Iran vs. the USA: A Timeline of a Troubled Relationship

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A Brief History

Today, the United States, notably the most powerful country in the world with a military budget nearly matching the military spending of the next 100 or so countries in the world, is on the precipice of war with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Middle Eastern country rich in oil and officially at odds with the US.  How did we get to this point?  Today, we take a look at the history of Iran vis a vis the United States.  Some background history of Iran follows.

Digging Deeper

The peoples of ancient Iran were united under King Cyaxares of the Median Empire in the 7th Century BC.  King Cyrus the Great became the next major figure in Iranian history by overthrowing the Median Empire, creating the Achaemenid Persian Empire about 550 BC, and gradually extending his influence across the Middle East.  Eventually including Anatolia, Egypt, a small part of Europe, and various Asian countries, the Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire of its time and the largest empire the world had seen up to that point.  Persian expansion farther into Europe was halted in The Greco-Persian Wars and the notable emergence of Alexander the Great of Macedon resulted in his conquest of the old Persian Empire in 330 BC, starting a period of Hellenistic hegemony.  The next big step in the history of Iran was the development of the Parthian Empire in 247 BC, an empire that saw conflict with the Romans.  Roman–Persian Wars continued for the next several centuries, culminating in an eventual conflict between Christians and Iranians called the Byzantine–Sassanian War of 602–628 AD.

Another major development in Iranian History followed with the replacement of the majority Zoroastrian religion of Iran with Islam during the Arab conquest of Iran in 651 AD.  The Arab invaders brought their religion but failed to instill the Arab culture in Iran, and the influx of Turkic people around the 10th Century converted many of those immigrants to the Iranian culture.  The Mongol invasions of the 13th Century devastated Iran, resulting in as much as 75% of the population killed.  Wars with Imperial Russia followed in the 19th Century and by the early 20th Century, a constitution was written for Iran.  Religious minorities (Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians) received constitutional protection.  Russian and British interference with Iran followed, with fighting occurring between the Allied Powers of World War I with the Ottoman Turks for Iranian territory.

A major fallout of World War I was the British backed coup in 1921.  After this coup, Reza Shah became Minister of War, then Prime Minister, and eventually Shah, beginning the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925.  As the world became mechanized and motorized, oil became of critical importance, and Iran found itself rich in this valuable natural resource.  During World War II, a British and Soviet invasion of Iran kept Iranian oil from Germany and provided a gateway to the USSR for American and British aid to flow to the Soviets.  By 1951, Iranians sought to nationalize their country’s petroleum industry to take it out of the hands of foreign nations (notably the US and UK), but British and Americans made sure to impose their will on Iran and prevent such nationalization by interfering with the Iranian government.  Thus, began the U.S.-Iranian conflict!

Timeline of US-Iranian conflict:

1951-1953:  Iranian government attempted to nationalize the oil industry, resulting in a coup orchestrated by the US and UK that resulted in the deposing of the elected Iranian government in favor of the Shah in 1953.  This is the first time the United States had taken part in a coup against a democratically elected government.

1957: US agrees to provide nuclear material to Iran for the purpose of creating a nuclear powered electrical industry in Iran.  (Hard to believe in today’s world!)

1975: Further US agreements to help Iran build a nuclear power industry.

1979-1981:  Islamic Revolution topples the Shah and inserts an Islamic theocracy.  Backlash against American support of the exiled Shah results in the storming of the US embassy in Tehran, and the taking of 52 Americans as hostages.  Iran demands the US turn over the Shah to Iran, and the US refuses.  The so called “Iranian Hostage Crisis” goes on until the hostages are released in January of 1981.  In April of 1980, Operation Eagle Claw is conducted, an American attempt to rescue the hostages through military action.  The operation fails catastrophically and becomes a considerable black eye on the face of the United States.  The debacle is largely responsible for the failure of President Jimmy Carter to get reelected in 1980.

1980-1988:  Iraq takes advantage of Iranian pandemonium and invades Iran in September of 1980, triggering a long war that lasts until 1988.  The US interferes with this war by playing both sides against each other and selling Iran weapons, using the money received for illegal operations in Latin America (Iran Contra Affair).

1987: Iranian ambitions toward developing nuclear weapons begin with collaboration of Pakistani, North Korean, Chinese and Libyan contacts.  Iran denies a nuclear weapons program.

1987: USS Stark is hit by Iranian missile, killing 37 American sailors.  US is escorting Arab tankers while Iran and Iraq engage in “tanker war.”

