Shah and carterThe Triangular Relationship between Iran, Israel and the United States:  The Early Decades

By Stephen J. Sniegoski

“What’s past is prologue,” a quotation from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,”is engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. In line with this idea—that past events set the stage for what comes afterward–the“Ministry of Truth”in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984”  discarded information from the past that conflicted with the current official version of the truth down the “Memory Hole” so that it would essentially no longer exist.  And since the  mainstream media in America likewise consigns much of the inconvenient past to the “memory hole,” it is highly enlightening to go over the triangular relationship between the United States, Israel, and Iran during the past few decades in order to get a better understanding of the present situation.  And in so doing, it will become  apparent that the depiction of Iran as a crazed state bent on suicidal warfare does not comport with the facts and that this caricature has not reflected the thinking of American foreign policy experts but is rather disinformationinitially promoted by those who identify with the interests of Israel.

In the post-World War II period the United States looked upon Iran as a key player in the Middle East in protecting the oil flow to the West and in restricting the expansion of the Soviet Unionin the Middle East and Central Asia.  The Soviet Union had occupied northern Iran during World War II, beginning in 1941, while Britain had occupied the southern part, because of the fear of the pro-German proclivity of the Iranian regime. During the war, Iran provided a conduit for the transport ofextensive American military aid to the Soviet Union. While Stalin had promised to evacuate his forces from Iran upon the war’s termination, the Soviet Union delayed its departure and supported a number of pro-Soviet groups, and only left in 1946 after pressure from the United States.  This issue has been interpreted as a factor in the start of the Cold War.

It was largely this fear of Soviet penetration in Iran that led the CIA to play a fundamental role (along with the British) in the coup that overthrow the Mossadegh government in 1953 and enabled the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to have absolute power in Iran.  The idea that Mossadegh’s liberal nationalist government,which antagonized Britain because of its nationalization of the large British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company(later renamed British Petroleum or BP) would advance Soviet Communism was overwrought but was not farfetched in the political atmosphere of the timealong with the aforementioned previous Soviet actions in Iran. (Britain, in contrast, was largely motivated by the desire to protect the interests of its oil company and the vestiges of its imperial role.  It should be added that the United States regarded Britain as a key ally and thus felt obliged to defer to its views.)

While the U.S. wanted the Shah’s Iran to serveas amajor pillar for its own security interests in the Persian Gulf, the Shah actually aspired to regional pre-eminence, which would entail independence from American control. Because of Iran’s rapidly expanding oil wealth that was channeled into lavish military spending—which took up one third of the Iranian budget–the Shah was moving in that direction in the 1970s before his dramatic downfall at the end of the decade. (The revolution was in part caused by the fact that huge military spending drained wealth from a civilian economy that was marked by dramatic disparities in wealth between the elite and the masses, though the standard of living of the latter had improved somewhat in the Shah’s top-down effort to modernize the country.)

In the Shah’s effort to make Iran a modern power, the creation of a nuclear program loomed large.    Iran’s nuclear program began in the 1950s under the auspices of America’s Atoms for Peace program.AndIran was one of the first countries to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, whichwas ratified by its parliament in 1970.  Although the NPT prohibits Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, it simultaneously stipulates that ithas “the inalienable right…to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”  Iran, under both the Shah and the Islamic Republic, has placed great emphasis on these treaty rights when it appears that efforts are being made to curtail them.

In 1973, a study by theprestigious U.S.-based Stanford Research Institute concluded that Iran would need an electrical capacity of 20,000 megawatts by 1990. To achieve this much-higher level of energy production, the Shah decided to rely heavily on nuclear energy, and approved plans to construct, with U.S. help, up to 23 nuclear power stations by 2000.Thinking of the future, he wanted Iran to have a source of energy when Iran’s non-renewable oil and gas reserves were depleted, andhe reasoned thatthese resources could be better used as exports to obtain foreign exchange. The Shah’s view on nuclear energy should belie theoften-made claim that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program could only be attributed to the quest for nuclear weaponry.

As is the case today, the United States in the 1970s expressed its concern about Iran’s possible developmentof anuclear weapons capability, and both theGerald Ford and JimmyCarter administrations wouldonly allow American companies to sell nuclear reactors to Iran with strings attachedintended to prevent such a development. In a nuclear agreement with Iran in 1978, theUnited States was given the rightto receive and store all the spent reactor fuel (which could be reprocessed to extract weapons-grade plutonium) from any reactors it constructed in Iran.

