Frenemies: Iran and America since 1900

President Jimmy Carter offers a toast to Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, calling Iran 'an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.'

President Jimmy Carter offers a toast to Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, calling Iran 'an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.' The 1977 New Year's Eve toast came to symbolize decades of American friendship with a repressive regime that Iranians increasingly despised. Little more than a year later, animosity toward the Shah and U.S. policies culminated in the Shah's ouster, the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the beginning of decades of animosity between Iran and the U.S.

Editor's Note

For more than 100 years, the United States and Iran have engaged in an ambivalent relationship. Although the American and Iranian people have usually regarded each other as friends, their governments have frequently treated each other as enemies. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, America and Iran have butted heads over issues as diverse as oil, communism, radical Islam, and nuclear proliferation, often framing their mutual antagonism as a clash between civilization and barbarism. Yet with a new administration in Washington eager to improve U.S. relations in the Muslim world and with young men and women calling for democracy in the streets of Tehran, the old 'frenemies' may find that they have more in common than they think.

Readers may also be interested in these articles on the Middle East: The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict , U.S. Counterinsurgency strategy, The Sunni-Shi'i Divide, and Women in Afghanistan.

American eyes have been riveted on North Africa and the Middle East these past months. The popular protests that rocked Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli, and so many other cities during the "Arab Spring" of 2011 evoked memories of the violent confrontation between Iranian dissidents and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Islamist regime in the streets of Tehran eighteen months earlier.

As in Tunisia and Egypt, Facebook and Twitter helped spread the word in June 2009 that Iran was teetering on the brink of revolution, and as in Libya, the ruling elite cracked down instinctively with brutal force. Unlike Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, however, Ahmadinejad stopped short of unleashing the Iranian air force against his opponents.

Yet, some Americans nevertheless expected that Iran's recent quest for nuclear weapons, its support for Islamic radicals like Lebanon's Hezbollah, and its destabilizing influence on the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf would eventually require U.S. military intervention.

Speaking off the record, one of President Barack Obama's top advisers recently confirmed that the Tomahawk missiles that the U.S. Sixth Fleet launched against Libya were also intended to send a message to Iran.

In fact, relations between the United States and Iran have been complicated and edgy as long as anyone can remember.

America's initial diplomatic encounter with Iran, or Persia, as it was called a century ago, did not go well.

On 9 March 1904, Kurdish bandits robbed and murdered Benjamin Labaree, a 38-year-old American missionary, not far from Mount Ararat in the no man's land just inside Iran's border with Ottoman Turkey.

Outraged by what the U.S. ambassador labeled an act of "religious and race hatred," the State Department demanded that Shah Mozaffar al-Din arrest the killers, pay Labaree's family an indemnity of $50,000 in gold, and assure "the civilized world" that Iran would prevent such atrocities in the future. Although the Shah of Iran was insulted by Uncle Sam's impertinence, he had little choice but to accept the U.S. demands.

Over the following decades, time and again a constantly shifting cast of Iranian and American leaders would butt heads over issues as diverse as oil wells, religion, and atomic bombs.

Much has changed over the years, of course, but to a very great degree, the United States and Iran today still frame their mutual antagonism as a clash between civilization and barbarism, much as they did when Benjamin Labaree was gunned down in a mountain pass 500 miles northwest of Tehran in 1904.

Oil and the Fate of Modern Iran

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Americans would have recognized Iran as an important imperial buffer between Russia and India, twice the size of Texas and famous mainly for exporting Persian rugs.

Then in 1901, the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company secured an exclusive concession from Shah Mozaffar al-Din and his Qajar dynasty. Seven years later, the firm discovered a huge pool of petroleum at Masjid al-Suleiman in southwestern Iran, and the future of that country was transformed.

After World War I erupted in 1914, Anglo-Persian would satisfy the Royal Navy's rapidly expanding appetite for diesel fuel by pumping oil from the world's largest refinery at Abadan, near the headwaters of the Persian Gulf.

Mozaffar al-Din's successors accepted the small but steady stream of royalties that flowed into their coffers until 1925, when Reza Khan, an Iranian cavalry officer, overthrew the Qajars, proclaimed himself Shah, and established the Pahlavi dynasty.

A hard-headed nationalist, Reza Shah tried unsuccessfully to seize control of the oilfields from the recently rechristened Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1932 and flirted with Nazi Germany later that decade in an ill-advised effort to counterbalance Britain's influence. Troubled by the specter of a Berlin-Tehran axis, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin secretly agreed to depose Reza Shah in August 1941, replacing him with his 20-year-old son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. They also announced that their two nations would jointly occupy Iran for the duration of World War II—Britain in the south and Russia in the north.

