How the Islamic Revolution Affected US-Iran Relations


Bilateral relationships between countries are always complex, but particularly so when international incidents enflame differences between a secular and theocratic government. In the case of Iran and the United States, the relationship has always been tenuous, but one specific incident has served to flavor the relationships between Tehran and Washington, DC for the last 40 years: The rise of the clerical regime to power after the fall of the Shah. The following is a summary of how that development affected  Iran-USA relations and of the importance of the Iranian community’s efforts to work to bring about change in the US and Iran.

Simmering Disagreements

To be sure, the 1979 Iranian Revolution was propelled by a series of concrete social, political and economic grievances on the part of the Iranian people. The Shah had been restored to the throne 26 years earlier in a coup engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Shah ran the country with an iron fist and did nothing to improve the livelihood of millions of Iranians despite all the wealth generated from the sale of oil and gas. This was compounded by the imprisonment and execution of many leading political dissidents, thereby creating a huge power vacuum when the Shah was forced to flee the country in the face of protests by millions of Iranians. Khomeini and the mullahs, who had been spared the wrath of the Shah, were able to step into the vacuum and usurp the leadership of a popular revolution. They gradually consolidated their power by ramping up anti-American rhetoric. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the November 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Indeed, on the anniversary of the Embassy occupation this year, the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) admitted as much: “Only a handful of our revolutionary officials, and first and foremost among them, the (current) supreme leader, (Ali Khamenei), strongly agreed with this revolutionary move,” without which, “undoubtedly our revolution would not have lasted 40 years and would have ended in the first decade.”

The boogeyman politics

Enable to address the needs of a society liberated after the half-century-ling Pahlavi dictatorship, the mullahs not only turned their eyes towards expanding their radical brand of Islam, but also used boogeyman politics to maintain their grips on power. The chants of “death to America,” became the mainstay in Friday prayer congregations and official state-organized ceremonies.

On the other hand, different U.S. administrations, while using harsh rhetoric against the Iranian regime, pursued a policy of carrot and sticks, naively expecting that the clerical rulers would reciprocate. The mullahs were also aided by pundits and talking heads, who preferred to maintain the status quo and as such promoted engagement with and conciliation towards the mullahs. Lost in this ill-fated tango were the interests of the Iranian people, and by extension, the desires of the Iranian diaspora community.

Iconic Symbolism

Another indicator of how serious the Revolution was in the realm of American relations with Iran is the creation of multiple policy influencers in the USA on behalf of the Iranian people. These include Iranian community organizations, government representatives and everyday Iranian Americans. The Revolution defined the issues, but it also spurred many to action to oppose the corrupt Iranian theocracy and to educate everyday Americans in the particulars of this very complex relationship.

Whether you’re a member of an Iranian community organization or just a concerned citizen, the Iranian Revolution was a tipping point in Iranian-US relations. How do you think that event has affected your view of both countries and their relationship? Tell us below.

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