While the Shah had publicly disavowed desiring a nuclear weapons capability, he also claimed that Iran had the right according to the NPTto a full nuclear fuel cycle, including reprocessing of spent fueland even the processing of plutonium — a faster way to a nuclear bomb than enriched uranium.  While this was prohibited in the agreement with the United States regarding American reactors, other European countries and India might have been willing to sell reactors to Iran without the same stringent restrictions. (This became a moot point with the Islamic Revolution in 1979.)

“U.S.-Iran Nuclear Negotiations in 1970s Featured Shah’s Nationalism and U.S. Weapons Worries,” National Security Archive,

The Shah apparently considered a nuclear weapons option. According to the first head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) from 1974 to 1978andarchitect of the Iranian nuclear program, Akbar Etemad,”The Shah had the idea at the time that he’s strong enough in the region and he can defend our interests in the region [and] he didn’t want nuclear weapons. But he told me that if this changes ‘we have to go for nuclear’. He had that in mind.”

  Case against Aafia Siddiqui begins to unravel

In regard to Iran, Israel’s position harmonized with that of the United States and represented Israel’s fundamental security concept of establishing military relationships with non-Arab countries on its periphery in order to counter its nearby Arab enemies.Iran under the Pahlavi dynasty was one of the key peripheral states involved. Iran had, to a significant degree, reciprocated Israeli support, but as it became more powerful in the 1970s, and thus less dependent on Israeli support (arms), Iran moved toward the Arabs andduring the 1973 Yom Kippur War provided limited support to both sides. Furthermore, as provided by the terms of the  AlgiersAccord with Iraq in 1975, Iran would terminate support for the Kurdish separatist rebels in Iraq, who were closely connected to Israel, whichregardedthem as being vital in the prevention of any Iraqi military move westward towards Israel. Despite Iran’sindifference to Israeli security interests, however, Israel had no alternative but to maintain positive relations with it.

The 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah and soon replaced his rule with an Islamic regime led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which wasideologically hostile to both Israel and the United States, but  did not affect these two countries’ geo-strategiesin the same way. Denouncing the United States as “the Great Satan,” the Islamic Republic, in its preaching of “Islamic revolution,” opposed American interests throughout the region, which included the threat to overthrow the pro-American Gulf monarchies that were deemed vital for the flow ofoil to the West.

A key event in heightening the hostility between the United States and Iran was the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 by radical Islamic students, in which more than fifty Americans would be held in captivityfor 444 days (November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981).Although Khomeini had not authorized the seizure of the Embassy, hequickly sawthat it could serve as a means to unify the Iranian populace behindhisnew revolutionary government.Condemning the Iranian action as a flagrant violation of the international principle of diplomatic immunity and the inviolability of embassies, the United States stopped the sale of arms and spare parts to Iran, froze Iranian assets, and enacted a limited international embargo.

Iran, in turn, referred to the embassy as a “den of spies” and demanded that the United States return the now cancer-ridden Shah, who was in the U.S. for medical treatment,  to Iran to be punished for his crimes against the Iranian people; that the United States apologize for its support for the Shah’s regime;  and that it firmly promise never to meddle in Iranian internal affairs again.

The U.S. made an effort to rescuethe hostages that utterly failed when two helicopters were damaged in a sandstorm and another crashed into a transport plane. Eight U.S. personnel lost their lives and some of their bodies were paraded through the streets of Tehran during subsequent massive protests.

The entire hostage crisis was a major humiliation for the United States, severelytarnishing its image as a global superpower. And it poisoned the relationship betweenIran and the United States.As Trita Parsi puts it in “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States”(2007): “To this day Iran is wrestling with the disastrous consequences it brought on itself as a result of the hostage-taking.”(p. 90) It should be pointed out that this issue did serve to aid the interests of Israel when it would come to treat Iran as its major enemysince many Americans would be predisposed to back such a policy.  Israeli policy did not move in this direction during the 1980s, however.

