As the war in Vietnam wound down, Nixon and NSC adviser Henry Kissinger explained, the United States was looking to scale back its military commitments in places like Southeast Asia and the Middle East. If Iran was willing to become America's partner and assume responsibility for ensuring political stability in the Persian Gulf, Nixon would permit the Shah to purchase any non-nuclear weapons system in the U.S. arsenal, including helicopter gunships, jet fighters, and guided-missile frigates.

The Shah embraced the new "Nixon Doctrine" enthusiastically. Indeed, between 1972 and 1977, he bought $13 billion worth of American military hardware and paid for it from the increased revenue generated by skyrocketing oil prices following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the ensuing embargo imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The oil boom proved to be a mixed blessing for OPEC members like Iran, however, touching off an inflationary spiral that caused the cost of basic necessities to rise sharply and widened the gap between Iranian haves and have-nots.

When dissidents took to the streets to protest wasteful military spending, to appeal for better jobs, and to demand democratic reforms, the Shah unleashed a brutal crackdown and authorized the SAVAK and the Iranian army to use lethal force if necessary to quell the unrest. From his exile in Iraq, the Ayatollah Khomeini condemned the bloodshed and called for the overthrow of the American-backed tyrant.

The U.S. and the Iranian Revolution

President Jimmy Carter, who assumed office in January 1977, was highly skeptical of the Nixon Doctrine and deeply disturbed by the Shah's repressive policies, which ran counter to his own campaign promise to make human rights a central pillar of post-Vietnam U.S. foreign policy.

 

After Iranian exchange students chanted anti-Pahlavi slogans and clashed with local police outside the White House during the Shah's visit to Washington in late October, Carter took his guest aside and urged him privately to change course. Yet when Carter visited Tehran on New Year's Eve 1977, he felt obliged to offer a well publicized toast to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whose realm was "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world."

No American could make such a toast one year later.

On 8 January 1978, Iranian troops fired into a noisy pro-Khomeini crowd in the holy city of Qom, killing two dozen demonstrators and wounding more than 100 others. Much to the dismay of the Carter administration, the protests soon spread throughout Iran, bringing together an unlikely coalition of mullahs, merchants, and middle-class students who could only agree on one thing—that the Shah must go.

When heavily armed soldiers killed 400 protestors and injured 4,000 more in Tehran's Jaleh Square on 8 September, most observers expected him to go sooner rather than later. In early November, U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan drafted a cable informing Carter and his advisers that the time had come for "Thinking the Unthinkable"—an Iran without the Shah.

The end came quickly. After briefly exploring the possibility of a pro-American military regime, in which the Shah would have been reduced to little more than a figurehead, the Carter administration quietly encouraged the man who had ruled Iran for almost forty years to pack his bags.

On 16 January 1979, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi boarded a Boeing 707 at Tehran's Mehrabad airport and headed off for exile in Egypt. Two weeks later, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran for the first time in fifteen years vowing to cleanse the country of all remaining influence of "the Great Satan," as he called the United States, and promising to establish an Islamic Republic.

Raised in a secular American society that was threatened by a secular Soviet menace, few U.S. policymakers expected Islam to play a significant role in Iranian politics, and fewer still understood Khomeini's brand of Shi'ism. [Read here for more on "the Sunni-Shi'i Divide"]

Uncertain about what the future held, U.S. diplomats worked with Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and other moderate leaders in Tehran to prevent a rupture in Iranian-American relations throughout the spring and into the summer. Meanwhile, Khomeini's youthful supporters organized themselves into battalions of "revolutionary guards" who harassed members of the old regime and denounced all things American.

On 23 October 1979, the White House confirmed that the Shah of Iran had checked into the Cornell University Medical Center in New York City for surgery on the lymphoma that would eventually kill him. Although Jimmy Carter insisted that this was a purely humanitarian gesture, it evoked bad memories of Operation Ajax a quarter-century earlier, when the CIA had conspired with the Shah to overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh.

Twelve days after Mohammed Reza Pahlavi arrived in Manhattan, Iranian students fiercely loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and captured 53 American diplomats, whom they would hold hostage for 444 days.

