U.S.-Iran Relations : 40 Years of Antagonism, Distrust, and Frustration Reflected in New Volume of Declassified Documents
Every American president and top Iranian leader since 1979 approved of closer interactions at some point, record shows.
Transcripts of secret early U.S.-Iran talks and conversations between U.S. and allied heads of state featured.
Often overlooked historical record offers clues to next twists in the relationship.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lead their respective delegations at a negotiating session in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 17, 2015 (State Department photo).
Newly elected President Mohammad Khatami (right) at his inauguration ceremony on August 3, 1997, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (center), and outgoing President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, under a portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Official website of Ayatollah Khamenei).
On September 12, 2001, President George W. Bush (center) looks over a briefing paper on the previous day’s attacks with Vice President Richard Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice outside the Oval Office (Courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum).
One of several massive demonstrations of the Green Movement takes place in Tehran following the June 12, 2009, disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At center is one of the movement’s leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister of the IRI (Getty images).
A print hanging in a quasi-government institution in Tehran shows Iranians in folk dress holding up vials of uranium, reflecting an idealized view of the country’s nuclear program shared by many Iranians (photo by author)
Washington, D.C., September 20, 2021 – Over the four decades since the 1979 Iranian revolution, leaders of both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have repeatedly explored opportunities for either political engagement or simple, transactional arrangements – actions that belie commonly held assumptions about a relationship defined solely by unusual animosity, according to a new volume of declassified records published this month.
The two governments’ bitter, sometimes violent, dispute has been driven by a combination of conflicting ideological outlooks, incompatible policy objectives, and enduring feelings of victimization. Calls of “Death to America” and rhetorical appeals for Iranian regime change have characterized the public discourse between the two countries for years.
But less evident – largely because the domestic political costs to the policymakers involved is so high – is the fact that virtually every senior leader in both countries, regardless of the severity of their views, has acknowledged the possible benefits of reaching out to the adversary.
This includes the likes of President Ronald Reagan and President Donald Trump (in addition to other Republican and Democratic presidents) as well as Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, each of whom has been widely assumed by most of the public to be uncompromising toward their avowed enemies.
This complex story is one of the themes explored through declassified White House, State Department, CIA, and other U.S. documents, along with a selection of Iranian internal communications and other important policy records, in the new publication, Worlds Apart: A Documentary History of US–Iranian Relations, 1978–2018, by Malcolm Byrne and Kian Byrne from Cambridge University Press (2021).
Other themes include the sensitive issues of Iran’s nuclear program, regional strategies, and relationship to international terrorism as well as United States policies running the gamut from talk of regime change to nuclear sabotage to aiding Tehran’s sworn regional adversaries, all the way to bilateral attempts to open a new chapter of mutual engagement.
Specific topics covered include:
- the unfolding of the revolution in Iran amid a fog of incomprehension at top levels – though not so much among the experts – in Washington
- the Carter administration’s often ambiguous attitude toward the Shah
- proposals for coups or other provocative actions put forward by U.S. government officials and advisers at various stages
- the provision of U.S. intelligence and targeting information to Saddam Hussein in his war against the Islamic Republic
- the divisions within Iran’s government over whether and how to prosecute the war with Iraq
- the dramatic election of President Mohammad Khatami and the Clinton administration’s striking shift from preparing military strike plans against Iran to pursuing direct ties with Tehran
- the surprising window of opportunity for collaboration in Afghanistan and Iraq provided by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – which senior Bush-43 officials resolved to slam shut
- the sea change in approach by the Obama administration that caught Tehran by surprise and (temporarily) helped break through three decades of ingrained mistrust leading to the landmark JCPOA
The aim of the new collection is to allow the contemporaneous voices of the policymakers and strategists in both the U.S. and Iran to speak for themselves, rather than present yet another third-party analysis years after the fact.
Along with coverage of pivotal events and decisions on both sides, the volume highlights the many unquantifiable elements that have helped shape this complex story. A history of cooperation and coups, cultural and religious experiences, epic expressions of national pride and sovereignty, and the sheer emotionalism of the relationship have consistently combined to bewilder policy practitioners and experts alike.
All of these factors show through in both the mix of American and Iranian documentation and the series of research aids included – the most important of these being the introductory chapter essays that provide historical and political background and the detailed individual annotations that clearly lay out the context and significance of each of the 60+ documents.
Students and general readers will also benefit from a helpful set of glossaries and a chronology that situate the events and key actors – as well as a special feature on “How To Read a Declassified Document.”
READ THE DOCUMENTS
[Note: The document descriptions below are taken verbatim from the book Worlds Apart and are intended to be read in tandem with the chapter essays in the volume.]
