Philip McTigue Discusses the History of United States and Iran Relations

Given the new tensions between the U.S. and Iran it is worth reviewing some of the previous events that have formed the precarious relationship between these countries. Philip McTigue has been asked repeatedly lately about the events of 1979 and he thought it would be a good idea to look at some of the failures and impactful decisions that have culminated into recent events.

On November 4th, 1979 the world watched in horror as Iranian students bolstered by militant Islamics stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran.  These events eventually led to American diplomats and Marines being held hostage for 444 days during the Jimmy Carter Presidency. The events leading up to this tragic event were driven by the United States assistance to the Shah of Iran who America had installed as the leader of the Country. Philip McTigue believes this event changed the course of President Carter’s term in office and left America ready for new foreign policies.

The Shah of Iran, with the proper name of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had been put in power in Iran by the United States as a cold war ally.  The United States backed a coup in 1953 that brought down the elected Iranian government and the Shah was put in place. At the time of this action it was a popular move within the Country of Iran, and it was welcomed. Eventually this would be seen not as America helping Iran, but as America trying to control Iran. As the Shah ruled Iran, his tactics and actions in power became increasingly oppressive and the nation of Iran and its people began to stand up to his ruling. In the beginning the Shah did help bring some economic success to his Country from the oil industry, but with his eventual abuse of power, and his heavy-handed secret police the SAVAK, the Shah became increasingly unpopular. One of the actions the Shah had taken to control his subordinates was to imprison or exile some of the more powerful mullahs in Iran.  One such mullah was Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini represented a movement in Iran which had been overlooked by America and the rest of Europe as they were draining Iran of oil. The mullahs such as Khomeini were starting to build a movement of anti-westernization driven by the Islamic faith.  Followers were becoming easier to find, and support quickly grew within the colleges and military institutions of the country.  This support eventually led a revolution within the borders of Iran forcing the Shah out of power and due to bad health, out of the country. With the Shah removed from power, and the mullahs ruling with Khomeini emerging as the leader, the stage was set for the tragic events yet to come to the American embassy.

Other events were unfolding worldwide that were going to have an impact on the decisions President Jimmy Carter made during the Iranian hostage crisis. On November 20th, 1979 in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Islamic extremists had taken control of the Grand mosque by force.  This event was used by Khomeini to blame the Americans as the aggressor in this attack on the holiest site of the Muslim faith. This announcement by Khomeini in conjunction with the anti-westernization sentiment being fostered by the mullahs sent another spark worldwide initiating another attack on American property. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan was attacked November 22, 1979.  Eventually two Americans would be killed in this siege as the Pakistani government did nothing to aid the Americans at the embassy. The next and final complicating piece to this diplomatic nightmare for the American Presidency was the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces.  The decision to attack Afghanistan came on November 26th, 1979 and the Soviet forces began their assault with clandestine infiltrations starting December 7th, 1979. 

With the Shah suffering from failing health and recently exiled out of Iran, the Americans led by President Carter decided to allow the Shah into New York City for cancer treatment. This infuriated the Iranians who wanted the Shah sent back to Iran to answer for his alleged crimes against the Iranian people. The Iranians wanted him returned, tried for criminal and traitor behavior, then be sent to his presumed death for his violations against his people. The United States embassy in Tehran figured that by allowing the Shah into the United States they would be under considerable risk.  The staff of almost one thousand employees was quickly reduced to only essential personnel numbering just over sixty.

Allowing the Shah into the United States can certainly be viewed as a humanitarian move which was a mark of the Carter administration. However, it can also be viewed as one of the first most negative impactful decisions made by President Carter. Philip McTigue believes this act by President Carter, even if unintended, showed the Iran people already upset with the American support shown to the Shah when he was in power, that we still supported him even after his tyrannous reign over the Iranian people. This move incited the Iranians and would be an influential factor leading to the attack on the embassy in Tehran.

Another failure of the Carter Presidency after the hostages were taken in Iran was the complete lack of action taken by Carter which the Americans as well as the rest of the world saw as weakness. The President had put together a two-man team to go to Tehran, Iran to work on the release of the hostages, but there was no threat of violence and no strong language issued in defense of the Americans. President Carter was concerned the tough rhetoric could enrage the hostage takers thus leading to execution of the hostages, but the complete lack of any strong stance certainly was viewed as weakness.

The lack of a tough response from President Carter was exemplified in the attack on the United States embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. While the embassy burned with 137 Americans trapped in it, two American soldiers lying dead, and the Pakistan police and military watching like spectators, President Carter thanked the President of Pakistan for his help defending the Americans. Later U.S. Navy Commander Charles W. Monaghan, who had survived the ordeal, told a Washington Post reporter that the Pakistanis had done nothing to help them. It was after this gross lack of judgment which led to the Marines in Islamabad to always curse President Carter during a beer toast from then on for his lack of assistance during this event.

President Carter did later agree to a military rescue attempt. However, this attempt failed to rescue the hostages and cost more American lives. The logistics of getting a Special Forces team into Tehran, then getting them back out with the hostages was most likely an epic undertaking that was destined to fail from the onset.

Philip McTigue believes that with the weak diplomacy efforts of President Carter during the Iran hostage crisis in conjunction with his severely poor judgment displayed during other crises the Americans faced, it was a dark period for American morale. America looked weak, American had acted weak, and America had appeared incapable of protecting or rescuing their citizens. American also displayed a lack of leadership and resilience that so many Americans had come to expect after World War II. With the start of our assistance to the Shah of Iran and letting him enter the United States, President Jimmy Carter engaged in decision making that eventually led to his not being re-elected as President of the United States. The next President, President Ronald Reagan would begin his foreign policy with no doubt to the Americans or the Iranians that diplomacy was going to change. President Reagan and his successor began to run American foreign diplomacy with toughness and a stance that suggested anymore attacks on American property or soil would be met with force. This contrasted with President Jimmy Carter’s policies.