How We Got Here: An Illustrated Timeline of U.S.-Iranian Relations

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By Quentin Choy

I remember being afraid that an actual hot war would take place between the United States and Iran a few years ago. Being at the prime age for the military draft, I was greatly concerned. I wrote to my Congressman Ed Case, trying to figure out what Congress was doing to get the situation under control.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) at an anti-war protest. She was the only vote to oppose the Afghanistan War in 2001.

I clearly remember thinking to myself, how did we get to this point? In this post, we’ll explore a timeline of events that deteriorated the U.S.-Iran relationship to a breaking point.

  • 1953: The C.I.A. launches a coup in Iran, overthrowing democratically elected PM Mohammad Mosaddegh following plans to nationalize Iranian oil. The Shah takes power and is friendlier to the West.

  • 1963: The Shah launches the White Revolution, enacting large-scale social reforms including voting rights for women, nationalization of resources, profit sharing, and land reform.

    Many rural, conservative, and clerical Iranians felt dissatisfied with the Shah’s far-reaching reforms.

  • 1977: President Jimmy Carter hosts the Shah in the United States. Conservative Iranians despised the Shah’s forced westernization and secularization of Iranian society.

  • 1979: Conservative Iranians grow tired of the Shah and act in active hostility toward his government. The Iranian Revolution takes place, causing the Shah to flee Iran.

    Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns from exile and becomes Iran’s first Supreme Leader.

    The first U.S. sanctions are applied to Iran.

  • President Jimmy Carter allows the Shah to receive life-saving medical treatment in the United States, angering many Iranians.

    Iranian college students kidnap 52 Americans at the U.S. embassy in Iran. Students cited the U.S. role in the 1953 coup and the western embrace of the dictatorial Shah as causes for the Iranian hostage crisis.

    The hostage crisis would create some of the longest-lasting scars for US.-Iran relations.

  • 1980: The U.S. supports Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. American support for Iran’s enemy worsened relations between the U.S. and Iran.

  • 1983: Militants believed to be affiliated with Iranian-backed Hezbollah bomb an American barracks in Beirut, Lebanon killing 241 military personnel.

  • 1985: The Iran-Contra affair shakes Washington. The Reagan administration had been selling weapons to Iran who was placed on an arms embargo to fund the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua.

    Arms sales by the U.S. to the Contras had already been banned.

  • 1988: The USS Vincennes shoots down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board.

  • 1989: Ayatollah Khomeini dies. Ali Khamenei becomes 2nd Supreme Leader of Iran.

  • 2002: President George W. Bush groups Iran with North Korea and Iraq as an “Axis of evil.” Many Americans begin to view Iran even more unfavorably.

  • 2014: The civil war in Yemen becomes a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The U.S. ultimately supports its ally Saudi Arabia in fighting Iran.

  • 2015: The Obama administration, international partners, and President Hassan Rouhani establish the Iranian Nuclear Deal, limiting Iran’s potential of creating nuclear weapons in exchange for relief of sanctions.

  • 2018: The Trump administration abandons the Iran Nuclear Deal, citing that it fails to restrict nuclear weapons access and regional power.

  • 2020: Donald Trump orders a drone strike, assassinating Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. U.S.-Iranian relations reach a low point. Iranians retaliate by launching missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq.

    The Iranian military shoots down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 killing all 176 onboard.

  • 2021: Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi wins the Iranian presidential election.

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30 comments / Add your comment below

  1. You might want to include that Iran became a Shia Islamic totalitarian state in 1979 and exports ISIS terrorism throughout the world. The Sunnis support al Qaedi terrorism, the Shia ISIS terrorism. The Shah? Well, comparing and contrasting, the evils of Constitutional Monarchy but dealing with a significant element of Islamic fundamentalists.

    1. tildeb,

      That’s true! I could have been a bit clearer about who Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was and the impact he had on transforming Iran from a fairly cosmopolitan state to an Islamic theocracy. The Islamist spread from the Revolution was one of the reasons that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq felt so threatened. They didn’t want the spread of Islam to impact Iraq which under Hussein in the 80s was more secular.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Quentin, nice work. I am here courtesy of Jill’s recommendation. Like her, you seem to have done your homework. I applaud you for that.

