Introduction: Mutual Mistrust
In March 2014, surveillance pictures were taken in the Islamic Republic of Iran showing a non-working replica of a US Navy aircraft carrier being built by Iranians, which prompted statements of suspicion from American officials. One official said, “It is not surprising that Iranian military forces might use a variety of tactics — including military deception tactics — to strategically communicate and possibly demonstrate their resolve in the region" (1) US Representative Eliot Engel, of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, commented, “We don’t really know what it means, but I for sure don’t trust the Iranians[.] It’s some kind of ruse and whatever they are up to, it’s no good" (2). To the surprise—and possible embarrassment—of many, news surfaced that the mock-up was being built for an Iranian-Canadian film production “Airbus,” which will chronicle the downing of the civilian passenger plane Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988 (3). The news came as a relief to many US officials but carried with it a hidden undercurrent of irony: US officials continued their long-standing policy of mistrusting Iran because of this scare, which revolved around the production of a film that was to chronicle one of the many incidents that has caused Iranians to mistrust America in the first place.
In February 2015, Iran’s Navy released footage on TV of its ships blasting a mock US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz—a waterway strategically crucial to Iran (and Arab oil-producing states), where more than 20% of the world’s oil passes through. The simulation was titled “Great Prophet 9,” and it was the centerpiece of the Revolutionary Guard’s naval exercise. Unlike the “Airbus” incident, this act was a military display, and it was directly interpreted by the US as a display of aggression and a showcase of Iran’s capabilities to enter armed conflict with the United States (4). Regardless of Iran’s true intentions, the United States took it as a threat. A sense of mutual distrust permeates affairs between the two countries, including the response to the September 11th attacks, Iran’s support of international terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, and its controversial nuclear program. US mistrust of Iran is well-publicized but Iran’s mistrust towards America is not considered nearly as often.
This paper seeks to explore causes of Iranian mistrust towards the United States after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, focusing on the events between 1980 and 1988—the time of the Iran-Iraq War (5). Although anti-American sentiment predates the 1980s, this paper will focus on the events concerning Iran and the United States from the beginning of the Islamic Republic up until the end of the Iran-Iraq War. These events include America’s support for Iraq during the war, the tacit acceptance of chemical weapon use against Iranians, and the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the US Navy (6). This paper also alludes to how these events and their consequences went on to shape US-Iran relations, at the time and even today.
Before 1980: The Specter of the Revolution
While events during the 1980s greatly affected US-Iran relations, these events exist in the broader historical context of Iran following the Islamic revolution. Hatred of the United States and the West existed in Iran long before 1979, and greatly influenced the rhetoric during and after the outcome of the Revolution.
After relations between the West and the Soviet Union deteriorated in the aftermath of World War II, Iran became a Cold War battleground for regional control that the West ultimately won. The US and the UK helped Mohammed Reza Pahlavi accede the throne, after the UK and the Soviet Union expelled Reza Shah, his father. As shah, Mohammed Reza battled with Mohammed Mossadegh, popular member of the Majles and a key figure in Iranian politics. Mossadegh, an inspiration for Nasser in Egypt, represented the nationalistic, egalitarian, pro-democratic countermovement to the Shah’s rule. The Majles voted in Mossadegh as Iran’s prime minister in 1951, and as leader of the National Front—a popular nationalist party—he nationalized the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, giving Iran control of its lucrative oil industry for the first time in its history.
This move galvanized Iranians and fueled anti-American and anti-British sentiments in Iran. The British, furious at Mossadegh, retaliated with a trade embargo that prevented Iran from exporting oil and maximizing profits from its newly nationalized oil industry. The embargo hurt Iran’s oil industry, but British and American businessmen were still incensed over the huge revenue streams they lost from Iranian oil. The anti-Western symbolism of the nationalization of the oil industry bolstered Mossadegh’s popularity, especially among the urban classes. For years, Iran felt it had been pushed around by global powers: it had been occupied by the UK and Russia during the war, and even after occupation ended, the UK kept its grip on the country through the Shah. The nationalization of the oil industry and Mossadegh’s popularity tapped into a deep well of nationalist sentiments in Iran, which frightened the West. Reza Pahlavi’s regime had served Western interests effectively, and the US intended to make and keep Iran a Western stronghold in the Middle East. Mossadegh’s alignment with Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party, and his calls for increased state ownership of land and industry frightened the West; if Mossadegh pushed back against Western influence, he might welcome the Soviet Union with open arms.
