep his country from falling into the grasp of the Soviets. The shah’s main political opponent was Mohammed Musaddiq, the popular reformer and Iran’s prime minister. Musaddiq argued that Iran should take a neutral position in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Fearing that Musaddiq’s policies would weaken Iran, President Eisenhower in 1953 authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to intervene. Along with Britain and the shah, the CIA plotted to remove the prime minister. It arranged for mobs to surround Musaddiq’s home, forcing him to flee and finally be arrested by the shah’s allies.
After Musaddiq was driven from office, the shah strengthened his control over Iran. He interfered with parliamentary elections, failed to follow through with a plan to distribute land to poor farmers, censored the press, and took complete command of the Iranian military. The shah’s secret police agency, SAVAK, imprisoned and tortured his political opponents.
The United States, however, viewed the shah as a strong ally in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Consequently, the United States sent him weapons, aircraft, naval vessels, and other forms of military aid.
As the shah’s rule became increasingly dictatorial, opposition grew against him and his ally, the United States. Islamic religious leaders such as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spoke out against the shah and were arrested and forced into exile. Public demonstrations broke out in 1978, with the shah’s army sometimes firing into the crowds, killing many.
Widespread opposition forced the shah to flee Iran in January 1979. He ended up in the United States where he underwent surgery for cancer. But many Iranians believed that the United States was protecting the shah and plotting to restore him to power.
Meanwhile, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile and formed an Islamic revolutionary government. But no one was really in control. Chaos reigned. Street fighting took place in all the major cities. Roaming bands of revolutionaries, often college students, hunted SAVAK agents and other supporters of the shah’s regime. Crowds marched and gathered around the U.S. embassy in Tehran shouting “Death to the shah!” and “Death to America!”
A power struggle was taking place between religious radicals and socialist radicals. On November 4, 1979, just days before a referendum of a new Iranian constitution, religious radical students broke into the embassy compound. They captured and took hostage 52 Americans. They paraded some, like embassy press officer Barry Rosen, blindfolded before TV cameras and accused them of being CIA agents. The students spat on and burned the American flag. They also captured many classified American documents.
Thus began the Iranian hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days. The students believed that their actions were justified. The United States had supported the shah and even helped overthrow Musaddiq in 1953. The students said that they would release the hostages if the United States returned the shah to Iran for trial. But even after the shah died of cancer, the Americans remained in captivity. Religious radicals were using the hostage crisis to gain popularity and keep socialist radicals from taking power.
President Carter applied economic pressure on the new regime in Iran. He canceled a military equipment shipment, placed an embargo on oil from Iran, and froze $12 billion in Iranian assets held in American banks. Carter also planned a mission to rescue the hostages. But this failed on April 24, 1980, when a dust storm caused U.S. military aircraft to collide in the Iranian desert. Prolonged negotiations between the two governments finally resulted in the release of all the hostages on January 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as president.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran remained severed following the hostages’ release. Over the next two decades, the United States considered Iran a “rogue state,” an outlaw among nations. On the other hand, Iran repeatedly called the United States the “Great Satan.”
Iran attempted to disrupt other countries in the Middle East by exporting its brand of radical Islamic government. It also supported terrorist organizations striking against Israel and sponsored assassinations of Iranian dissenters living in foreign countries. In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued an edict calling for the killing of Salman Rushdie. A writer born in India and a citizen of Great Britain, Rushdie had written a novel that the Iranian government said insulted Islam.
Using revenues from its oil sales, Iran built up its military forces and even began a nuclear weapons program. The United States viewed this with alarm and urged its allies to ban arms sales to Iran. Iran, however, argued that it needed a strong military to defend itself. Iraq, a neighboring country, had invaded Iran in 1980, touching off a devastating war that lasted eight years.
During the 1990s, the United States continued to follow a hard-line foreign policy toward Iran. In 1995, President Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting American companies from trading with or making investments in Iran. The United States declared that Iran continued to support terrorist organizations and that it had stepped up its development of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
Some foreign policy experts applauded the American hard-line policy. But others argued that a “new Iran,” less fanatical and more eager for foreign investment, had emerged in recent years. Despite the absence of diplomatic relations, Iran began to welcome American exchange students, sports teams, and tourists. But many hotels in which they stayed still displayed old “Death to America” signs.
A New Beginning?
In May 1997, Iran elected a moderate president. Years of economic suffering caused voters to reject the conservative religious leaders running the government. President Mohammed Khatami, himself an Islamic clergyman, immediately called for more freedom at home and a less hostile relationship with the United States.
In response to positive signals from Khatami, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated in June 1998 that the United States was not “anti-Islamic.” She said she was prepared to join Iran in drawing “a road map leading to normal relations.” But the Clinton administration cautioned that Iran must first change its behavior: It must renounce terrorism, end its development of weapons of mass destruction, and lift the death threat against novelist Salman Rushdie.
Iran responded by calling for the United States to release billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets frozen in American banks since the hostage crisis. The Khatami government further demanded that Americans stop blocking loans from the World Bank and withdraw their opposition to plans for an international oil pipeline across Iran.
To show its good intentions, the Khatami government announced in September 1998 that it was ending its support for the death edict on Salman Rushdie. It is unclear how far President Khatami can take Iran in normalizing relations with the United States. He still faces strong opposition from the conservative Islamic clergy, who continue to view America as the “Great Satan.”
Barry Rosen, one of the 52 hostages captured in 1979, recently met with a former revolutionary student leader who helped plan the U.S. embassy takeover. “The past can’t be made to go away, and shouldn’t,” Rosen said, “but a new beginning can be made.”
For Discussion and Writing
- Why did many Iranians have a bitter hatred of the United States at the time of the revolution in 1979?
- Why has the United States accused Iran of being a “rogue state”?
- What is your opinion of Barry Rosen’s statement quoted at the end of the article?
For Further Reading
MacLeod, Scott. “Old Iran. . . vs. New.” Time. 6 July 1998:72-74.
Wells, Tom. 444 Days, The Hostages Remember. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1985.
ACTIVITY: Task Force on Iran
Below are several U.S. foreign policy options regarding Iran. Form small groups that will assume the role of a task force to advise the president and Congress on the future of U.S.–Iran relations. Each task force should discuss the pros and cons of each option and then write a position paper recommending one of them or its own proposal. The position paper should also include reasons for the recommendation as well as why the other options were rejected. Each task force should then present its recommendation and reasoning to the rest of the class.
A. The United States should immediately and unilaterally offer to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran.
B. The United States should not offer to restore diplomatic relations just yet, but should agree to one or more of Iran’s demands. (These include withdrawing opposition to the construction of an international oil pipeline across Iran, ending U.S. trade and investment restrictions, and unfreezing Iranian assets in American banks.)
C. The United States should continue to pressure Iran to renounce terrorism, end its development of weapons of mass destruction, and behave according to the standards of the world community before offering to restore diplomatic relations.
D. The United States should offer to restore diplomatic relations only if Iran apologizes for taking the American embassy personnel hostage in 1979.
The task force may create its own option to recommend, which might combine some of the ideas made above.