U.S. Relations With Iran

1953 – 2021

Onetime allies, the United States and Iran have seen tensions escalate repeatedly in the four decades since the Islamic Revolution.

Iranian civilians standing on a tank in Tehran after the 1953 coup. One holds a portrait of the shah.
Iranians carry a portrait of the shah through the streets of Tehran after the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq. Bettmann/Getty Images
CIA Assists Coup

U.S. and British intelligence agencies help elements in the Iranian military overthrow Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadeq. This follows Mossadeq’s nationalization of the Britain-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which led London to impose an oil embargo on Iran. The coup brings back to power the Western-friendly monarchy, headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Deeply unpopular among much of the population, the shah relies on U.S. support to remain in power until his overthrow in 1979.

Eleven Iranian officials and European businessmen sitting around a table
Iranian officials and representatives of eight foreign companies finalize the Consortium Agreement of 1954 Bettmann/Getty Images
Iran Signs Oil Agreement

Under U.S. and UK pressure, the shah signs the Consortium Agreement of 1954, which gives U.S., British, and French oil companies 40 percent ownership of the nationalized oil industry for twenty-five years.

President Dwight Eisenhower speaks to a smiling Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran pose at the Marble Palace in Tehran. Associated Press
Atoms for Peace Program

The United States and Iran sign the Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atoms agreement as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, under which developing countries receive nuclear education and technology from the United States. It lays the foundation for the country’s nuclear program, and the United States later provides Iran with a reactor and weapons-grade enriched uranium fuel. Their collaboration continues until the start of Iran’s 1979 revolution.

 King Fahd and Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani of Saudi Arabia speaking in a large room filled with other delegates
King Fahd and Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani of Saudi Arabia attend a 1975 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) summit in Algiers. Gilbert Uzan/Gamma Rapho/Getty Images
Birth of OPEC

Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela establish the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to rival the mostly Western companies dominating global oil supplies and to reestablish control over their domestic oil reserves. By the 1970s, OPEC profits skyrocket and the group gains considerable leverage over Western economies. Iran’s increased market clout makes it an even more crucial U.S. ally.

President Richard Nixon and Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi shake hands. Their wives and other officials stand in the background.
U.S. President Richard Nixon clasps the shah’s hand as he and First Lady Patricia Nixon prepare to depart from Iran. Associated Press
Nixon Visits Iran

President Richard Nixon travels to Iran to ask the shah for help protecting U.S. security interests in the Middle East, including by opposing a Soviet-allied Iraq. In return, Nixon promises that Iran can buy any nonnuclear weapons system it wants. Oil prices skyrocket amid the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the subsequent Arab oil embargo against the United States, allowing the shah to purchase a larger supply of high-tech weaponry than anticipated, which unsettles U.S. officials.

Two men amid a crowd hold up large photos of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
A demonstrator in Tehran carries a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who leads the Iranian Revolution from Paris. Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Iranian Revolution

The shah flees amid widespread civil unrest and eventually travels to the United States for cancer treatment. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shiite cleric who opposed the shah’s Westernization of Iran, returns to the country after fourteen years in exile. Khomeini takes power as the supreme leader in December, turning Iran from a pro-West monarchy to a vehemently anti-West Islamic theocracy. Khomeini says Iran will try to “export” its revolution to its neighbors. In 1985, the militant group Hezbollah emerges in Lebanon and pledges allegiance to Khomeini.

A group of American hostages in Iran stand blindfolded and handcuffed amid their captors
Blindfolded American hostages and their Iranian captors stand outside the U.S. embassy in Tehran. U.S. Army/Reuters
Iran Hostage Crisis

A group of radical Iranian college students takes fifty-two Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, demanding that the United States extradite the shah. Washington severs ties with Tehran, sanctions Iranian oil imports, and freezes Iranian assets. After 444 days, the hostages are released under the Algiers Accords [PDF], which were signed just minutes after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 presidential campaign emphasized President Jimmy Carter’s failure to free the hostages. As part of the accords, the United States promises not to intervene in Iranian politics.

