For many, the nuclear agreement reached with Iran in 2015 seemed like a glimmer of hope. In the United States, it was a sign of easing tensions between two countries that lacked any bit of understanding for most of the last half-century. But four years later, and nearly a year and a half after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 pact, U.S.-Iran relations are just as vitriolic as they ever were.
In the last year, implications of the withdrawal have become evident through Iran’s shift in strategy. Iran’s reneging of its nuclear commitments following Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, the alleged bombing of Saudi Arabian oil facilities, the attack on two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the downing of a U.S. drone and Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s refusal to negotiate with U.S. officials have been characterised by public officials and the news media as aggression necessitating a U.S. military response.
Professor of Media Studies Gregory Shupak argued in an article for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) that the U.S. media is responsible for encouraging a “climate for war” with Iran.
“US/Iran relations are presented as a series of attacks by Iran against the US and its partners—first oil tankers, and then a US drone—which encourages people to see Iran as a violent aggressor that needs to be dealt with violently,” Shupak wrote.
Trump’s campaign of economic sanctions is being called “maximum pressure” – implying that Iran is an enemy that can only be handled with an extreme strategy. However, Iran regards this strategy as “economic terrorism,” giving the Iranian people something on which to blame their economic woes. Khamenei said on November 3rd that the Islamic Republic would not hold talks with the United States, continuing the current standoff. These terms are indicative of the big picture of Iran-U.S. relations.
This hostile rhetoric between their leaders has affected the public opinion of both Iranians and Americans. The percentage of Iranians who say they have an unfavorable view of the United States is higher than any point in the last 13 years. U.S. nationals seem to feel the same, with up to 82 percent saying they have a generally unfavorable opinion of Iran.
The current bitterness is just the most recent example in a history of failed diplomacy and misunderstanding between the United States and Iran, which can be illustrated through statements from the two governments, propaganda, and the media.
To understand the intricacies in Iran and the United States’ relationship, you have to start in 1953.
That year, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, was overthrown in a military coup. Advocating in favour of the nationalisation of the oil industry – much to the dismay of the United States and Great Britain – and removing foreign interests from Iran, Mossadegh was extremely popular with the Iranian people. Consequently, the United States and the U.K. induced a coup that brought Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was exiled after his attempt to dismiss Mossadegh, back into power.
Six years ago, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency publicly confirmed their involvement in this coup, revealing that the mission was part of U.S. foreign policy objectives to reestablish the U.S.-sympathetic Shah. The coup efforts began shortly after Mossadegh’s election, which ranged from propaganda campaigns meant to weaken the administration to organising large protests against the prime minister.
Two weeks before the coup took place, the New York Times published an article on one of Mossadegh’s initiatives to dissolve the Iranian Parliament. Titled “Iranian Fantasy,” the article opens: “A plebiscite more fantastic and farcical than any ever held under Hitler or Stalin is now being stage in Iran by Premier Mossadegh in an effort to make himself unchallenged dictator of the country.”
The Times goes on to compare Mossadegh’s techniques to those used by Nazis and Communists.
The 1953 coup is still at the root of Iran’s conflict with the United States. In 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demanded that the U.S. apologise for the crimes committed in the coup. And, it has been cited as a main reason as to why Iran will not hold talks with the U.S. government to renegotiate the nuclear deal.
On November 3rd, Khameini said the United States has not changed since 1964 – when the Shah sent his predecessor into exile – and that it is “the same wolf, the dictator, the same evil that knows no borders.”
In 1979, the last nail was hammered into the coffin of U.S.-Iran relations.
Whilst the 1953 coup is cited by many Iranians as the crux of the distrust between Iran and the United States, the U.S. claim it to be the hostage crisis.
When the Shah – deposed in the 1979 Islamic Revolution – was admitted to an American hospital, Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy complex in Tehran and demanded that he be returned to Iran to face punishment. More than a year later, 444 days to be exact, the 52 Americans held hostage in the embassy were finally released, but diplomatic ties between the two countries were cut off, and have been ever since. To this day, there is no Iranian embassy in the United States and vice versa.
In the United States, news coverage of the hostage crisis led to increased interest in international news and changed the TV cable news cycle to resemble what it looks like today. Americans were provided with constant coverage of the crisis for the course of the 444 days. According to Professor of Journalism Peter Feuerherd, the hostage crisis allowed Iran to control the narrative Americans received in their news coverage by “stag[ing] massive demonstrations and selectively allow[ing] hostages to be interviewed.”
When there was no news about the hostages themselves, “experts” would explain the Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolution. As researcher and author of “Iran Reframed,” Narges Bajoghli explains on Twitter, the way this coverage was presented led to the dominant image of Iran as “a country ‘possessed by madness’ & Iranians blinded by religious fervor.”
The Current Day
Despite their troubled history, Iran-U.S. relations looked like they might improve with the 2015 negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. CNN called the deal a “landmark” and said it precipitated “optimism.”
But an op-ed from John Bolton – Trump’s current National Security Advisor – in 2015, just before the deal was finalised, emerged with the headline “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” In the article, Bolton outlines what facilities should be attacked to prevent Iran from continuing its nuclear program.
“An attack need not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program by three to five years,” he wrote.
Since Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and the increasing tension between Iran and the U.S., media coverage has become explicitly pro-war. A New York Times op-ed by Bret Stephens last June, after the attack on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, contended that “If Iran won’t change its behavior, we should sink its navy.” Stephens goes on to describe Iran’s regime as “piratical” and describes the proper response as “swift consequences” calling the Navy to “engage and destroy” Iranian vessels that fail to comply with U.S. rules of engagement.
“We would be right to sink its navy, in port or at sea,” Stephens added.
Three months later in an interview on MSNBC, Stephens reiterated, “In 1987 we sank the Iranian navy without any consequences for the U.S. We could do it again.”
In June, the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal called the tanker attacks “sophisticated,” and Iran the “primary threat to stability in the Middle East.” An op-ed by Eli Lake in Bloomberg said “Iran has waged its own war against the U.S. and its allies for decades,” adding that “Iran’s bellicosity […] has been a feature of Iranian statecraft since the 1979 revolution.”
Shupak argued that allowing statements like these to be disseminated in mainstream media “normalizes imperialist aggression.”
Coverage of Iranian strategy is reflective of the dominant viewpoint in the Trump administration that military aggression is necessary to weaken Iran. The supposed Iranian bombing of Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities was called an “act of war” by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and President Trump just narrowly backed out from retaliating militarily. The State Department is also accused of creating a disinformation campaign meant to target and discredit Iranian-American scholars and activists on Twitter.
CNN has pointed out the rhetoric in Washington outright, saying, “The US would win any conventional conflict in the short term, but should be wary that Iranian ingenuity (or deviousness, if you’re in Washington) will stop any conflict from being a ‘cakewalk.’”
What some see as ingenuity, the outlet says, the U.S. government calls deviousness, a word connoting clandestine attacks and nontraditional strategies.
Whilst Europe and Russia are attempting to find ways to maintain the nuclear deal despite America’s withdrawal, Iran is still gradually backing out of its original commitments as long as U.S. sanctions remain in effect. With no sign of back down, U.S. media outlets and Trump himself, usually through Twitter, have continued to build on more than a half-century of aggressive rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran.
If this vitriolic rhetoric remains a part of the dominant narrative in American media, cooperation between the United States and Iran will continue to be a remote possibility.