The United States has been no stranger to scattered and complicated foreign relations, but Iran is a very notable case.
The media had a field day with the Iran nuclear deal and most recently the temporary detainment of a U.S. vessel in Iranian maritime space. Both of these instances either hailed as an exceptional example of diplomacy or condemned with some typical rhetoric. Many decades before this, the Iran hostage situation was an immense partisan spectacle that ruined any chance of Carter having a second term. The partisanship of the “Iranian issue” has evolved to the present day, however. Republicans continue to slam the Iran nuclear deal as being a monumental mistake made by Barack Obama. However, both parties do concur on some ghostly ‘Iranian threat’ with the Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton, labeling Iran a terror state for quite some time.
With damning rhetoric being spewed during prime-time debates about Iran and their alleged nuclear weapons program, there appear to be gaps in the candidate’s historical understanding of these complicated U.S.-Iranian relations. In particular, American relations with Iran before the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Referring to Mohammad Reza Pahvlavi, the Shah, Carter said on New Years 1978:
“Under the Shah’s brilliant leadership Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions of the world. There is no other state figure whom I could appreciate and like more.”
This statement was met with intense outrage from the anti-Shah groups in Iran as well as the liberal opposition in America that by 1977 had heavy disfavor with the Shah regime because of its sketchy human rights record. The United States assured that they would readily back the Shah no matter what and that he was in good hands. They had now been anticipating a revolution and by some account they had come to believe in its inevitability, even still they supported the Shah.
How close was this relationship?
There is one interesting fact that is mentioned by Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Shahir Shahidaless in their book Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) from page 214 to 219. They say that American universities were allowing Iranian students to come to America to learn how to develop useful technology. This has been documented at many American universities as the Shah was then giving grants to universities that accepted Iranian students and/or set up certain programs that the Shah wanted (such as Iranian studies).
There were deep suspicions among some though. Professor Noam Chomsky wrote about this very recently (and I am surprised it has not gotten more attention). He writes about Iranian scientists coming to MIT in the 70’s:
“Do Iranian leaders intend to develop nuclear weapons today? We can decide for ourselves how credible their denials are, but that they had such intentions in the past is beyond question. After all, it was asserted openly on the highest authority and foreign journalists were informed that Iran would develop nuclear weapons “certainly, and sooner than one thinks.” The father of Iran’s nuclear energy program and former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was confident that the leadership’s plan “was to build a nuclear bomb.” The CIA also reported that it had “no doubt” Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighboring countries did (as they have).
All of this was, of course, under the Shah, the “highest authority” just quoted and at a time when top U.S. officials — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Henry Kissinger, among others — were urging him to proceed with his nuclear programs and pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. Under such pressures, my own university, MIT, made a deal with the Shah to admit Iranian students to the nuclear engineering program in return for grants he offered and over the strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong faculty support (in a meeting that older faculty will doubtless remember well).
Asked later why he supported such programs under the Shah but opposed them more recently, Kissinger responded honestly that Iran was an ally then.”
Apparently this relationship was close enough that the United States planned to help the Shah regime proliferate nuclear weapons. However, it was never achieved as the Iranian Revolution happened very shortly afterwards. This situation is not dissimilar to the exact same program being offered to Iraqi nuclear scientists under the Hussein regime. Also, at the time was the tacit support of chemical weapons in Iraq. This account is a particularly inconvenient truth to the anti-Iranian narrative in both conservative and liberal circles in America. Further, this shows American commitment to interested conflict and regime support.
Iranian policy has shifted substantially between the former Shah and the now established government. Whereas before they pursued being a dominant power in the region, there policy has shifted to one of deterrence against the U.S.-backed Israel and Saudi Arabia. We can speculate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions but there is certainly no evidence backing a claim that Iran is currently pursuing a nuclear weapon- continually reports have had relative non-findings.