Death to America?

What you need to know about Iran and the US.

An Iranian hardliner wearing a death shroud burns a US flag outside the British embassy in Tehran in 2004 [Getty]
An Iranian hardliner wearing a death shroud burns a US flag outside the British embassy in Tehran in 2004 [Getty]

As the deadline for a nuclear deal between Iran and the United States looms, plenty of Americans are understandably sceptical. Many of them have probably watched images of Iranian mobs burning US flags and chants of “Death to America” at mass rallies in Tehran and wondered to themselves: “Why do they hate us?”

Well, the good is news is “they” don’t. According to the Atlantic Monthly, “A 2009 World Public Opinion poll found that 51 percent of Iranians hold a favourable opinion of Americans, a number consistent with other polls, meaning that Americans are more widely liked in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle East.”

Nevertheless, those Iranians have very legitimate grievances against the United States, real reasons to distrust Uncle Sam and dislike US foreign policy. Yet their reasons, these grievances, are often airbrushed from the Western – and, in particular, American – media narrative about US-Iran relations.

Iran nuclear talks resume days before deal deadline

Don’t get me wrong: The United States has plenty of grievances against Iran as well, from the hostage crisis of 1979-1981; to the Hezbollah attack on the US Marine barracks in 1983, which killed 241 US personnel; to the alleged Iranian-backed attacks on US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; to the ongoing incarceration in Iran of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian. 

And let’s be clear: Aside from its dealings with the US, the self-styled Islamic republic has much to answer for in terms of rights abuses: from brutal repression at home – against the opposition Green Movement, the Ahwazi Arabs and the Bahais, among others – to brazen support for the Assad killing machine abroad.

So, yes, US officials distrust the Iranians. But Iranian officials distrust the Americans – and with good reason. To pretend that Iran is an irrational actor, or plagued with an irrational or inexplicable hatred of the US, is absurd and ahistorical. As even Bill Clinton conceded, back in 1999, that Iran “has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations… I think sometimes it’s quite important to tell people, ‘Look, you have a right to be angry at something my country … did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago'”.

To pretend that Iran is an irrational actor, or plagued with an irrational or inexplicable hatred of the United States, is absurd and ahistorical.


Well, here are seven things that I’d argue Iranians have every right to be angry about, in relation to the US and they don’t, incidentally, require us to go back “100 or 150 years”.

1953: The coup

You might think the US would support democracy in Iran, right? Wrong. In 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh became Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister. Yet he made the mistake of nationalising Iran’s oil industry, which had previously been under British control, and cut off diplomatic ties with the UK. In 1953, at the instigation of Britain’s MI6, and with the approval of US President Dwight D Eisenhower, the CIA orchestrated a plot, in the form of Operation Ajax, to remove Mossadegh from office.

Iran’s democratic experiment was, effectively, over. Mossadegh, a hugely popular figure, was confined to house arrest until his death in 1967, while the CIA-orchetrated coup against him sowed the seeds for the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Shamelessly, the US denied any involvement until then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conceded in a speech on US-Iran relations in 2000 that “the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh” and “the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development”. She concluded that it was “easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs”.

The CIA, meanwhile, waited till the 60th anniversary of the coup, in 2013, to publicly admit: “The military coup that overthrew Mossadegh … was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.”

Thousands of Iranians mark the 23rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution by chanting 'Death to America' in Tehran [Getty]
Thousands of Iranians mark the 23rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution by chanting ‘Death to America’ in Tehran [Getty]

1953-79: The shah and SAVAK

Following the coup, the Shah of Iran was sustained in power by the US as a pro-Western, anti-communist absolute monarch, until he was overthrown in 1979. To quote Albright once again: “[T]he United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah’s regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah’s government also brutally repressed political dissent.”

That’s an understatement. In March 1975, the Sunday Times of London, reporting on a study by Amnesty International, declared that “no country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran”.

Formed with the assistance of the CIA and Israel’s Mossad in 1957, the shah’s secret police, SAVAK, had, by the 1970s, become the backbone of his brutal royal dictatorship. As Time magazine observed in 1979: “With virtually unlimited powers to arrest and interrogate, SAVAK has tortured and murdered thousands of the shah’s opponents.”

Yet throughout this period, the US government offered unqualified support for the shah, while turning a blind eye to his egregious human rights abuses. Consider the now-notorious statement made by then President Jimmy Carter on a visit to Tehran, a mere 18 months before the revolution.

Anti -Iraqi mural in Tehran in 1987 [Getty]
Anti -Iraqi mural in Tehran in 1987 [Getty]

“Iran,” Carter claimed, “because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world”.

1980: Saddam Hussein’s invasion

“It’s a pity they can’t both lose,” Henry Kissinger is said to have quipped, in relation to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which led to the death of around one million Iranians.

Yet there are plenty of credible voices who have argued that the US, from the very beginning, was on the side of Iraq and of Saddam Hussein, who launched his invasion of Iran in September 1980.

Gary Sick, who served on the US National Security Council under President Carter, has said that Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski “saw the Iraqi attack as a potentially positive development that would put pressure on Iran to release [the US] hostages”.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Iranians held candle-lit vigils for the US victims of al-Qaeda; the mayor of Tehran sent his condolences to the mayor of New York.


