Is the US an ally or antagonist to Iran?

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From the Second World War onwards the United States has had a growing role in the Middle East.  While the US waged the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the domestic economy became ever more dependent upon the commodity of oil, the Middle East became one of the foci of United States foreign policy.  Iran was one of the key states with which the United States had a relationship, with the regime of the ruling Shah being propped up by the United States against coup attempts in 1953 through until the dynasty’s eventual demise in 1979.  Since the revolution that saw the Shah overthrown, though, relations between the United States and Iran have been extremely frayed.  The decades since have seen numerous flashpoints between the two countries, with the most recent cause of tension being Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  This essay will discuss these historical factors and how they have influenced Iran’s current view of the United States as aggressors.

The first major intervention by the United States in Iran was in 1953, when a combination of American diplomatic actions and covert CIA operations helped maintain the Shah’s regime in the face of a coup by Prime Minister Mossadegh and his followers.  The US objectives at the time were to maintain an ally in the Middle East, maintain access to a vast oil supply, and to stop the spread of Communism that would have helped the US’ Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, in developing a stronger presence in the geopolitically important region.

The crisis began in March 1951 when Iran unilaterally nationalised the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  Aside from wanting to protect the United Kingdom’s interest in what was formerly their sphere of influence, the United States became involved in Iran because “according to a January 1951 U.S intelligence estimate, Iranian oil production at the time was more than 33 percent of total Middle East production and around 7 percent of total world production” (The United States, Great Britain, and Mossadegh, 1993, p. 1).  At the time the United States was still a net exporter of oil, but was increasingly becoming aware that the post-war boom in consumption meant that the US “must have extraterritorial petroleum reserves to guard against the day when our [the US’] steadily increasing demand can no longer be met by our domestic supply”. (Painter in The United States, Great Britain, and Mossadegh, 1993, p. 2)

Furthermore, the act of nationalising a private company was seen as a worrying precedent that “had the potential to undermine private control of the world oil industry” (The United States, Great Britain, and Mossadegh, 1993, p. 1), of which US companies owned a large share.  This too could be seen as the first step towards establishing a Communist tradition, with the danger that the state could fall under Soviet influence which would be a massive geopolitical loss for the United States in the Cold War.  These issues were all entirely US-centric, and not one of them considered the wishes of the Government or the people of Iran.  When considering the opinion of Iranians towards the United States, these justifications for their involvement in their affairs certainly paint the US in an selfish light.

After negotiations with Mossadegh failed, the CIA was ordered to proceed with Operation AJAX, a covert coup-quashing attempt; this operation’s activities included:

“intensified propaganda and political action against Mossadegh; encouraging opposition figures to create disturbances; gaining the shah’s agreement to dismiss Mossadegh” (The United States, Great Britain, and Mossadegh, 1993, p. 18)

While the plan almost failed when the Shah’s attempt at removing Mossadegh was halted by his supporters, the actions of the CIA in attacking mosques to “frighten people into believing that a victory for Mossadegh would be a victory for the Tudeh, the Soviet Union, and irreligion” (The United States, Great Britain, and Mossadegh, 1993, p. 19) were used to stop the will of the people through coercion.  The CIA managed to sufficiently influence the course of the Iranian people’s attempt at revolution to maintain US interests at the expense of Iran and what its’ people believed was it’s destiny.  These revelations were not clear at the time, but as the secrets were uncovered in the following decades the opinion of the public and political class of Iran towards the United States understandably changed drastically.

These tensions between Iran and the United States were played down whilst the Shah ruled Iran as he was a strong US ally, but the resentment towards his oppressive rule eventually led to revolution.  The United States, as enablers of the Shah and the foil of the Iranian coup effort, were seen as an enemy.

At the time of the sucessful coup, President Carter considered Iran “vital to U.S. interests in southwest Asia… [as] the oil crisis [of the early 1970s] had driven home the extent of U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf oil”.  Carter support for the Shah was reciprocated with arms sales and by “deference” to Iran as the CIA “dismantled many of its own operation in Iran and thus became more and more reliant on SAVAK, the Shah’s feared secret police.”  (The Fall of the Shah of Iran, 1994, p. 2)  This withdrew the United States’ ability to keep a finger on the pulse of the nation, and meant that they were taken by surprise by the decline in support for the Shah and the impending revolution led by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.

The United States did not heavily involve themselves with the Shah’s failed attempts at maintaining power, however.  With the efforts of President Carter focussed elsewhere on issues such as Arab-Israeli peace accords, he admitted latterly that he “couldn’t claim I gave Iran top priority attention”. (Saunders in The Fall of the Shah of Iran, 1994, p. 4)  Despite the views of prominent administration officials such as National Security Advisor Zbiginiew Brzezinski who urged military action to protect the Shah’s regime, there was no such undertaking.  When the Shah eventually fell, Khomeini continued to portray the United States as a villain, although they did little more than observe his rise to power despite their opposition to it.  There was no clear American aggression towards Iran in this episode, despite many of the geopolitical reasons for their previous intervention remaining the same.  This shows that the United States became less aggressive towards Iran despite the Ayatollah’s stoking of such tensions.

Following on from the feelings instilled in the people during the revolution, Iran has in recent times viewed the US as an antagonistic power.  Iranians believe that the current threats and sanctions against them from the United States are stemmed from an arrogant and harmful world view that has been proven in the past to work against Iran.  Iran’s attempts at generating nuclear power under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been met with international concern, mainly driven by the US, that they might be using it as a guise with which to build nuclear weapons.  This has led to US policymakers using “the systematic application of diplomatic pressure and economic pressure…[to] counter Tehran’s nefarious designs… and eventually usher in a new Iranian government more democratic and more amenable to U.S. interests” (Takeyh, 2007, p. 19)  These policies continued the attitude of control that Iran believed the United States had displayed over their country and led to significant tensions during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Although since the replacement of Iranian President Ahmadinejad with the more moderate President Rouhani in 2013 there have been warmer relations between Iran and the US.  Rouhani made a visit to New York in September of that year and became the first leader of Iran to converse with a US President since 1979 when he spoke with President Obama later that month regarding the international talks surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme.  While the two are far from being allies, with no formal embassies or diplomatic ties between the two states, the efforts by Rouhani’s Government show at least a willingness to foster more hospitable relations with the United States after a hostile history.

The history of US involvement in Iran in supporting the Shah’s regime makes it difficult for the Iranian Government to view the US as a benevolent ally and certainly gives it enough reason to believe that it is antagonistic.  With these historic precedents and while the United States continues to denounce Iranian actions and suggest sanctions against them it is almost impossible for Iran to soften their approach to what has become known as “The Great Satan”.  However, recent developments have shown that the new Government of Iran may be more willing to further co-operation with the United States, although certainly with a deal of caution.


Takeyh, R., 2007. Time for Détente with Iran. Foreign Affairs, 86(2), pp. 17-32. New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations

The Fall of the Shah of Iran (1994) Gregory F. Treverton & Jame Klocke.

The United States, Great Britain, and Mossadegh (1993) David Painter.

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