Relations with Iran

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IRAN, RELATIONS WITH. Americans had relatively little contact with Iran until the 1940s. The United States largely deferred to British policy, whose commercial and diplomatic approach focused on extracting oil for a nominal fee and confronting Russian influence in Iran. In August 1941, fearing German influence, the British and the Soviets invaded Iran and deposed the pro-Axis ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi. They installed his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, depriving the new shah of popular legitimacy. Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the November 1943 Teheran Conference of the Allied leaders, the first visit of an incumbent U.S. president to the country.

As the Cold War began, the USSR tried to over-whelm Iran, Turkey, and Greece, while the mantle of protecting Western interests moved from the British to the Americans. The continued Soviet occupation in Iran triggered the first threat of direct U.S. intervention in the Near East. President Harry S. Truman's threat to send marines to aid Iran coupled with Iranian diplomatic maneuvering in the United Nations convinced the Red Army to retreat in May 1946. In March 1947, the Truman Doctrine promised support to those resisting Soviet subversion. Iran became part of the American sphere of influence thanks to its abundant supply of oil and its strategic location at the juncture of the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.

In August 1953, the United States orchestrated a military coup to overthrow the popular Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, who opposed the shah, briefly forcing him into exile, and the predominance of the West in his country, especially the exploitation of oil companies. The restoration of the pro-American regime, while damaging its credibility, secured an alliance between the two countries. The growing revenues generated by more local control over oil transformed Iran into a consumer of American products, such as advanced technology and defense equipment. A stronger, more industrialized Iran became an anti-Soviet pillar.

The October 1973 oil crisis, in which Iran remained loyal to the United States and to Israel, in stark contrast to its Arab neighbors, further increased Iran's importance to the United States. The shah's aspirations to regional hegemony and accelerated modernization in Iran heightened commercial, military, cultural, and educational ties with the United States. While U.S. training of Iranian pilots was a mutual source of pride, the presence of American military personnel and their alleged help to the notorious secret police, the SAVAK, were controversial.

The shah's downfall was due in part to corruption and to the widening disparity in wealth caused by his aggressive White Revolution. These failures were compounded by his weak legitimacy and by opposition of the leading members of the Muslim clergy, who portrayed him as an agent of incursion for American interests and a promoter

of Western decadence, which they claimed jeopardized the values and structure of a traditional society.

The most memorable year in U.S. relations with Iran was 1979, which reversed decades of collaboration. The year began with mass demonstrations against the shah and his overthrow. He left for exile on 16 January. President James Earl Carter refused to intervene for the fledgling regime, and even had he chosen to act, success would have been unlikely. The Muslim fundamentalists prevailed on 11 February. Previous U.S. support for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's foe, an internal struggle between factions vying for control, and U.S. permission for the cancer-stricken shah to receive medical care in New York City triggered a hostage crisis that lasted 444 days. On 4 November, members of the Revolutionary Guards attacked the American Embassy and seized dozens of staff members. Among their explicit demands were the extradition of the shah for a public trial and an American apology for aiding his regime. Some leaders of the new government also feared a covert action to reverse their political gains.

The Iranian government sided with this violation of diplomatic immunity partly because of its domestic election campaign in early 1980. As negotiations to redeem the remaining fifty-two American hostages proved futile, President Carter turned to coercion. After freezing Iranian assets, he ordered a rescue attempt in April 1980. Eight U.S. soldiers died in an accident during the aborted mission. This debacle, coupled with alleged Republican manipulations to delay any release of the hostages prior to the presidential elections, sealed Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in November 1980. The shah had died in August 1980, and the hostages were released in exchange for unfreezing Iranian assets on 20 January 1981, the day of the presidential transition from Carter to Reagan.

In the mid-1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War, the Iran-Contra scandal unfolded in the United States. National Security Council officials, notably Colonel Oliver North, secretly sold arms to Iran, and some of the proceeds were diverted to help the anticommunist Contras in Nicaragua in contravention of the U.S. Constitution. The hope was to gain influence among moderates in Iran and to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The contacts had only limited success. During the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War, Iran remained neutral as the United States and its allies defeated Iraq.

Only in 1997, when the reformer Mohammad Khatami won the presidential elections in Iran, did relations visibly improve, although rhetorical animosity remained the norm, especially among Iranian clergy. The June 1998 World Cup soccer game, in which Iranian and American players exchanged mementos, embodied the hopes for more friendly relations.


