By Meghan Durkin (V)
It’s February 1979. The phone rings. The clock reads 3 a.m. as my grandfather holds it up to his ear. It’s 11:30 a.m. in Iran, where the Shah, Mohammad Raza Pahlavi, had fled in response to insurgency a month earlier. At the time, my grandfather was working for American Bell International, an AT&T subsidiary tasked with facilitating the improvement of telephone and communication systems in Iran. However, with the overthrow of Pahlavi and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, AT&T’s project ceased. Over the next few weeks, my grandfather, who handled insurance for the company, worked to repossess valuables left by AT&T employees, who were forced to leave their apartments in Iran following the fall of the Shah. After finding where workers had left clothing, jewelry, pets, and more, my grandfather transferred that information to employees still in Iran, in hopes of reclaiming their belongings.
Prior to the winter of 1979, during the height of AT&T’s project in Iran, U.S. relations with the country were bolstered. The pro-Western policies of Pahlavi fit American economic interests, specifically in regards to the oil industry. However, to many Iranians, the Shah’s policies felt repressive and tyrannical. The “White Revolution,” a number of reforms established by Pahlavi in the early 1960s, implemented land redistribution, and the expansion of women’s rights. These policies were quickly met with popular dissent, as the poor found little relief. By the end of the Shah’s reign, the U.S. appeared to support a leader unpopular with his own people. Once Pahlavi fled, his favorable relations with the U.S. seemed to continue, much to the resentment of Iranians. U.S. President Jimmy Carter went so far as to allow Pahlavi into the U.S. to receive cancer treatment.
In November of 1979, in retaliation for Carter’s action, Iranian students took 66 Americans hostage at the U.S Embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran. The crisis, which lasted 344 days but ultimately ended in the safe return of the hostages, began a long history of strained relations between the U.S. and Iran.
These historic tensions were in the spotlight this January, when President Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. After the strike, Trump threatened to carry out further attacks. On Twitter, he referred back to the 1979 crisis, noting that the 52 Iranian sites that had been identified as targets represented “the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago.” Many Iranians, who considered Soleimani a hero, were quick to declare revenge and violence against the U.S. However, President Trump and his administration have continued to justify the act as a preemptive attack against a supposed plan of Soleimani to strike a U.S. embassy.
Over 40 years after the overthrow of the Shah and the consequent American hostage crisis, U.S.-Iran relations seem rockier than ever. Under President Obama in 2013, the countries attempted reconciliation through the Iran Nuclear Deal, which outlined that Iran would restrict their nuclear activities. In 2018, however, President Trump abandoned the plan, and the two countries have faced growing tension and subsequent violence over the past few years. Now, after Soleimani’s death, there seems to be no end in sight.
Thus, the question remains: is compromise between the U.S. and Iran possible? Is an amicable relationship on the horizon, or will we continue towards aggression and animosity? To me, the two countries have grown too divisive to ever find a real compromise, and the U.S. does not have a compelling reason to concede to the Iranian government. When President George W. Bush coined Iran one-third of the “axis of evil,” it was clear the United States viewed the country’s regime as radical and dangerous; the government has been accused of supporting terrorism and seeking to bolster weapons of mass destruction. Thus, our government doesn’t owe the Iranian government diplomacy, but it does have a responsibility to support the Iranian people. As a result of economic sanctions placed on Iran in 2018, its people have faced an economic recession, rising prices, and stagnant economic growth. As innocent people suffer, the U.S. government seeks to break a regime, without thinking of the consequences for the average citizen. So, while I believe I will never see a time like my grandfather’s, where the United States and Iran came together for economic gain, I do believe it’s possible for our government to protect itself against Iranian threats while still treating the Iranian people humanely.