In response to Mossadegh’s increasing power, the CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service crafted a coup to take Mossadegh out of power and “stabilize” Iran. “Operation Ajax” manufactured dissent and exacerbated the Iranian people’s lack of confidence in Mossadegh by conflating existing fault lines—within society, between different social classes, and within the majles, between different government factions—and artificially creating additional opposition to Mossadegh. Western agents paid off army officers and figures in the religious community to back a coup and denounce Mossadegh, and militant thugs were hired to storm Tudeh rallies. By manufacturing a heated opposition to Mossadegh, distributing propaganda and running smear campaigns, and contracting protesters to riot on the streets, America and Britain successfully undermined Mossadegh’s public image and reinstated the Shah. Upon returning to the throne, the Shah had Mossadegh arrested and removed from power.
Operation Ajax bolstered Iran as America’s key ally in the Middle East, and ensured that no “Soviet corruption” would take place in Iran as American officials had feared (7). The Shah’s policies were valuable for the United States but resulted in a restricted civil society at home. The Shah clamped down on those who opposed his rule and reduced societal freedoms, weeding out protestors and enemies forcefully with SAVAK (the Shah’s intelligence agency, co-created with CIA officials). The Shah’s oppressive policies fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment in Iran, which were ignited by Operation Ajax.
The most popular venues for airing grievances with the government and expressing frustrations communally were the mosques and madrasas. The Islamic centers became places of community building and organizing, and clerics were able to win popular support among dissatisfied populations—people who would be central to overthrowing the Shah. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an ayatollah marginal among the ulama whose popular influence grew over time, exploited this anti-American zeitgeist and manufactured a populist platform to rival the Shah. Khomeini labeled him an American puppet and used the moniker of gharbzadegi (“Westoxification”) to delegitimize his American-backed social and economic reforms. Imagery portraying America as shaytoon-e bozorgh (“The Great Satan”) was highly prevalent in Khomeini’s propaganda, and Khomeini denounced the Shah’s grant of extraterritoriality to American military advisers. The coup of 1953 was revived as a critical component of the Iranian collective memory.
By relying on anti-American sentiments and imagery, Khomeini was able to rally the masses against the Shah and help eject him from the throne in the 1979 Revolution. America was skeptical about the new regime in Iran, but was ready to pursue positive diplomatic relations with Khomeini in the wake of the Revolution. However, tensions reached a boiling point once the US took in the deposed Shah for medical attention for his cancer. On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 hostages, kicking off a crisis that would last 444 days and carry over from Carter’s presidency over to Reagan’s. The Iran Hostage Crisis set the stage for decades of distrust.
The Iran-Iraq War: A Playbook of Pivots
The 1979 Revolution and taking of hostages was a triumph for Khomeini and a cause for optimism amongst Iranians fed up with the Shah. That being said, Iran was not without problems during the early days of the Khomeini regime. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s first president after the 1979 Revolution, constantly clashed with Iran’s religious leaders, and the new regime faced a poor economy. Morale among Iran’s armed forces was low following the Khomeini regime’s purge of the military, and it lacked many spare parts for weaponry that the US had previously provided (8). Internal strife and an army in disarray made the Iranian state appear weak, and Saddam Hussein—recently elected president of Iraq—saw this as an opportunity to strike. To him, the new Iranian government represented a two-pronged threat: on the one hand, Khomeini decried the dictators of the Middle East and called for their removal, and on the other, Khomeini’s Sh’ia regime of velayat-e-faqih was at odds with Saddam’s government. Saddam feared that the Sh’ias of Iraq, a majority of the country’s population, might mobilize against his regime in solidarity with Iran.