Jan 3, 1979
Jimmy Carter Library; NSC Institution Files, 1977–81; Container 56; NSC-015A – Iran, 1/3/79.
As the New Year begins, the Carter administration finds itself at a critical moment of decision on whether the Shah should stay or go. The White House has faced huge pressure from Republicans, notably long-time backers of the Shah like Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, to solidify US support for him. This top-level, uncensored memcon offers an unusually clear picture of who supports which approach within the administration.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and CIA Director Stansfield Turner make the argument for removing the Shah. Their belief is that reinforcing the Shah’s decision to leave the country would give newly appointed Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar a greater chance of success. However, as Vice President Walter Mondale points out, this would come at a significant political cost. On the other side is Brzezinski, who strongly advocates backing the Shah to the hilt. To Brzezinski, the implications of abandoning the Shah would have far-reaching consequences for the United States, including encouraging the Soviet Union to expand its influence in the region and elsewhere.
The group agrees to send a special envoy, General Robert Huyser, who has personal experience in Iran, to work with the Iranian military, determine their outlook, and recommend courses of action. Carter comes to trust his reporting over Sullivan’s. Huyser’s month in-country becomes grist for rumors of a coup. Khomeini believes the US goal is to keep him out of power while the Shah’s supporters conclude the opposite – that Carter wants to use the military to prepare the ground for Khomeini’s return. Khomeini’s suspicions are closer to the mark, according to Pentagon records, as Brzezinski and Defense Secretary Brown lead the argument for Iran’s generals to take military action to prevent either a Khomeini or Communist Tudeh government. But as often happened, the president and his advisors after long discussions could not reach consensus and events took their course. Interestingly, much of the debate was over practical questions like the reliability of Iranian commanders and troops, and the unpredictability of events, rather than the ethics of mounting a coup.
The question of whether Carter abandoned the Shah or did what he could to preserve American interests remains one of the many issues analysts and critics of US policy continue to quarrel over.
Oct 7, 1985
Hossein Ali Montazeri, Khaterat (Memoirs), Appendix 127, p. 770.
The longest conventional war of the twentieth century, the Iran–Iraq War exacts an immense toll from both sides. The World War I–like trench combat of the frontlines soon falls into a stalemate. Child soldiers, human waves, and chemical weapons attacks become commonplace. New fronts open up and the horrors of war are inflicted on civilians and foreigners in attempts by both combatants – though more often initiated by Iraq – to make the war untenable for the other. The War of the Cities features missile attacks on civilian targets in both countries, while the Tanker War threatens to bring Persian Gulf oil shipping to a near standstill.
Within Iran, calls to end the war grow stronger as Khomeini repeatedly turns down peace talks with Saddam. Khomeini’s heir apparent, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, represents one of these “pragmatic” dissenting voices. In his candid and revealing letters to Khomeini, the widely respected Montazeri asks that the Supreme Leader consider the ever-growing cost of the conflict. He points to the self-destructive zealousness and cronyism rampant among IRGC commanders as a key cause for the continuation of the war, and bemoans the lack of “an authority to investigate the errors and weaknesses” of Iran’s military structure and the “thousands of youths which are being lost cheaply due to negligence.”
While it is tempting to leap at these comments and see Montazeri as condemning Khomeini and the IRGC, it is also important to understand the nuances at play. Montazeri is a true revolutionary who would be labeled a “radical” in some of his other beliefs. The IRGC’s influence is certainly a concern for some in the regime, but there is never really a question among those in the power structure about the legitimacy of Iran’s mission in the war or in the revolution. For these individuals, it is rarely a question of “why” but merely “how.”
Rept. No. 100-216, 100th Congress, 1st Session, Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, Appendix A: Vol. 1 (Washington, DC, 1988), selections from pp. 1571–1664.
After the fiasco in Tehran [see Document 23 in Worlds Apart], the US side explores a new inroad to the Iranians. Their main interlocutor turns out to be Parliament Speaker Rafsanjani’s nephew, Ali Bahramani. Though apparently still in his twenties, he looks far more like the real deal than Ghorbanifar and the “first channel.”
These transcribed excerpts come from rare tape recordings made by the American side and offer a highly unusual glimpse of how the secret negotiations unfolded. The discussions underscore, among other things, American desperation to have the hostages returned safely, and the curt tone reflects their impatience after months of largely inconclusive talks. Neither side wants to have the arms sales become public knowledge. North and his colleagues are anxious for them not to be tied directly to the hostages but instead to loftier political goals. Sprinkled throughout are references to moving past the hostages to engage with bigger policy issues, but it will never be known if that was a genuine aspiration. Even without a clear picture of Iranian intentions, the Americans’ deceptions, coupled with Ghorbanifar’s monumental earlier lies and the contempt for the Iranians evident in their reports to superiors, show little commitment to building trust.