Three soldiers stand in the desert with guns pointed
Iraqi soldiers fire at Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq War. Jacques Pavlovsky/Sygma/Getty Images
Iran-Iraq War

Iraq invades its neighbor and growing rival Iran amid fears of a Shiite revolt against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The United States supports secular Iraq with economic aid, training, and dual-use technology until the war ends in 1988, even after the CIA finds evidence that Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranians. An estimated one million Iranians and 250,000–500,000 Iraqis die in the conflict.

A group of American soldiers stands amid the debris of the U.S. embassy in Beirut
U.S. marines search for survivors in the rubble of their Beirut barracks after an attack by the militant group Hezbollah. Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket/Getty Images
Beirut Barracks Bombing

Two trucks loaded with explosives drive into barracks housing American and French service members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon, then detonate. The attack kills 241 U.S. military personnel—the highest single-day death toll for the U.S. Armed Forces since the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. A group named Islamic Jihad, widely believed to be a front for Hezbollah, claims responsibility for the attack. The bombing hastens the withdrawal of U.S. marines from Lebanon, and leads the State Department to designate Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984.

Oliver North, in his military uniform, holds up his hand to be sworn in
Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North is sworn in before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Iran-Contra affair. Chris Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images
Iran-Contra Affair

Despite an arms embargo, senior Reagan administration officials begin secretly selling weapons to Iran to secure the release of seven Americans held hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The officials use the money from the illegal deal to fund the right-wing Contras rebel groups in Nicaragua after Congress prohibits further funding of the insurgency. Reagan takes responsibility for the scandal in a 1987 televised address, and the affair ends in some officials’ convictions. Hezbollah kills two of the hostages and releases the others over several years.

One man holds a newspaper with an article about the downed Iranian air jet, which several other men are looking at.
Iranian men in Dubai wait for news of their loved ones on the downed Iranian Air jet. Norbert Schiller/AFP/Getty Images
Operation Praying Mantis

After an Iranian mine nearly sinks an American frigate in the Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. Navy launches a retaliatory campaign called Operation Praying Mantis. American forces destroy two Iranian oil platforms and sink a frigate. In July, the U.S. Navy shoots down an Iranian passenger jet after mistaking it for a fighter jet, killing all 290 people on board.

A line of tanks advances in the Saudi desert
U.S. troops man tanks in the Saudi desert during the Gulf War. Tom Stoddart/Getty Images
Persian Gulf War

The United States leads a coalition of thirty-five countries to expel Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait, ousting the Iraqis in a matter of months. The war leads to intrusive UN inspections to prevent Iraq from restarting its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. Comprehensive sanctions and widespread corruption under the Oil-for-Food Program, created in the wake of the war, devastate the Iraqi public for nearly a decade, but fail to dislodge Saddam. Iran declares its neutrality in the conflict, but U.S. officials suspect it seeks to replace Iraq as the dominant power in the region.

President Bill Clinton signs a law while seated in the Oval Office
U.S. President Bill Clinton signs into law a bill to punish foreign companies that invest in oil and gas projects in Iran and Libya. Reuters
U.S. Intensifies Sanctions

The United States ramps up sanctions against Iran under the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. In 1992, Congress passes the Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act, which sanctions materials that could be used to develop advanced weaponry. The White House expands sanctions with a complete oil and trade embargo in 1995. The 1996 Iran and Libya Sanctions Act imposes an embargo against non-American companies investing more than $20 million per year in Iran’s oil and gas sectors.

Madeleine Albright gives a speech from behind a lectern at the U.S. State Department
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talks about the U.S. decision to lift a ban on Iranian goods imports. Alex Wong/Getty Images
Mini Détente

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meets with Iran’s deputy foreign minister at the Six-Plus-Two talks during the 1998 UN General Assembly. It is the highest-level U.S.-Iran contact since 1979. In April 2000, Albright acknowledges the United States’ role in overthrowing Mossadeq and calls previous policy toward Iran “regrettably shortsighted,” although the United States does not explicitly apologize for the intervention. Some sanctions against Iran are lifted.