1988:  On April 18, 1988, the US Navy retaliated against the Navy of Iran in response to the USS Samuel Roberts being damaged by a mine.  The US Navy was escorting oil tankers through the Gulf when the USS Samuel Roberts had the misfortune to run into a mine, blowing a huge 25 foot hole in the ship.  Although no US sailors were killed, the ship was saved only by skilled and heroic action by the crew.  President Reagan authorized the Navy to retaliate, and the retaliation, called Operation Praying Mantis, ended up being the largest naval engagement by the US Navy since World War II.  Two Iranian oil drilling platforms were attacked and boarded by US Marines who saw to the destruction of any military related systems (both weapons and intelligence gathering gear).  2 Iranian frigates, 1 gunboat, and 3 speed boats were sunk (1 of the frigates was heavily damaged and only partially sunk).  Two Iranian F-4 fighter jets were also shot down.  US forces suffered only a helicopter crash that killed 2 US Marines.

On July 3, 1988, the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes defended itself against an attacking Iranian fighter bomber by firing 2 ship to air missiles.  The “attacking” jet was struck and shot down, but it turned out to be Iran Air Flight 655, an Airbus 300 carrying 290 people (civilians), all of whom died.

1991: US led coalition goes to war with Iraq, Operation Desert Storm, over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  Iran offers to act as intermediary, and is rebuffed by US.

1995: Iran and Russia reach nuclear agreement, allegedly for peaceful production of electricity.

1996: US approves sanctions against Iran (and Libya), alleging state aid to terrorist cells throughout the world.

2002: US accuses Iran of secret nuclear weapons program, citing spy satellite evidence.  Iran and US engage in attempts to allay nuclear fears through a variety of sanctions and agreements, all complicated by Russian involvement with Iranian nuclear program.

2006-2010: US-Israeli cooperation in developing a cyber warfare program against Iranian nuclear program, including a cyber attack that destroys some Iranian centrifuges through remotely inserted malware.

2010: United Nations approves new sanctions against Iran.  Iran chafes under crippling economic sanctions.

2011: Iranians storm British embassy in Tehran.  US continues cyber attacks.

2012: Iranian nuclear scientist assassinated in Iran with bomb.  US and Israel both deny involvement with attack.

2015: Iran reaches agreement with US led coalition of countries to delay development of nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from international sanctions against Iran.  Plan is touted as an imperfect compromise, but one that delays any possible Iranian nuclear weapon for years to come.

2018: President Donald Trump announces US will unilaterally withdraw from 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and impose harsh sanctions, alleging Iranian cheating on agreement.  War of words follows.

2019-2020: Meanwhile, Iran continues to support various terrorist cells throughout the Middle East, notably in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and in areas adjacent to Israel.  Iranian proxies engage in combat with American military and American supported factions.  On January 3, 2020, President Trump authorized a drone attack against an Iranian General who had landed in Iraq, killing the general and triggering a diplomatic crisis that threatens to erupt into war between the US and Iran.  The US claimed Major General Qasem Soleimani was an architect of many of the terror attacks against US and US allied personnel in the Middle East, and further that this man was planning an imminent new strike against Americans.  As Iranians vow “revenge” and the US promises to one up any Iranian response, the world watches as the potential for high level armed conflict develops, casting the shadow of potentially doubling the price of gasoline.

The long, troubled, history of the relationship of the United States and Iran is coming to a head in 2020.  Whether this relationship results in a bloodbath remains to be seen, and of course the potential for an even wider war between the US and countries other than Iran remain a realistic possibility.  Furthermore, the diplomatic ramifications of the American-Iranian conflict threaten to undermine the relationship of the US with its traditional allies and NATO.  Neither country seems to be in any hurry to back down, and the stakes could not be much higher, especially if the Iranians purposely include Israel in any retaliatory strikes.  Would Russia and China take action, militarily or diplomatically to support Iran against the US in the event of war?  Would North Korea take advantage of the US being preoccupied in the Middle East to launch an attack on South Korea?  Many horrible scenarios are possible, and few scenarios that offer peace.  Which will it be?

Question for students (and subscribers): Could Americans and Iranians have avoided coming into eventual conflict by following different policies prior to the 1950s?  Will the current US-Iran crisis be resolved peacefully or develop into a war?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

First, take a look at our previous articles that concern Iran: “Please, Not Another Dumb Riot! (The Iranian Cockroach Cartoon Riots),” “Iran Hostage Crisis, An Act of War Never Answered!” “CIA and MI-6 Conduct Iranian Coup, Reinstate the Shah,” “Headlines: August 6, 2015: Debate About Iran Agreement Rages,” “The Tehran UFO Incident – 2 Iranian F-4 Phantoms IIs Outsmarted by UFO,” “US Navy Engages in Largest Naval Battle Since World War II!”

For more information, please see…

Abrahamian, Ervand. The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations. The New Press, 2013.

Bill, James. The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations. Yale University Press, 1989.

The featured image in this article, a map by Bazonka at English Wikipedia showing locations of Iran and USA, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.