“When Mossadegh and Persia started basic reforms, we became alarmed. We united with the British to destroy him; we succeeded; and ever since, our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East” — U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, November 1965
Much hope resides in Iran and the United States over the success of the nuclear accord just concluded. Tehran and Washington now face the difficult task of persuading domestic critics that the agreement is just, balanced and in their best interests.
Now more than ever, it is important to put the difficult history between the two countries in perspective — first by looking at the period of trust and goodwill that existed between them, and then by examining the genesis of the deep distrust that has soured the relationship for so long.
Before the First World War, Iran considered the United States a neutral international power willing to support its independence against the great power rivalry of Britain and Russia over its territory. The spirit of friendship began with the first formal act of diplomatic engagement and recognition between the two countries in 1850, leading to the exchange of diplomatic representatives in 1883.
This cordial understanding continued into the Constitutional Revolution era of 1905-11, as Iranians struggled to maintain their fledgling democracy and newly created Majlis, or parliament, from the occupying powers — Britain and Russia.
The positive reputation of the United States was due in large part to the actions of individual Americans who lived and worked in Iran. Two, for example — W. Morgan Shuster (1911) and Arthur C. Millspaugh (1922-27) — helped stabilize Iran’s finances during tumultuous times. Others, such as Howard C. Baskerville, a 26-year-old teacher who died in Tabriz in 1909 defending the Iranian constitution, and Samuel M. Jordan, founder of what is now Alborz High School in Tehran, are esteemed in Iran for their bravery and humanitarian deeds.
Washington’s policy of non-intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs fostered trust that endured until the Second World War. And when the Soviet Union failed to honor the Tripartite Agreement and remove troops from Iranian territory at the end of the war, President Harry Truman threatened to send troops to Iran if the Soviets failed to withdraw. They were removed in May 1946.
Cold War tensions, Iran’s strategic
location and the growing importance of oil contributed to the increased involvement of the United States in the affairs of the Middle East in the post-war years.
The beginning of anti-Americanism can be traced to the U.S.-engineered coup d’etat of 1953. The coup has set in motion decades of mistrust and suspicion. Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to acknowledge the coup during a major speech in Cairo in June 2009.
Obama said, “For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. … Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward… .”
However, the United States played more than “a role.” In August 2013, the CIA formally admitted it was involved in the planning and execution of Operation Ajax, the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government, headed by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
Based on personal friendships with individual Americans and a history of cooperation, Mossadegh turned to Washington in 1951 to mediate in the face of British hostility and sanctions. Despite official handshakes and reassurances, Mossadegh was betrayed. In 1953, the United States carried out a policy of regime change and reinstalled the shah on the Peacock Throne — and the United States and Iran have been isolated from one another ever since.
America’s unwavering support for the repressive Pahlavi regime undermined Iran’s incipient democracy and political development. Opposition was brutally put down by the shah’s secret police, the Savak — an intelligence service trained by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad.
The traumatic memory of 1953 lingers in the Iranian psyche and was fueled by continued American meddling in Iran’s affairs. Although the United States reaped its share of Iran’s oil wealth and strengthened its strategic military presence in the Middle East, its uncritical support of the shah’s regime set off a bitter anti-Western, anti-American revolution in 1978-79, leading to the reinvention of Iran as an Islamic republic.
In the hostage crisis, which began months after the revolution, Iranian students stormed the American embassy, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The crisis heightened the hostility and mistrust on both sides. While it exposed the extensive spying and involvement of Washington in Iran’s affairs, it humiliated the United States.
Subsequent American policies of military threats, financing of opposition groups, economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and containment have fueled the distrust. Many in Iran’s leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, firmly believe that the United States and its regional allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, are intent on destroying the Islamic republic and would delight in regime change.
Iran’s conviction that Washington’s strategic goal was regime change was reinforced by U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88. It is widely believed in Iran that Iraq would not have invaded Iran without Washington’s approval. In exchange for U.S. diplomatic recognition, vital intelligence and Saudi financing, Washington encouraged Saddam to attack Iran. He did so in September 1980, launching a war that lasted eight brutal years with America’s support.
