A U.S. - Iran War? Some History

Al Globus, October 2007
Recent news articles claim that:
  1. there are three U.S. aircraft carriers near Iran,
  2. naval air is not used much in Iraq,
  3. the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is an admiral with expertise in naval air attacks on land targets,
  4. many conservatives are urging President Bush to attack Iran, and
  5. the Pentagon has drawn up a plan to bomb Iranian targets believed to be involved in supporting the Iraq insurgency.
Furthermore, there are lots of articles in the press about how terrible Iran and its hard-line president are. Whenever the U.S. is preparing to bomb, invade, or overthrow some government there is usually a media campaign of vilification to prepare the American people for war. These campaigns sometimes have a bit of truth in them, and usually feature innuendo, speculation, misleading-statements, falsehoods, and, occasionally, outright lies. Remember the administration's pre-invasion insistence that Iraq was full of weapons of mass destruction (false) and the use of mushroom-cloud imagery (misleading)?

In Iran's case, note how the current Iranian president is painted as a 'Hitler' and the many articles about how awful he is. This may be true, but dial back a few years to when a relative moderate was the Iranian president. Look at those articles. Nearly every one contained a paragraph about how the Iranian president had very little power, that the religious leaders actually controlled everything, and even though the previous Iranian president seemed like a decent guy, it didn't matter. The powers of the Iranian presidency haven't changed, but how often do you see the Iran's-president-is-almost-powerless story today?

Now bombing a country is an act of war and Iran is well positioned to strike back by, for example:

  1. cutting the supply lines for U.S. troops in Iraq, which run through territory right next to Iran and dominated by Iraqis with close ties to Iran (see map).
  2. start an insurgency in western Afghanistan, which is pretty quiet right now (see the same map).
  3. cutting the supply of oil through the Strait of Hormuz (see the map here) which carries about 20-25% of the world's oil. Iran surrounds the strait on three sides. Press reports a year ago or so claimed that Iran has 1100 Exocet anti-ship missiles. Only one American ship has been attacked by an Exocet, fired by an Iraqi warplane, the USS Stark. The Stark was struck, heavily damaged, and 37 sailors died.
Before going to war with Iran, it might be a good idea to know the history of relations between the two countries. Here's what I know:
  1. Before 1953 there was a general feeling of Iranian goodwill towards America, in part because the U.S. paid much higher oil royalties to Saudi Arabia than British Petroleum paid to Iran [Kinzer 2003].
  2. In 1953 the Eisenhower administration sent Kermit Roosevelt to Iran with a lot of cash and instructions to overthrow their democratically elected government. The government was overthrown and replaced by the Shah, previously the constitutional monarch [Kinzer 2003].
  3. Between 1953 and 1979 the U.S. supported the Shah, who ran a typically repressive dictatorship.
  4. In 1979 the Shah was overthrown and a group of students supported by the post-revolutionary Islamic regime captured and held roughly 60 U.S. diplomats hostage for a year and a half [wikipedia].
  5. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran [wikipedia] starting an eight year war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians, many with poison gas. The U.S. supported Iraq by
    1. supplying satellite imagery of Iran troop concentrations
    2. supplying materials for poison gas production
    3. sinking Iranian ships [Daniel 2001, page 216]
    4. bombarding Iranian coastal facilities [Daniel 2001, page 216]
  6. The U.S. also shot down an Iranian civilian Boeing 747 killing 290 people [answers.com]. The U.S. said it was an accident and issued a note of regret.
  7. Iran was among the first Muslim nations to denounce the 9/11 attack.
  8. Iran cooperated with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
  9. Shortly thereafter, President Bush labeled Iran a member of the 'axis of evil'.
  10. For the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran offered to help if any American pilots were forced down in Iran territory.
  11. The U.S. has accused Iran of developing an atomic bomb, and Iran does have a significant nuclear development program which they claim is for peaceful purposes only. America has threatened to bomb Iranian nuclear sites.
  12. Recently, the U.S. administration has accused Iran of supporting the Iraq insurgency, claiming that some attacks are too sophisticated for the Iraqis to pull off. Little evidence has been made public.
  13. Recently, the U.S. has arrested several Iranians in Iraq over the objection of the Iraqi national and Kurdish regional government, who had invited those arrested. Some were released and others are still in custody.
  14. The U.S. has been accused of supporting Iranian groups in Iraq that call for the overthrow of the Iranian government and launch attacks within Iran alternet.org.
Note: if there are errors, omissions or better references, please contact me at AlGlobus @ gmail.com with good data.

Unfortunately, the history of America and Iran hurting each other is pretty clear: America attacked first and has hit by far the hardest and the most often.

America is involved in counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan today. The new U.S. Army and Marine Corp Counterinsurgency Field Manual warns that killing five insurgents is a defeat if collateral damage recruits 50 more. How many insurgents will bombing Iran recruit?


[Daniel 2001] Elton L. Daniel, The History of Iran

[Kinzer 2003] Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men - An American Cop and the Roots of Middle East Terror.

Also see my earlier article on Iran in 2006