Welcome to ‘Interesting Facts.’ Let me give you a gist of the inimical relations that exist between Iran and the US over the past many decades. They have had no formal diplomatic relations since April 1980. Pakistan serves as Iran’s protecting power in the United States, while Switzerland serves as the United States’ protecting power in Iran. Protecting power is a country that represents another sovereign state in a country where it lacks its own diplomatic representation. It is common to appoint protecting powers when two countries break off diplomatic relations with each other. The protecting power is responsible for looking after the sending state’s diplomatic property and citizens in the hosting state. If diplomatic relations are broken by the outbreak of war, the protecting power will also inquire into the welfare of prisoners of war and look after the interests of civilians in enemy-occupied territory.
Political relations between Iran (Persia) and the United States began when the Shah of Iran, Nassereddin Shah Qajar, officially despatched Iran’s first ambassador, Mirza Abolhasan to Washington, D.C., in 1856. In 1883, Samuel G. Benjamin was appointed by the United States as the first official diplomatic envoy to Iran, however, the ambassadorial relations were not established until 1944.
Until the outbreak of the World War II, the US had no active policy towards Iran. In 1953, the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq was overthrown in a coup organized by the British and American governments. Many Iranians argue that the coup and the subsequent U.S. support for the Shah of Iran was largely responsible for the shah’s arbitrary rule, which led to the anti-American 1979 revolution.
When the Cold War began the US was alarmed by the attempt of the Soviet Union to set up separatist states in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. This fear was enhanced by the loss of China to communism and uncovering of the Soviet spy rings. Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective allies, i.e. the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc, after the World War II. The period is generally considered to live along the 1947 Truman Doctrine (an American foreign policy whose stated purpose was to contain Soviet geopolitical expansion during the Cold War) to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. More generally, the Truman Doctrine implied American support for nations thought to be threatened by Soviet communism.
During 1952 and 1953 there happened the Abadan Crisis, when Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, began nationalization of, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Established by the British in the early 20th century, Britain’s share in the profits of the company was 85%, and Iran’s share was 15%. But Britain kept its financial records hidden from the Iranian government. By 1951, the Iranians had agreed to support the nationalization of the AIOC, and as a consequence the Iranian Parliament unanimously agreed to nationalize its holding which was at that time, the British Empire’s largest company. The British retaliated with an embargo on Iranian oil, which was supported by international oil companies. Over the months that followed, negotiations over control and compensation for the Iranian oil were deadlocked, and Iran’s economy deteriorated.
U.S. President Harry S. Truman pressed Britain to moderate its position in the negotiations, and not invade Iran. A gamut of American policies created a feeling in Iran that the United States was on Mosaddeq’s side, and that created a sense of optimism, that the oil dispute would soon be settled, with a series of innovative proposals to settle the dispute, giving Iran “significant amounts of economic aid”. Mosaddeq visited Washington, when the American government made “frequent statements expressing support for him.”
But at the same time, the United States also honoured the British embargo and, without Truman’s knowledge, the American CIA stationed in Tehran kept “carrying out covert activities” against Mosaddeq and the National Front since the summer of 1952.
As the Cold War intensified, oil negotiations stalled. The Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Democratic President Truman, when the United States helped destabilize Mossadeq on the theory that “rising internal tensions and continued economic deterioration…might lead to a breakdown of government authority and opened the way for at least a gradual assumption of control by Iran’s well organized Tudeh communist party. In 1953, the US and Britain, through a covert operation of the CIA called Operation Ajax, conducted from the American Embassy in Tehran, helped organize a coup d’etat to overthrow the Mosaddeq government. The operation initially failed, and the Shah fled to Italy, but in a second attempt the coup succeeded, and Mosaddeq was imprisoned.
Following the coup, the United States helped re-install Shah. In the first three weeks, the U.S. government gave Iran $68 million in emergency aid, and an additional $1.2 billion over the next decade. In the era that ensued, until the fall of Shah in 1979, Iran was one of United States’ closest ally. The US also played a critical role in founding the Shah’s brutal secret police to keep him in power. A US Army colonel working for the CIA was sent to Persia in September 1953 to guide local personnel in creating the organization and in March 1955, the Army colonel was replaced with a more permanent team of five career CIA officers, including specialists in covert operations, intelligence analysis, and counterintelligence, including Major General Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, who virtually trained, the entire first generation of SAVAK personnel. In 1956 this agency was reorganized and given the name Sazeman-e Ettela’at va Amniyat-e Keshvar (SAVAK). These in turn were replaced by SAVAK’s own instructors in 1965.
