Bite-Sized History #2: Iran and the US (1979-1989)

Reagan and Bush in 1980.
It's amazing how you can sometimes spot exactly when things start to go wrong.

Hoo boy. While our first installment on Iran and the US managed to span about 170 years, this one only encompasses one decade. A lot happened between 1979 and 1989, perhaps in part because of increasing globalization, and the acceleration of communications technologies–especially after the advent of television. Information was accessible much more readily in the 80s than it was even thirty years prior. Whatever the reason, a lot went down, so let’s get to it.

1979: November 4th, after the referendum to become an Islamic state passes, but before the new Iranian constitution is launched in December, students storm the US embassy in Tehran, and take 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage. They do this to protest the possible return of the Shah to power in Iran after Carter (D) reluctantly lets the Shah into the US for cancer treatment. Students state that they are afraid of the 1953 coup happening all over again, and if the Shah returns, it should only be so he can stand trial for his crimes against the citizens of Iran. The students initially believe they will take the embassy for a few hours, but the standoff lasts 444 days, from Nov. 4 1979 to Jan. 20 1981. The first sanctions are laid against Iran by the US in November.

1980: In January, a US-Canadian effort called the Canadian Caper gets six of the diplomats out of Iran. However, diplomacy fails to free those who remain hostages, and a rescue attempt (Operation Eagle Claw) is made on April 24th. This too fails, resulting in the deaths of 1 Iranian civilian and 8 US servicemen. In September, the US and Iran begin talks with Algeria acting as mediator, and a second failed rescue attempt is made in October, but with the election coming up in November, it’s too little, too late for many Americans, and Carter loses to Reagan (R). Also in September, Iraq invades Iran in a battle that will last into 1988. Iraq wants to be the most powerful country in the Gulf, annex some land with rich oil fields, and to prevent its citizens from getting any ideas from Iran about a popular uprising against its minority-faith government. Iraq’s leader at that time? Saddam Hussein. This is where US involvement in the Middle East begins to get exponentially more complex.

1981: January 20th, Reagan is sworn into office. His VP? George H.W. Bush. Minutes later, the hostages are officially released. Some theorize that this timing is deliberate, and an effort on the part of Iran to influence the US elections, as a conservative President may be perceived to be more sympathetic to their faith-driven policies.

1982: The momentum of the Iran-Iraq war begins to swing in favour of Iran, and given the changed status of Iran from ally to enemy in the eyes of US intelligence, the US provides several billion dollars’ worth of aid and technology to Hussein’s Iraq. To do so, they remove Iraq from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The fear that propels this decision, according to Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, is “a nightmare scenario in which the Iranians invade Iraq, they defeat Iraq, and then head straight for Israel.” It’s interesting, and a bit curious, that this strong support for Israel exists from the US even then–but I’ll leave that for a future installment.

1983: Reports of Iraq using chemical weapons against Iran such as mustard gas (and by 1986, sarin gas) begin to come out, but are ignored, despite of this being in violation of international law. In November, Reagan appoints a new envoy to the Middle East: Donald fucking Rumsfeld.

1986: The first leak of the Iran-Contra affair comes to light. The official party line is that Reagan’s government sold arms, against an embargo, to Iran in the hopes of improving relations so that Iran would help the US with the hostage crisis in Lebanon. However, a congressional investigation reveals that the first illegal arms sales took place in 1981, before the hostage crisis began.

1987: Reagan apologizes to the American people in a televised address for the Iran-Contra scandal. Of the 12 people indicted, 3 are granted immunity, and a further 6 are later pardoned by President H.W. Bush (R) in 1992. At least one of those pardons is granted before the person even goes to trial.