Fearing that Iran might be carved up into permanent spheres of influence, Washington quickly secured pledges that both London and Moscow would withdraw their troops six months after the war ended. Meanwhile, America's stock rose in the eyes of many Iranians as U.S. advisers helped the young Shah plan the economic infrastructure essential for postwar modernization and development.

British forces pulled out of Iran on schedule, but when the Soviets refused to honor the March 1946 deadline, President Harry S. Truman decided, as Secretary of State James Byrnes put it, "to give it to them with both barrels," censuring the Kremlin at the United Nations and making thinly veiled nuclear threats. Stalin finally withdrew the Red Army two months later, but only after receiving assurances from Iranian Prime Minister Ahmed Qavam that the Soviet Union would have access to oil fields in northern Iran.

The Spoils of Oil: the U.S., Mossadegh, and the Cold War

As the Cold War heated up during the late 1940s, the Truman administration embraced Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as an important partner in the informal anti-Soviet alliance emerging in the Middle East. This partnership was complicated, however, by mounting Iranian resentment against Britain and AIOC, which exported millions of barrels of oil and made huge profits while paying Iran next to nothing.

In October 1949, Mohammed Mossadegh, a long-time critic of the Pahlavi dynasty who insisted that Iran had a right to control its own oil industry, founded the National Front, a broad coalition that included both middle-class moderates as well as firebrands from the left-wing Tudeh or "Workers" Party.

Mossadegh and his supporters soon held the balance of power in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, where they called for AIOC to split its profits with Iran on a 50-50 basis, as other multinational oil firms operating in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia had recently agreed to do. Backed by the British government, AIOC refused even to consider such an option. On 15 March 1951, the Majlis responded with legislation nationalizing the Iranian petroleum industry.

Six weeks later, Mossadegh became prime minister and announced plans to wrest control of Iran's oil fields and refineries from Britain as soon as possible. American officials, who had urged the British to accept a last-minute profit-sharing compromise, were appalled. "Never have so few lost so much so stupidly and so fast," Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state, recalled long afterward.

When Mossadegh moved forward with the nationalization of AIOC, the British government pressed the Shah to overrule his prime minister, sought American support for an international embargo on Iranian oil, and secretly began to plan a coup d'état in Tehran.

The MI6, Britain's overseas intelligence service, had developed a covert network of contacts among Iranian politicians and military officers and was quite confident that Mossadegh could be deposed with little bloodshed, provided the United States had no objection.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) maintained close ties with MI6 in Iran and was well aware that British intelligence was working closely with General Fazlollah Zahedi, Mossadegh's former interior minister, who was eager to overthrow his old boss. Neither the White House nor the State Department, however, was enamored of the MI6 plot, especially after Mossadegh learned most of the details in October 1952 and expelled Britain's diplomats and spooks from Iran.

Just two months before handing the keys to the Oval Office over to Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman insisted that all covert action in Tehran be put on hold. "We tried to get the block-headed British to have their oil company make a fair deal with Iran," Truman complained privately, but "no, no, they could not do that."

President Eisenhower and his top advisers regarded the crisis in Iran very differently from their predecessors. Ike's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was a rabid anti-communist who dismissed Mohammed Mossadegh as a Russian stooge and who saw the Tudeh Party as the entering wedge for a Kremlin takeover in Tehran. Allen Dulles, the new CIA director and John Foster's younger brother, was an avid proponent of covert action with close ties to Britain's MI6 and had few qualms about meddling in the internal affairs of Iran or any other nation deemed vulnerable to Soviet subversion.

With Eisenhower's blessing, the Dulles brothers resurrected the dormant plot to topple Mossadegh and sent Kermit Roosevelt, a veteran CIA covert operator—whose grandfather Theodore had once sat in the White House—to Tehran in the spring of 1953 to make the necessary arrangements.

Roosevelt's plan, code-named "Operation Ajax," was really quite simple. In exchange for strong assurances of U.S. support, the Shah of Iran would issue a royal decree demanding that Mossadegh step down as prime minister and turn power over to General Zahedi, who would outlaw the Tudeh Party and negotiate a settlement in the ongoing oil dispute.

When the Shah announced the change of government on 16 August 1953, however, Mossadegh ignored him and responded instead by issuing a warrant for Zahedi's arrest. Not long afterward, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi flew to Rome for an unscheduled vacation, Zahedi went into hiding, and the CIA went back to the drawing board.

Forty-eight hours later, Kermit Roosevelt orchestrated what he later termed "a counter-coup" against Mossadegh. With help from Britain's MI6, Roosevelt distributed a quarter-million dollars in bribes to mobilize hundreds of pro-Shah mercenaries, who stormed into the streets chanting anti-government slogans and staged violent clashes with Mossadegh's supporters. Meanwhile, General Zahedi and right-wing military officers moved to restore order, rounding up Tudeh Party militants, arresting Prime Minister Mossadegh, and inviting the Shah to return to Tehran in triumph.

