How the U.S. and Iran Got to This Tense Moment
Editor’s note: Veteran social justice advocate Medea Benjamin examines the history and politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran in her new book, “Inside Iran,” published by OR Books. To get 20 percent off, use the discount code INSIDE at purchase on the OR Books website. In the following excerpt from Chapter 8, Benjamin details the complex relationship between the United States and Iran.
Iran has a long history of interacting with the rest of the world—initially as the various empires discussed in earlier chapters, and now as the Islamic Republic. The resentment and suspicion of foreign interference found in the Iranian political culture are a direct result of historic deals with foreigners that took power away from the local elites, including bazaaris and the clerics.
Through the 1800s to the early half of the 1900s, Russia and Britain were the main foreign interventionist forces and therefore became the focus of the public’s vitriol. As the 20th century evolved, the United States began playing a larger role in Iran, due primarily to Cold War dynamics. As American policy in Iran came to resemble the earlier Russian and British imperial policies, anger towards the United States grew. That resentment boiled over and was a key factor in the 1979 revolution.
How and When Did the U.S. Become the Focal Point for Iran’s Interactions With the West?
Starting in the 1830s, American missionaries began arriving in Iran, but it would take another 20 years before there would be any official diplomatic recognition between the two nations. That came in 1856 with the signing of a Treaty of Commerce and Navigation. Even then, the U.S. role remained minimal.
Iran really became important to the United States after World War II, in the context of the burgeoning Cold War with the Soviets. During World War II, the Allies had agreed to leave Iran six months after the war ended. Yet after victory was finally sealed in September 1945, U.S. and British forces left Iran within the agreed timeframe, but Soviet forces remained, expanding their areas of control and supporting local Kurdish and Azeri separatists.
The Shah secured U.S. support to push the Soviets out by painting the crisis in Cold War colors. U.S. diplomatic pressure and Iranian negotiations were successful in demanding a Soviet withdrawal. In 1947, Iran was included in the Truman Doctrine, the policy established by President Truman that said the United States would use its economic, political, and military power to contain Soviet threats anywhere in the world. As Iran became increasingly critical to blocking Soviet expansion, American support for Iran’s monarchy increased.
The U.S. alliance with Iran came crashing down in 1953, however, when the recently inaugurated American President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved CIA plans to overthrow the government of elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who had incurred the wrath of both British and American oil companies and governments by nationalized oil fields. Once Mossadegh was deposed, the U.S. became the main ally of the new Shah and helped to develop the Iranian military and infamous secret police.
For many Iranians, this was the moment that the U.S. went from friend to foe. Originally thought to be a supporter of Iran’s movement towards democracy, the U.S. had instead orchestrated a coup. This resentment would be one of the major driving forces, 25 years later, when a popular protest movement ultimately overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah. It also lies at the very foundation of the current government’s anti-Americanism.
As the CIA’s first successful covert operation to overthrow a government that refused to bend to U.S. economic and political interests, the overthrow of Mossadegh also became a model for similar operations around the globe, such as the overthrow of Guatemalan President Arbenz in 1954, Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumuba in 1960, and the failed intervention in Cuba in 1961.
How Did the Revolution Affect the U.S. Relationship?
America’s role in ousting Mossadegh vaulted it to the top of Iran’s most-hated list, a position once held by the Russians and the British. The United States became the focus for the anti-imperialists within Iran.
Tensions ran high in 1963 when the U.S. and Iran signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that gave Americans immunity from punishment under the law. This meant that all American personnel accused of wrongdoing in Iran, including the large number of U.S. military personnel who were training the Shah’s military forces, would be free from prosecution by Iranian authorities.
A relatively minor cleric at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, used this agreement to speak out against the Shah and the United States. He gave a famous speech decrying that in the eyes of the Shah and his American allies, Iranians were worth less than American dogs. The Shah responded by forcing Khomeini into exile in 1964.
Over the years, anti-Shah and anti-U.S. tensions continued to mount. Both the U.S. State Department and intelligence services missed the writing on the wall, underestimating the breadth and depth of the opposition. In one evaluation, six months prior to the 1979 revolution, the CIA reported that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation.”
U.S. President Jimmy Carter seemed oblivious to the changing landscape. After pressuring the Shah to improve his human rights record, President Carter visited Iran in late December 1977. During a New Year’s toast, Carter described Iran as “an island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions in the world.” In the same speech, he talked about how popular the Shah was among Iranians. In a little over a year, the Shah was ousted from power.
