Googling Iran: The Sources of Mistrust

May 11, 2015

If you want to understand the mistrust and animosity between Iran and the United States, Google the four topics below:

Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh

The first web search query will introduce you to a remarkable man who could have been the father of a genuine secular democracy in Iran. But this legitimately elected leader had the temerity to nationalize his nation’s oil wealth, successfully defend that move before the United Nations and International Court, and thereby cut deeply into British oil profits. After boycotts, threats of invasion, and a blockade failed to achieve results, the British approached President Harry Truman to help depose him. Truman refused but President Eisenhower later relented to British requests. So the CIA and British intelligence set up coup headquarters in the U.S. Embassy (take note) and the coup succeeded on the second attempt in August 1953.

The British and Americans then reinstalled the monarchy under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the son of the previous autocratic Shah, and secured his rule through the Army and the SAVAK secret police (trained by the CIA). The United States supported the Shah as the pillar of regional policy — especially during the Nixon Administration — sold him a nuclear research reactor, and happily supplied advanced weapons in exchange for petrodollars. The Shah became increasingly autocratic, detached, and corrupt. Protests grew and became violent just as an oblivious President Carter went to Tehran at the end of 1977 and proclaimed the Shah’s Iran “an island of stability.” The Shah fled Iran less than a year later as Iranian students took over the U.S. Embassy.

Few Americans are familiar with this history. All Iranians know it and are deeply resentful.

The Hostage Crisis

Both Americans and Iranians are familiar with the second event: the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 American embassy personnel were held prisoner for 444 days after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy. This crisis was triggered when the Shah was allowed entry into the United States for medical treatment. The “students” wanted the Shah returned for trial and execution and saw America as complicit in his alleged crimes. And it seems they were worried that another coup was being planned in the embassy. Remember the Mossadegh coup? The Persian phrase for the embassy takeover translates as the “conquest of the American spy den.” And America became “The Great Satan.”

The United States focused on the takeover as a violation of international law and broke diplomatic relations. There had been no formal public talks between the two countries until the recent nuclear negotiations. There have, however, been informal contacts. Reagan’s national security adviser, Bud McFarland, went to Tehran during the Iran-Contra fiasco. And there was some cooperation between Washington and Tehran when American troops went into Afghanistan in 2001, truncated by President George W. Bush’s inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.

U.S. Support for Iraq against Iran

The third event is less widely known, but more deplorable. In the chaos that ensued after the Iranian revolution, Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity to seize some valuable real estate and become the regional hegemon. In September 1980, Saddam initiated hostilities and began a long and bloody eight-year war. During the Iran hostage crisis, the Carter Administration toyed with the idea of helping Iraq against Iran, but decided against it. The Reagan Administration was less cautious, especially as Iran appeared to be gaining the upper hand, partly due to U.S weapons supplied covertly. In 1982, President Regan signed National Security Study Directive (NSSD 4-82) and appointed Donald Rumsfeld as his special representative. Rumsfeld made trips to Iraq in 1983 and 1984, and as a result, Iraq was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Commercial and dual use technology flowed openly into Iraq while weapons from third parties, often through arms dealers, also were allowed to reach Baghdad.

The scale of the assistance was in the billions of dollars and included commercial chemicals, cluster bombs, and anthrax. According to Charles Duelfer of the Iraqi Survey Group, the American strain was chosen for the weaponizing of anthrax. The United States also provided helicopters, strategic and tactical intelligence, and military training to Saddam’s Iraq. Some of the intelligence was used to identify Iraqi defensive gaps where chemical weapons were then employed. U.S. military personnel provided direct support, which included deploying intelligence agents on the ground in Baghdad. The United States also acted to quash a 1984 Iranian UN resolution condemning Iraqi use of chemical weapons.

Iraq used over 100,000 chemical weapons against Iran. Iran did not reciprocate, declaring such weapons as against the creed of Islam just as they now assert that nuclear weapons are forbidden.

Few Americans know this. Many in Iran still bear the scars, physical and psychological.

In October 1989 President George H.W. Bush signed National Security Directive 26, declaring security of Persian Gulf oil to be in the national interest, and maintaining that good relations with Iraq are in the interest of regional stability. Ten months later Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Iran Air 655

On July 3, 1988, a few months before the ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war, the USS Vincennes (CG49), operating in the Persian Gulf, shot down Iran Air flight 655 from Tehran to Dubai. All 290 people on the Airbus A300B2 perished. Most were Iranian, many were children. The aircraft was in Iranian air space, over Iranian territorial waters. Despite initial denials, the Vincennes was also in Iranian territorial waters. The United States said the aircraft was mistaken by the crew to be an Iranian F-14 attacking the ship despite the fact that it was climbing and using a civilian transponder identification code on a regular Iran Air route. Iran charged that it was a deliberate act of war in the middle of their war with Iraq.

Eight years later the United States paid $131.6 million to settle an Iranian suit in the International Court of Justice. The United States expressed regret but never admitted guilt or apologized. Rather, during his 1988 presidential campaign, George H.W. Bush declared, “I will never apologize for the United States — I don’t care what the facts are … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”

Contrast this to the U.S. reaction to the downing of Malaysian Air flight 17 over Ukraine twenty-six years and two weeks later.

Reflections on History

The snapshots from history above are not meant to give Iran a pass for its support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah or the Assad regime in Syria, or for the many other acts that leave a great deal of blood on Iranian hands. Nor is it meant to postulate some sort of moral equivalency.

It is offered only to explain the depth of Iranian mistrust and animosity toward the United States and the underlying reasons, especially among the older generations. But half of Iran’s population is under 35 and will have few recollections of these events just as few Americans under 35 were alive during the hostage crisis.

Perhaps these two vibrant young populations can see us through the problems ahead to a better understanding and relationship. The pending nuclear agreement offers a good place to start. After all, they are the Google generation.


Richard L. Klass is a retired Air Force colonel and currently serves on the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He flew over 200 combat sorties as a forward air controller in Vietnam. Klass was a Rhodes Scholar and White House fellow and served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy) from 1977 to 1980. His decorations include the Silver Star and Purple Heart.