31 January 2020 Blogs, Academic, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Iran-U.S. Relations: Assessing the Future by Reviewing the Past

How the DNSA’s latest collection of declassified documents can inform research into current international tensions.

Note: This article is excerpted from Unredacted: The National Security Archive blog. 

Tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have once again been dominating the headlines. A series of violent flareups – most recently the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliation against two Iraqi military bases housing American forces – have renewed fears of an escalation to direct armed conflict. 

The worry is that such a conflict will engulf the Middle East and create both global political instability through increased terrorist attacks and economic crisis in the event of a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz or strikes against oil facilities in the Persian Gulf.

A look back at the 40 years since the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979 – made possible by a new major documentary publication by the National Security Archive – offers useful historical context to help explain the depths of American-Iranian antagonism, but also may provide some hope for extricating the two governments from their latest confrontation.

The Archive’s new publication, U.S. Policy toward Iran: From the Revolution to the Nuclear Accord, 1978-2015, consists of 1,760 documents and almost 14,000 pages of materials, most of them made available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or through research at various archives.

A selection of highlights from the collection appeared in a recent Archive e-book that can be read here. They include Top Secret memos to presidents, assessments of the Iran-Iraq War and U.S. awareness of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, records of U.S. and Iranian attempts to communicate (including a direct message from Bill Clinton to Mohammad Khatami), Bush 43 records on Iran’s role in the Afghan Conference, queries from Donald Rumsfeld about Iran’s strategy in Iraq, and materials relating to negotiating the JCPOA.

What information and insights does this new DNSA collection reveal about the history of U.S.-Iran relations, and how it’s shaped current tensions?

Some examples include:

A portrait of seemingly unrelieved hostility between the U.S. and Iran beginning with the Iranian revolution
The 1979 hostage crisis and its impact on recent decision-making, such as President Trump’s response to demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, December 2019
The 1980 aircraft collision that resulted from President Carter’s attempted rescue of the hostages and its influence on military strategists planning operations in Iran
The war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, including chemical weapon attacks launched by Saddam Hussein with targeting assistance from the U.S.

Read the full Unredacted blog post to learn more. 

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