Washington removed the Iraqi regime from the State Department’s Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1982, facilitating Iraq’s purchase of arms from the United States and the international market. That same year, Israel invaded Lebanon. Washington supported both aggressive acts.
By the late 1980s, the U.S. military had become directly involved in the war. On July 3, 1988, a civilian airliner, while flying over Iranian territorial waters, was shot down by the USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser, killing 290 civilians. An apology was never given — instead, the Vincennes crew were awarded Combat Action Ribbons.
During confrontations in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy destroyed Iran’s Sassan and Sirri oil platforms in 1988, with the loss of many lives and several ships.
These overt acts of aggression convinced Iran’s leaders of their vulnerability and contributed to the buildup of their military and defense systems.
Washington’s efforts to destabilize the Iranian government have been ongoing. In 1996 and again in 2006, Congress authorized millions of dollars to aid groups opposed to the Iranian government. One such group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq was put on the U.S. State Department foreign terrorist list in 1977. The MEK moved its operation to Iraq and allied itself with Saddam Hussein in the war against Iran. The group assisted Saddam in his bloody crackdown of the Iraqi Shia Muslims and Kurds. It is widely believed in Iran that the MEK, trained and armed by Israel’s Mossad, assassinated four Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010. Seen as a vehicle for regime change, the U.S. Congress voted to remove the MEK from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization list in September 2012.
Iran has made a number of attempts to normalize relations with the United States, merely to be rebuffed. President Hashimi Rafsanjani (1989-97), a moderate and pragmatist, advocated rapprochement with the West upon taking office, particularly with the United States. He was dealt a severe setback in 1991 when, after successfully managing the release of the last Western hostage in Lebanon, Terry Anderson, Washington reneged on its promise to respond in kind.
His reform-minded successor, Mohammad Khatami, called for a “dialogue among civilizations,” which led to diplomatic meetings and cooperative measures. The spirit of cooperation accelerated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States. The two countries found common foes in al-Qaeda and the Taliban. When the Taliban was routed with Iran’s help, Tehran supported Washington’s preferred leader, Hamid Karzai, as president of Afghanistan. Building on their cooperation, secret talks began in Geneva, and the prospect of a new relationship developed.
In January 2002, Iranians were shocked when President George W. Bush, instead of acknowledging Iran’s cooperation in the anti-terror war, included it among the “axis of evil” countries in his State of the Union address.
Iran tried again with a grand bargain for peace in 2003. In a proposal to Washington, Tehran offered to end material support for militant groups in the Middle East and to accept full transparency in its nuclear program. In exchange, the United States should end economic sanctions, recognize Iran’s legitimate security interests and guarantee it access to peaceful nuclear technology. The Bush administration ignored the proposal.
Washington’s denial of Iran’s right to peaceful enrichment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty adds to Iranian suspicions. Iran’s leaders see the hand of Israel in the West’s intransigence and its intense focus on Iran’s nuclear program. They wonder why it has been singled out and denied its right to peaceful enrichment as a signatory to the NPT. Tehran sees a double standard in the fact that while it has no nuclear bombs, the Western nuclear powers and non-signatories to the NPT such as Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea, all armed with nuclear weapons, can do whatever they want.
To avoid future pitfalls and to further its interests in the region, U.S.-Iran policy should be de-linked from the influences of Israeli Zionism and Saudi Salafism in the United States and in the Middle East. History evinces that the United States has experienced positive results when it has recognized their common interests and cooperated with Iran.
In a major speech in September 2013, Ayatollah Khamenei seemed to want a change. He signaled the end of his ban on direct talks with the United States, giving the new policy a label “heroic flexibility.” In his diplomatic overtures to Tehran, President Obama has revealed his audacity to hope for a different relationship based on mutual respect.
The nuclear negotiations and accord may have set the stage for a more realistic policy that recognizes that no other country in the Middle East has more in common with the United States than Iran, and the important role Iran can play as a regional partner rather than a foe. It may be that with Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Tehran the spirit of cooperation and respect can be reignited and the U.S. name can once again be honored in Iran and the Middle East.
By M. Reza Behnam, The Register-Guard