Saddam had met with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—who both feared Islamic revolutions akin to Iran’s within their own borders—to discuss his military plans; he held the ambition that if he “[assumed] the role of policeman of the Persian Gulf,” Iraq would become the major Gulf player that Iran was in the heyday of the Shah (9). Enticed by the opportunity to strike presented by the newfound regime’s weakness, and anxious about the ramifications of the state’s potential power, Saddam launched a full-scale invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980, initiating a war that would go on to last for nearly the entire decade. Neither party expected fighting to last for as long as it did, but the Iran-Iraq War ended up deciding the fates of both Iraq and Iran in the global balance of power. The future of these two countries was decided mainly by the support—or lack thereof—of the United States.
Iraqi Support and US Mistrust of Iran
After the 1979 Revolution, the US policy in the Gulf region under President Carter was to keep the Gulf open, protect Saudi Arabia, and safeguard oil interests. In doing so, Carter strengthened America’s presence in the Gulf before leaving office. In December 1979, the US Navy built up its Gulf presence to 37 ships (10). President Reagan maintained Carter’s emphasis on the Gulf, heightening American presence after internal challenges from neo-conservatives in the government. In the early 1980s, Reagan sought to have stern but diplomatic relations with Iran, putting the hostage crisis behind him. But as the war raged on, all the different interests at play put Reagan in a bind.
In 1982, Iran had begun to gain the upper hand. By a series of successful military operations, Ira regained the territory it had lost to Iraq at the beginning of the war by, and thereafter it appeared as if the tide was turning in Iran’s favor. By May 1982, Iranian forces were advancing into Iraq and gaining new territory. Hungry for pride and power, the Iranians rejected an unconditional cease-fire from Saddam and continued the war effort (11). Iraq was the aggressor in the eyes of the Iranian government, and Iran was adamant about punishing them. State Department officials began to fear “an expansionist, aggressive Iran on the rampage,” and commented that “the days of the comfortable equilibrium in the Iraq-Iran war may be over” (12). With a precarious situation on its hands, the Reagan administration needed to find a way to ensure that Iran didn’t win out, all the while ensuring that neither side actually “won” this war of attrition.
The United States proceeded to throw Iran under the proverbial bus using an array of tools in their bureaucratic and diplomatic toolkits, thereby making America’s poor relations with Iran even worse. The US removed Iraq from its list of terrorist states and lifted trade sanctions against the country, which enabled the US to materially aid Iraq in the war effort (13). The US did not directly arm the Iraqis, but by selling $120 million worth of cheap wheat and food credits to the country, Iraq was able to fund its war effort and buy guns, invest in new technologies and bolster its defense apparatus (14). France joined the United States in the Western effort to support Iraq by providing it with more than $4 billion worth of arms, and the US limited the delivery of arms to Iran through Operation Staunch in the end of 1983 (15). On top of all of this, the US also encouraged its oil-rich Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to fund Iraq’s war effort.
The United States had legitimate reasons to be concerned about Iran, which was an exporter of terrorism in the region. Iran funded the Lebanese Islamic Jihad Organization (which was understood as the nom de guerre of Hezbollah), which committed two foul acts against Americans in 1983: a suicide bombing at the US embassy in Beirut in April—which killed 63 people, 17 of them Americans—and a bombing of US Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American servicemen (16). Iran was a state sponsor of terrorism, and its regional ambitions needed to be curbed. In January 1984, the US placed Iran on its list of terror states and designated it a state sponsor of international terrorism. This action banned foreign assistance, loans and arms transfers to Iran, and required the validation of export licensing of goods and technology to Iran (17). By designating Iran as a terror state and limiting support for the country through efforts such as Operation Staunch, Reagan was able to both punish Iran for its sponsorship of terrorist acts and paralyze its efforts in the war. While America had initially been neutral in the Iran-Iraq War, Iran’s growing power and sponsorship of terrorism forced America to take a side and support Iraq.
