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U.S.-Iranian relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution have been sporadic and marred by mutual distrust and debacles like the Iran-Contra affair. Iran’s alleged support for terrorists, lingering resentment over the Iranian hostage crisis as well as America’s 1953 overthrow of the Iranian government and installation of the shah, and Iran’s nuclear program have cast a long shadow over any efforts at direct talks. But with U.S. envoys set to sit down with their Iranian counterparts during a regional conference on Iraq, there is a fresh hope among some American foreign policymakers that this may mark the beginning of, if not a beautiful new friendship, then at least an era of mutual cooperation. There have been a handful of attempts and near-attempts from both sides at striking a dialogue in both bilateral and multilateral forums on a number of issues.
Here’s a look at post-1979 U.S.-Iranian official contacts:
1979-1980: Hostage Crisis
There were talks between the Carter administration and Iran (via then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Algerian emissaries) to secure the release of the fifty-two American hostages in the American diplomatic mission in Tehran. To ratchet up pressure, the United States suspended oil imports from Iran and froze billions of dollars in Iranian assets. The result was the 1981 Algiers Accords, which led to the hostages’ release and U.S. promises of nonintervention in Iranian politics.
Secret contacts between the United States and Iran took place in the context of a complex three-way deal aimed at freeing American hostages held by pro-Iranian Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon. The “Iran-Contra affair,” as the episode became known, involved the delivery via Israel of American-made anti-tank missiles, spare parts for F-14 warplanes, and other weapons. In return, Iran would use its influence in Lebanon and funnel money to the anti-Communist Contra guerillas fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, an arrangement found later to have violated a congressional ban—the Boland amendment—on support for the Contras. Once this complicated operation was made public in the United States, it prompted a series of investigations—most notably the Tower Commission—which found a number of senior Reagan officials (but not the president) guilty of felonies.
1988: Tensions in the Persian Gulf
U.S. warships sank an Iranian frigate and shelled two Persian Gulf oil platforms near the Strait of Hormuz in response to a mine attack against the USS Samuel B. Roberts, an American frigate. A few months later, the U.S. Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian commercial jet carrying 290 passengers and crew. The American government mistook the plane for a military fighter jet but refused to apologize or admit any wrongdoing.
1995: Economic Sanctions
The Clinton administration imposed sanctions prohibiting American companies and their foreign subsidiaries from doing business with Iran, in addition to any financing or development of its oil and gas sector. The following year, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) imposed an embargo against non-American companies investing more than $20 million per year in Iran’s oil and gas sector.
1998: Hopes for New Ties
Shortly after taking office, Iran’s new reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, called for a “dialogue among civilizations” on CNN, raising hopes of a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations.
2000: A U.S. Apology
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered a speech on March 17 apologizing for America’s role in the 1953 overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq (a democratically elected prime minister who threatened to nationalize Iran’s oil fields) and acknowledged the coup, which installed the shah, “was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development.” The Clinton administration partially lifted sanctions on Persian rugs, pistachios, and caviar (but not oil and gas). Because Albright’s speech ended with a hectoring of Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, the theocratic regime in Tehran responded with a denunciation of the goodwill gesture.
CFR’s Ray Takeyh writes that Albright’s speech was more than a symbolic gesture and constituted a real change in American behavior but that it was “too little, and more important, too late.” He says the rapprochement with Iran should have come immediately after the 1997 election of Khatami. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution writes in The Persian Puzzle that Albright’s use of the phrase “unelected hands,” referring to where power rests in Iran, was what set off the Supreme Leader and prompted his confrontational response.
Later that September, Albright and President Clinton were present at the UN’s Millennium Summit and sat in the same room as President Khatami as he addressed the General Assembly. Albright later met with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi as part of the Six-Plus-Two regional talks on Afghanistan. Also present were envoys from China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. The talks marked the highest diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis.
2001: Post-9/11 Cooperation on Afghanistan
Like nearly all world leaders, Ayatollah Khamenei condemned the attacks of 9/11. After the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban government, American and Iranian diplomats met together in Bonn, with a handful of representatives from other UN members, to form a new government and constitution for Kabul. “None was more [helpful] than the Iranians,” said James Dobbins, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, writing in the Washington Post. “The original version of the Bonn agreement ... neglected to mention either democracy or the war on terrorism. It was the Iranian representative who spotted these omissions and successfully urged that the newly emerging Afghan government be required to commit to both.”
Iran also cooperated with the United Nations to repatriate nearly one million Afghan refugees residing on its soil and—working with United States, Russia, and India—provided support to the Northern Alliance. Flynt Leverett of the Brookings Institution tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, “I think at least some Iranian officials were hoping could get leveraged into a broader strategic dialogue, but that channel was effectively foreclosed when President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address labeled Iran as part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’”
2003: Iran’s Overture
An overture from Iran for comprehensive bilateral talks, reportedly signed off at the highest levels of government, was offered to U.S. officials in May shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Some experts say the proposal, conveyed via a Swiss emissary, amounted to a “grand bargain” that would have included offers of negotiations over Iran’s support for terrorist organizations and recognizing Israel’s right to exist. During congressional hearings last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she did not “remember ever seeing any such thing” as national security adviser, her position at the time of the overture. But former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage recently told Newsweek that it appeared at the time that the Iranians “were trying to put too much on the table” for serious negotiations to occur.
2004: Powell the Lame Duck
In November, outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Iran’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, at an international conference on Iraq at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Nothing of substance was reportedly discussed as Powell was seen by the Iranians as a lame duck with no real power. Powell predicted then that normal U.S.-Iranian relations would be restored “in due course.”
2006: Ahmadinejad’s Letter
Last May, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent President Bush a rambling eighteen-page letter—the first of its kind from an Iranian president to an American leader since 1979—which was not treated by U.S. officials as a serious overture warranting a response. The letter accuses Bush of committing untold atrocities in Iraq and invoking his Christian heritage to change course there. It also dipped into conspiracy theories, including suggestions that the U.S. government was withholding details about 9/11. Earlier in the year, there was talk of direct negotiations between Iran and the United States on the issue of Iraq, at the behest of U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, but the proposal was shelved for unclear reasons.