November 4th though the Decades: 40 Years of Iran-US relations

November 4, 1979:

College students stormed the US embassy in Tehran, capping off a tumultuous year that saw the Iranian Revolution seize power within the country.  In January, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, or King, of Iran, had fled the country after over a year of protest against his corrupt, US backed regime.  Clashes between protestors and state security forces had become increasingly violent over time, setting off a vicious cycle of death and reprisal.  The Shah, who was suffering from terminal cancer, ostensibly left for “vacation,” never to return.  In early February of that year, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an exiled Iranian cleric who had become the focal point of the opposition, returned to overwhelming acclaim.  Faced with Khomeini’s followers, the caretaker government left by the Shah collapsed in a couple of weeks.

Although the opposition had coalesced around Khomeini, only some of the resistance to the Shah had come from conservative religious circles. Many other groups – students, Bazaaris (merchants), even feminists –had united against the Shah as much as they came together for Khomeini.  But what began as a push towards political pluralism quickly shifted as the Ayatollah rapidly consolidated power.  In March, women across the country were ordered to wear the hijab. Later that month, Iranians overwhelming voted to transform the country into an “Islamic Republic.” New institutions were created that year: the Revolutionary Guards security force; a council of religious experts tasked with writing a new constitution; and, most importantly, the post of velayat-e faqih. Faqih was a term for an expert in Islamic law; under Khomeini’s new interpretation of the concept, one such jurist would serve as a guardian over the state, in effect a Supreme Leader – a position which Khomeini himself would of course take (funny how that happened).

It was in this context that student supporters of Khomeini stormed the US embassy in Tehran on November 4.  A similar attack had been conducted by angry protestors in February, two weeks after Khomeini’s return, but had been broken up by government forces.  There was no such restraint in November; the protestors seized the embassy staff as hostages, releasing some over time (mainly women and racial minorities, demonstrating the political theater of the situation) but keeping many of them for 444 days. The remnants of the provisional government in Iran resigned in protest, leaving Khomeini in complete control of the country.  After a botched rescue attempt by President Jimmy Carter (who, again, was much better at being a former president), who had already been associated with support for the hated Shah, the hostage-takers delivered one last “eff you” to the Carter administration by waiting to release the hostages until the day of the inauguration of Carter’s replacement, Ronald Reagan.

November 4, 1989:

Ayatollah Khomeini died in June of 1989. He was soon replaced by one of his devoted followers. Ali Khamenei was in many ways a substitute for Khomeini, and not just because of their very similar names (though I imagine they saved a ton on stationary). Khamenei was by most accounts a rather unremarkable religious scholar. In fact, he was technically not qualified to meet the religious credentials necessary to be Supreme Leader – the constitution was amended to allow Khamenei to take up the job.

But what Khamenei lacked in religious bona fides, he made up for in loyalty to the Islamic Republic and to his predecessor. Khamenei had been jailed multiple times under the Shah for preaching the message of Khomeini.  Once the Revolution had taken over, Khamenei served many roles in the government, eventually being elected president – a rather toothless job under the regime of Supreme Leader Khamenei.  He lost the use of one arm in 1981 after a bomb detonated by anti-Khomeini forces nearly killed Khamenei.

The transition from Khomeini to Khamanei had come at a challenging point for Iran and for US-Iran relations.  Iran was still recovering from a brutal eight-year war with neighboring Iraq.  The United States was still allied with Iraq, a friendship that had developed as an “enemy of my enemy” relationship that endured through the war.  Iran had additionally taken provocative actions against the US and the West.  Months before his death, Khomeini had issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, calling for the murder of author Salman Rushdie on the grounds that his novel, The Satanic Verses, blasphemed Islam (in case religious duty was not enough, Iran attached a $6 million bounty on Rushdie’s head). Lebanon was in the midst of a brutal civil war, of which the Iranian-backed Shia militia Hizbollah was one of the major combatants.  Hizbollah’s activities during the war included the 1983 bombings of the US embassy and military barracks in Beirut that killed hundreds of Americans as well as other dozens of others. Hizbollah also orchestrated the kidnappings of dozens of westerners in the country during the war.

The US was now under the leadership of George H.W. Bush, who had been Vice President under Ronald Reagan and succeeded Reagan in power in January.  Despite Iranian provocations in the years leading up to the Bush presidency, the new president’s focus was on events in Europe, where the collapse of the communist bloc and the end of the Cold War were rapidly taking shape. Soon, the US would part ways with Iraq, eventually launching the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  On November 4, however, US and Iranian officials were in the final stages of negotiating a deal to return to Iran hundreds of millions of dollars held by the US.  Although denied by US officials, the deal was largely seen as part of negotiations to free 8 American hostages that were at the time being held in Lebanon.