The hostage crisis poisoned Iran's relations with America, making Islam a dirty word and dominating the political discourse on Main Street and inside the Beltway.

Khomeini had not known about the embassy takeover in advance, but because this blow against "the Great Satan" was quite popular throughout Iran, he was able to use the crisis to build support for an Islamic Republic. Frustrated by the Ayatollah's unwillingness to negotiate, Carter approved a complex hostage rescue mission on 24 April 1980 that literally crashed and burned in the desert 300 miles southeast of Tehran, killing 8 American GI's and dooming the incumbent president's bid for reelection the following November.

A few minutes after President Ronald Reagan took the oath of office on 20 January 1981, Iran finally released the American hostages, but relations between the new administration in Washington and the Islamic Republic in Tehran remained frosty.

 

Antagonists: Iran and the U.S. since 1981

By the time that Reagan settled into the Oval Office, Khomeini's Iran was already locked in an increasingly bloody war with Saddam Hussein's secular Ba'athist regime in Iraq that would last eight years and claim half a million lives, two-thirds of them Iranian.

Clearly determined to stymie Iran's influence in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, and doubtless also eager to settle old scores, the Reagan administration tilted toward Iraq, providing Saddam Hussein with satellite reconnaissance of the battlefield, "dual-use" aircraft easily converted to military purposes, and $1.1 billion in agricultural credits.

For their part, the Iranians resorted to human wave assaults against Iraqi fortifications and channeled covert support to Islamic radicals like Lebanon's Hezbollah or "Party of God," whose operatives killed 241 U.S. Marines in a bombing at the Beirut Airport in 1983 and took seven American civilians hostage in the Lebanese capital during 1985.

A year later, President Reagan was humiliated after Hezbollah revealed that the White House had approved a half-baked "arms for hostages" deal with the Khomeini regime that came to be known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

The Iran-Iraq War ended in stalemate in August 1988, and many observers believed that Reagan's retirement to California the following January and Khomeini's death four months later would herald a new era in Iranian-American relations.

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 provided a painful reminder to Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, that "the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend." The United States was able to defeat Iraq in February 1991 without any help from Iran, whose efforts to export Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East continued to make it a pariah in Washington.

Bush lost his bid for a second term a year and a half later less because of dissatisfaction with recent U.S. decisions in the Persian Gulf than because of the electorate's unhappiness with the state of the U.S. economy.

From the End of the Cold War to the Clash of Civilizations

More interested in fixing what was broken domestically than in rethinking American diplomacy, President Bill Clinton adopted a policy of "dual containment" that employed economic sanctions and military threats to prevent either Iraq or Iran from making trouble.

This approach resonated nicely with the notion, popularized by Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, that the post-Cold War world was witnessing "a clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.

Clinton's rigid policies in the Persian Gulf, however, left America unprepared to make the most of remarkable developments in Tehran, where Iranian voters weary of two decades of political and religious turmoil elected Mohammed Khatami, an Islamic moderate, as president in May 1997.

Iran's new leader proceeded to stand Samuel Huntington on his head by calling for "a dialogue of civilizations."

Yet despite Khatami's eagerness to restore diplomatic ties with the United States severed during the earlier hostage crisis, and despite his denunciation of terrorism, the Clinton administration insisted that Iran must also halt its nuclear research program and cease its support for Islamic extremists in Lebanon and elsewhere.

A few hours after al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, Mohammed Khatami sent condolences to Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, while thousands of young Iranians held a candlelight vigil in the streets of Tehran.

"Dubya" welcomed these good will gestures, but early in the new year he was outraged by an abortive Iranian attempt to run guns to Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group that favored armed resistance against Israel. He was also disturbed to learn that Iran was moving ahead with plans to build a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade uranium at Bushehr.

 

Although Khatami reiterated his desire to improve relations, President Bush branded Iran a terrorist regime during his state of the union address on 29 January 2002 and made the Islamic Republic a charter member of "the Axis of Evil," along with Iraq and North Korea.