1988: In April, the US attacks Iran in Operation Praying Mantis, said to be retaliation for Iran damaging the USS Samuel B. Roberts. This operation sinks or damages nearly half of Iran’s fleet. In July, the US shoots down an airbus, civilian Iran Air Flight 655. All 290 people on board, including 66 children, are killed. The US government claims it was an accident, that the crew on the US cruiser USS Vincennes thought it was a Tomcat fighter jet. Reagan expresses a regret for the loss of life but will not apologize. Bush, now running for president, makes what becomes an infamous statement, “I will never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”

1989: In August, a CIA raid reveals that between 1985-1989, $5bn was funneled through an Atlanta branch of an Italian bank. Some of the funds from these illegal loans were discovered to have been used by Iraq to buy arms and weapons technology which were used in their fight against Iran. Hewlett-Packard is one of the companies implicated in providing this tech. Also in August, a peace is brokered by the UN between Iran and Iraq. Approximately 500,000 have died in the conflict by this time. In October, George H.W. Bush, now President, signs a directive, which opens with the statement, “Access to Persian Gulf oil and the security of key friendly states in the area are vital to U.S. national security.” How access to oil impacts national security is not made clear. 

In short, anger at a perceived betrayal by the US (vis-a-vis medical assistance to the Shah), and fear of further US interference increased Irani mistrust of US policy. This would have deepened when the US began to support Iran’s enemy, Iraq, who used chemical weapons against Iranians and got away with it due to US permissiveness, and was likely pushed to outright distrust by US attacks that not only destroyed military targets but civilian lives. Let’s not forget that while all of that was happening, the Cold War was still ongoing, and Iran shared a very long border with the then-USSR, another US enemy. I haven’t even gotten into Soviet involvement with Iran! Add into the mix the increased conservatism of the now-Islamic state after Khomeini’s rise to power and his position that Western corruption must be prevented from infecting the Muslim people, and you’ve got one hell of a mess.

And we’re still 30 years in the past, my friends. I don’t know about you, but I need to go hug a puppy or something.



  1. Members of the current administration (War ‘Stache, Pompeo) openly advocating for regime change doesn’t help matters either. Propping up the Shah was the first of a series of bad decisions that led us to where we are now.

    • Absolutely agreed. While I understand the desire to lend aid to a country whose resources provide financial benefit, it seems to often end up being short-sighted. To be fair, not all outcomes are predictable, but if you step on someone’s dick, take their lunch money, and then laugh at them, they’re going to remember.

  2. I think we over value Israel’s influence when it comes to US Mid-East policy especially when it comes to relations with Iran. Iran is the state of the oppressed minority in that region and the Sunni states are more than willing to poke and prod them into reactions that can be used to escalate tensions. The humanist in me will always want to stand with the oppressed but the secularist struggles to support any theocracy.

    Khomeni made attempts at peace between the 2 sects but I think that’s about the time Sadam gassed all those people and you can’t seperate his actions and the desires of the Saudis.

    Castro’s Cuba and Khomeini’s Iran are very similar to me. People risinig up to over throw a dicatorship and being given agancy is an underdog story as old as time. How the oppressed become the oppressors is as well.

  3. Thank you AGAIN for this. I am fairly well-versed in the more recent events vs. yesterday’s post, but it is really helpful to see it all listed out in a timeline, while we try to untangle our brain-wires and process current events.

    • My pleasure. I was a kid during that time, and so while I recall these things having happened, at least in vague terms, I wasn’t up on the details.

      At some point, I’ll probably dig back into apartheid in South Africa–between Eddy Grant’s “Gimme Hope Johanna”, and the Sun City protest track, music made a big impact on my awareness at that time. Israel is also on the shortlist, but that’s one that I’m going to want to take my time with, given the sensitivity of the issues.

  4. I had another thought based on a reply in one of yesterday’s posts about the evangelicals’ desire to bring about The Rapture®.

    Cheeto-in-chief likes the conspiracy and one of my takes on him was he and Putin wanting to fullfil Nostradamus’ prediction that Russia and the US would strike down the big bad anti-christ from the mid-east. The ironic thought that popped into my head was might it be the big baddie(s) from the mid-east that could stand up to and strike down The New Axis Powers?

    Iran is supposed to be the better of the 3 nations at The Cyber® and I could see them bringing about a collapse of any of our infrastucture grids plunging the US, at least, into major chaos (not sure how good Russia’s is but having visted there last year it is still looks like Flint).

    I heard on a podcast this week that Iran favors the long play and several of their retalitory actions have been years after an incident took place.

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