Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during a Feb. 10, 2009, ceremony marking
the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

A Review of US Presidents’ Policies Towards Iran

June 23, 2009 07:31 AM
by Denis Cummings
As President Obama is criticized for his response to mass protests in Iran, we review how U.S. presidents have dealt with Iran over the last 30 years.

Obama Criticized for Cautious Response

As Iranians protest in the streets over the results of the presidential election, President Barack Obama has been cautious in speaking out about the situation. His reaction has drawn criticism from many conservatives who feel that strong words are needed.

“The President of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “He’s been timid and passive more than I would like.”

Obama has adopted a softer approach to Iran than his predecessors, reaching out to the country in his first television interview as president, given to Arabic-language channel Al Arabiya.

Obama said that he would be willing to talk to Iran to discuss “potential avenues for progress,” reported The New York Times, and added, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”

Background: U.S.-Iran relations since 1979

Jimmy Carter
Concerns expressed about President Obama's cautious approach to Iran invariably invoke the President Jimmy Carter.

According to PBS, the U.S. had supported Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi since 1953. The Shah had prevailed in a confrontation with Islamic clergy in 1963, resulting in the exile of cleric Ruhollah Khomeini. 

But in the early days of Carter's tenure, his security advisors knew the Shah faced an reinvigorated challenge from Islamic clergy. Some of his advisors urged him to to encourage the Shah to brutally suppress the revolution, while other Carter advisors implored him to accept the inevitable and form a bridge to opposition elements. Carter did neither, and in 1979, Iran ended up with a new government, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that was hostile to America.

PBS quotes foreign relations professor Gaddis Smith, who said, “President Carter inherited an impossible situation—and he and his advisers made the worst of it.”

The situation ignited on Nov. 4, 1979, when a mob of Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took more than 60 Americans hostage. Carter tried in vain to secure their release, imposing economic sanctions and approving a high-risk rescue attempt that ended disastrously, with the death of eight American soldiers.

Through it all, Carter looked ineffectual in foreign matters and lost any chance of re-election. Even after Khomeini decided to let the hostages free, Carter could not negotiate their release until Jan. 20, 1981, the day President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
Ronald Reagan
The U.S. cut off diplomatic ties with Iran during the Hostage Crisis, and officially maintained neutrality during the Iraq-Iran war that begin in 1980. However, the Reagan administration believed that an Iranian victory in the conflict was contrary to U.S. interests.

According to the National Security Archive project at George Washington University, the U.S. provided intelligence and military support to Iraq, and urged the Export-Import Bank to approve loans to Iraq.

Nevertheless, the Reagan administration secretly reached out to Iran in 1985 in hopes of securing the release of American hostages held by Iranian terrorists in Lebanon. The U.S. arranged a deal in which Iran would be provided arms for its war with Iraq in exchange for channeling funds to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. The deal was exposed in November 1986, sparking a scandal known as the Iran-Contra affair.

The Huffington Post reports that in 1985 Reagan ordered military strikes against Iran if any of the hostages held in Lebanon were killed. Such strikes never occurred, even though several hostages were indeed killed in 1986.

Tensions between the Reagan administration and Iran were heightened on July 3, 1988, when the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air 655, a commercial jet that it apparently mistook for a hostile fighter jet.

George H.W. Bush

Most discussions about Iran and the elder George Bush, who served as Reagan's vice president, concern his role in the Iran-Contra affair. His presidency was marked by war with Iraq, Iran’s neighbor, in 1991. Iran, now led by Ali Khamenei, chose to remain neutral during the war. In the early weeks of the Gulf War, President Bush praised Iran for impounding Iraqi fighter jets that were flown to Iran for safety reasons, and for trying to broker a peace deal.

Bill Clinton
In 1995, President Bill Clinton, as part of a “dual containment” policy aimed at Iran and Iraq, sign two executive orders that imposed a total trade and investment embargo on Iran, recounts the Middle East Economic Survey. In a speech on April 30, 1995, Clinton said "''I am convinced that instituting a trade embargo with Iran is the most effective way our nation can help curb Iran's drive to acquire devastating weapons and support terrorist activities." The following year, Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which imposed embargoes on foreign companies with at least $20 million invested in Iran.

In June 1998, Clinton offered "genuine reconciliation" towards Iran, saying it was "changing in a positive way."  In 2000, the Clinton administration lifted sanctions on some products, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued an apology to Iran for America’s role in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953.

Though Iran rejected the apology, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi agreed to meet with Albright in September, marking the first time since 1979 that senior officials had met, reported the BBC.

George W. Bush
Iran condemned the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and helped in the rebuilding of Afghanistan following the overthrow of the Taliban. But, as Iran acquired long-range missiles and tried to develop a nuclear program, President Bush adopted a hard-line approach, writes PBS. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush declared Iran to be part of the “axis of evil.”

The Bush administration reportedly considered military action against Iran; a plan to launch strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities was laid out in a 2006 column by New Yorker columnist Seymour Hersh, but the administration denied the report.

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