In reaction to Iran’s efforts to export its anti-American Islamic revolution to its neighbors, the United States tended to support Saddam’s attack on Iran in 1980 and would begin to provide considerable aid when Iran appeared to be winning. Most egregiously, the U.S. aided Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iran. U.S. satellite intelligence facilitated Iraqi gas attacks against Iranian troop concentrations. And Washington allowed Iraq to purchase poisonous chemicals, and even strains of anthrax and bubonic plague from American companies, which were subsequently identified as key components of the Iraqi biological warfare program by a 1994 investigation conducted by the Senate Banking Committee.

Israel’s position diverged significantly from that of the United States regarding the Iraq-Iran conflict. Despite the Islamic Republic’s vehement anti-Zionist rhetoric, Israel continued pursuing its periphery strategy, perceiving Iran as alesser threat than Iraq, and thus covertly providing it with military aid.  It also has been argued that Israel’s goal was to generate a lengthy war of attrition in which both of its enemies would exhaust themselves.

The neoconservatives in the Reagan Administration attempted to alter American policy regarding the Iran-Iraq war in order to make it more favorable to Iran. This effort reached its peak in the Iran-Contra affair but ultimately failed to replace America’s pro-Iraq policy.As Trita Parsi puts it in “Treacherous Alliance,” “neoconservatives were masterminding a rapprochement with Khomeini’s government.” (p. 110)

One of the neocons involved in the effort to improve Iranian-American relations was Michael Ledeen, who wrote in a New York Times Op Ed on July 19, 1988 that it was essential for the United States to begin talking with Iran, stating that the “The United States, whichshould have been exploring improved relations with Iran before . . . should now seize the opportunity to do so.”(Quoted in Parsi, “Treacherous Alliance,” p. 242.)

Writing during the Gulf War in 1991, Ledeen held that the failure of the United States to have relations with Iran added difficultiesin its fight against Iraq. “For there is no country in the world that American diplomats have shunned so totally, indeed avoided so compulsively, as Iran,” he bemoaned. “We have done so primarily for political reasons; ever since the Iran-Contra affair, no American leader has wished to be caught talking to an Iranian, even though many recognized the many sound geopolitical reasons for dealing with Iran.” But the war with Iraq was forcing the United States to take a more reasonable approach with Iran. “Itwould have been wiser to have dealt with the Iranians earlier,” Ledeen emphasized, “but we nowhave little choice in the matter. Our contacts will surely increase, and President Rafsanjani andcompany will likely sit at the postwar negotiating table, thereby producing the great historicalirony that Saddam Hussein, the conqueror of Persia, will have forced us to resume sensible relationswith a reemerging Iran.” (“Iran – Back in the Game,” “Wall Street Journal,” February 1, 1991, online edition; Quoted in “Transparent Cabal,” endnote 60, p. 422.)

  Who Distorts Pakistan's Image

(When Israel later perceived Iran to be a crucial threat, Ledeen would become a leadingproponent of the view that Iran was the center of world terror and that regime change was the only solution. In early 2002, one year before the U.S. would invade Iraq, Ledeen set up the Coalition for Democracy in Iran, anaction group focusing on producing regime change in Iran.)

When Saddam invaded and occupied Kuwait in August 1990, the United States would go to war against the Iraqi dictator,perceiving him as a significant threat to America’s Gulf allies, and being influenced, in part, by concerns expressed by Israel and its American lobby. Afterquickly defeating Saddam, the United States would pursue a policy of dual containment against both Iraq and Iran.

With Iraq’s defeat, Israel would perceive Iran as its majorexternal threat.  Israel would support the U.S.  attack on Iraq in 2003 because it was presented by the war’s neoconservative formulators as the first step toward the reconfiguration of the Middle East in the interest of Israel, which would include the removal of the Islamic regime in Iran as a fundamental aim.

While shortly prior to 9/11, the neoconservatives articulated a strongly hostileposition toward Iran, a number of elite elements in the United States hadadvocated improved relations. Oil companies, for example, wanted to endsanctions on Iran as they also did for Iraq.

And post-9/11 America and Iranfound much in common in the effort to remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.Prior to 9/11, Iranhad already been the primary sponsor of the Northern Alliance in its civil war against the Taliban regime and was quite willing to collaboratewith the United States, contributing to its successes in Afghanistan.  The State Department and the CIA had explicitly sought this support.  And Secretary of State Colin Powell, in line with the generalthinking within the State Department, wanted this development to be thestart of a strategic opening to the Iranian government, not simply limited to a focuson the tactical issues of the war in Afghanistan.

