Despite having no formal diplomatic relations since the 1980s, Iran and the United States can’t seem to get enough of each other. That love to hate relationship was cranked up another level with the withdrawal of the US from a Nuclear Deal, the reimposing of sanctions, and the increased economic pressure the United States has been placing on other countries forcing them not to deal with Iran. As powder continues to be added to the keg, it seems like every day we inch closer to a military conflict with Iran. In this episode of Lessons from the Screen we will be looking at the 65-year history and the growing issues between Iran and the United States.
Since 1980 Iran and the US haven’t had formal diplomatic relations. That means that the US doesn’t have an ambassador to Iran or an embassy in the country and Iran doesn’t have either to or in the US. Pakistan serves as a protecting power for Iran in the US and Switzerland serves as a protecting power for the US in Iran. A protecting power represents a state in a country that has no diplomatic relations with the state. It is responsible for looking after the property and people of the appointing state. But there were formal relations before that so when did the relationship go sour?
Going back to when Iran was called Persia, the introduction of the US Iran relationship was started in 1856 when Persia sent an ambassador to Washington DC. Roughly 30 years later in 1883, the US sent an official diplomatic envoy to Iran. It wasn’t until 1944 that official ambassadorial relations were established. But despite various requests by Persia seeking US assistance, the US was largely uninterested in the country until after World War 2 although interactions between the countries remained polite.
While Persia sought to remove the influence and power of the British and the Russians in their affairs in the early 1900s, the US became an attractive place for many Iranians. This was also around the same time that Persia was undergoing a Constitutional Revolution which would eventually lead to the country's first parliament. Barring a few hiccups, the 2 countries remained on friendly terms until the 1950s.
In 1951 Mohammad Mosaddegh assumed his title as the 35th Prime Minister of Iran after winning what was cleared as a fair democratic election. With his election came sweeping reforms the biggest of which was his administration's goal of nationalizing the Iranian Oil Industry. The industry had been built up by the British overtime starting in 1913 through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC/AIOC) which would eventually come to be known as British Petroleum or BP. The deal between the 2 governments at the start of the development was that Britain would take 85% of the profits from Iranian (Persian) Oil while the Persians would get the remaining 15%. He claimed that Iran was the rightful owner of all the oil in Iran and he believed that Britain's control over the oil company gave it power and influence over the Iranian sovereign nation. By this view, nationalizing the company was a necessary step in making Iran a truly independent nation and the profits could be used to strengthen the government and the nation without the need for outside assistance. This move really bothered Britain and though US President Truman expressed his support of Iran and Mossadegh continued to express his support for the US, the CIA was undertaking operations to destabilize Mossadegh’s administration (some claim this was done without Truman's knowledge).
As Mosaddeq continued to press forward with his nationalization agenda, Britain responded by effectively blocking the sale of Iranian oil in the international markets. And with the removal of British expertise from the company, Iranian oil production virtually stopped and the oil that was being produced was impossible to sell. Oil production dropped from 246 million barrels in 1951 to 11 million barrels in 1952 and the oil income from 1951 to 1954 was reduced to almost nothing. The British shifted their oil production focus to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and other countries so that the British People did not experience any hardship at all.
In 1953 Truman was replaced by Eisenhower as President of the US and began taking even more actions to destabilize the Mosaddegh administration. As the Cold War between the US and the USSR intensified, the US developed fears that the Iranian Government would shift to communism. These fears seemed to be very valid as the Republic of China experienced an internal struggle and re-emerged as the People’s Republic of China. The country had gone from being a Democratic Republic with many similarities to the US to being a Communist State. The fear of Iran become a Communist State was also spurred on by the fact that oil negotiations between Britain and Iran were stalling.
