The Real Causes of America’s Troubled Relations with Iran

by Shireen Hunter     

In his speech describing America’s new approach towards Iran, Donald Trump accused it of responsibility for just about all of the ills of the Middle East and South West Asia. He went as far as accusing Iran of having supported the Taliban and al-Qaeda, sworn enemies of the Shias and Iran.

More seriously, the president refused to certify that Iran had complied with its responsibilities under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), thus opening the way for new sanctions and other pressures on Iran. It would also represent a step toward military confrontation, which might start with a direct U.S. attack on Iran or under the guise of anti-terror actions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Those who focus only on recent developments in US-Iranian relations tend to attribute the current difficulties to the Islamic Republic’s radical ideology and its destructive and destabilizing policies in the Middle East and South-West Asia. They argue that the United States had no problems with Iran before the Islamic Revolution and will have no difficulties with it in future if the current regime changes.

Clearly, the IRI’s ideological mixture of leftist notions of the 1960s and 70s and some Islamic principles as interpreted in light of those notions has been hostile to America and its regional allies. Like all revolutionary movements, until the mid- 1990s, Iran also tried to export its ideology beyond its borders.

However, in the last 25 years both Iran’s ideology and policies have undergone changes, and more moderate views, policies, and actors have emerged. Yet, during these years, every time Iran has reached out to America it has been rebuffed. The United States, by contrast, has only approached Iran when it has needed its help, such as during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and briefly after 9/11.

The question thus arises why America has not wanted to reach some form of modus vivendi with Iran. The answer lies in the dynamics of the international political system—and Iran and America’s respective places in it.

The Myth of America’s Friendship with the Shah

Those who bemoan the current state of US-Iranian relations wax nostalgic about the halcyon days of the Shah’s rule. Yet in reality, America never considered either Iran or the Shah to be an indispensable ally, like, for instance, Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

For example, despite the Shah’s pleadings, America refused to sign a security treaty with Iran. It gave Iran pitiful amounts of economic aid and was ready to experiment with social and political change in Iran, while it avoided similar policies in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere in the Middle East. A good example is the Kennedy administration’s pressure on the Shah to implement far-reaching reforms that greatly contributed to the social and cultural upheavals that culminated in the Islamic Revolution. For its part, the Carter administration pushed a human-rights agenda that gave the wrong signal to the Iranian opposition, and thus helped the Shah’s downfall.

Even regional players, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, which now say how much they miss the Shah, became irritated with him and actively contributed to his downfall. For instance, Saudi Arabia used its oil power to undermine Iran’s economy in 1976. Israel, angry about the Shah’s efforts to reach a deal with the PLO and Syria’s Hafiz al-Assad, used its supporters in the United States to warn against the Shah’s ambitions. In the West, complaints were often heard that the Shah “has grown too big for his britches.” This is one reason why Westerners were so complaisant about events that culminated in the 1979 revolution.

This U.S. approach towards Iran has been the result of its lack of an intrinsic interest in the country. The same was true of Britain. The late Sir Denis Right, the UK’s ambassador to Iran in the 1960s, put it best by writing that Britain never considered Iran of sufficient value to colonize it. But it found Iran useful as a buffer against the competing great power, the Russian Empire. Thus, British policy towards Iran was to keep it moribund but not dead, at least not as long as the Russian threat persisted.

America essentially followed the old British approach towards Iran: keep it semi-alive so that it can put up enough resistance to the USSR until America’s more important and intrinsic interests, such as those in the Persian Gulf, were safeguarded. But Washington never wanted to turn Iran into a strong ally that one day might be capable of challenging America.

In the late 1970s nobody thought that the fall of the Shah would result in the kind of government that emerged in 1979, and especially after the fall of the Bazargan government in November 1979. Rather, most observers thought that monarchy would be replaced with a mildly nationalist, secular government that would continue reasonable relations with the West, without the Shah’s grandiose dreams: something like “Mossadegh Light.”

Iran as Middle Power

By changing the international balance of power and removing the risk of Soviet penetration, the USSR’s fall eliminated Iran’s value to the United States even as a buffer state. In fact, the fundamental shift to a US approach based on the principle of no compromise, can be traced to 1987, when Gorbachev’s reforms began. Since then, the United States has refused to accept any solution to the Iran problem that has not involved the country’s absolute capitulation. For instance, in 2003, Iran offered to put all the outstanding issues between the two countries on the table for negotiations, but the US refused.