An Afghan refugee family walks toward the camera
An Afghan family walks toward a refugee processing center in Pul-e-Charkhi, Afghanistan. Caren Firouz/Reuters
Bonn Agreement

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush’s administration establishes a back channel with Iran to help coordinate the defeat of the Taliban, a shared enemy that had provided safe haven to members of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and Iran collaborate on the Bonn Agreement [PDF] regarding state-building and the repatriation of Afghan refugees. 

President George W. Bush delivers the 2002 State of the Union speech in front of a large American flag
U.S. President George W. Bush delivers his first State of the Union address. Luke Frazza/Pool/Reuters
‘Axis of Evil’

During his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush describes Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and North Korea. He says Iran “aggressively pursues [weapons of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.” In response, the Iranian government stops secret meetings with U.S. diplomats that are focused on capturing al-Qaeda operatives and combating the Taliban.

An American soldier looks on as a statue of Saddam Hussein is toppled
A U.S. marine watches as a statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Iraq War Begins

U.S. forces invade Iraq, aiming to end the threat posed by what Washington says are Saddam Hussein’s revived WMD programs. Iran backs local Shiite militias in Iraq, some of which participate in attacks on U.S. forces. Saddam’s dictatorship is toppled and he is executed in December. A 2019 U.S. Army study on the Iraq War concludes that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” in the conflict.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to a crowd of reporters
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses reporters in Tehran. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Ahmadinejad’s Letter to Bush

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sends President George W. Bush an eighteen-page letter—the first letter from an Iranian leader to a U.S. one since 1979. Ahmadinejad seeks to ease U.S.-Iran nuclear tensions, but Iran takes no steps to slow its uranium enrichment program, which it says is for civilian energy production. Separately, the U.S. Congress approves the Iran Freedom Support Act in September to fund Iranian civil society and promote democracy.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York.
Ahmadinejad addresses the General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Tensions at the United Nations

During a speech at the opening session of the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad calls the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program “closed” and says his government will disregard Security Council resolutions calling on the country to halt uranium enrichment. At a press conference afterward, he calls the Israeli government an “illegal Zionist regime.” A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate [PDF] released in November finds that Iran ended its nuclear arms program in 2003 but continued to enrich uranium.

Barack Obama speaks on the phone while seated in the Oval Office
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a phone call in the Oval Office. White House/Reuters
Interim Nuclear Deal

President Barack Obama calls newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, the most direct contact since 1979. Two months later, Iran and the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—sign an initial nuclear agreement [PDF], providing Iran with some sanctions relief. Obama praises the deal for cutting off Iran’s “most likely paths to a bomb,” while Rouhani hails it as a “political victory” for Iran.

A group of diplomats representing JCPOA signatory countries stand in front of a row of flags
Officials from China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union gather after finalizing the Iran nuclear agreement. Carlos Barria/Reuters
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Iran, the P5+1, and the European Union reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that is named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In return for sanctions relief, Iran agrees to undertake a series of steps, including dismantling and redesigning its nuclear reactor in Arak, allowing more intrusive verification mechanisms, and limiting uranium enrichment for at least fifteen years. The deal is meant to increase Iran’s “breakout time” for developing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few weeks to at least one year. Many Republican and some Democratic lawmakers oppose the deal, arguing that lifting sanctions will bolster the Iranian government and allow it to destabilize the region.