Shortly after the Shah fled, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been the main face of the growing opposition movement, returned from exile in France. Despite Khomeini’s anti-American rhetoric, some U.S. officials felt it was necessary to meet with the new revolutionary government. As 1979 progressed, however, anti-American sentiment grew, especially when President Carter allowed the Shah to enter the U.S. as a “private citizen” to receive cancer treatment. The Shah’s presence in the United States was seen by many Iranians as a disgrace and an insult that ignored the enormous pain and suffering they had endured under his rule, with the approval of the U.S. government.
For Iran’s revolutionaries, many of whom blamed the US for the 1953 coup, Carter’s decision was a clear signal that the Shah was planning a counter-revolution with America’s help. They wanted the Shah extradited, tried, and executed for his crimes against the Iranian population. The revolutionaries did not get their wish, but they did find a new target—the U.S. Embassy.
How and Why Did the Takeover of the U.S. Embassy Happen?
Originally planned as a sit in, on November 4, 1979, students climbed the fences and stormed the U.S. Embassy compound. Ransacking offices and detaining embassy personnel, their radical actions surprised both the U.S. government and Iran’s provisional government. Khomeini originally backed a plan to forcibly remove the protesters from the embassy, but then endorsed their actions once he realized he could use the seizure to solidify power. The revolution had risked spiraling out of control as the various factions were openly clashing in the streets. The embassy seizure was a symbolic way to synergize around a cause while also showing that Iran could stand up for itself. The provisional government resigned due to its disapproval of the takeover.
Fifty-two American diplomats were held hostage for 444 days. This act marked a breaking point in relations between Iran and the United States. Diplomatic relations were severed and have officially been frozen ever since. Americans saw the takeover as a breach of the one inviolable law governing relations between countries—the sanctity of embassies. The revolutionaries viewed it as a way to prevent a counter-coup and to hit back at decades of foreign interference in Iran’s internal affairs.
Attempts at negotiating for the release of the hostages were stymied by Ayatollah Khomeini’s prohibition on speaking to American officials and a lack of overall stability within Iran. With Khomeini’s goals of crushing other factions and solidifying power, settling with the U.S. was not in the cards. If he had negotiated, he would have gone against his own narrative. Meanwhile, the U.S. could not adopt a policy of patience, since Carter was in the middle of a re-election campaign. And what country is patient when their diplomats are being held hostage?
As the domestic pressure on President Carter mounted, in April 1980 he approved an ill-fated rescue attempt called Operation Eagle Claw. It failed in large part because a severe desert sandstorm caused several helicopters to collide as they were taking off for Tehran. Eight American servicemen were killed, and the operation was aborted.
Just a few months later, the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, died of cancer. Khomeini responded by tasking his subordinates with finding a solution to the hostage crisis.
In the middle of negotiations to release the hostages, Iraq invaded Iran, delaying talks until November 1980. By the time an agreement was signed, Carter had already lost the presidential election to Ronald Reagan. In a slap in the face to President Carter, Khomeini delayed the release of the hostages until the day Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.
For many older Americans, the lens through which they view Iran is still tinted by the hostage crisis. Each night, from the very beginning of the crisis, the U.S. press updated the public on the status of the hostages and efforts to get them released. Every night for 444 days, Ted Koppel’s ABC News special America Held Hostage: The Iran Crisis (which later became Nightline) reminded Americans that Iranians had kidnapped their diplomats. But for many Iranians, the U.S. history of violating their sovereignty outweighs their responsibility for the hostage crisis.
What Position Did the U.S. Take During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War?
Officially, the United States remained neutral during the war that broke out in 1980 after Iraq invaded Iran, but, in reality, it was arming both sides. Shortly after taking office in 1981, the Reagan administration secretly worked with Israel to ship several billion dollars of American weapons to Iran, despite the U.S. embargo against such sales. Then in 1982, when the CIA warned Reagan that Iraq was on the verge of being beaten on the battlefield by Iran, the U.S. government secretly provided Iraq with highly classified intelligence, including on Iranian troop movements, and covertly shipped American weapons to Iraq. Basically, the United States was arming both sides so that neither side would dominate this key oil region. By 1983, however, the U.S. began to favor Iraq, turning a blind eye while U.S. arms dealers sold sophisticated Soviet arms to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
Even worse, the Reagan administration sold Iraq biological agents, including anthrax, and vital ingredients for chemical weapons—all the while knowing that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was regularly using these horrific weapons against the Iranian people and against his own Iraqi citizens. The 1983 photo of Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein is chilling. Years later, in 2003, the U.S. government used the very biological weapons it sold Hussein as a pretext to invade Iraq. A morbid joke at that time had George W. Bush saying, “We know Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons—we have the receipts.”
