“Impediments to Normalized U.S.-Iranian Relations” Revisited: A Response to Dr. Hunter

by Christopher Williams

In her article “Impediments to Normalized U.S.-Iranian Relations,” Dr. Hunter offers a convincing argument that a major impediment to improved relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States are the domestic political constraints that the leaders of both states face. However, by beginning her analysis of American-Iranian relations in 1979, she omits critical antecedents that explain why anti-Americanism became so intimately intertwined with the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

In the early 1950s, Iran’s popular nationalist Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, led a campaign to nationalize the British controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) which housed its Iranian workers in squalid camps and paid them a pittance. Meanwhile, the AIOC funneled more than sixty percent of its profits to its majority shareholder, the British government. Mossadegh’s takeover of Iran’s oil industry earned him Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” award in 1951, and the deep enmity of London. British officials soon convinced the Eisenhower Administration to join them in a covert operation to topple Mossadegh. American leaders were spurred by the concern that Prime Minister Mossadegh was dangerously sympathetic to Iran’s Communist Tudeh party. In 1953, the CIA collaborated with Britain’s MI6 to mount Operation Ajax which successfully overthrew Mossadegh and re-empowered the young Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi who ruled for the next twenty-five years. During that period, the SAVAK, Iran’s secret police, used draconian tactics to suppress any opposition to the Shah’s rule. Successive American administrations supported the Shah as a bulwark against communist expansion in the Middle East, but were largely indifferent to the internal excesses of its ally. Both the United States’ support for the Shah and its role in overthrowing Mossadegh did little to endear America to the Iranian public.

In 1978, opposition to the Shah crystallized. Clerics, liberals and Marxists throughout Iran all could agree on the need to depose Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The U.S. intelligence community was blindsided by this mounting tide of resentment. Only months before the Islamic Revolution, one CIA assessment claimed that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-Revolutionary situation.” Less than half a year later, the Shah fled Tehran, and on February 1, 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini, the inspiration behind Iran’s revolution, returned from his exile in Paris to a hero’s welcome.

In October of 1979, the Carter Administration made the fateful decision to allow the exiled Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment. The Shah was dying of lymphoma and required care that U.S. experts could best provide. Two weeks later, approximately three hundred Iranian students calling themselves “Muslim Students Following the Imam’s Line” assembled in front of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. While some members of the group protested in front of the compound, others scaled the embassy’s walls and opened the main gates. The students flooded into the compound, took control of the American embassy, and began the 444-day standoff which was to become known in the U.S. as the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Former CIA analyst and Middle East expert Kenneth Pollack, in his book The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, states that, “What drove all of [the students] thinking was the memory of the 1953 coup. Their references were laced with Mossadegh and his fall at the hands of the CIA. It is unclear why, but they believed that admitting the Shah was the start of a new American covert operation to thwart the revolution. They decided to take the embassy both as a means of forestalling a new coup and to avenge the earlier overthrow.”

Dr. Hunter writes, “For nearly four decades after the 1940s, the United States and Iran were close allies and friends.” But in reality, it was the United States and the Shah that were close allies. Under the surface of this friendly elite exterior, there was broad resentment of the role the United States had played in the 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh. Reviewing this history helps to illuminate why, as Dr. Hunter states, “friendship turned to enmity following the Islamic Revolution in February of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.”

This history is far from academic. In 2000, Secretary of State Madeline Albright attempted to improve relations between Tehran and Washington by speaking honestly about America’s history with Iran: “The Eisenhower Administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons; but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs. Moreover, during the next quarter century, the United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah’s regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah’s government also brutally repressed political dissent.”

Dr. Hunter is right to emphasize that both Tehran and Washington have much to gain from the normalization of relations. But a rapprochement will require a serious appreciation of the psychological scars that years of hostility have left on both nations. That, in turn, requires understanding that the origins of U.S-Iranian hostility predate the hostage crisis by more than a quarter century.

About the Author


Christopher Williams is a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy focusing on Security Studies and U.S. Foreign Policy.

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