It wasn’t long ago the Iranians admired Americans. The United States was a David-like character that had beaten the Goliath British Empire. Iran, a nation where 90% of Muslims are Shia, probably wished they could do something similar to the giant Sunni Ottoman Empire. Discrimination against Shiite Muslims had been severe. Ottoman Sultan, Selim I (1512–1520) said, “The killing of one Shia had as much otherworldly reward as killing seventy Christians.”
The United States was also admired because it was key to ending the Ottoman Empire and making sure that Muslims in the Middle East entered a path to independence rather than becoming European colonies.
For Iran, the David-like US was also a protector. In the first Cold War-related conflict, the Iran Crisis (1946), the United States took the lead with the UN to compel the Soviets to abandon their occupation of Iran. The Russians had previously occupied Iran along with Britain in the early 1900s. It was during this joint Russian-British occupation, the predecessor to British Petroleum, that the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was founded (1907).
After WWII, was the one-time David became a Goliath superpower and the leader of the so-called Free World. In this capacity, the global power ingenue was prepared to snuff out unfree communist leanings anywhere and everywhere. Was Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadegh, who came by his position democratically, a communist because he nationalized Anglo-Persian, now Anglo-Iranian, because Britain refused to agree to fair terms with Iran? Documents released by the CIA in 2013 show the US working with the British to eject Mossadegh to regain control of Anglo-Iranian. The leader of the Free World facilitated snuffing out a Middle Eastern pioneer in democratic governments.
The monarch, Shah Reza Pahlavi, was now the most powerful person in Iran, and he became a staunch ally of the United States. The Shah followed in the secularizing footsteps of President Ataturk of Turkey. Throughout history, religious leaders shared power with political leaders in this region, and now they were being marginalized in Iran.
Ayatollah Khomeini was an outspoken cleric that was very unhappy with the reduction of clerical power and secular directions. At a time of economic malaise, he organized a successful revolution in 1979 that ended Iran’s 2500-year-old monarchy. Khomeini had no use for an American ally, but he valued an American adversary. He called America the Great Satan. He accused the US of placing Israel, who he called Little Satan, in the Middle East as a Trojan Horse for the west. Before Khomeini, Iran counted among the rare Muslim-majority nations that supported Israel’s right to exist. Now, it was strategically beneficial to champion its demise.
Why pick the United States and Israel? The Russians and Turkish had inflicted far greater harm on Iran than facilitating a coup. It was the Russians that decimated the land of Iranian empires in the 18th and 19th centuries. One Russian acquisition was the land of Azerbaijan. More Azeris live in Iran than Azerbaijan. Harsh discrimination against Shias by the Turkish had motivated an intense war-filled rivalry between the Ottomans and Shiite dynasties from the 16th to 19th centuries. Iran, however, had some good reasons not to antagonize these former global dominants.
Soviet designs on Iran were not a secret. It was risky for Iran to give this superpower an excuse to fight back. Besides, the Soviets were supporting Muslims in the Arab-Israeli wars. Targeting Turkey, a Sunni Muslim nation would doom Khomeini’s unification mission. The superpower United States, contrary to Iranian propaganda, posed no risk of acquiring Iran. Just as importantly, the United States was Israel’s most powerful supporter. Khomeini knew that Shias and Sunnis could unite behind rejecting the sovereignty of Israel. Iran withdrew its UN support for Israel’s right to exist and made Israel and the United States key to its strategy for restoring Islamic power to the world stage; something lost after WWI.
In 1979, Khomeini supported the eighteen-month detention of more than sixty American hostages from the US embassy in Tehran. In 1983, Khomeini supported the bombing of a US Marine barracks in Lebanon. These actions led the United States to impose economic sanctions that limited trade and froze foreign assets. In the early 1980s, Iran became the principal supporter of Hezbollah, soon known for inflicting terror on western targets, with a bullseye on Israel.
Khomeini’s mission to unite Muslims, Sunnis and Shias, on a return to the world stage challenged the Saudi ruling family, who were the Custodians of the Two Holy Mosques, and held the de facto position of leadership in Islam. In 1979, Islamic militants seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and called for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. The militants were Saudi and Sunni, but Khomeini framed the militants as part of an American imperial, Zionist plot. In blaming the United States, Khomeini wanted to damage ties between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The two nations enjoyed a beneficial alliance since 1945 when US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul-Aziz aboard the USS Quincy. Khomeini had intentionally destroyed Iran’s alliance with the United States. It was important to destroy it with Saudi Arabia too. It didn’t work. The Saudi’s didn’t see Khomeini’s accusations as credible. What they saw as reliable was Khomeini’s affront to their position of Islamic leadership and the possibility of losing control of their Shiite-majority Eastern Province, home to the Saudi’s largest oil field and headquarters for Saudi Aramco, the national oil company.
The emerging competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia looked like a modified replay of the contest in the 16th to 18th centuries between the Shiite Safavid and Qajar dynasties and the Sunni Ottomans. Instead of Muslims uniting on the world stage, Khomeini reinvigorated the Sunni-Shiite conflict, revived sectarianism in Islam, and renewed a belief that Shias were heretical Muslims. All of these had been dormant for over a century. Sectarianism became a catalyst for Iran-Saudi proxy wars that were detrimental to nation-building throughout the Muslim world. Meanwhile, Khomeini and his successors deflected blame for negative outcomes on Israel and the United States.
Sixteen years after Khomeini died, there was a cessation of hostilities between Arab nations and Israel. Iran took the lead as Israel’s chief antagonist. Iran-Israeli wars replaced Arab-Israeli wars. Acting through its proxies Shiite Hezbollah, Sunni Hamas, and the Sunni Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Iran took the lead in a mission to vacate Israel from the Middle East. Iran knows when it antagonizes Israel, it antagonizes the United States.
Since 1979, Iran has been subjected to multiple rounds of sanctions from the United States, the European Union, and many other nations complying with multiple UN mandates. Sanctions have been tied to uranium enrichment and support for militants. The imposition of successive sanctions has led Iran to rely increasingly on militant proxies to gain attention and support on the world stage. Recent Iranian actions, or alleged actions have all targeted the US or its allies: including attacks on major Saudi oil installations, sabotaging or attacking commercial ships from Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates, shooting down a US military drone, the execution of a US military contractor, and controlling Iraq.
These belligerent actions are clever. If America responds weakly, Iran parlays that into David outdoing Goliath. If America responds strongly, Iran publicizes American hegemony. When Iran errs, for example, in the case of mistakenly downing a passenger jetliner, it blames the United States. To its base, it wins again. After misguided military incursions in the Middle East, like the Iraq War (2003-2011), and the presence of US military all over the Middle East during the recent civil wars, it’s become easier for Iran to score PR victories against America. When President Trump responds using bellicose language, the victory is even greater. Iran knows that disliking America has been a sport since it became a superpower after WWII. It’s not the only American nemesis that stokes the sport.
It seems like Iran’s propaganda war against the United States and Israel is winning. Iran has brought incredible havoc to the MENA region since 1979, including precipitating the never-ending Iran-Saudi proxy wars, provoking Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), and involvement in numerous atrocities in the past ten years, sometimes with the support of Russia and China. Still, within its base, it generates sympathy as a victim of American aggression. Here’s hoping a little historical context can help to frame an Iran that finds more value in an American adversary than an ally.