Why Did the U.S. Shoot Down an Iranian Airbus in 1988?
During the brutal eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq and then Iran used air attacks to target foreign tankers transporting each other’s oil exports through the Persian Gulf. This led the U.S. and other nations to deploy warships to protect their tankers in international waters.
On July 3, 1988, a terrible tragedy occurred: U.S. personnel on the warship USS Vincennes shot down a commercial passenger airline, Iran Air Flight 655, which was flying along its official route from Tehran to Dubai. All 290 people on board—274 passengers and 16 crew—were killed.
According to the U.S. government, this was a regrettable accident. The crew incorrectly identified the Iranian Airbus A300 as an attacking F-14 Tomcat fighter.
Most Iranians, however, believed it was a deliberate war crime. This belief was reinforced when the U.S. government tried to mislead the world about the details of the incident. It made a series of false claims that the plane was not on a normal flight path but was diving toward the ship rather than climbing after taking off from Bandar Abbas airport in southern Iran; that its identification transponder was not working or had been altered; and that the Vincennes was either rushing to the aid of a merchant ship or pursuing hostile Iranian patrol boats.
Months before the plane was shot down, air traffic controllers and the crews of other warships in the Persian Gulf had been warning that poorly trained U.S. crews, especially the gung-ho captain and crew of the Vincennes (or “Robocruiser,” as other crews had nicknamed it), were constantly misidentifying civilian aircrafts over the Persian Gulf, making this horrific massacre entirely predictable.
Adding insult to injury when, two years later, the U.S. Navy awarded combat medals to the warship’s captain and crew. The town of Vincennes, Indiana, for which the ship was named, even launched a fundraising campaign for a monument. The monument was not to remember the tragedy or the Iranians killed, but to honor the ship and its crew.
In 1996, in response to an Iranian lawsuit at the International Court of Justice, the U.S. agreed to a settlement, granting $213,000 per passenger to the victim’s families. But the U.S. government still refused to formally apologize or acknowledge wrongdoing.
While most Americans have no memory of this incident, in Iran the date of the deaths of 290 Iranian citizens at the hands of the U.S. military is marked every year just as the 9/11 attack is remembered every year in the United States. To some Iranians, it is just one more example of the callousness of U.S. policy.
Was Iran Involved in 1983 Marine Bombing?
Another incident that has impacted U.S.-Iranian relations was the bombing in 1983 of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. service personnel. The explosion came from a truck bomb at the compound. There were 1,800 Marines stationed in Beirut at the time as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. The bombing was traced to the Iranian-affiliated militia group, Hezbollah, and the U.S. accused Iran of being behind the attack. In April 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that frozen Iranian bank assets could be used to pay $1.75 billion to the survivors and family members of those killed. As of early 2018, however, those funds have still not been disbursed to the families.
What Was the Iran-Contra Arrair? How Did That Affect the Relationship?
Even though the U.S. and Iran did not have official relations after 1979, there were still points of engagement. In most cases, these have been one-off affairs and limited in scope.
One of the earliest such cases was the issue known as the Iran-Contra Affair. Starting in 1985, only a few years after the U.S. Embassy hostages were released and ties officially severed, Iran, the U.S., and Israel found themselves entangled in an illegal, secret web of confusion, misaligned interests, and shady middlemen.
Enmeshed in a brutal war with Iraq, Iran was in dire need of spare parts for its military, but there was a U.S. embargo on selling arms to Iran. At the same time, the Reagan administration was anxious to bring home seven Americans being held hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a paramilitary group with ties to Iran. Despite the American position that it would never negotiate with hostage takers, the Reagan administration decided to sell weapons to Iran in exchange for Iran’s help in freeing the U.S. hostages.
Given the illegality of selling weapons to Iran, however, the Israelis were brought in as go-betweens. Their job was to ship weapons to Iran, and then the U.S. would resupply Israel.
This scheme became even more complicated when U.S. Marine Lt. Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council became involved in late 1985. He modified the plan so that a portion of the proceeds from the weapon sales to Iran would be diverted to fund the “Contras,” an armed rebel group in Nicaragua that was trying to overthrow the leftist Sandinistas. There was a congressional prohibition on arming the Contras, so this was an attempt to subvert the prohibition.