    We Americans are not very educated on world history, much less US history that is not in a war. What we have done in Iran and other places to further business interests, often related to the acquisition of fossil fuels, has long been worrisome. One other item that should be stated is what President Reagan did with the Iran Contra affair was an impeachable offense and would have been given more scrutiny if Oliver North had not fallen on the sword and took the blame. Plus, Reagan lied to the American people, then had to go back and apologize for the lie.

    What frustrates this old fart is the US rarely learns the lessons of history and make the same mistakes over and over given. Senator Jim Webb, a former Secretary of Navy and Vietnam war veteran stood up before the Iraq invasion and said on the Senate floor and said if we vote to invade Iraq we need to be prepared to be there for thirty years. We still have a presence seventeen years later.


    1. Keith,

      I’m glad that I’ve written things in solid knowledge and that I’ve studied the history sufficiently. I’m glad you enjoyed the Iran piece.

      Thank you for expanding upon the section on the Iran-Contra affair, as most of what I know about it is from light research.

      While I hope this doesn’t happen, you will likely be frustrated reading my pieces on foreign policy as my sentiments will likely be the same you felt when you were my age, showing that not much has changed over decades of U.S. policymaking.

      What people felt about Vietnam is what people felt about Afghanistan and Iraq, and in time, I’ll be writing about future wars with other nations in the same way.

      We haven’t learned from our history, and even if we did, we never change.


  3. Dear Quentin,

    Hello! Jill Dennison, David Prosser and I have known each other for many years. Welcome to our fold, so to speak!

    Thank you very much for featuring here a visually rich synopsis of the U.S.-Iranian Relations. One seriously wonders what the next five to ten years will bring.

    Given that you are a Senior studying political science, you might be quite interested in perusing one of my analytical and multidisciplinary posts entitled “💬 Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: 🧠 Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity 🦠“, which you can easily locate from the Home page of my website/blog.

    I would like to wish your new blog and your dad’s wedding in California all the best!

    May you find the rest of 2021 very much to your liking and highly conducive to your writing, reading, thinking, studying and composing whatever posts that take your intellectual fancy and show off your imaginative flight or your flair in political science!

    Yours sincerely,

    1. SoundEagle,

      It’s great to meet you. I took a look at the pieces you recommended and I learned quite a bit, and I’d like to thank you for the newly-gained knowledge. Thank you for wishing good luck for my dad’s wedding! It was a beautiful ceremony, and I’ll be writing about it soon.

      It’s great to meet a friend of Jill and David. Thanks for welcoming me!


      1. Dear Quentin,

        Likewise! I am delighted by your reply, and would love to know in greater detail what you have learnt whilst perusing the said post entitled “💬 Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: 🧠 Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity 🦠“, which has 142 comments so far. I look forward to reading your comment there.

        The multidisciplinary post pertains to Behavioural Science, Critical Thinking, Cultural Studies, Ethics, History, Human Nature, Journalism, Media Studies, Philosophy, Political Science, Science, Social Media, Social Science and the like.

        By the way, when you try to access my blog, please be informed that it will benefit from being viewed on a large screen of a desktop or laptop computer, since those lengthy multimedia posts and my blog could be too powerful and feature-rich for iPad, iPhone, tablet or other portable devices to handle properly or adequately.

        Furthermore, since my intricate blog contains advanced styling and multimedia components plus animations, it is advisable to avoid using the WordPress Reader, which cannot show many of the advanced features in my posts and pages. Instead, read the posts and pages directly in my blog so that you will be able to savour and relish all of the refined and glorious details.

        I shall pay close attention to what you publish from time to time, or as time permits. Happy August to you soon!

        Yours sincerely,

      2. SoundEagle,

        I was most interested in the reasons you gave for the rise of disinformation. Anti-intellectualism, cult of anti-espertise sentiment, politicization of science, and populism. While I think populism has some positive and beneficial aspects, I can see the way that it can encourage disinformation.

