The United States’ relationship with Iran have been marked by open enmity ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Although unprecedented progress has been recently achieved in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, as Iran signed a nuclear agreement and got its long-awaited sanctions relief, “the wall of mistrust between Washington and Tehran remains thick.” As Iran remains one of the biggest questions marks in the Middle East, one should strive to understand the roots of enmity between Iran and the United States, the countries which do not officially sustain diplomatic relationships, to inform the current debate. The roots of the decades-long tension can be traced to the time of the Cold War and the political processes in Iraq in the period after World War 2 and till the 1979 Iranian Revolution. One of the key political figures of Iran who played a decisive role in the victory of the Iranian Revolution and collapse of relations with the States was Ayatollah Khomeini, the dominating character in Iran’s politics till his death in 1989. This paper analyzes the issue of Ayatollah Khomeini’s confrontation with the United States and successful establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Ayatollah Khomeini played a principal role in the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 as two inherently controversial groups of opposition – Iranian nationalists and Marxists – united around him to depose Mohammad Reza Shah and establish the Islamic Republic. In the 1989 New York Times article “After Charisma in Iran,” which reports on Ayatollah funeral in Iran, the late Ayatollah is described as Iran’s dominating clergy man with “overwhelming presence” and unique authority. The article mentions the major contribution of Ayatollah Khomeini into “excoriating Shah’s harsh, modernizing regime” and into the hostage crisis. Those were only a few of the challenges that the American government had to take in Iran. Yet, there were many more as the conflict between Ayatollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, and various U.S. presidents persisted until his death in 1989.
With the focus on Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s overthrow by the Iranian Revolution, the figure of Ayatollah Khomeini is associated with his fierce opposition to the U.S. influence and U.S. presence in Iran during Shah’s rule in the period after the World War 2 and up to the monarch’ deposition on February 11, 1979. During the rule of Pahlavi dynasty, the United States viewed Iran as their key to the leading political status in the region owing to Iran’s geographical position – between the Persian Gulf and the USSR – and its rich oil reserves. Losing Iran as its ally would mean automatic increase in the USSR influence in the region as the issue was growing more and more important with the unfolding of Cold War in post-war years. What’s more, losing Iran would mean losing access to its oil reserves and a secure supply of oil. Analysis of historical data shows that the U.S. developed a very close relationship with Shah, whom it saw as an enduring ally. Fearing that Shah would take his business elsewhere and America would lose its influence over oil-wealthy Iran, the United States preferred not to intrude in Shah’s domestic policies while they supported secularization and other radical reforms. Meanwhile, Shah’ rule was gradually turning into a sort of tyranny, where Shah’s SAVAK (Organisation for State Security and Information) would go to excesses to secure his rule. Although the reforms initiated by Shah’s government were generally positive and aimed at the improvement of the economic situation in the country, they were unaccompanied by relevant educational reforms which would prepare the masses for the changes of modernization, especially with regard to secularization. Moreover, the masses were carrying the harsh economic outcomes of the reforms while Shah lived in great luxury and sustained a corrupted government. Ayatollah Khomeini, who started his public criticism of Shah’s regime in the early 1960s, was the most notable figure among other members of opposition in Iran, specifically the Shi’a clergy and the working class. On October 26, 1964, Ayatollah Khomeini denounced both Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and the U.S., which was the ground for his subsequent arrest and exile. When public dissatisfaction with Shah’s rule reached its peak and the monarch was overthrown and left the country, Ayatollah Khomeini came back to Iran from France, where he had spent the last four months of his exile.
Supported by the working class and other parts of the Iranian society, Ayatollah Khomeini was seen as a new ally by the Soviet Union. Together with Ayatollah, many members of the Tudeh party (People’s Party of Iran), who had been living in exile, came back home. Although the new ruler announced that he would support neither West nor East, the first ambassador he received was the one from the Soviet Union. At the same time, the relationship did not go that far, with Iran curtailing its ties with the Soviet Union in the mid 1980s. Ayatollah Khomeini announced that the Soviet Union just as the United States was a satan. This position did not mean the warming of relationship with the United States, as Ayatollah Khomeini repeatedly refused to release American hostages, insisted on U.S. returning the money they owed for pre-revolutionary purchases in Iran, and led his country in 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, where the U.S. sided with Baghdad.
Overall, Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule was associated with the ongoing, decades-long enmity towards the United States. Declaring the United States a satan, the Iranian leader engaged in many conflicts either with the U.S. or with its allies. In return, the U.S. imposed long-term economic sanctions that would not allow Iran to sell oil. Now that Iran has refused from its nuclear power ambitions and has received a chance to integrate into global economy, the potential has increased for cooperation between the two states.
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