This sordid affair now involved violating one congressional order against arms sales to Iran, then using the proceeds from that illegal operation to fund a project violating another congressional order banning the provision of arms to the Contras. Both acts breached the constitution.
The scheme was doomed from the start. When the first weapons shipment arrived in Iran, only one of the seven American hostages in Lebanon was released. The Iranians realized that it was in their best interest to slow walk their obligations so they could maintain the flow of weapons and spare parts. With two subsequent shipments, two more hostages were released, but two more hostages were taken. The U.S., for its part, sent old weapons and never agreed to send enough to alter the outcome of the Iran-Iraq war. Both sides were playing each other and had arrived at an impasse.
U.S. officials covertly traveled to Iran to work out a new deal but were blindsided when reports of the meeting were leaked to the media and made worldwide headlines. “Arms for Hostages” did not make good PR for either side, and all negotiations ceased. America’s PR nightmare became even worse when it was revealed that proceeds from the weapons sales were used to purchase arms for the Nicaraguan Contras in flagrant violation of U.S. law. Fourteen of Reagan’s aides were indicted, including the Secretary of Defense and two national security advisors, and 11 were convicted. Reagan’s presidency was tarnished by the sordid affair, and it was a further setback for U.S.-Iranian relations. None of the 14 went to jail, and President George H.W. Bush, who was vice president under Reagan, pardoned all of them in his final days in office.
What Shifts Took Place in the 1990s?
In the waning days of the 1980s, Iran and Iraq agreed to a ceasefire, and Ayatollah Khomeini passed away. There was hope that the subsequent increase in trade between Iran and the U.S., coupled with the new Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would lead to improved relations. U.S. hostages were still being held in Lebanon, but Iran seemed more amenable to working for their release. Additionally, Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 lent more credibility to Iran’s assertion that he was the aggressor during their eight-year war.
When President Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, was elected to succeed him, Bush seemed like a candidate who could help lead the détente. In his inaugural address, he promised to “reciprocate goodwill with goodwill.” Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani saw this as a positive sign that the Americans were willing to take concrete steps to improve their relationship. To test their resolve, Rafsanjani pulled the necessary strings to have the Americans held hostage in Lebanon released. But the Bush administration reneged on its offer to meet goodwill with goodwill, damaging the potential for rapprochement.
Cooperation with Iran did occur during the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm pushed Iraq out of Kuwait. While not directly joining the fight against Iraq, the Iranians allowed coalition airplanes overflight rights. After the war, Iran tried to build a Gulf-based security coalition that could provide regional stability.
The Bush administration, however, had its own plans. It organized a conference to discuss the future of the region, but did not invite Iran. Naturally, the Iranians saw this as yet another example of U.S. double dealing.
The decision to leave Iran out of the conference was largely due to Israeli pressure. The Israelis had been worried about rapprochement between Iran and the United States. Israel considered Iran a threat not because it was militarily dangerous, but because economically it provided a bigger potential market for U.S. goods and businesses than Israel. The Israelis worried that U.S.-Iran détente would mean Israel would lose its special relationship with the U.S.
Leaving the Iranians out of the regional security apparatus also meant that Iran was free to be the spoiler. Tehran did just that, embarking on a policy to make the U.S. decision to isolate Iran as costly as possible. Many of the problems in the region today stem from the Bush White House’s decision to isolate Iran.
After Bush lost his re-election bid and Bill Clinton moved into the Oval Office, not much changed in the adversarial relationship between the two nations. The Israeli government continued to play a large role in preventing the U.S. from reaching out to Iran, convincing the Clinton administration of the need to contain both Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Iran’s Islamic government. This policy, known as dual containment, was a shift from previous strategies that sought to balance one with the other.
The Clinton administration had also become preoccupied with the peace process between Israel and Palestine. In an effort to move that forward, the Clinton White House caved to Israeli pressure aimed at targeting Iran. Initially this was in language only, utilizing the now commonplace phrases of “state sponsor of terrorism” and “ardent opponent of the peace process” to describe the Iranian government. But more importantly, Israel pushed for tougher sanctions on Iran.