The Use of Chemical Weapons
The most heinous, and violent, pivot against Iran was the United States’ enabling of Saddam to use poisonous gasses (such as mustard gas), nerve agents, and other chemical weapons against Iranian citizens. Iraq directly attacked Iranian troops and civilians with chemical weapons, both in battle and against cities. The Iranian government reported that over 50,000 Iranians suffered from “severe and moderate” injuries due to the use of chemical weapons. Of the wounded, 10-20% died from mustard gas, 10% died from cyanide, and the rest died from nerve agents (18).
Starting in 1983, Iran began to complain to the United Nations about Iraq’s blatant violations of the Geneva Convention, but the complaints fell on deaf ears. As chemical weapon attacks grew deadlier and more frequent, Iran began aggressively criticizing the UN, saying the Security Council’s silence demonstrated “complicity in [Iraq’s] heinous crimes” (19). America knew about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, but did nothing to curb or condemn it. When the US did make a statement on chemical weapon use, it failed to properly denounce Iraq for its actions and continued to support it during the war. UN intervention in the war “could have made a significant difference” and turned the tide in Iran’s favor, but the UN’s complacency only further enabled Iraq to use chemical weapons against Iran (20). The Iranian people “felt deeply wronged[,] as well as unfairly ostracized and abandoned, if not betrayed, by an international community that was proud of its universal norms but remained silent when the victim of these norms’ systematic breach was its enemy” (21). In Iran’s eyes, the UN, no longer just the United States, was supporting Iraq in the war.
At a time when Iran was cautiously navigating the contours of an international community already hostile to it, the attacks only further encouraged Iran to isolate itself from the rest of the world. This episode also caused Iran to “distrust all multilateral agreements, even those to which it was party,” including the agreement that would eventually end the war (22). This can also explain Iran’s lack of resolve to follow international agreements, such as IAEA requests to monitor and visit nuclear sites.
The Downing of Iran Air Flight 655
On July 3, 1988, Iran Air Flight 655 departed from Bandar Abbas en route to Dubai, carrying 290 civilians, including passengers and crew. The commercial plane flew over the Strait of Hormuz, which was a particularly hot area in the summer of 1988. American warships had been patrolling the Strait to protect commercial shipping during the war. Iraq had also been trying to block Iran’s oil exports, and America intervened when Iran tried to interfere with the exports of Kuwait, an ally of Iraq. The American missile cruiser USS Vincennes came under attack, as Iranian patrol boats fired at a helicopter from the cruiser (23). The Vincennes pursued the Iranian patrol boats, and encountered the Air Flight 655 whilst in pursuit. The crew aboard the Vincennes mistook the commercial jet for a hostile fighter jet, and fired two surface-to-air missiles at the plane. The plane was destroyed, and all 290 civilians aboard the plane were killed.
After the attack, Tehran radio broadcasted, “'The criminal United States should know that the unlawfully shed blood in the disaster will be avenged in the same blood-spattered sky over the Persian Gulf.” Khomeini made threats of war against America (24). The anti-American vitriol created by the attacks did not do much to advance internal shifts towards improved relations with the rest of the world and a possible end to the long war. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—then chairman of the Majles and commander of the armed forces, and future President of Iran—called for a reshuffling of the armed forces and a concerted effort to make friends abroad, but his calls were overshadowed by the rhetoric of the hardliners. Khomeini, his son Ahmad, and the Ayatollah Montazari rallied the nation to mobilize for war, drawing Iran further away from an end to the war.
Propping up Iraq in the war and enabling its use of chemical weapons was one thing; directly attacking and killing civilians was a more egregious affront. It’s hard to have been an Iranian and not genuinely believed, even slightly, that the United States was committed to degrading and destroying the Islamic Republic. This view is still held by hard-liners in the Iranian government, and inhibits productive dialogue between the two countries.