        The way you discussed these factors as causes for disinformation’s rise was easy to understand and gathered lots of ideas I had in an articulate way.


      3. Dear Quentin,

        I am delighted by your reply, and would be grateful if you could be so kind as to copy and paste your reply to the comment section of my said post entitled “💬 Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: 🧠 Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity 🦠“, to which your reply clearly pertains and also belongs. Please feel free to expand on your comment if you have additional matters to convey about the post and any aspects of its contents. Thank you in anticipation.

        Yours sincerely,

  4. Hello Quentin. I’m another one of Jill’s ubiquitous European commentary box . I hope we’ll be welcome with our points of view as well. Jill sometimes says we see things a little clearer from the outside. I like your timeline very much but m interested in where the Shah suddenly came from since obviously neither he nor his family were ruling Iran at that time. Were they hereditary rulers?
    Anyway, Best of Luck with the Blog

    1. Hi David!

      Thanks for reaching out. I did some research and it looks like prior to Mosaddegh’s nationalization of Iranian oil, Iran was invaded by Britain and the USSR during World War II to prevent them from falling to Nazi hands. This is how the British gained control of Iranian oil in the first place. During the invasion, the Shah’s father was removed from power. With the Shah being the next in line after his father who abdicated the throne during the invasion, once Mosaddegh was ousted in the CIA coup, the Shah was the next natural successor.


    1. Hello, Clive!

      Jill has been wonderful to me and helping me start my blog, and I’m so thankful to her. A friend of Jill is a friend of mine.

      Welcome, and thanks for the good luck!

  5. Thank you Jill! I’m glad you like it and found it helpful. I can try to look for a reblog button option, I’m just not sure how. I will let you know when I figure it out!

  6. This is an excellent timeline/summation of the events that have led us to where we are today! Thank you! Might you add a reblog button to your blog so that I can share your work?

    1. Jill, I’ve looked through several forums and pages and I don’t think I’m able to add a reblog button. Sites with plans have the reblog button disabled according to the Forum but I’m not sure why. I have installed a plugin which puts a button with the WordPress logo beneath the post which links you to a “Press This” link. I hope this helps, and thank you for the repost!


      1. Hmmmm … that hardly seems fair of WordPress … I’ll see what I can find out. But meanwhile, yes, I can work with the ‘Press this’ option … it just takes a bit more work to set up a reblog, but this post is definitely worthy of a bit of effort. I shall re-post it either tomorrow (Monday) or Tuesday. Would you also consider doing another that projects where you think our relationship with Iran is headed, what you think the future, say the next 10 years, holds? Great work, Quentin!

      2. Jill, thanks for helping me with that. I’d love to have a repost button more visible. And yes, I can work on a future with Iran post for sure, but I can’t promise it can be done until at least Saturday as I am in California for my Dad’s wedding and am scheduling posts why trying to spend time with my family. Thanks!


      3. I shall look into it tomorrow (later today, actually), but meanwhile I will set up your post to repost via “Press this” for now. No worries on the timeline of that follow-up post! I just thought it would be good to get your views on where this all takes us, but don’t put pressure on yourself. This week, next week … you’ll get there! And I hope you have a wonderful visit in California and enjoy your dad’s wedding! Family ALWAYS comes first, my friend. ALWAYS.

      4. Aww. Thank you! Sounds good for now, and again I appreciate all your help very much. I’ll let you know when that piece gets finished!

      5. I have set up a lead-in to your blog in hopes that some of my readers will follow, and a re-blog (Press this) to your latest on our history with Iran that will publish at 3:00 p.m. today. I will help you as much as I can, for I think that what you are doing has value and I want to see your blog succeed! The first year or two can be discouraging, but … you’ve got the right ideas, I think.

      6. Thanks so much! I’ll keep scouring the forums to figure out how to add a reblog button since I’m seeing it on other sites. Thank you for wishing success for my blog!


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