Under Ronald Reagan, support for Saddam’s war against Iran became much more pronounced and explicit. The Reagan administration, reported the New York Times in 1992, “decided to provide highly classified intelligence to Iraq in the spring of 1982 … while also permitting the sale of American-made arms to Baghdad in a successful effort to help President Saddam Hussein avert imminent defeat in the war with Iran”.

Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to make nice with Saddam and made his position on the conflict quite clear to aides and officials: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.”

1988: Chemical weapons

In April 1988, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army began an operation to retake the al-Faw peninsula from the Iranians, launching sarin attacks that killed thousands.  

These Iraqi attacks on Iranian positions, using banned chemical weapons, were facilitated by the US. In 2013, Foreign Policy magazine revealed that: “US intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent… The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on US satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence.”

In fact, the Reagan administration had become aware five years earlier, in 1983, that the Saddam regime was using banned chemical weapons in its war against Iran, yet US officials continued to offer satellite imagery and other support to the Iraqi military. As retired US Air Force Colonel Rick Francona, a former military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 operation, told Foreign Policy: “The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew.”

US President Ronald Reagan [Getty]
US President Ronald Reagan [Getty]

According to a report by Time magazine, “Iran is today the world’s largest laboratory for the study of the effects of chemical weapons, in part because of the sheer numbers of Iranian victims.” Civilians and veterans of the conflict continue to lose their lives having been exposed to nerve agents in the 1980s. The country, as the Time magazine headline reminded us in 2014, is “still haunted and influenced by chemical weapons attacks”.

1988: The USS Vincennes

On July 31988, a US navy ship called the Vincennes shot down Iran Air 655, killing all 290 people onboard. Almost all of them were Iranians; 66 were children.

The US government claimed that the Vincennes had misidentified the Iranian civilian airliner as an approaching Iranian fighter jet. It took four years for the US to admit the Vincennes had been in Iranian, and not international, waters, as was (falsely) claimed in the immediate aftermath. It took eight years for US officials to express “deep regret” and pay compensation to the Iranian government and the victims’ families.

US officials, however, refused to accept any legal liability for the incident and have never formally apologised. In fact, George H W Bush, who was running for president in 1988, declared, in reference to the Vincennes: “I will never apologise for the United States … I don’t care what the facts are.”

Astonishingly, in 1990, to add insult to injury, William C Rogers, the captain of the Vincennes, was given the Legion of Merit award “for exceptionally meritorious conduct … as commanding officer … from April 1987 to May 1989”.

Iranians haven’t forgotten the Vincennes, and many still believe it was a deliberate attack on their nation. Yet, in the US, “a quarter century later, the Vincennes is almost completely forgotten”, wrote Slate’s Fred Kaplan in 2014, “but it still ranks as the world’s seventh deadliest air disaster … and one of the Pentagon’s most inexcusable disgraces”.

2002: ‘Axis of Evil’

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Iranians held candle-lit vigils for the US victims of al-Qaeda; the mayor of Tehran sent his condolences to the mayor of New York. The subsequent US attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan was aided and abetted by the Iranians, who funded and armed the Northern Alliance forces on the ground. James F.Dobbins, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator on Afghanistan in late 2001, remarked that Iran was “comprehensively helpful” in the aftermath of 9/11 and that “bilateral US-Iranian contacts produced the most significant cooperation since the 1979 revolution”.

Yet, in January 2002, President George W Bush, in his State of the Union address, rewarded Iran for its cooperation and assistance by including the country in his “Axis of Evil”, alongside Iraq and North Korea. It was, wrote Dobbins, “surprising payback for Tehran’s help” against the Taliban.

Veteran NBC news foreign correspondent Andrea Mitchell agrees. Until the “Axis of Evil” speech, said Mitchell in January 2014, Iran had been working with the US to secure post-Taliban Afghanistan and was, she argued, “more or less an American ally”. The inclusion of Iran in the “Axis of Evil”, however, turned the country in “a completely different direction”, against the US. For Mitchell, “it was a turning point in American politics and foreign policy”.

Or as former US diplomat Ryan Crocker, who had been tasked with negotiating with the Iranians over Afghanistan and had been making good progress up until that point, later put it: “One word in one speech changed history.”

2010- ?: Sweeping sanctions

Iran has faced US sanctions since the 1979 revolution but under Barack Obama, who came to office pledging to “extend” his hand to Tehran and has since been accused by his Republican critics of being “too soft” on Iran, the US now has the “most sweeping sanctions on Iran of virtually any country in the world”, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.

The human cost of these sanctions – deemed “crippling” even by anti-regime Iranian dissidents – are often overlooked or downplayed in the West, where the focus is only on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme and keeping the US-led international sanctions regime intact as long as possible.

Yet, as the Economist magazine acknowledged in October 2012, “As sanctions have become increasingly punitive in the face of Iran’s intransigence, it is ordinary Iranians who are paying the price… Despite subsidies intended to help the poor, prices for staples, such as milk, bread, rice, yogurt and vegetables, have at least doubled since the beginning of the year. Chicken has become so scarce that when scant supplies become available they prompt riots.”

In January 2013, the Guardian reported that “hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by … sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs”.

But these are unintended consequences, right? Not according to US Congressman Brad Sherman: “Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”

So, Iranian anti-Americanism? It’s completely irrational and inexplicable, eh?

Mehdi Hasan is an award-winning British journalist, author, social commentator and the presenter of Head to Head.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.