After 2003, the American approach shifted from regime change in Iran to gradual and eventual disintegration of the country through the application of crippling sanctions. The JCPOA was designed to remove the risk of Iran going nuclear without giving it any real economic reprieve: it was just enough to keep the country moribund. Thus, it is ironic that President Trump thinks that America got a bad deal.

Ultimately, the United States is concerned with Iran’s potential to become a credible middle power. Great powers do not like middle powers. The latter generally want to be treated as allies and not clients and want their share of the spotlight. The Shah, for instance, had the temerity to want to be treated as an ally and not a lackey.

The same is true of Iran’s regional rivals. They want Iran sanctioned and militarily attacked not because Iran is threatening their security in any tangible way, but because they feel uncomfortable with a potentially powerful Iran. The discomfort extends beyond Iran’s military prowess to its cultural appeal. When the Iranian actor, Shahab Hosseini, won the best actor award in Cannes in 2016, Saudi commentators considered him even more dangerous than the dreaded Ghassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds brigade.

Any government in a unified Iran, irrespective of its ideology and orientation, will want to realize the country’s potential and be treated as a legitimate regional and international player. Of course, for its part, Iran has to behave according to international norms. But if history is any guide, even when Iran has acted as a stabilizing force in the region, as it did during the 1970s with Western approval, it has been accused of imperial designs and of acting as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf.

The dilemma thus facing the United States, beyond the future viability of the JCPOA, is whether it will be prepared to seek some form of compromise and understanding with Iran, or whether it will try to settle the Iran question once and for all. The latter path, however, is very dangerous and costly, and its success is far from guaranteed. The record of America’s adventures in other parts of the region and the world is far from encouraging.

Photo: The Shah of Iran visits the Jimmy Carter White House in 1977.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Thanks for that interesting post . It is absolutely correct that the nuclear issue , is only the ” surface ” issue , but , there is an underlying greater and broader issue of that long term vision , consist of preventing Iran from becoming super power or alike . Yet , I don’t accept the attitude of the author of the post , that it is solely for a vague concern and desire of the US to stay single player in the field of almighty powers as phrased by the author , here I quote :

    ” Ultimately, the United States is concerned with Iran’s potential to become a credible middle power. Great powers do not like middle powers …”

    This is because , the author of the post , has ignored the global new order in fighting global terror , dictated by America , after the September the 11th attack . I remind here , the declaration of G.W bush the junior at the time :

    ” You’re either with us, or against us ”

    As such , surly the Iranians , are considered as serious issue in this regard ( despite the fact , that they hadn’t any connection with the twin tower attack , yet , even Saddam Hussein hadn’t any connection with it ) . The prove ( Only one among others ) is Obama himself , he was leftists by all means , even declared or introduce that policy of :

    ” Leading from behind … ” ( in Libya , what surly suggest , not an attitude of a leader of super power ) and yet , it was him , who has imposed the utmost severe sanctions on Iran .


  2. WOW, entirely forgotten seems so be the incident of the unseating of the democratically elected and very popular Iranian Mossadegh (1952?)who had the audacity to nationalize all Iran oil to the chagrin of Britain which had assumed it was theirs for the taking. Britain asked Truman to solve the problem. Truman said NO. They then asked Eisenhower who asked “what’s in it for me” and the British answer was 40% of the oil. So the CIA ousted Mossadegh and installed the DICTATOR Shah who, together with his American trained Intelligence services SAVAK oppressed and killed more Iranians than Saddam Hussein ever did HIS people. But America got its 40% of the oil, Britain got its 40% while Iran got their paltry 20%.
    So for about 25 years we stole Iran’s oil until the revolution put an end to the Shah and got the clerics in power.
    Iran has never attacked any of its neighbors…. The proxy war between Iraq and Iran was funded by Washington. When Saddam Husein stopped being useful he was simply disposed of. In fact Iran has always been a stabilizing factor in the region. And it will remain that way.
    WE are and have been the main destructive force in the region and no matter how we try to twist it or color it nicely, the facts remain that we are and have been terrorizing the M.E.

