Iran has long been a source of international conflict between Russia and the West, predating even the name Iran. “Persia,” as it was then known, was a source of conflict between Russia and England in the 1700s, as both countries expanded their reach through colonization. Though Iran is physically close to the Russian border, it is also very close to India, one of the British Empire’s most important colonies, and to parts of Africa that were colonized by England. (Map p9 Saikal). By the beginning of the 20th century, Russia controlled some of northern Persia, while the British Empire controlled the eastern region, closest to India.
After World War II, many European countries— including some of the world’s former superpowers—were left in ruins. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s two main superpowers, locked in a battle for absolute dominance. This rivalry played out all over the world, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union sought to impose capitalism and communism, respectively, by dominating smaller countries—including Iran and other countries throughout the Middle East. Though both the U.S. and the USSR struggled to control countries in the Middle East more than in any other region, the U.S. successfully positioned itself as an ally to Iran until 1979.
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, commonly referred to as “the Shah,” governed Iran from 1953 through 1979 as a secular and authoritarian rule.. The Shah rose to power after his father was forced to step down, and the Shah’s relationship with the U.S. flourished over time. His government grew increasingly pro-Western as it sought to modernize the country and burnish its international image. However, as the Shah’s relationship with the U.S. strengthened and his international profile grew, many of his own people grew displeased with his leadership. In 1978, riots and demonstrations broke out across the country, and by 1979 these protests increased in frequency, power, and violence. Of particular concern to the protestors were two things they perceived to be linked: the Shah’s lack of emphasis on religious values and his government’s close relationship with the U.S. Iranians were concerned that another country, rather than his own people and their values, were a priority.
As turmoil around the country and the pressure on the Shah increased, he lost much of his power and U.S. support diminished. The Shah left Iran in January 1979, and the country was soon declared an Islamic Republic by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a previously exiled opponent of the Shah. The Ayatollah took over Iran as a religious leader and centralized power even further. Very quickly, Iran had changed from one of the U.S.’s most powerful and prominent allies in the Middle East to an openly anti-American (but still very oil-rich) country.
Initially following the Revolution of 1979, the U.S. sought to “normalize relations” with Iran as quickly as possible. The U.S. was desperate to regain an important ally in order to reassert its power in the Middle East and to keep Soviet influences out of the region; moreover, the U.S. wanted to maintain access to Iranian oil. However, with a new ruler who had come to power suddenly on an anti-Western and very fundamentalist Islamic platform, the relationship was transformed and continued to deteriorate.
The seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 by a religious fundamentalist and anti-imperialist group called The Muslim Followers of the Line of the Imam symbolized the end of cordial diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran. Fifty-three hostages were taken, and though the group, made up mostly of young revolutionaries, was somewhat radical, the government and the general public in Iran supported their actions. The taking of the hostages galvanized religious fundamentalists and anti-imperialists in Iran and largely improved the Ayatollah’s image in the eyes of the Iranian public.
The hostages continued to be a central point of interaction, animosity and conflict between Iran and the U.S., as Iran sought money, among other requests, in return for the release of hostages. A failed mission to rescue them in which eight American soldiers were killed became what some say was a defining moment of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Eventually, these hostages were released in early 1981, the day of President Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration.
Over the next few years, the situation further deteriorated and more hostages were taken. A religious fundamentalist group called the Islamic Holy War took hostage William F. Buckley, the Chief of the Central Intelligence Agency station in Beirut, Lebanon, in March 1984. Over the following three years, more Americans were kidnapped.
By the mid-1980s, Iran sought to have nothing to do with the U.S. This was a very unusual position for the U.S. to be in, as typically the U.S. government was able to translate its financial wealth and military strength into influence over smaller countries around the world. Without the leverage they were used to having to assert authority in a region, top U.S. officials began examining alternative approaches to the U.S.’s relationship with Iran.