So in the summer of 1953, the US and Britain launched a joint covert operation codenamed Ajax with the goal of overthrowing the Mossadegh administration. It failed at first, but another attempt was launched which was successful resulting in Mosaddegh’s imprisonment. With Mosaddegh out of the way, the US helped reinstalled the Shah (A title previously held by the Monarchs of Persia) Mohammad Reza who had also fled the country during the Coup Attempts on the promise that he would appoint a prime minister favorable to the US. The Shah, fearing that the appointed general would overthrow him similar to how his own father, a general, overthrew the previous dynasty’s last shah in order to set up the dynasty he was apart of, began maneuvering to claim true power for himself. Playing off the conflicts of his own nations elites and the misgivings of the British and the US in addition to his own image as a coward and an airhead, he managed to achieve his goal of true power. With the US backing him and delivering more than 1 billion dollars in aid over a decade, the Shah implemented sweeping changes across the nation and the US and Iran became extremely close allies.
The US helped the Shah form a secret police to keep him in power and in 1957 the US kick-started Irans nuclear program by providing the country's first nuclear reactor and nuclear fuel. In 1967 the US provided weapons-grade enriched uranium. Iran adopted the US model of Universities for its own schools, and the Shah received praise from many US presidents for his sweeping reforms.
However, in 1979, undercover unrest in Iran exploded to the surface as many felt like the Shah was too cozy with the US and felt that he was compromising their country and their culture. Members of the revolution were wary of the CIA and took steps to make sure that the US couldn’t prevent their uprising. Consequently, 6 months before the uprising the CIA released a report saying there was no indication that an uprising was imminent or that unrest was at a level of concern. The Shah was replaced with the Anti-American Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Later in 1979, feeling that their fears about the Shah being an American Puppet were confirmed when he and his allies were allowed safe haven in the US, a revolutionary group occupied the American Embassy in Tehran and took the diplomats hostage. 52 diplomats were held hostage for 444 days. There was also the fear that the US was planning another coup from the embassy. In 1980 the US attempted a military rescue that resulted in 8 dead soldiers and no hostages released. It wasn’t until the Algiers Accords were signed in Algeria in 1981 that the hostages were released. In 1980, the US severed diplomatic relations between the countries and they have been frozen ever since. The US Embassy was not given over to Switzerland in traditional fashion with regards to a protecting power, parts of the embassy were turned into an anti-American museum and other parts became offices for student organizations.
Following the hostage crisis, the US went from being Iran’s biggest economic and military partner to opposing Iran at every turn. During the 1980s the US tried to play both sides of the fence during the Iran-Iraq war. The US also asserted that Iran was responsible for several embassy attacks through its client Hezbollah. There was also the Iran-Contra Affair during which Reagan attempted to get Iran to use its influence to release American Hostages held in Lebanon. The Reagan administration hoped to sell arms to Iran in order to improve relations with the country. They would then funnel the money from the sale to Contra rebels in Nicaragua. However, the Reagan officials refused to hand over the necessary documentation to investigators during an investigation of the affair. The US also launched operation praying mantis against Iran which was the largest American naval combat operation since World War 2. Iran lost a warship and a gunboat during the operation and suffered damage to several oil production facilities. They sued for reparations from the US in the international court of justice but the courts dismissed the case.
In 1991 the Bush administration said that it would take several steps to ease economic pressure on Iran if they helped facilitate the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah. After the hostages were released the Bush administration did not do anything.
In 1995 Clinton ended growing trade with Iran by imposing a total embargo on Iran which was followed up by the Iran-Libya Sanctions act passed by congress to prevent other countries from making large investments in Iranian energy. Other countries announced their displeasure and some outright dismissed it.
After the September 11 twin towers attack, Iranian citizens, lit candles and had vigils in front of the Swedish embassy. The Supreme Leader also suspended his death to America Chants in a show of support as he blasted terrorism. A few months later in 2002, Baby Bush gave a speech in which he included Iran in with other countries labeled as the Axis of Evil. The US also began launching unmanned drones into Iran from Iraq on intelligence-gathering operations.
In 2003 the US really started to take note of Iran's Nuclear Weapons program. Iran Contended that its nuclear capabilities were only being refined for power generation, however, the US imposed considerable pressure on international bodies to sanction Iran for violation of the non-proliferation treaty. While Iran was in violation for a failure to adequately document and report nuclear material, the US was also in violation for failure to disarm.