    I am fully aware that if you WERE to speak the truth you would lose your teaching credentials
    That puts us in the same political environment as those in East Germany under the Stasi.
    This writer survived German occupation in the Netherlands and 3 fire bombings by the U.S. Army Air Corps (there was no USAF yet).

  3. The US awarded the despicable despotic Shah its nuclear energy program. I remember the Shah’s comment during a US state visit. ‘Sure I torture people, and when I get back I’ll torture some more.”
    So — “For its part, the Carter administration pushed a human-rights agenda that gave the wrong signal to the Iranian opposition, and thus helped the Shah’s downfall.” — That was the RIGHT signal.

  4. Shireen I commend your article but I don’t agree. Iran was treated as a lackey because it was a weak developing country and it aspired to be a global power too soon without a supporting diaspora, the irony being that Iranians were smart enough to achieve it had they acted wisely. Shah was too young when the coup happened with mossadegh and was blessed by the foreign security services with the one party policy and in the days of carter he was too affected by cancer to stand firm when he had to. Especially he was unable to do what the mullahs did to the green movement. In the 70s Iran was being developed and had it stayed on course, without the war and the Islamic corruption, even without the shah, it would have been in the G8. Iranians made a historical mistake with the revolution, where they needed reform. Now, they would need a “revolution” since reform within the system doesn’t work well. In these times, they will be better off to stick with the mullahs and hope for a peaceful transition when Khamenei passes away. A lot of the old guards derided the mullahs for what they were, riding donkeys from the provinces and dance to get money at funerals. But they have proved unfortunately to be machiavelic and a lot less grotesque than what khomeiny’s advice about intercourse with cows or donkeys would have let the shah’s generation believe. The only problem is that at least shah was trying to advance iran’s interestd not Lebanon or Syria’s interest. With these mullahs, ideology is advanced to the detriment of Iranian national interest. Notwithstanding all their sins, the Iranians were subject to numerous foreign interventions that were instrumental in keeping iran moribund. The latest and most worrying factor for me is the policy to destroy iran and balkanise it. Even that corrupt regime is far more preferable to the MEK or the explosion of iran into iranistan being a yes man for all oil and gas companies. It is a pity that the mullahcracy doesn’t use its influence in the region for improving the life of Iranians and getting better economic deals.The whole nation including the regime operatives have understood that the revolution has failed and in order to hide its failures, they trumpet their ideology because nothing else would remain should they change the tones of their voices and their slogans. Revolutions die with revolutionaries more often in a bloody way than in peace and quiet. Khamenei despite all that is said on him is a cautious man. I hope that he will be wise and clear eyed enough to organise himself, in his old days a sort of transition from the clerical regime to a freer regime or a referendum on the country’s future. If his succession is not organised it in an orderly fashion with an eye on the country’s economic future( the last glue that could hold everything all together), chaos will ensue and the “hereditary” infightings will be ugly, the same coalition of foreign forces that meddled in the countrys affairs for their own benefit will have even less scruples for the integrity of iran and Iranians alike. By imposing religion in politics, they killed religion in iran and they know it themselves. Hopefully they will stop short of (letting others) dismantling the country for good.

  5. Professor Hunter, this is another soft version of atrocities committed by the west in Iran! You neglected to mention the imposed famine committed by U.K. on Iranians before WWI!
    Perhaps there 2 more major reasons worth mentioning for the downfall of the Shah:
    1. In 1971, the US Senate was challenging Nixon & Kissinger by refusing to deliver Bobcat fighters to Tehran. Then the Shah announced that Iran is going to purchase fighter planes from the Soviet! Well the CIA which installed the Shah to the power didn’t like this comment coming from the Shah! So he was no longer the favorite dictator in the eyes of DC!
    2. Communism had penetrated the highly educated people and won their hearts at the time. Even many physicians were following the socialist agenda! This was a major concern for the US! The secular regime which came to power immediately after the revolution was mostly made up of communists and Carter created the Islamic regime knowing that it will oppose communism!
    The current regime in Iran has chosen to be extremely suspicious of both the US and Russia and is trying to stand independent! The Iranian people will never capitulate to the US or Russia! I’m not hearing that they are being worried about a grade school bully! In fact they are emotionally ready to kick ass should they’re given an opportunity!

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