These meetings also illustrate the scope of American wishful thinking and their ignorance about Iranian politics. (Less can be gleaned about the Iranian side here.) Rafsanjani’s nephew offers valuable insights into how decisions are made – for instance the reference to the “shareholder” system and the specific roles of Khomeini and Rafsanjani. Contradicting a basic premise of the US operation to engage with moderates, Bahramani explains that while there are “moderate” and “radical” elements within the leadership, they do not act unilaterally on foreign policy. Worse, it eventually dawns on the Americans that the new channel is more or less the same as the old channel, which was made up of not just hardliners but might even have included an individual who was behind the latest American kidnapping. CIA expert George Cave admitted later: “that really blew our minds.”
Finally, Bahramani reveals a stunning development: reports of the secret deals have been circulating in Tehran thanks to opponents of cooperation with the United States. Within days, the story will make world headlines and grind to a halt the strangest bilateral discourse of the post-revolution period.
Feb 18, 1991
George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Memcons and Telcons; obtained by the National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act.
After his initial outreach to President Rafsanjani, Bush is still exploring ways to approach Iran and determine whether overtures from Tehran’s leadership can be trusted. In this conversation with Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor enthusiastically recounts his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati concerning Iraq following the US invasion several months earlier. Some of the Iranian’s statements surprise Kohl and Bush, coming off as more collegial than expected. The president asks for Kohl’s opinion of Velayati, “Is he a good man?” Kohl responds, “He is a man of quality, and a real Iranian.”
Years later, Iran’s former ambassador to Germany, Hossein Mousavian, would relate that Rafsanjani had a deliberate strategy to reach out to the West during the 1990s, focusing on the Germans as a kind of “pilot” case. Here, Kohl clearly recognizes that interest in improving ties and Bush seems to grasp it, too. But other factors ultimately intervene. One is the continued linking of Iran to assassinations of Iranian exiles and other terrorist events, which makes engaging with Tehran politically problematic. (Astonishingly, according to Mousavian, some Iranian officials cannot understand why the Americans are upset since the assassinations are not taking place in the USA but in Europe. Yet, the Europeans show none of the same outrage, leading some in Tehran to conclude that the Americans are exaggerating their concern!)
Another intervening factor appears to be a simple misreading of intentions – or possibly a failure of imagination. Long after these events, a former senior diplomat under Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, responded to Mousavian that he had no idea about any such initiative by Rafsanjani and that the State Department routinely dismissed German approaches on Iran in the 1990s because they assumed the Germans were playing games with Iran and that the broader European approach – dubbed “critical dialogue” – was just an attempt to undermine American policy.
Jun 11, 2005
US Central Command, Freedom of Information Act release, based on a FOIA for a fully redacted version that appears as item no. 0598 in a compendium of documents attached to the two-volume study: Col. Joel D. Rayburn and Col. Frank K. Sobchak, eds., The US Army in the Iraq War (Carlisle Barracks, PA: United States Army War College Press, 2019).
Much as Lebanon was in the 1980s, Iraq becomes a proxy battleground between the USA and Iran in the 2000s. At first, indirect cooperation is the order of the day. After all, the US-led invasion handed the Islamic Republic a gift by toppling longtime enemy Saddam Hussein and marginalizing the Sunni elite, which opened up political space for the Shiite majority, and both sides share an interest in curbing terrorism and violent insurgencies. Within a year, however, the US military sours on developments as Iran increasingly buttresses Shia elements and engages in other forms of “interference,” as Donald Rumsfeld asserts later, purportedly to establish “hegemony in the region.” For their part, Iranians point to growing fears of American military encirclement and their right to expand long-standing ties to their Iraqi co-religionists.
This document provides a US military assessment of one of the main Shia groups in the country, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Though established in Iran in 1982 during the Iran–Iraq War, SCIRI gains popularity in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein through its humanitarian efforts in Shia-dominated regions and paramilitary victories by its militant wing, the Badr Organization. The US Central Command, which is running the occupation, keeps close watch on all political and military organizations in the country. This analysis points with unease to SCIRI’s growing popularity and influence but also hints at the complexities behind Shiite power dynamics, noting the frictions with the rival Sadr Bureau and suspicions by ordinary citizens that these groups may be the subject of outside manipulation. Although the source of that manipulation is redacted, the four-letter word is almost certainly Iran.
Tehran Rahbord in Persian, September 30, 2005, translated by Foreign Broadcast Information Service.