Over the next decade or so, Iran was more or less pushed to the backburner of US foreign policy as the post-Cold War opened up a host of new opportunities and challenges around the world.  The main thrust of US policy towards Iran consisted of the “dual containment” strategy that sought to isolate both Iraq and Iran.

November 4, 1999:

By this point, the Presidency of Iran (a position that remains subordinate to the Supreme Leader but has become increasingly important under Khamenei, who is much less of an opposing figure than Khomeini) was occupied by Mohammad Khatami, who was seen as a moderate and a reformer within the Iranian regime.  US President Bill Clinton sought to thaw relations with Iran during the Khatami years, and the two presidents exchanged messages and public calls for dialogue.  In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even apologized for the CIA’s role in a 1953 coup in support of the Iranian monarchy, and lifted some of the “dual containment” sanctions against Iran.

These attempts at easing relations between the two countries, however, were largely thwarted within Iran.  The religious establishment used the anniversary of the hostage crisis to stir up anti-American protests: “Death to America” and so on.  Khamanei himself, not nearly the firebrand that his predecessor had been, marked the occasion by delivering “an anti-American diatribe that was stunning in its virulence.” As far as the Clinton administration itself, scandal and a host of other geopolitical issues (the Balkans, North Korea, and more) again left Iran on the backburner.  Even within the neighborhood, the focus of containment was more on neighboring Iraq, a focus that would of course be revived in the upcoming Bush administration.

November 4, 2009:

September 11, 2001 had changed things, obviously.  Radical Islamic terrorism became a US foreign policy focus like never before. Because of al-Qaeda, the focus within that focus was largely on Sunni extremism of the type that bred bin-Laden and the various hijackers.  Iraq was drawn into the mix and ultimately invaded based on the fairy tale that it would use its hypothetical ties to terrorists to give them imaginary weapons of mass destruction.  But with one speech and one phrase – “Axis of Evil” – Iran was drawn into these fights, as well. People like ultra-hawk John Bolton (who just keeps popping up) were pushing Bush to move on from Iraq to Iran as the next target. It didn’t hurt that Iran had its own counterpart to George W. Bush in an equally out-of-his-depth (the similar default confused facial expressions) but passionate and at times outrageous President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who touted anti-Americanism and even 9/11 conspiracy theories. The growing problem, one that would become a bigger issue for the next two American presidents, was the fact that Iran, unlike Iraq, actually did have an active and rapidly developing nuclear program.

November 4, 2009:

Iran’s future, and its relationships to the United States, were at crossroads due to two major developments within the Islamic Republic.  First, Iran was potentially in the middle of another revolution, this one dubbed the “Green Revolution.” For months, the biggest protests since 1979 had rocked the country, responding to what many people on the street saw as a fraudulent election in June that had returned Ahmadinejad, the religious leaders’ preferred candidate, to the presidency. (When I talk about fraud, I mean the more than 100% turnout in certain areas kind). Millions of people angrily demonstrating against having their elections usurped in violation of the Islamic Republic’s own constitution threatened the regime. Meanwhile, Iran had continued with its nuclear program. Iran was, among other things, building a new nuclear facility that could enhance enough uranium to build one atomic bomb per year.

Many were urging new US President Barack Obama to go on the offensive, by publicly condemning the election, cooperating with the opposition inside Iran that wanted regime change, and maybe even using military force to halt the country’s nuclear progress if necessary.  Obama chose the more conciliatory approach, to the chagrin of even his own advisors. He did not pursue a military option against Iran to halt its nuclear progress. Nor would he directly denounce the stolen election that returned Ahmadinejad to power. Instead, he equivocated publicly while secretly pursuing a nuclear deal (even keeping America’s European and Chinese partners, who were engaged in a more public negotiation with Iran, in the dark).  The end result was that the regime survived (whether it would have anyway is an open question), but the Iran nuclear deal halted progress toward an Iranian bomb.

November 4, 2019:

And here we are.  The Trump Administration, with an assist from National Security Advisor oh wait now he’s gone again John Bolton, have been working to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, isolate the Islamic Republic, possibly push for regime change (or some grand deal of Trump’s choosing) and defending Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the Middle East.  Iran has stood firm in the face of these moves, stepping up its enrichment of uranium and potentially bringing this conflict to a head in the near future. Iran-US relations have not been friendly at any point since the 1979 Revolution, but at the moment they are more tense and uncertain than they’ve been in a long time.  And with Iran’s continued sponsoring of terrorism and President Trump’s haphazard foreign policy and penchant for appeasing regimes like Saudi Arabia, things are likely to get worse between the two countries before they get better.

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