The Iranians had offered Conoco, an American oil company, a lucrative oil field concession in 1995. It was a significant move, heavy with symbolism. The Clinton administration was aware of the ongoing negotiations between Conoco and the Iranian government. Within a month of the deal being announced, however, the pro-Israel lobby was out in full force in Washington working to squash it. Pressured by this powerful lobby and its allies in Congress, Clinton once again caved to Israeli demands. By issuing two executive orders prohibiting trade with Iran, he essentially snuffed out Conoco’s hard-earned deal. Congress, not to be outdone in their anti-Iran efforts, went one step further and codified those executive orders by passing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996. The sanctions effectively blocked any effort to improve relations with Iran.
The Iranians were incensed and responded by attacking the Israeli peace process. Tehran began building relationships with Palestinian militant organizations. Since the revolution, Iran had only verbally attacked Israel, never actually following through with their threats. But as Israel spearheaded efforts to isolate Iran, Iranian rhetoric turned to action, further jeopardizing U.S.-Iranian détente.
The 1990s saw hopes of rapprochement dashed by both the Bush and Clinton administrations. Under heavy pro-Israel lobbying and still nursing old wounds from the hostage crisis, both Democrats and Republicans joined the anti-Iran bandwagon. But it was also in the 1990s that the U.S. and European stances toward Iran began to diverge, with the Europeans favoring détente and economic cooperation. After Congress passed the 1996 Sanctions Act, countries in the European Union protested and continued to do business with Iran.
How Did 9/11 Affect Iran’s Relations With the West?
The George W. Bush administration had been in office less than eight months in 2001 when the 9/11 terror attacks occurred, attacks that fundamentally changed the region and its relationship with the United States. One might think that 9/11 would have shifted the U.S. alliance from Saudi Arabia to Iran, given that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis and that the attacks were perpetrated by Al Qaeda, a Sunni-based extremist group whose fundamentalist ideology is based on the Saudi’s Wahhabist version of Islam. Iran, on the other hand, is a Shia country that had no ties to Al Qaeda.
Moreover, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda leadership lived under the protection of the Taliban. Since the mid-1990s, the Iranians had been fighting the Taliban, primarily by assisting their adversaries, the Northern Alliance.
Iranians, both the government and the public, were also very sympathetic towards the United States after the attack. Unlike the celebrations in some Arab nations, where people saw the attacks on the U.S. as a well-deserved blow to Israel’s main supporter, Iranians poured into the streets to hold candlelight vigils. Iran’s political leaders expressed their condolences and thought the attack might result in a warming of U.S.-Iranians relations. When the Bush administration declared war on the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan that had not only harbored Al Qaeda but had murdered Iranian diplomats, the Iranian government offered assistance. As before, however, the U.S. was reluctant to accept Iran’s help, in large part due to continued Israeli pressure.
The U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban from power and pushed Al Qaeda’s networks into Pakistan. President Bush then needed a plan to rebuild Afghanistan, and it was here that the Iranians offered assistance. Iran’s extensive knowledge of Afghanistan and the connections it had made by backing the anti-Taliban alliance was of enormous help in getting all sides together in Bonn, Germany to try to work out an agreement for an interim government.
James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, described the tense gathering in Bonn, where the disparate factions had reached an impasse. Everything was about to fall apart until the intervention by the Iranian representative Javad Zarif, the same person who 14 years later negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. Zarif talked privately to the Northern Alliance delegate, who then compromised and saved the day. “It was indicative that Iran was collaborating quite constructively with the United States and with the rest of the international community to assure a positive outcome of the conference,” Dobbins said.
At the international donors’ conference to help rebuild Afghanistan, Iran also played a positive role, pledging a staggering $500 million in assistance—the same amount as the United States. Iran was so eager to continue helping that it even offered to pay to rebuild the Afghan Army, an offer the U.S. refused. Iranian officials were also helpful in extraditing Al Qaeda fighters who had fled Afghanistan and were living in Iran.
Inside the George W. Bush White House, debates were raging about whether to continue collaborating with Iran. The discussions came to a crashing halt when President Bush, in his fateful January 29, 2002 State of the Union address, called Iran part of the “axis of evil.”
Bush’s speech undercut any movement for positive relations with Iran. Iranian reformists who had lobbied to engage the United States felt betrayed and were throttled by both Bush’s rebuke and condemnation from hardliners inside Iran. The opportunity to improve U.S.-Iranian relations in the wake of the 9/11 attacks had been torpedoed by conservative, pro-Israel U.S. politicians.
How Did the 2003 U.S. Invasion of Iraq Affect Relations?