Bill, James A. The Eagle and the Lion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Kuniholm, Bruce Robellet. The Origins of the Cold War in the Near East. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Sick, Gary. October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan. New York: Times Books, 1991.


See alsoIran-Contra Affair ; Iran Hostage Crisis ; Persian Gulf War .

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During the period of the Shah, Soviet-Iranian relations were cool, if not hostile. Memories of the 1946 Soviet occupation of Northern Iran, the activities of the Iranian Communist Party, and the increasingly close U.S.-Iranian alliance kept Moscow and Tehran diplomatically far apart, although there was a considerable amount of trade between the two countries. Following the overthrow of the Shah, Moscow initially hoped the Khomeini regime would gravitate toward the Soviet Union. However, the renewed activities of the Iranian communist party, together with Tehran's anger at Moscow for its support of Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war, kept the two countries apart until 1987, when Moscow increased its support for Iran. By 1989 Moscow had signed a major arms agreement with Tehran, and the military cooperation between the two countries continued into the post-Soviet period.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran emerged as Russia's primary ally in the Middle East. Moscow became Iran's most important supplier of sophisticated military equipment, including combat aircraft, tanks, and submarines, and began building a nuclear reactor for Tehran. For its part, Iran provided Moscow with important diplomatic assistance in combating the Taliban in Afghanistan and in achieving and maintaining the ceasefire in Tajikistan, and both countries sought to limit U.S. influence in Transcaucasia and Central Asia.

The close relations between Russia and Iran, which had begun in the last years of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, developed steadily under both Yeltsin and Putin, with Putin even willing to abrogate the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, negotiated between the United States and Russia in 1995, which would have ended Russian arms sales to Iran by 2000.

Moscow was also willing, despite U.S. objections, to aid Iran in the development of the Shihab III intermediate-range ballistic missile and to supply Iran with nuclear reactors. However, there were areas of conflict in the Russian-Iranian relationship. First, the two countries were in competition over the transportation routes for the oil and natural gas of Central Asia and Transcaucasia. Iran claimed it provided the shortest and safest route for these energy resources to the outside world, while Russia wished to control the energy export routes of the states of the former Soviet Union, believing that these routes lay in the Russian sphere of influence. Second, by early 2001 Russia and Iran had come into conflict over the development of the energy resources of the Caspian Sea. Russia sided with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in their call for the development of their national sectors of the Caspian Sea, while Iran demanded either joint development of the Caspian Sea or a full 20 percent of the Caspian for itself. A third problem lay on the Russian side. Throughout the 1990s the conservative clerical regime in Iran became increasingly unpopular, and while it held the levers of power (army, police, and judiciary), the election of the Reformist Mohammed Khatami as Iran's President in 1997 (and his over-whelming reelection in 2001), along with the election in 2000 of a reformist Parliament (albeit one with limited power), led some in the Russian leadership to fear a possible Iranian-American rapprochement, which would have limited Russian influence in Iran. The possibilities of economic cooperation between the United States and Iran dwarfed those of Russia and Iran, particularly because both Russia and Iran throughout the 1990s encountered severe economic problems. Fortunately for Moscow, the conservative counterattack against both Khatami and the reformist Parliament at least temporarily prevented the rapprochement, as did President George W. Bush's labeling of Iran as part of the "axis of evil" in January 2002. On the other hand, Russian-Iranian relations were challenged by the new focus of cooperation between Russia and the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and by Russia's acquiescence in the establishment of U.S. bases in central Asia.

In sum, throughout the 1990s and into the early twenty-first century, Russia and Iran were close economic, military, and diplomatic allies. However, it was unclear how long that alliance would remain strong.

See also: iraq, relations with; united states, relations with


Freedman, Robert O. (2001). Russian Policy Toward the Middle East Since the Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Yeltsin Legacy and the Challenge for Putin (The Donald W. Treadgold Papers in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies, no. 33). Seattle: Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.

Nizamedden, Talal. (1999). Russia and the Middle East. New York: St. Martin's.

Rumer, Eugene. (2000). Dangerous Drift: Russia's Middle East Policy. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Shaffer, Brenda. (2001). Partners in Need: The Strategic Relationship of Russia and Iran. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Vassiliev, Alexei. (1993). Russian Policy in the Middle East: From Messiasism to Pragmatism. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press.

Robert O. Freedman