While Iran and the US have announced at various times a willingness to speak to each other, the US has continued covert operations in Iran and open military operations against Iranian facilities in other nations such as the raid on Iran’s Consulate General in Iraq.
When Barack Obama became president Iran issued its first congratulatory message to a US president since 1979. And Barack Obama issued a statement to the Muslim world of new opportunities that many in the US viewed as proof that he was a Muslim and working for the Muslim state in the Middle East. During Obama’s tenure, there were a number of drone incidents involving US drones being captured, or destroyed in Iranian Airspace.
In 2015 what would come to be known as the Iran Nuclear Deal was agreed to. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the JCPA was a deal struck by the US, the UK, Russia, China, France, Germany, Iran, and the Europian Union. The Obama Administration agreed to lift sanctions on Iran if Iran gave up their nuclear capabilities and allowed inspections of their nuclear sites by UN agents at will. Obama couldn’t get congressional support for the deal so he enacted the agreement as an executive action.
In 2017 with the election of Donald Trump Iranian Citizens were temporarily banned from the US. Trump didn’t like the deal, and even though he certified that the Iran Government was in compliance in April of 2017. In July of 2017, Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act that group sanctions against Iran, Russia, and North Korea. Which was viewed by the Iranians as a violation of the deal they had signed with President Obama. And in May of 2018, Trump pulled the US out of the Nuclear Deal even though all certifying bodies were saying that the Iranian Government was not in violation of the agreement. The rest of the members of the agreement agreed to continue in the agreement with Iran hoping that others would offset any losses from the US leaving the deal and imposing sanctions. However, when the US left the deal and began reimposing sanctions, they also put new restrictions in place that would also sanction any government or corporation that did business with Iran placing all the other members of the agreement in a delicate position.
In 2019 the US designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and Iran retaliated by designating the US military as a terrorist group. The US also ended its waiver program that allowed countries with waivers to purchase Iranian oil without having to worry about US sanctions for doing so. The US also sent in an aircraft carrier and bomber planes to the Persian Gulf which is said was in response to escalation by the Iranian Government. The Iranian government gave a 60-day warning that if it did not get relief from US sanctions it would violate the agreement and begin enriching uranium getting closer to a nuclear bomb.
On May 13, 2019, Four oil tankers were attacked with the US accusing Iran and Iran denying the accusations. The US sent 1500 troops and other military resources to the Middle East to counter Iran.
In June of 2019, 2 more oil tankers were attacked with the US again blaming Iran and Iran again claiming innocence. A week later on June 17 Iran announced that it was 10 days away from surpassing the limits set by the nuclear deal and the US announced that it was sending another 1000 troops to the Middle East.
On June 20th Iran shot down a US military drone which it claimed was in Iranian Airspace while the US claimed it was in International Airspace. The next day President Trump tweeted that he called off an airstrike against Iran 10 minutes before the attack. Instead of opting to retaliate in the form of cyberattacks against Iran. The Cyber attacks were meant to take Iranian Military Assets offline for a period of time.
And things continue to get worse. July has been a hotbed of activity with Iran Seizing a British Tanker in response to Britain seizing an Iranian tanker. The US shot down an Iranian Drone for flying to close. The British have deployed naval forces to the area to ensure the safety of the transport ships in the region, a region which supports 30% of the total global oil trade. And Iran continues to demand sanctions relief from the other signatories to the Nuclear Deal while the US continues to demand the other nations abandon the deal. China and Russia have continued to trade with Iran although at lesser levels, and the European Union has been working on a barter system that would allow trade in the region without violating US sanctions.
Meanwhile, Iran has also continued to enrich uranium above the levels permitted by the nuclear deal as a means of asserting more and more pressure. And given how things have turned out with North Korea developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent against regime change and being ignored, many people fear that the US will initiate military action against Iran. If that happens, given the importance of trade in the area and the amount of oil that flows through the areas controlled by Iran, major damage could be done to global trade and economics in nations all over the world. And the US would potentially drive an even bigger wedge between itself and its allies whilst also shoving other nations into partnerships with China and Russia. While America might win a military contest against Iran, it would certainly suffer greatly for it for years to come.
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