Having convinced themselves that Iran was about to fall to communism, Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers had encouraged pro-American forces to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian leader and place an increasingly autocratic ruler back on the Peacock Throne.

"Throughout the crisis the United States government had done everything it possibly could to back up the Shah," Ike confirmed in his memoirs many years later. "Indeed, reports from observers on the spot in Teheran during the critical days sounded more like a dime novel than historical fact."

Partners: The Shah and the United States

From the American standpoint, Operation Ajax had a very happy ending. In June 1954, the Shah resolved the oil dispute amicably by establishing an international consortium that included AIOC and three U.S. petroleum giants, who would distribute the output from wells and refineries that were to remain under Iranian control.

A year later, he agreed to join the Central Treaty Organization, an anti-Soviet pact sponsored by the Eisenhower administration, and permitted the United States to establish electronic surveillance posts along Iran's border with Russia.

Then in 1957, the Shah established the SAVAK (a Farsi acronym for State Information and Security Organization), which, with help from the CIA, systematically silenced all opposition, imprisoning and torturing thousands of anti-Pahlavi activists.

The Shah sealed his partnership with the United States during the early 1960s, when Iran aligned itself with Israel under American auspices to curb Soviet influence among Arab nationalists like Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Searching for Stability

America's Iran watchers worried, however, that the Shah's repressive domestic policies might backfire, sparking an anti-Western backlash against a regime that was spending too many of its petro-dollars on guns and too few on butter.

Just ten weeks after John F. Kennedy moved into the White House, riots erupted half way around the world in Tehran. In May 1961, the new president established a National Security Council (NSC) task force to study the crisis in Iran.

Before the year was out, JFK's advisers concluded that the Iranian turmoil was home-grown, not communist-inspired, and feared that unless the Shah embraced economic modernization and political reform, his days were numbered. In April 1962, President Kennedy invited Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to Washington, where the two leaders reviewed a blueprint for stability in Iran.

Nine months later, the Shah unveiled his bold new "White Revolution," a set of "top-down" reforms designed to avert radical "bottom-up" change like Fidel Castro's "red revolution" in Cuba. Land reform, industrial growth, women's rights, and better schools were quite popular among Iran's emerging middle class, as were the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who began arriving in the spring of 1963 to preach modernization.

Iranian landlords, on the other hand, felt threatened and resisted the White Revolution, as did clerics like Ruhollah Khomeini, a 61-year-old ayatollah who ridiculed the Shah as a U.S. puppet and denounced the American-backed reforms as "Westoxification." Most American officials, however, regarded Khomeini as little more than an annoying Islamic rabble-rouser and welcomed the Shah's decision in November 1964 to send him into exile, first to Turkey and then to Iraq.

By the late 1960s, Iran seemed to be a real success story for U.S. foreign policy at a time when Lyndon B. Johnson was increasingly preoccupied with the quagmire that he had inherited from JFK in Vietnam. Hundreds of U.S. corporations were investing in the Shah's economic miracle, thousands of Iranian students were flocking to the United States to attend college, and millions of barrels of oil were flowing from Iran to America's Cold War allies in Japan and Western Europe.

Convinced that the White Revolution was irreversible, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi vowed to make Iran a regional superpower and hosted a garish celebration in October 1971 to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great. Seven months later on his way home from a summit meeting with Soviet leaders in Moscow, President Richard Nixon, LBJ's successor, stopped in Tehran, where he made the Shah an offer he could not refuse.

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."

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Suggested Reading

Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

James R. Bill, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (Yale University Press, 1988)

Mark Bowden, Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006)

Christopher De Bellaigue, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran (Harper, 2006)

Mark Gasiorowski, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran (Cornell University Press, 1991)

James Goode, The United States and Iran: In the Shadow of Musaddiq (Palgrave, 1997)

Mary Ann Heiss, Empire and Nationhood: The United States, Great Britain, and Iranian Oil, 1950-1954 (Columbia University Press, 1997)

Nikki R. Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2006)

Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Wiley 2008)

Mark Lytle, The Origins of the Iranian- American Alliance, 1941-1953 (Holmes & Meier, 1987)

Baqir Moin, Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (I. B. Tauris, 2009)

Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (Simon & Schuster, 1985)

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2008)

William R. Polk, Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, from Persia to the Islamic Republic, from Cyrus to Ahmadinejad (Palgrave, 2011)

Kenneth Pollack, Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America (Random House, 2004)

Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (Oxford University Press, 2009)