The attack maintains an important place in the historical memory of the Iranian government. This year, the Iranian House of Cartoon hosted an exhibit honoring the 27th anniversary of the Air Flight 655 incident, and the artwork speaks volumes about how Iran remembers the events of that day. In one cartoon by Bahram Arjomandia, a naval cruiser is shooting the Iran Air 655 plane with a missile that has a red devil tail and horns, with an inscription that reads “US 666”—a reference to the United States as the “Great Satan.” Another cartoon, by Abbas Goudarzi, follows a similar motif. The text “USA Terrorism” is warped into the shape of a missile that is heading towards an IranAir airplane. A cartoon by Mahmoud Nazari shows a crew aboard the USS Vincennes preparing to launch a rocket at the airplane. The crew is drawn as a group of cartoonish cavemen, wielding clubs and spears and wearing generic cavemen outfits. The cavemen are preparing to chuck a missile at the plane; the cartoon depicts the American Navy as cavemen, with a propensity towards violence and brutish behavior. Even though the Iran Air Flight incident occurred over 25 years ago, Iranians have not forgotten the tragedy.
The End of the War
Seventeen days after the tragedy of Air Flight 655, the UN Security Council published Resolution 598, which called for a cease-fire to the war that had been raging for 7 years. Initially rejected by Iraq, the resolution was accepted by Iran, albeit with reluctance and a palpable sense of displeasure. In regard to the signing, Khomeini remarked, “Taking this decision was more deadly than taking poison. Submitted myself to God’s will and drank this drink for his satisfaction" (25). Iran had every right to feel slighted by the decision to accept a ceasefire and end the war on these terms. Resolution 598 did not call into question which side started the war and how it began, and despite the “overwhelming evidence” that Iraq had invaded Iran in 1980, the resolution wrote off the origins of the war as an unsolved mystery (26). Iran attacked the terms of the Resolution, demanding that Iraq be clearly branded as the aggressor. These demands went unheard by the US and the UN, and Iran was forced to accept the Resolution as it was written, which, to Khomeini, was tantamount to accepting defeat in the war. Resolution 598 became effective on August 8, 1988 and effectively ended the fighting between Iran and Iraq.
Khomeini, although bruised after a nearly ten-year war, was now truly “impervious to pressures” from both the US and the Soviet Union. He projected power to show the world that Iran was “independent and self-reliant,” unlike Iraq, which needed the support from the US and other states to stay afloat during the war (27). The bitter experience with the UN and chemical weapons turned Iran off from working within the framework of the international community, further isolating the country and its leaders. These years helped solidify Iran’s “us-against-the-world” mentality, which outlived Khomeini and was adopted by the next Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, souring relations with the United States for years to come.
Conclusion: Paving a New Road
Hopeful that he might establish better relations with Iran during his term, President Bill Clinton noted, “It is important to recognize [that] Iran [...] has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations. And I think sometimes it's quite important to tell people, ‘Look, you have a right to be angry at something my country [...] did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago’” (28). This candid admission at the presidential level was unexpected in American politics (even though the United States paid Iran a settlement of $61.8 million for the Air Flight 655 incident through the ICJ, it did not formally apologize to Iran for the incident, nor did it admit legal liability). Iranian president Rafsanjani pursued closer ties with America during his presidency, the same time Clinton held office, and while US-Iran relations were not entirely normalized, they were an improvement from relations during the Iran-Iraq War—which was, in retrospect, the nadir of contemporary US-Iran relations.
In the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution, there was a unique opportunity for the Islamic Republic and the United States to pursue friendlier relations, which continued even after the Hostage Crisis. However, the decisions of the United States to pivot towards Iraq, its support of—and attempt to cover up—Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, and the shooting down of an Iranian civilian plane ultimately put a dent in the hopes of friendlier relations. These tense episodes undermined the global role of the Islamic Republic, and set the stage for sour, uncooperative relations with the United States, the West, and international organizations. Iran deemed the US as the “Great Satan,” and the US saw Iran as a terrorist nation that needed to be isolated.