Then came the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Iranian government was delighted to see Saddam Hussein’s regime attacked; after all, the Iraqi leader had invaded Iran in 1980 and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iranians. Iraq was also a majority Shia country where the Shia had been brutally persecuted under Saddam Hussein, and Iran had a long history of supporting its Shia brethren. But the speed with which the U.S. military overthrew Saddam Hussein, doing in three weeks what Iran could not do in eight years of war with Iraq, worried Iran’s political leadership. They wanted to make sure that any new Iraqi government would not be a threat to Iran’s security.
Initially, Iran held off from sowing seeds of discord. In fact, via Swiss intermediaries, the Iranians sent a proposal to the U.S. State Department laying out the terms of a “grand bargain.” It was, in essence, a bold peace treaty that put everything on the table. It offered to negotiate nearly every issue the U.S. had been concerned with—Iran’s nuclear program, support for Palestinian militant groups, policy in Iraq, and accepting Israel’s right to exist. In return, the U.S. would have to give up hostile behavior towards Iran, end economic sanctions, allow access to peaceful nuclear technology, clampdown on the terrorist group MEK, and acknowledge Iran’s security interests.
The Bush administration, elated by its quick victory in defeating Saddam Hussein and believing that regime change in Iran could come next, saw no need to negotiate, and even rebuked the Swiss for playing the role of intermediary. Iran’s offer never even received a reply.
The hubris of the Bush officials made them believe their quick success in toppling Saddam Hussein signaled the long-term viability of their agenda to create a new, pro-Western, stable government in Iraq. Instead, their refusal to negotiate with Iran hurt U.S. chances of controlling events on the ground in Iraq. It also sent a message to the hardliners in Iran that the only way to force the United States to treat Iran as a sovereign nation was to be a thorn in its side. That’s when Iran began funding, training, and equipping Shia militias inside Iraq.
The first Iraqi election, which took place one year after the U.S. government’s pro-consul Paul Bremer had been running the country, put Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in office. Maliki had spent much time in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and his first trip as prime minister was to Tehran. From 2005 onward, successive Iraqi governments have had expensive ties with Iran, much to the consternation of U.S. officials.
How Did the Europeans Affect U.S.-Iranian Negotiations?
In June 2003, just months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.K., Germany, and France launched a diplomatic effort to address their growing concern about Iran’s nuclear policy. The U.S. refused to join the talks. A few months later, the parties reached an agreement known as the Tehran Declaration, where Iran agreed to fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to suspend all uranium enrichment. For the Iranians, they felt the negotiations with the Europeans were a prelude to deeper talks that would include the U.S., but the U.S. was not interested. The buzz phrase in the Bush White House was “we don’t talk to evil.”
By 2005, the situation had changed. Iraq was a mess, and the Bush administration finally decided that engaging Iran was worth a shot. Rather than recognize that Iran had already suspended uranian enrichment, however, the White House demanded that Iran give up fuel production altogether as a precondition for talks. The Iranians refused.
In the meantime, presidential elections in Iran were looming. Western governments were hopeful that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a reformist, would win. They did not bank on the conservative former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad edging out Rafsanjani. Reformists had stuck their necks out on multiple occasions to build a more positive relationship with the United States. In return, the U.S. had shut the door or ignored their overtures. With Ahmadinejad in office, whatever political capital the reformists still had soon evaporated. Now the hardliners had the green light.
Almost immediately after Ahmadinejad took office, Iran restarted its suspended nuclear program. By mid-2006, after a failed attempt at restarting negotiations, the Germans stepped in and persuaded the Bush administration to try again. The Germans realized there would not be any long-term solution without U.S. involvement, but Bush’s team once again insisted that the suspension of uranium enrichment was a precondition. For the Iranians, this was a non-starter. They had already suspended their program once and received nothing in return.
The Bush administration was surprised Iran said “no,” but it should not have been. In the waning days of the second Bush White House, Iran’s nuclear program was gaining ground, and it was clear Iran would also gain from the chaos in Iraq. Bush had, through his own hubris, neutered America’s ability to build a consensus around Iran. It took the election of a new U.S. president for that to be rebuilt.
What Did Obama’s ‘Unclenched Fist’ Diplomatic Initiative Do to Improve Relations?
In November 2008, the United States elected Barack Obama, who had promised to improve America’s relations with the rest of the world, especially the Middle East. His approach extended to Iran as well. After 12 years of American failure to recognize openings, Obama’s election was a breath of fresh air and a time of hope.