Donald Trump holds up a signed document while standing at a lectern
U.S. President Donald J. Trump displays a presidential memorandum after announcing his intent to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Trumps Pulls Out of JCPOA

President Donald Trump announces that the United States will withdraw from the JCPOA and mount a sanctions campaign to place “maximum pressure” on Iran. Many arms control experts and European allies condemn the move, while many Republican lawmakers, Israel, and Saudi Arabia applaud it. Iran responds by boosting uranium enrichment in defiance of the agreement’s terms. The withdrawal marks the beginning of rhetorical and military escalation with Iran under the Trump administration.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps hold guns while marching in a parade
Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps march in a military parade in Tehran. Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
U.S. Designates IRGC a Terrorist Group

Trump designates the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—a branch of the Iranian army—a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). It is the first time the United States designates part of another country’s government as an FTO. A week earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweets that he personally requested the move. Rouhani says the action will only increase the IRGC’s popularity at home and abroad.

Aerial shot of a small boat circling a red tanker
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seizes a British tanker as it passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Tasnim News Agency/Getty Images
Attacks in the Strait of Hormuz

On June 13, two oil tankers are attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, about a month after four commercial ships are damaged in the same area. The United States blames Iran for the attacks, with Trump calling the country “a nation of terror.” The United States announces the deployment of one thousand additional troops to the Middle East in response, and the IRGC shoots down a U.S. surveillance drone two days later. The United States again blames Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the region in the following months and tries to seize an Iranian vessel sailing near the British territory of Gibraltar.

Yellow caution tape stretches in front of a Saudi Aramco oil facility
Workers examine a damaged Saudi Aramco oil facility in Khurais, Saudi Arabia. Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
Attacks on Saudi Oil Fields

Drones attack oil facilities of state-controlled Saudi Aramco in eastern Saudi Arabia, striking the country’s second-largest oil field and a critical crude-oil stabilization center. The attack halts half the country’s oil output and causes an unprecedented jump in Brent crude prices. Trump approves the deployment of U.S. troops to bolster Saudi air and missile defenses at the kingdom’s request. Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claim responsibility for the attack, citing Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war, but the United States and Saudi Arabia blame Iran.

Protesters run away from tear gas at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, where multiple flags representing Iraqi militias are planted
Protesters and militia fighters run from tear gas thrown by U.S. embassy security forces during a protest condemning U.S. air strikes. Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters
Protests at U.S. Embassy in Baghdad

Iraqi demonstrators and Iran-backed militias attempt to seize the U.S. Embassy Baghdad in retaliation for an air strike that killed militia members. Protesters chant “death to America” and demand that the United States withdraw its troops from Iraq. In response, President Trump tweets that Iran will pay “a very big price” for any lives lost or damage incurred at U.S. facilities. 

A crowd surrounds a car carrying a banner depicting Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani
Iranians attend a funeral procession for Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both killed in a U.S. air strike in Baghdad. WANA/Reuters
Killing of Qasem Soleimani

The United States kills Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, with a drone strike in Baghdad. Soleimani was considered by some experts to be Iran’s second most powerful person after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is also killed, along with seven other Iranian and Iraqi nationals. Iran promises revenge and announces that it will no longer commit to restrictions under the nuclear deal. Soon after, Iran mistakenly shoots down a Ukrainian passenger plane as Iranian forces are on high alert for possible U.S. attacks. It later attacks multiple U.S. bases in Iraq, wounding dozens of U.S. and Iraqi personnel.

A military satellite launches from behind a row of Iranian flags
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launches the Noor military satellite into orbit from Semnan, Iran. WANA/Reuters
Iran Ramps Up Military Maneuvers

Iran launches its first military satellite, prompting U.S. concerns over Iran’s long-range missile capabilities. Days later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States is still party to the JCPOA and will seek to snap back multilateral sanctions against Iran through a Security Council resolution. Opponents of the move, including JCPOA signatory Russia, argue that the United States abandoned the terms of the deal when the Trump administration’s reimposed sanctions on Iran. Iranian boats threaten U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, but the United States does not respond militarily.