Shah received significant American support during his reign. He made frequent visits to the White House earning praise from numerous American presidents. Shah’s close ties to Washington and his modernization policies soon angered some Iranians, especially the hardcore Islamic conservatives. In the 1960s and 1970s, Iran’s oil revenues grew considerably. This weakened U.S. influence in Iranian politics while strengthening the power of the Iranian state versus Iranian public.
The U.S. helped Iran create its nuclear program starting in 1957 by providing Iran its first nuclear reactor and nuclear fuel, and after 1967 by providing Iran with weapons grade enriched uranium. Iran’s nuclear program was launched in the 1950s with the help of the United States as part of the Atoms for Peace program. The participation of the United States and Western European governments in Iran’s nuclear program continued until the 1979. But the Iranian Revolution toppled the last Shah of Iran. United States reached a deal in 2015 to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Sanctions relief under the terms of the deal freed over 100 billion dollars in frozen assets overseas for Iran and increased foreign access to the Iranian economy. In return, Iran had to temporarily agree not to engage in activities, including R&D of a nuclear bomb. The United States withdrew from the deal in 2018.
The 1979 Revolution, ousted the pro-American Shah and replaced him with the anti-American Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This surprised the United States government, its State Department and intelligence services, which consistently underestimated the magnitude and long-term implications of this unrest. Six months before the revolution culminated, the CIA had produced a report, stating that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a ‘pre-revolutionary’ mode.
Revolutionary students feared the power of the United States, particularly its CIA, about whom they thought, would overthrow, the new Iranian government. Many students thought that the CIA would attempt to implement this through a countercoup strategy.
Khomeini, referred to America as the “Great Satan.” He immediately got rid of the Shah’s prime minister and replaced him with a moderate politician named Mehdi Bazargan. Until this point, the Carter Administration was still hoping for normal relations with Iran, by sending its National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Meanwhile, the Islamic revolutionaries wished to execute the ousted Shah. On the other hand, Carter refused to give him any further support or help him to return to power. The Shah, suffering from terminal cancer, requested entry into the United States for treatment. The American embassy in Tehran opposed the request, as they were intending to stabilize relations between the new interim revolutionary government of Iran and the United States. However, President Carter agreed to let the Shah in, after severe pressure from Henry Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller and other pro-Shah lobby in the US. Iranians’ suspicion that Shah, was actually trying to conspire, against the Iranian Revolution, only grew with time. Thus, this incident was often used by the Iranian revolutionaries to justify their claims that the former monarch was an American puppet, and this led to the storming of the American embassy by radical students allied with the Khomeini faction.
On 4 November 1979, the revolutionary group of Muslim students, followers of the Imam’s line, were grossly angered, that the recently deposed Shah had been allowed entry into the United States. As a consequence they occupied the American embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage. The 52 American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days. In Iran, the incident was seen by many, as a blow to American influence, and the liberal-moderate interim government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, who opposed the hostage taking resigned soon after. Some Iranians were concerned that the United States may have been plotting another coup against their country in 1979 from the American embassy itself. In the United States, the hostage-taking was seen as a violation of a centuries-old principle of international law that granted diplomats immunity from arrest and diplomatic compounds, the sovereignty, in the territory of the host country they occupy.
The United States military attempted a rescue operation, Operation Eagle Claw, on April 24, 1980, which resulted in an aborted mission and the death of eight American military men. The crisis ended with the signing of the Algiers Accord in Algeria on January 19, 1981. On January 20, 1981, the hostages were released. The crisis led to lasting economic and diplomatic damage.
In 1988, the US launched Operation Praying Mantis against Iran, claiming that it was a retaliation for the Iranian mining, of areas, of the Persian Gulf as part of the Iran–Iraq War. The American attack was the largest American naval combat operation since World War II.
On July 3, 1988, near the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the US Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes, shot down Iranian Airbus A300B2, which was on a scheduled commercial flight within Iranian airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. The attack killed 290 civilians from six nations, including 66 children. The United States has expressed regret for the loss of innocent life but has not apologized to the Iranian government.
The tensions between the two countries have been going on and on, for years now, and God alone knows when it’ll end.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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