The lack of transparency of Iran’s nuclear program and evidence of official deception about it have long been worries for the West. That is what makes relatively unguarded discussions like this from future President Hassan Rouhani so valuable and intriguing. Rouhani is still serving as secretary to the Supreme National Security Council (a post he has held since 1989) and Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator. In the audience is President Khatami who is about to be replaced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In these remarks to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, Rouhani admits Iran has conducted secret tests and not reported some of its activities to the IAEA. The reason, he says, is pressure from the United States. “My basic discussion with the three European ministers was that if we presented a full picture of our nuclear program, according to the regulations, what would the Americans do, given that the Americans insist on taking us to the UN Security Council? If they were going to promise to resist the American pressure, we thought, we would cooperate. But if they were not going to resist, then we would choose a different path.”
Among other points of interest, Rouhani acknowledges that “the IAEA was fully informed about most of the cases we thought were unknown to them,” thanks in part to reports provided by Russia and China but also to information found in a dissertation and a scientific paper written by Iranian scholars that the IAEA inadvertently stumbled upon. He also asserts that Iranian authorities themselves had no idea about high levels of uranium contamination at certain facilities until the inspectors arrived.
Jan 24, 2009
“The Archive”: Collection of documents released in tandem with William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal (New York: Random House, paperback, 2020), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Barack Obama comes into the presidency with an unusually clear goal in mind for Iran. “To the Muslim world,” he intones at his inauguration on January 20, 2009, “we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Then, in an indirect call to the Islamic Republic, he adds: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Days later, the new secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, receives this note from Under Secretary William Burns which puts forward a package of ideas that will come to animate the new administration’s approach. Burns opens: “our basic goal should be to seek a long-term basis for coexisting with Iranian influence while limiting Iranian excesses, to change Iran’s behavior but not its regime.” This is a crucial divergence from previous administrations, which, while never adopting it as official policy, often threatened regime change. Burns reminds Clinton of some of the main threats, or opportunities, that will influence US policy: Iran’s nuclear program, its support for terrorist groups, and its involvement in the politics of neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan.
Anticipating an arduous process, Burns recommends several specific steps, including participating in the P5+1 process on the nuclear issue, which Obama does several months later, and taking the “opportunity following the inauguration to set a new tone with Iran, and then … carefully test the waters … and set in motion preliminary contacts with the authoritative Iranian representatives.” Obama takes the first steps along this path two months later on the Iranian New Year.
Mar 1, 2012
Ali-Bakheshi, Hassan (editor). A Transition in History: The Memoirs of Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi. Tehran: Department of Oral History of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2018.
After the setbacks of 2009 – the crackdown on the Green Movement and Tehran’s reneging on the Tehran Research Reactor deal – the Obama administration moves away from talks and toward bulked up sanctions. For the next three years, the US–Iran relationship regresses into yet another stalemate. But the White House has not abandoned engagement entirely and under the surface there is much more going on.
In July 2009, three American backpackers are apprehended by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps near the Iran–Iraq border. Over the next two years, through the offices of the Sultan of Oman, who has built a reputation as a conciliator in broader Arab–Iranian disputes, secret negotiations take place for their release. The Omanis’ success in September 2011 removes a source of tension between Washington and Tehran and, importantly, boosts the Sultan’s credibility as a trusted intermediary. During the fall, the Americans and Iranians exchange signals that they are again ready to talk, using the Omanis as mediators. None of this is apparent to the outside world, where the usual litany of bad news – from an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington to the downing of a CIA drone inside Iran – seems to represent a steady downturn in relations.
This letter from Sultan Qaboos to Ayatollah Khamenei, according to Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister at the time, is the first concrete sign for Tehran that the Americans “really want to enter a serious dialogue.” Salehi receives the letter from a go-between sent by the Omanis, then forwards it to the Supreme Leader’s aide, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati (whom the German chancellor praised to President Bush two decades earlier [Document 29]), who then delivers it to Khamenei. According to Salehi’s account, he is the one who provided the “Iranian points” to Oman. Salehi writes later that Khamenei was skeptical, as always, about American intentions, but willing to take a risk because Oman was involved. The letter appears, with minor cosmetic edits, as reproduced in Salehi’s memoir; its authenticity is presumed to be likely though it has not been possible to confirm it with US officials.
 Hossein Mousavian, oral history conference, “Missed Opportunities? U.S.–Iran Relations, 1993–2001,” Session 1, Musgrove Conference Center, St. Simons Island, GA, April 8–10, 2011 (files of the National Security Archive, Iran–U.S. Relations Project).
 Exchange between Hossein Mousavian and Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, oral history conference, “Missed Opportunities?”
 Donald Rumsfeld, Memorandum to President George W. Bush, December 8, 2006.