The U.S. & Iran

December 11, 2007

Student readings explore the complex relationship between the U.S. & Iran, including controversy stemming from the recent finding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program.

On December 3, 2007, the U.S. released a National Intelligence Estimate stating "with high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003—reversing a 2005 finding. The new report raised questions about President Bush's policy on Iran and his recent comments about that nation. The first student reading below deals with these events. The second provides background information on Iran. The third states the views of the Bush administration and its critics about the major issues dividing the two countries. The fourth offers background on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the U.S.'s inconsistent observance of it.

See "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons" on this website for additional student readings on major nuclear issues, including with Iran.

Student Reading 1:

Iran's nuclear program

In February 2003 the world learned from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran had been working for years on a secret nuclear program. Iranian leaders insisted that the program was strictly for peaceful purposes. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, declared that nuclear weapons are "un-Islamic."

But the U.S. and other members of the UN Security Council were suspicious. Suspicions mounted when Iran refused to allow IAEA inspectors into certain sites. The Security Council then began efforts to make a deal with Iran that would satisfy its civilian needs and prevent it from creating nuclear weapons in the future.

In 2005 a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which is a consensus view of all 16 American spy agencies, declared that it assessed "with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." UN Security Council meetings with Iran continued. Iran's nuclear program included uranium enrichment with centrifuges. These machines spin very rapidly to concentrate or enrich a form of uranium. The resulting materials can be used for nuclear reactors to produce energy for civilian purposes—or, in time, to create nuclear weapons.

In December 2006 the Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iran because Iranian leaders refused to stop this enrichment process. Iran's leaders maintained, correctly, that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which most nations approved years ago, gives them the right to enrich uranium (for peaceful purposes). But they did not explain their secrecy.

President Bush repeatedly warned of Iran's nuclear weapons threat. In an October 2007 news conference, he declared that Iran's nuclear weapons program might lead to World War III. Later that month he spoke of the need "to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat." The U.S. announced additional sanctions on Iran, targeting individuals as well as companies and state-owned banks.

On December 3, 2007, American intelligence agencies released another NIE, which was based on new information that had been collected months earlier. It contradicted the 2005 NIE and contained a huge surprise: "We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons." But, with "high confidence," the NIE now declared, "Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure." The report added that intelligence agencies "do not know whether it [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

President Bush said the next day that Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, had advised him in August about new intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program but did not explain it in detail. He said he had not received the drastically different intelligence assessment until the week before it was made public. "That's not believable," said Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the foreign relations committee and a Delaware Democrat now running for president.

Why had the president been warning ominously of an Iranian nuclear threat months after intelligence agencies had changed their earlier assessment? White House Press secretary Dana Perino said that McConnell had warned the president in August that "new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time."

The president said, "I view this [new NIE] report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. And the reason why it's a warning signal is that they could restart it. And the thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium." The international community needs "to pressure the Iranian regime to suspend its program."

This did not satisfy the president's critics. Said David Albright, a former IAE weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security: "Bush has made a big mistake, and he's not responding in a way that gives confidence that he's on top of this. He isn't able to respond because he's not able to say he's wrong." (New York Times, 12/6/07)

Flynt Leverett, a former member of the National Security Council under President Bush, said, "The really uncomfortable part for the administration, aside from the embarrassment, is the policy implication. The dirty secret is the administration has never put on the table an offer to negotiate with Iran the issues that would really matter: their own security, the legitimacy of the Islamic republic and Iran's place in the regional order." (New York Times, 12/5/07)

Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the IAEA, said that the NIE "tallies with the [IAEA's] consistent statements over the last few years—that although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activity, the agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran."

ElBaradei had said earlier, "I would hope we would stop spinning and hyping the Iranian issue. The earlier we follow the North Korea model, the better for everybody." He was referring to what appear to be successful diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Both U.S. and foreign officials said the new NIE means that imposing additional international sanctions on Iran will now become much more difficult.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What reasons are there for suspicion about Iran's nuclear program?