This budding improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, however, was cut short in January 2002. Israel intercepted an Iranian-owned freighter, the Karine A, loaded with arms, which Israel claimed was en route from Iran to Palestinian resistance groups.  While Iran denied this charge, the United States believed the Israelis.  In the“Treacherous Alliance,” Parsi describes this event as a “heaven-sent gift for [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon,” writing that “[t]o the Bush administration, any doubt that may have existed about Iran’s continued ties to terrorism was removed.  This was a major setback for proponents of dialogue with Iran such as Powell.”   (Parsi, pp. 233-34)

Israel also began warning of Iran’s allegedly dangerous nuclear weapons ambitions. Consequently, Iran was then named as part of the “Axis of Evil” in President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002.   This rhetorical attack would have a major impact on Iran, undermining its belief in the possibility of rapprochement with the United States.   Parsi contends that “Tehran was shocked. Khatami’s [Iran’s moderate president] policy of détente and the help Iran provided the United States in Afghanistan was for naught.” (p. 235)   Iranian hard-liners believed that their distrust of America had been confirmed.  This was exactly what Israeli and their neocon supporters wanted to happen.

Despite the heightening tensions, however, Iran still had not abandoned its quest for improved relations with the United States.  Talks resumed as the United States prepared to attack Iraq.  Iran was fearful of the geopolitical implications of such an attack, which would result in Iran’s encirclement, but when its leaders saw the attack as inevitable they believed that limited cooperation with the United States was the best approach to take.  Cooperation provided by Iran did not reach the levels achieved in the war in Afghanistan in 2001, but Iran especially helped the United States by instructing its Shi’ite supporters in Iraq to cooperate in the reconstruction of the country rather than to engage in resistance to the occupation.

The easy American defeat of Saddam’s army–which had withstood Iranian forces in eight years of conflict—intensified the Iranian leadership’s fear, causing the government to offer major concessions to the United States in an effort to appease.  On May 4, 2003, a document embodying what became known in diplomatic circles as Iran’s “grand bargain” was sent to the U.S. through Switzerland, which represented American interests in Iran. The “grand bargain” provided for broad dialogue on all major issues of contention between Iran and the United States, which included numerous Iranian concessions to the United States.  The Iranians proposed to sever support for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which opposed Israel.  They pledged to transform Hezbollah in Lebanon from an armed guerrilla group into a purely political organization.  They promised to address U.S. concerns over nuclear weapons, which included allowing for more intrusive inspections.  Tehran pledged to oppose all terrorist organizations and to coordinate policy with the United States to stabilize Iraq and establish a non-religious government there.   Finally, the Iranians promised to make peace with Israel based on the Saudi peace plan from March 2002, in which the Arab states offered to make peace collectively with Israel. This peace agreement would also require Israel to withdraw from all territories acquired in the 1967 war; accept a fully independent Palestine; and establish a fairsettlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. This part alone was so unacceptable to Israel and its supporters as to cause them to rejectthe entire offer outright.

As quid pro quo, Iran expected the United States to lift sanctions; drop threats of a regime change and interference in Iran’s internal affairs; recognize Iran’s national interests in Iraq and the broader region; and respect Iran’s right to have access to peaceful nuclear, biological, and chemical technology.

Moreover, the Iranians wanted the United States to hand overmembers of the MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq or People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran) terrorist organization(designated as such by the State Department), which, based in Iraq, has sought to overthrow the Islamic Republic. In exchange, Iran would turn over Al Qaeda terrorists to the United States.  The MEK, however, had strong supporters in high levels inthe American and Israeli governments. Vice President Dick Cheney,Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the neoconservatives viewed the MEK, which had collaborated with Saddam, as a valuable instrument to bring down the Islamic regime in Iran. Consequently, members of the organization were not only allowed to retain their weapons, including tanks, but were authorized to police checkpoints in southern Iraq along with American troops.

