Five months after a U.S. drone strike killed prominent Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, tensions are taking the shape of naval harassment. Despite Iranian retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. personnel in Iraq, neither country is seeking military conflict. Yet, the U.S.-Iranian relationship remains locked in mutual confrontation for the foreseeable future as it has over most of the last four decades. Worryingly, the relationship has grown more confrontational.
Until 1979, the U.S. regarded Iran under Reza Shah Pahlavi as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy in the region. President Jimmy Carter termed Iran “an island of stability in a sea of turbulence” and Henry Kissinger declared Iran America’s surrogate in the Gulf. The Iranian public saw this robust relationship differently; most saw it as American support for a corrupt elite and increasingly autocratic Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini exploited this sentiment and unleashed the Islamic Revolution which brought down the Shah. A few months after the Shah’s downfall, Iranian student activists reacting to the U.S. decision to admit the Shah to the U.S. for medical treatment took 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Their 444-day captivity has haunted U.S. perceptions of Iran ever since.
Since then, conflicting U.S. and Iranian visions and interests have clashed throughout the Middle East. U.S. support for Iraq’s attack on Iran in 1980 and the ensuing ‘tanker war’ led to armed confrontations that culminated with the U.S. shooting down an Iranian passenger jet. The Soleimani assassination last January and the Iranian retaliatory strike at U.S. forces in Iraq continues this same pattern.
Nonetheless, U.S. administrations going back to Reagan have approached reformists and moderates in Iran to defuse tensions. The 2015 nuclear accord was a major success for both the U.S. and Iran until the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the deal in 2017 reignited tensions. While moments of goodwill and shifts in policy have softened animosities, they have yet to break the impasse between the two nations.
Lacking from this discussion has been any analysis of how Iran has evolved in the last 40 years. How has a theocratic regime produced generations of scientists and technocrats capable of developing nuclear programs and sophisticated weapons systems despite U.S. and UN sanctions? How has a regime under such sanctions increased its regional reach and influence? What sort of Iran will emerge from once this regime disappears from the scene? How has the Iranian Islamic Revolution affected its neighborhood?
Iranian American Journalist Negar Mortazavi is discussing with Ambassador John Limbert the U.S.-Iran relations during the last 40 years.