Today, America’s relations with Iran are not as antagonistic as they have been in the past, especially in light of the recent progress in nuclear negotiations with the country. President Obama’s pivot towards repositioning Iran in the regional order of the Gulf and the Middle East is a notable shift in US policy, especially following President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” view of the country. Half of Iran’s population today is under 35 years of age, so the memories of the Iran-Iraq War and its atrocities—the aiding of Iraq, Iran Air Flight 655, and the ambivalence surrounding the chemical attacks—are not as prevalent. Nonetheless, these young Iranians are undoubtedly taught the lessons of these events in school. Iran’s leaders experienced them first hand. As US-Iran relations move in a more diplomatic direction, in order to better understand Iran’s history and perspective, it is crucial that we remember the origins of Iran’s mistrust of the United States.
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2) Tumulty, Brian. "Iranians up to 'no Good' with U.S. Aircraft Carrier Mock-up." USA Today. March 23, 2014. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/03/22/iran-fake-us-aircraft-carrier-nimitz/6740979/.
3) Karami, Arash. "Iranian Mock Aircraft Carrier for Production of Movie." Al-Monitor. March 23, 2014. Accessed November 9, 2015. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/03/iran-movie-aircraft-crash-filming.html#.
4) Erdbrink, Thomas. "Iran’s Navy Blasts Away at a Mock U.S. Carrier." The New York Times. February 25, 2015. Accessed December 02, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/26/world/middleeast/in-mock-attack-iranian-navy-blasts-away-at-replica-us-aircraft-carrier.html?_r=0.
5) Klass, Richard. "Googling Iran: The Sources of Mistrust." War on the Rocks. May 11, 2015. Accessed November 9, 2015. http://warontherocks.com/2015/05/googling-iran-the-sources-of-mistrust/.
6) Crowley, Michael. "Four Good Reasons Why Iran Doesn’t Trust America." Time. October 15, 2013. Accessed December 01, 2015. http://swampland.time.com/2013/10/15/four-good-reasons-why-iran-doesnt-trust-america/.
7) Unites States National Security Council. NSC 136/1: United States Policy Regarding the Present Situation in Iran. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1952
8) Hiro, Dilip. The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict. New York: Routledge, 1991. 36
9) Tousi, Reza Ra'iss. "Containment and Animosity: The United States and the War." In Iranian Perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War, edited by Farhang Rajaee, 50. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997.
10) Hiro, 75
11) Tousi, 51
13) Fayazmanesh, Sasan. The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008. 29
15) Tousi, 52
16) Murray, Donette. US Foreign Policy and Iran: American-Iranian Relations since the Islamic Revolution. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2010. 45
17) Fayazmanesh, 30
18) Hiltermann, Joost. A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 228
19) Ibid, 151
20) Ibid, 149
21) Ibid, 228
23) Ibrahim, Youssef M. "As Iran Mourns, Khomeini Calls for 'War' on U.S." The New York Times. July 04, 1988. Accessed December 05, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/05/world/the-downing-of-flight-655-as-iran-mourns-khomeini-calls-for-war-on-us.html.
25) Pear, Robert. "KHOMEINI ACCEPTS 'POISON' OF ENDING THE WAR WITH IRAQ; U.N. SENDING MISSION." The New York Times. July 20, 1988. Accessed December 1, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/07/21/us/khomeini-accepts-poison-of-ending-the-war-with-iraq-un-sending-mission.html
26) Fayazmanesh, 43
27) Hiro, 84
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Erdbrink, Thomas. "Iran’s Navy Blasts Away at a Mock U.S. Carrier." The New York Times. February 25, 2015. Accessed December 02, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/26/world/middleeast/in-mock-attack-iranian-navy-blasts-away-at-replica-us-aircraft-carrier.html?_r=0.
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