  Egypt: Of Snake and The Man

Secretary Powell, reflecting the State Department’s thinking, wanted to make a positive response to the Iranian offer. However, as a result of staunch opposition from the neocon-dominated Department of Defense and the VicePresident’s office, the offer was precipitously rejected.  In recollecting this event, Lawrence Wilkerson, who had been chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said that it had been a “very propitious moment” to enter negotiations with Iran.  The failure to do so, he maintained, was the result of obstructionby neoconservatives led by the Vice-President’s office. “The secret cabal got what it wanted,” Wilkerson wistfully recounted, “no negotiations with Tehran.”  (Parsi, p. 248)

After the defeat of Saddam’s army, the neocons pressed for regime change in Iran.  “The liberation of Iraq was the first great battle for the future of the Middle East,” wrote Bill Kristol in the “Weekly Standard” in early May 2003. “The next great battle—not, we hope, a military battle—will be for Iran.We are already in a death struggle with Iran over the future of Iraq.” (It should be pointed out that the neocons also initially claimed that Iran could be “liberated” without a significant American military attack.)And AIPAC moved ahead in pushing for economic sanctions by Congress.   (

This rejection of the Iranian offer, however, did not mean that the administration would adopt the neocon war agenda toward Iran. While neoconservatives argued for regime change, and Israel ominously implied the need for an armed attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, the foreign policy establishment “realists” in the Bush administration still seemed to have some influence on the Iranian issue.And various unofficial negotiations with Iran continued to take place in which the State Department was involved.

In October 2003, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Congress that the administration did not seek “regime change” in Tehran and would consider “limited discussions with the government of Iran about areas of mutual interest.”  As late as the eve of the 2004 presidential election, Powell attempted to shift U.S. policy on Iran by telling key allies he wanted to offer “carrots” to the Islamic Republic to halt its nuclear ambitions, according to neocon John Bolton, then undersecretary of state, in his book, “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (pp. 158-64).  Bolton said that he had to work hard to undercut Powell’s plans.

Outside the administration, a major “realist” policy prescription on Iran, produced by a Council of Foreign Relations-sponsored task force, was released in June 2004. The task force was co-chaired by former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former CIA director Robert M. Gates (who would become Secretary of Defense in December 2006); among other task force members were Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush’s national security advisor, and Frank Carlucci, who served as national security adviser and defense secretary for President Ronald Reagan.

Titled “Iran: Time for a New Approach,” the report held that the United States should abandon the idea of overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Iran, which it described as “solidly entrenched” and “not on the brink of revolutionary upheaval.” On the contrary, it was incumbent for the United

States to deal with the current regime. According to the report, the Iranian government was gradually becoming more responsive to its citizenry and more cooperative in international relations, but American threats of regime change tended to impede this natural evolution by inflaming nationalist


Although the report viewed as unrealistic a “grand bargain” to settle all outstanding issues between America and Iran, it proposed engagement with Tehran on selected key issues involving regional stability, terrorism, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The report stressed that the promise of commercial relations with the United States would serve to make Iran more amenable on political and military issues.

A discussion of the triangular relationship between the United States, Israel, and Iran after 2004 will be made in a subsequent essay.  But what this present essay illustrates is that Iran has tended to be much more the victim than the victimizer, which has shaped the Iranian view ofthe outside world.  Ranked aclose third in the Middle East in population and second in both land area and the production of oil,Iran has sought to shape its own destiny and play a rolein the region commensurate withthese factors. Thus, it is quite understandable that a country of its large size would act in this manner and would not tolerate domination by others.

Moreover, after its initial revolutionary outburst, the Islamic Republic has been willing to negotiate with the United States and make concessions.  And much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, after the shock of the Islamic revolution and the attack on the U.S. embassy, has been willing to establish at least alimited rapprochement with Iran.  That this has not become U.S. policy is largely due to the efforts of the Israel lobby—spearheaded by the neoconservatives—which, in line with the position of Israel, has perceived Iran as the great danger to that country.  However, as this essay discusses, before the end of the Gulf War in 1991 Israel had not perceived such a dire danger from Iran, and the neocons had actually sought to have the U.S.improve relations with the same Islamic republic that it later would present as led by crazed religious fanatics who were theultimate danger to the world.  Looking objectively at this, the question all thinking Americans should ask themselves is whether American foreign policy in the Middle East, and the not unlikely decision to engage in a devastating war, should be based on the security interests of the United States or those of a foreign country, Israel.