Almost immediately after taking office in late January 2009, President Obama sent clear signals that he sought to engage the Iranians, both private citizens and the government. Just a few weeks after taking office, President Obama sent a video message to the Iranian people for the Persian New Year, Nowruz. It was intended to show the Iranians that Obama appreciated their culture and understood the importance of hospitality and respect. The Iranians were appreciative of his message.
Progress on any diplomatic initiative was muted, though, because of the pending Iranian presidential elections in June 2009, in which conservative President Ahmadinejad was vying for another term. The Obama administration had hoped that someone more amenable to diplomatic efforts would be elected. They almost got their wish with challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. On election day, the two were neck and neck, but the official results gave Ahmadinejad a landslide victory. The public cried foul.
In the ensuing days and weeks, protests raged across the country. The movement for a recount and for more transparency became known as the Green Movement. International media outlets endlessly covered the unfolding events, but as time progressed the Iranian government was determined to move forward with Ahmadinejad as president. Instead of letting the protests die out, they decided to violently crack down on citizens who had taken to the streets.
The Obama administration had hoped to jumpstart diplomatic efforts after the election was over. Now they were scrambling to figure out how to respond to the protests. Obama wanted to support the Green Movement but did not want to eliminate the possibility of future engagement with the government. Conservatives in the U.S. Congress called for more sanctions and more public support for the Green Movement. Ironically, the movement did not want open support from the U.S. government, as such support would jeopardize the legitimacy of the opposition.
Several months later, however, Obama sought to engage the Iranian government regarding their nuclear program. Over a series of meetings, diplomats from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany (P5+1) met with Iranian officials to deal with Iran’s low enriched uranium stockpile. If Iran could enrich it further, the stockpile would be enough to reach the highly enriched uranium necessary for a nuclear weapon. A complex proposal involving shipments between Russia, France, and Iran had traction, but a deal was never reached.
Frustrated, the Obama administration set a different course. Rather than trying to engage Iran, the White House doggedly pursued building a consensus among the P5+1 to impose even tougher sanctions. The Chinese and Russians were initially reluctant, but after months of negotiations and Iran’s intransigence, they agreed to support new UN Security Council sanctions.
Just as the UN Security Council was debating new sanctions, two upstart countries, Turkey and Brazil, tried to give diplomacy another chance. After getting tepid approval from the Obama administration, Turkish and Brazilian diplomats went to Iran to re-engage on the nuclear issue. To everyone’s surprise, they were successful in getting an agreement that essentially mirrored what had been discussed six months earlier. Iran would exchange a portion of its low enriched uranium for fuel pads. Only this time, the deal was too little too late. The Obama administration scuttled the new deal, because Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile had nearly doubled, and international consensus had already been built around a new set of sanctions. That little glimmer of hope created by Turkey and Brazil was snuffed out by the United States.
Sanctions on Iran passed the UN Security Council, and for the next two years, as the U.S. turned up the pressure on Iran, the two countries were locked in a stalemate over the nuclear issue. Iran accelerated its program, increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium and increasing the number of centrifuges. Both countries engaged in tit-for-tat cyberattacks on each other’s infrastructure. And in early 2012, the U.S. Congress passed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, which essentially cut Iran off from participating in global commerce.
Around the same time as the banking sanctions, new rounds of talks were starting with a secret back channel via the government of Oman. Over the course of the next year, the secret talks would continue building trust, but no agreement.
When Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s new president in June 2013, new life was breathed into the back channel. President Obama had been forced to reconsider his position on zero enrichment. There was pressure from the Omanis and Europeans, as well as recognition that the sanctions were having a diminishing impact. All the while, Iran’s nuclear program was advancing.
As the back channel continued to hammer out a framework for enrichment, inspections, and removal of sanctions, the P5+1 renewed its meetings as well. In November 2013 they reached an interim agreement and tried to hash out the final sticking points, including the future of a heavy water reactor at Natanz, the release of Iranian frozen assets held in U.S. banks, and limitations on enrichment and research bans.
The global public watched with bated breath, as deadlines kept getting extended. At several moments it seemed that the entire deal would collapse, as each side threatened to walk away. Finally, after a 12-year-standoff, 20 months of on-and-off talks, and a final 17-day marathon round of uninterrupted negotiations, an historic deal was reached on July 14, 2015.
