Death of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, has heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington with fears of further escalation. But the interference of the United States in Iran dates back to 1950s when it helped overthrow a democratic leader in a coup.
Former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq tried to nationalise the British-controlled oil industry threatening Britain’s economic interests, especially at a time when its empire was fighting for its survival in the Middle East. The United States was rooting for a peaceful resolution and encouraged Britain to negotiate with Mossadeq. Washington even hosted the Iranian Prime Minister in October 1951 but the efforts to reach an agreement failed.
The failed negotiations forced the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) to orchestrate a coup d'état and the Mossadeq government was eventually toppled by a royalist military in 1953. Iran’s constitutional monarchy turned into a royal dictatorship under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the second and last monarch from the House of Pahlavi.
Iran’s relationship with the United States drastically declined after the dictatorship of Reza Pahlavi was toppled in a popular revolution in 1979. During Shah’s regime, Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini questioned his relationship with the United States but was arrested and exiled to Turkey. Khomeini started an opposition movement from Paris in 1978 which was followed by the famous Iranian revolution that forced Shah to relinquish his leadership.
Khomeini proclaimed an Islamic republic and fifty-two Americans were held hostage for more than a year, the incident mentioned by US President Donald Trump on January 4, 2020, where he threatened Iran to attack its 52 sites. In 1980, Washington severed ties with Tehran, expelled Iranian diplomats and banned American exports to the Middle East nation. The US tried to rescue the hostages through a secret operation but had to abort the plan after eight service members died in a helicopter crash due to bad weather.
The bilateral relations between the two countries remained in turmoil as the United States kept accusing Iran of supporting terrorism and of trying to weaponise it with nuclear arms. In 1993, former President Bill Clinton campaigned against Iran to isolate it and imposed sanctions of companies investing in Iran. Several attempts were made to mend ties between the two countries but all in vain, even after Iran gave tacit support to the United States during the latter’s operation in Afghanistan against the Taliban.
In 2002, George W. Bush denounced Iran, including Iraq and North Korea, as a part of ‘axil of evil’, and repeatedly accused the “axis” of sponsoring terrorism and harbouring weapons of mass destruction. In response, the term ‘axis of resistance’, an alliance comprising Iran, Syria, and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, was used by Iran.
The relationship between Iran and the US saw a glimmer of hope during the second term of the Obama administration when the former President started negotiations with Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani. In 2015, Iran reached a historic nuclear deal with P5+1 group which included the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany. Iran, under the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed to limit sensitive nuclear activities in lieu of lifting economic sanctions.
However, the Trump administration, in May 2018, withdrew from the nuclear deal accusing Iran of violating the terms of JCPOA and followed it with crippling economic sanctions. The bilateral relationship has been vulnerable since then with Trump pressuring other countries to impose sanctions on Iran. In December last year, Rouhani said that the country is ready to hold nuclear talks with the United States on the condition that they lift the “unlawful” sanctions.
The recent attack by Iran-backed militia killed several services members including an American contractor, to which the United States retaliated with airstrikes killing 25 fighters the Kataeb Hezbollah. It led to outrage among pro-Iran voices and protesters entered high-security US embassy in Baghdad and vandalised the building. US President Donald Trump reacted sharply to the incident and threatened Iran that they will pay a “big price”.
The threat was followed by a precision strike by the US forces at Baghdad international airport, killing Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organisation. There has been an outpouring of grief over the death of Soleimani, who was pivotal to Iran’s covert operations in the Middle East, and Iran’s Supreme Leader vowed to exact “severe revenge for the criminals who bloodied their foul hands with his blood”.
Though Trump has claimed that the attack was aimed to stop a war and not to start one, many experts are of opinion that this could now lead to overt and covert war between the two countries and its allies.