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U.S.-Iran: Legitimate Grievances on Both Sides

Published: September 17, 2010
Section: Opinions


The Iran-U.S. relationship is a tumultuous one that is riddled with legitimate grievances from both sides. However, it is now up to Iran to end its confrontational behavior and restore its credibility with the West.

What is the initial source of the hostility and tension between the Iranians and us? The downward spiral that led to where we are now arguably began in 1953. In that year, democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who ardently opposed foreign intervention in Iran, nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In response to this action and the fear that Mosaddegh had Communist sympathies, the British colluded with the U.S. and the C.I.A. in overthrowing the leader in what was known as Operation Ajax.

Subsequently, the U.S. and the British helped reinstate Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi as the leader of Iran. Over the next 26 years, Pahlavi proved to be a loyal ally of the West, an ardent Anti-Communist, and, in the words of President Jimmy Carter, an “island of stability” in an otherwise turbulent region.

However, nearly every sector of Iranian society, from traditional Shia Muslims to the bazaar merchants to political opposition of every stripe grew increasingly alienated from the Shah’s regime due to its oppressiveness, rigged elections, secular nature, modernization policies in the form of the White Revolution, and closeness to the West. As the Iranian’s anger grew toward Pahlavi, it also grew toward the U.S., who supported and propped up the autocrat.

The hostility toward the Shah culminated in the 1979 Revolution and the over-one-year-long student takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. This event, in turn, led to a rapid deterioration of U.S.-Iran relations and the decision by the U.S. to impose highly restrictive financial and trade sanctions on the Persians.

Soon after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ascended to power, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—whose secular, nationalist, Sunni Baathism conflicted with Iran’s fundamentalist Shiism—invaded Iran under the pretext of a border dispute. During what would be the 8-year Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. and Sunni states like Saudi Arabia provided Saddam with military and financial assistance, further heightening tensions with Iran.

At the same time, Iran did little to improve bilateral relations, with its poor human rights record and Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1988. Additionally, it exported the revolution to Southern Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist group that killed over 200 U.S. marines in 1983, took dozens of Westerners hostage, and continually antagonized Israel, a trusted-U.S. ally in the region. And, Iran formed an alliance with Syria, a country that the U.S. had similar grievances toward.

The 1997 election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami opened the door to cooperation and “a dialogue amongst civilizations.” Iran and the U.S. had a common foe in the form of the Deobandi, Wahhabist Taliban in Afghanistan. Also, despite conservative opposition, Khatami offered in 2003 to normalize relations, support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cooperate on Iran’s nuclear program, and cease supporting Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza in exchange for an end to U.S. sanctions.

Unfortunately, George W. Bush rejected Khatami’s offer, preferring a policy of regime change, and labeled Iran a member of the “axis of evil.” Additionally, disillusionment with Khatami in part led to the election of populist hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose posture cemented the hostility between his country and America.

However, President Obama has now offered to reengage in constructive dialogue without preconditions with Iran for over a year, and has acknowledged the mistakes in past U.S. policy. So far, the Islamic regime has failed to respond in kind, and has only become more provocative, especially in regards to its brutal repression of the Green Movement, its lack of cooperation with IAEA inspectors, and its general desire to enrich uranium and achieve a nuclear weapons capability.

It is now up to Iran to, in Obama’s words, open up its clenched fist. The regime should not let its anti-Western, Shiite ideology, as well as its infatuation with martyrdom and the reappearance of the 12th Imam, or Mahdi, cloud its reasoning. And, if it refuses, the U.S. or Israel will use force against its nuclear facilities to prevent a potential second Holocaust, a Sunni-Shia nuclear arms race, and the formation of a nuclear umbrella for Hezbollah and Hamas.

The choice is clear. Hopefully, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad will side with peace over confrontation.