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The tensions that are currently characterizing the relationship between the United States and Iran have not always been the reality. It was rather colonialism and abuse of power that shaped the history of the Islamic Republic for so long, and motivated Iran to pursue its own nuclear program.

When the country was still Persia, social movements seeking for constitutional reforms and the dismantling of the monarchy were crushed by Soviet and British interference. The first popular uprising in 1908 had the aim of establishing a constitutional system and was supported by an American teacher and missionary, Howard C. Baskerville, who gave his life for the revolution. The Iranian Constitution House in Tabriz still hosts a bronze bust bearing the writing: “Howard C. Baskerville – Patriot and Maker of History.”

Following the initial success of the revolution, the Constitution was established. Moved by a sentiment of trust and administration, Persia turned to the United States and demanded a person that could help reorganize Persian finances. The Soviet Union and Great Britain started putting immense pressure on Tehran for it to refuse the U.S.’s help. Following its refusal to comply, the Soviet Union and Great Britain attacked Persia on December 24, 1911, and the monarchy was re-established.

The First World War turned Persia into a battlefield where Germany, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and Turkey fought against each other. Moreover, Persia was denied by the British to claim compensation for the damages suffered during the war, nullifying its claims for national sovereignty. Moreover, the Persian monarch allowed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to occupy an entire province in the southwest of Persia, and Britain could exploit Persian natural resources almost exclusively.

The development of anti-British sentiments facilitated the development of strong ties between Persia – which changed its name to Iran in 1935 –[1] and Nazi Germany. However, the Soviet Union and Britain managed to re-establish the previous areas of influence, and led Iran to declare war on Germany during the Second World War.

Following its entrance into WWII the United States could exert its influence in Iran. Having lost its trading partnership with Germany, which caused enormous economic problems, Iran asked for American help once again. The U.S. appointed Arthur Chester Millspaugh with the task of helping Iranian finances from 1942 to 1945, but he favored the advancement of U.S. ambitions in Iran.

Subsequently, the history between Iran and the U.S. turned bitter with the occurrence of three major events. The first event occurred in 1953, when the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, announced Iran would nationalize the country’s oil industry. The British found this unacceptable and convinced the United States that getting rid of Mossadegh would favor U.S. national interests. He was ousted through a coup d’état and replaced by Mohammad Reza Shah. It was at around this time that Iran started to develop a limited nuclear program, and received cooperation from western countries. The United States also, participated by selling Iran a 5-megawatt research nuclear reactor in 1957 and highly enriched uranium as part of the Atoms for Peace program.[2] Iran enjoyed a period of nuclear cooperation with the United States until 1979.

The second event that badly affected U.S.-Iran relationships took place in 1979. Despite their cooperation in the nuclear sphere, many Iranians harbored deep anti-U.S. and anti-Shah sentiments, and became predisposed to revolution. During this revolution, on November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries entered the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held hostage 52 American diplomats for 444 days. At this point, the U.S. and Iran declared the end of their diplomatic relationship. The cutting supply of highly enriched uranium by the U.S. in the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis induced Iran to seek assistance from Argentina, France, and Russia in order to continue with the development of its own nuclear program. Suspicions that Iran was developing a clandestine nuclear weapons program frequently surfaced amongst the international community, and caused Iran to be subjected to harsh sanctions, pushed, in particular, by the U.S. The sanctions reinforced Iran’s desire to develop its own nuclear program, as it is legitimately entitled to do under the NPT. The harsh sanctions regime placed on Iran hasn’t taken in consideration the fact that Iran never breached its obligations under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which the Iranian government signed in 1968 and ratified in 1970.

Finally, the third major event that badly impacted the U.S.-Iran relationship saw President George W. Bush listing Iran on to the “axis of evil.” Bush didn’t consider that Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in 1997, had worked hard to achieve reconciliation with the U.S., and offered help to the U.S in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks to the Twin Towers in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Moreover, thousands of Iranians took to the streets in solidarity with the U.S.

The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 brought an air of renewal. In his first year as president, Obama embarked on a tour of the Middle East and North Africa, attempting to stimulate open dialogue. He was also the first American president to officially state his willingness to move forward to overcome decades of mistrust that had built over the years between the U.S. and Iran. His commitment evolved into the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in partnership with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council – namely, China, France, Russia, and the UK – Germany and Iran (P5+1 and Iran). Although not perfect, the JCPOA dramatically reduced the tensions that had solidified though the years, and paved the way to more scrupulous and frequent inspections on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The efforts that led to adoption of the JCPOA were nullified by President Donald Trump, who, in May 2018, formally withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, reinstated the banking and oil sanctions previously lifted, and reignited the psychological war against Iran. Dramatically, Iran decided to stop abiding by the commitments established in the JCPOA in July 2019, and shortly thereafter exceeded the agreed-upon limits to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, starting to enrich uranium to a higher concentration. This quantity is still far from the ninety percent purity required for nuclear weapons, but it adds elements of instability, fear and distrust within the international community. Because of the sanctions unilaterally imposed, the Trump administration has left the global community with few levers to mitigate Iran’s support for what the U.S. itself considers violent proxy groups in the Middle East. Once again, the United States and Iran seem to be on the brink of war, with an increased possibility that Iran could retaliate against Israel or the United States and vice versa. The U.S. violation of the 2015 deal has also increased the possibility of an arms race in the Middle East and the fueling of sectarian conflicts in Syria and Yemen. President Trump’s policies toward Iran have been disastrous, indeed.


[1] The Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, overthrew the last United States-backed monarch of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and replaced his government with an Islamic Republic during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On February 11, 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini changed the official name of Iran into “Islamic Republic of Iran.” “Iran” and Islamic Republic of Iran” will be used interchangeably in the text.

[2] Bodansky, David (2005) (2nd ed.), Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices And Prospects, New York: Springer, p. 481.