When the U. S. troops invaded Iraq fourteen months later to depose Saddam Hussein, it was Khatami's turn to condemn America. By late 2003 Iranian intelligence was working closely with Moktada al-Sadr and other Shi'a militants in Iraq, who were waging a guerrilla war against the American-controlled Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. [Read Origins on Counterinsurgency and Coalition warfare in the Iraq war.]

In June 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a founding member of Khomeini's revolutionary guards and a two-term mayor of Tehran, won an upset victory in the Iranian presidential elections. A hard-line Islamist who was critical of Mohammed Khatami's moderate domestic and foreign policies, Ahmadinejad called for a jihad against America and Israel, vowed to make Iran a nuclear power as soon as possible, and claimed that the Holocaust was a hoax perpetrated by an international Jewish conspiracy.

Although the United States had its hands full combating an ever-widening insurgency in Iraq, some of George W. Bush's top advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, privately welcomed the prospect of an Israeli preemptive strike against Iran's Bushehr nuclear complex and publicly hinted that regime change in Tehran should be next on America's "to do" list.

Cooler heads prevailed, but by the time that Bush left office in January 2009, American relations with Iran were colder than at any time since the hostage crisis thirty years earlier.

Obama and the Call for New Beginnings

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama urged Americans to reexamine their attitudes toward Islam and indicated that if he were elected, he would consider meeting with anyone, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the interest of improving U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

While President Obama did not travel to Tehran, he delivered a stirring speech at Cairo University on 2 June 2009, in which he called for "a new beginning" in the troubled encounter between Americans and the peoples of the Middle East. Obama did not mention Mohammed Mossadegh by name, but he did acknowledge that "in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government."

He also pointed out that "since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians." Despite all this bad blood, however, Obama insisted that the United States was now "prepared to move forward" toward a better relationship, if Iran was willing to reciprocate.

Thousands of Iranians watched Obama's speech over the Internet, and they heard this message loud and clear. President Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, dismissed the speech as mere rhetoric.

His opponents thought otherwise and hoped to derail his reelection campaign later that month. As election-day drew near, throngs of young people surged into Tehran's Jaleh Square to support Mir Hossein Mousavi, a charismatic Islamic reformer supported by Mohammed Khatami and other moderates.

Pro-government thugs took to the streets with knives and guns, however, savagely assaulting Mousavi's supporters, one of whom, 26-year-old Neda Agha Soltan, bled to death in an awful scene captured on a cell phone video that went viral on YouTube.

When the votes were counted in late June, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, even though neutral observers detected unmistakable signs of wholesale electoral fraud. Barack Obama professed to be "deeply troubled" by events in Iran, but critics condemned him for not doing something more substantial.

Yet the painful truth was: What could he have done? Any form of U.S. intervention would quite likely have discredited Mousavi's "Green Revolution" in the eyes of many Iranians, who remembered the story of Operation Ajax all too well.

 

Moving Forward

Little has changed since June 2009. The American media continue to depict Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a barbaric madman—Dr. Strangelove in a turban—while U.S. policymakers are beginning to worry that if the Stuxnet computer virus doesn't disable Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor, the Israeli air force will.

Meanwhile, Iranians remain badly divided about the United States, with most men and women in the street favorably inclined toward the American people but deeply troubled by American policies toward the Muslim world, which Ahmadinejad continues to denounce as hypocritical and barbarous.

As they did throughout much of the twentieth century, the governments of America and Iran continue to view each other with fear and suspicion well into the second decade of the new millennium.

Yet reconciliation between these proud two nations is not impossible to imagine, even in an era dominated by the incendiary rhetoric of George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

One hundred years before Neda Agha Soltan was shot to death in Tehran and five years after Benjamin Labaree was murdered near Mount Ararat, Howard C. Baskerville, a Presbyterian missionary born in North Platte, Nebraska, died in faraway Tabriz on 20 April 1909 fighting alongside Iranian revolutionaries who eventually forced Shah Mohammed Ali Qajar to establish a constitutional monarchy.

Few Iranians and fewer Americans realize that at Constitution House in downtown Tabriz, there is a bust of Baskerville bearing the legend: "Patriot and Maker of History."