Venezuela oil company employees wearing masks wave Iranian flags. One fist-bumps Venezuelan Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami.
A worker from the state-owned oil company greets Venezuelan Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami as an Iranian tanker arrives in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. Miraflores Palace/Reuters
Venezuela Oil Shipments

Amid a shortage in Venezuela, Iranian tankers arrive to deliver oil despite U.S. sanctions on both countries. In June, the White House sanctions five Iranian ship captains involved in the delivery to discourage trade between Iran and Venezuela.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is flanked by other officials while announcing the restoration of sanctions on Iran
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces the Trump administration’s restoration of sanctions on Iran. Patrick Semansky/Pool/Reuters
Failure to Extend UN Arms Embargo

The Trump administration seeks to extend a decade-long UN arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October under the JCPOA. The administration contends that Iran is in violation of the deal and cannot be allowed to replenish its weapons stockpile. At the UN Security Council, a U.S.-backed resolution to extend the embargo fails, highlighting a lack of international support for Washington’s Iran policy and the United States’ diminishing influence. The United States also fails in its attempt to reimpose international sanctions on Iran using the JCPOA’s “snapback” mechanism, leading it to unilaterally sanction entities previously targeted by the United Nations and say it will continue to abide by the now-expired UN embargo.

Two Iranian soldiers with their backs to the camera frame four missiles poised to launch in the background
Missiles are seen during a military drill involving Iran’s Air Defense Force. WANA/Reuters
Trump’s Final Sanctions Surge

Trump ramps up his maximum-pressure campaign against Iran with a flurry of new sanctions targeting entities in the oil and financial sectors and a leading charity, among others, as well as top officials. Washington cites as reasons for the new measures the Iranian government’s alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election, its suspected development of chemical weapons, and human rights abuses committed during a crackdown on protesters in November 2019.

Men in military uniforms sit on either side of a coffin with Mohsen Fakhrizadeh's photo on one end of it
Mourners sit next to the coffin of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during the burial ceremony in Tehran, Iran. Hamed Malekpour/WANA/Reuters.
Iran Boosts Uranium Enrichment

Following the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top nuclear scientist, Iran’s parliament approves a bill to boost uranium enrichment to 20 percent—far beyond the concentrations permitted by the JCPOA. It also vows to expel International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors if sanctions on the banking and oil sectors are not lifted within two months. The bill passes with approval from Supreme Leader Khamenei, despite President Rouhani’s opposition. Iran blames Israel for Fakhrizadeh’s killing, and hard-liners insist the United States was also involved. Khamenei signals that U.S.-Iran relations will still be fraught under President-Elect Joe Biden.

Foreign ministers from China, EU, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, and UK sit at a table in front of their countries' flags
EU Deputy Secretary-General for Political Affairs Enrique Mora and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna. EU Delegation in Vienna/Reuters
Talks to Revive the JCPOA

The JCPOA’s signatories hold talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the United States and Iran back in compliance with the agreement. U.S. and Iranian officials attend the so-called proximity meetings to exchange ideas on sequencing a return to the deal. Each side insists that the other should be the first to resume its obligations, and they try to downplay expectations for immediate progress. The talks persist even after an explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility—which it blames on Israel—leads Iran to enrich uranium at a new high of 60 percent purity.

A young Iranian woman holds a portrait of Ebrahim Raisi. Other adults and a child are seen, some with small Iranian flags.
A supporter of Ebrahim Raisi displays his portrait during a rally celebrating his presidential election victory. Majid Asgaripour/WANA/Reuters
Nuclear Talks Stall After Raisi’s Election

In June, Iran’s presidential election is won by conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, a judiciary chief targeted by U.S. sanctions due to his involvement in a 1988 panel that sentenced thousands of dissidents to death as well as his role in the repression of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement protests. Negotiations to revive the JCPOA stall for months as Raisi completes his transition to power. The talks resume in November, with Iran’s new negotiators adopting a more hard-line stance compared to their predecessors’. Meanwhile, there are signs that the country’s uranium-enrichment capabilities are advancing.

U.S. Relations With Iran