Then came the next step: a Herculean effort by both the Obama administration and the grassroots organizations to get the necessary congressional approval. Despite heavy lobbying by the pro-Israel organization AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and other lobby groups created specifically to quash the deal, Congress failed to block the agreement, giving victory to a hard-fought diplomatic battle.
Negotiations were also taking place regarding a different issue: a prisoner swap. Several Iranian-American dual nationals were being held in Iranian prisons, most notably Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian. In exchange for their release, the U.S. agreed to release several Iranians held in American jails. Adding to the complexity was the fact that several U.S. sailors, after a series of mistakes and navigation equipment malfunctions, had drifted into Iranian waters and were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Navy. Leaning on the already good rapport between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the sailors were released after 16 hours.
The U.S. and Iran had figured out a diplomatic solution to the nuclear impasse and the trust they had built allowed them to hammer out other agreements. But the two countries remained at odds over many issues, including Iran’s role in the unrest in Iraq and Syria. Another concern was Iran’s continued testing of missiles, even though this was not directly prohibited under the nuclear accords.
As the Obama administration prepared to leave office, hopes were high that the next president would build on his efforts. Both countries had gone a long way to establish trust and institutionalize their interactions. What they did not anticipate, however, was Donald Trump becoming the next president.
Will Trump’s “Make America Great Again” Lead Us to a Familiar Path?
Riding a wave of right-wing populism, Donald Trump was elected to replace Barack Obama. He promised to bring jobs back, renegotiate trade deals that hurt Americans, and—notably—tear up the Iran nuclear deal that he called the “worst deal ever negotiated.”
Despite Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement, President Trump insisted on the contrary. On October 13, 2017, Trump dealt a blow to the pact by refusing to certify that Iran was in compliance with the accord, despite all evidence by U.S. and international specialists that Iran had compiled. If the U.S. abandons the nuclear accord, the other P5+1 countries have said they would remain committed to it. What Trump is risking, however, is that Iran will say the deal has been violated and restart its enrichment program. We could be in for a long road of increased instability and conflict in an already tumultuous region.
Why Have U.S. Policymakers Been So Supportive of the MEK?
In 1997, the MEK (People’s Mujahedeen of Iran) was listed by the United States as a terrorist group. Indeed, it has a sordid history of violent attacks, first against the Shah and U.S. businessmen in Iran, and later against the Islamic Republic once it fell out of favor with Ayatollah Khomeini. MEK members were early examples of suicide bombers, strapping themselves with explosives and blowing up civilians in Iran. Israel used the MEK to penetrate Iran and assassinate nuclear scientists. The MEK also took their attacks overseas, targeting Iranian diplomatic missions in 13 countries.
The MEK is a cult-like organization run by Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam. A 1994 State Department report documented how Massoud Rajavi “fostered a cult of personality around himself that had alienated most Iranian expatriates, who assert they do not want to replace one objectionable regime for another.” A 2009 Rand study described the group as having “cultic practices,” including mandatory divorce and celibacy, because “love for the Rajavis was to replace love for spouses and family.” In 2013, a George Mason University study found that only five percent of Iranians showed any support for the MEK.
In the United States, however, the group launched a hard-core lobbying campaign to get itself off the terrorist list and rehabilitate itself as a legitimate opposition to the Iranian regime. It has large sums of money for the campaign, reportedly coming from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of wealthy Iranian-Americans.
Their campaign became a classic case in how to buy influence in Washington DC. The MEK used its funds to secure the backing of an astounding array of U.S. politicians across the political spectrum—from liberal Democrat Howard Dean to conservative Republican Newt Gingrich. It gathered support from pro-Israel figures, including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
Many of its high-profile advocates—including members of Congress, Washington lobby groups, and influential former officials— received large contributions for their support. The funds were disbursed as speaker and lobby fees, campaign contributions, and expensive travel reimbursements. The MEK paid up to $100,000 for people to make public appearances at their events.
As the New York Times noted, “Rarely in the annals of lobbying in the capital has so obscure a cause attracted so stellar a group of supporters: former directors of the CIA and the FBI, retired generals and famous politicians of both parties.”
Their campaign worked. In 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the MEK had been removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
While the MEK continues to have many supporters within Congress and a large pool of big name advocates, a group that fought alongside Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, has ties to the CIA and Israel’s Mossad, and functions in a cult-like manner is hard pressed to be a viable alternative to Iran’s present government. The group might have been able to buy support in the U.S. capital, but it has virtually zero support inside Iran.