Relations Between the United States and Iran

The relationship between Iran and the United States has been complicated and marred by actions based on personal agendas, rather than sound policy making on either side. With tensions over sanctions, the Iran Nuclear Deal, as well as retaliation for the assassination of general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 ever present in the news, here is a brief summary of key events for the past several decades:

In 1953, the power struggle between Mosaddegh and the shah, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, escalates when the shah attempts to dismiss Mosaddegh from his position, a move strongly supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Despite ensuing protests that force the shah to flee the country, he returns to Iran when Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, also backed by the CIA, overthrows Mosaddegh in an August coup d’etat.

September 8, 1978 – Black Friday – After the shah imposes martial law in an attempt to quell ongoing protests against his authoritarian rule, thousands gather in Jaleh Square in Tehran, and security forces fire on the protesters. While the death toll remains unknown, estimates range from several dozen to possibly hundreds killed.

January 16, 1979 – The shah flees the country – Protests continue and the shah is forced to flee Iran amid the intensifying unrest. He travels to a number of countries before entering the U.S. to receive cancer treatment.

November 4, 1979 – Storming of the U.S. embassy – Islamic students storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, take 52 American employees hostage and demand that the shah return from the United States to face trial in Iran.

July 1988 – U.S. downs an Iranian airplane – The USS Vincennes, shoots down an Iranian civilian plane in the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers and crew. The U.S. later apologizes and agrees to financial compensation for the victims’ families, saying the civilian plane was mistaken for an attacking military jet. 

1995 – Broader sanctions – The Clinton administration expands sanctions placing a complete oil and trade embargo on Iran. The U.S. accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorism, committing human rights abuses and seeking to sabotage the Arab-Israeli peace process.

2002 – “Axis of evil” – In his State of the Union speech, U.S. President George W. Bush refers to Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” stating that the country is actively pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The speech is naturally met with anger in Iran. 

May – October 2019 – A series of attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. blames Iran for attacks on oil tankers. In response, the U.S. attempts to seize an Iranian oil tanker.

December 31, 2019 – Militia members attack the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Demonstrators and Iran–backed militia members attempt to break into the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and set fires, allegedly in response to the American airstrike that killed members of an Iran-backed militia the previous weekend.

January 3, 2020 – U.S. kills Gen. Soleimani – U.S. kills Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani as well as Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a drone strike at a Baghdad airport.

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