3. What differences are there between the 2005 and 2007 NIE reports?

4. What is President Bush's view of the new NIE?

5. What is Dr. ElBaradei's view of the new NIE?

6. What criticisms do Albright and Leverett make? Is each justified? Why or why not?

7. Why do officials think that imposing more sanctions on Iran will now be unlikely?


Student Reading 2:

Background on Iran

Some facts

Iran is a Middle East country about the size of Alaska with a population of 65.4 million, a majority of whom are Shiite Muslims and ethnically Persian.

Iran's huge oil and natural gas reserves at a time of growing demand for both and its location on the Persian Gulf through which ships carry a great deal of the world's oil make it a major player in the global economy. A U.S. attack on Iran would have many serious consequences. One would probably be an interruption in the flow of oil from the Middle East.

Iran's economy is a fraction of America's. Its military spending is less than one-hundredth of U.S. military spending.
The people of other nearby Muslim countries are predominately Sunni Arabs, many of whom are not especially friendly to Shiite Persian Iran. The only exceptions among Arab countries are Iraq and Syria.

Iran has not invaded another country for more than 200 years.

Iran's government violates human rights and prevents the development of civil society by imprisoning journalists and other writers, dissidents and pro-democracy activists. Iranian women charge that Iran's laws make them second-class citizens.

Capsule history of U.S.-Iran relations in the past half-century

In 1953 a democratically-elected Iranian government nationalized ownership of Iranian oil reserves, ending British control of them and compensating Britain. The Eisenhower administration mounted a successful CIA operation to overthrow this government. It then supported the installation of the Shah as Iran's ruler. U.S. companies gained from him a 40% share in Iran's oil riches.

Many Iranians hated the Shah's regime, especially its brutal secret police. In 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolution that ousted the Shah and established strict Shiite clerical rule. Demonstrators seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held diplomats hostage for more than a year. Since that time the U.S. has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran.

Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, launched an Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and began a war that ended inconclusively in 1988. The Reagan administration supported Iraq with military intelligence and weapons despite its knowledge that Iraq was using chemical weapons against both Iranian troops and Kurds in northern Iraq. Fearing imprisonment or worse, many Iraqi Shiite leaders, like its current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, fled to Shiite Iran. Today they continue to have close ties with its clerical leaders.

But because Al Qaeda and the Taliban of Afghanistan were common enemies, Iran supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and provided aid. According to Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times (1/21/07): "In 2003, even after President Bush named Iran as one of the countries in his 'axis of evil,' Iran sent the U.S. a detailed message, offering to work together to capture terrorists, to stabilize Iraq, to resolve nuclear disputes, to withdraw military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and to moderate its position on Israel, in exchange for the U.S. lifting sanctions and warming up to Iran." The U.S. did not respond. (For Kristof's documentation see


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How would you explain why the U.S. subverted the Iranian government in 1953? Why Iranian demonstrators seized the U.S. embassy and took hostages in 1979? Why the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its war on Iran in the 1980s? Why the U.S. rejected the Iranian offer of 2003? In each case, if you don't know enough, how might you find out more?

3. Why does Iran, a relatively small country, receive so much U.S. attention? Why did President Bush include it in the "axis of evil"? How does your explanation help to explain Iranian-American relations over the past half-century?


Student Reading 3:

The Bush administration Iranian policy—and its critics

Major issues now divide Iran and the U.S. The U.S. charges that Iran is:

  • Creating through uranium enrichment the possibility of restarting a nuclear weapons program, which is the major reason for U.S. sanctions.
  • Interfering in Iraq by supporting Shiite militia, attempting to destabilize the Iraqi government and supplying Iraqi insurgents with "explosively formed projectiles" (EFPs), powerful roadside bombs that kill American troops. (In November 2007 military officials said that EFPs were much less in evidence and that Iran appeared to be responding to U.S. complaints.)
  • Supporting forces the U.S. views as terrorists with money and weapons-specifically, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Critics' views of Bush Administration policy toward Iran

Why would Iran attempt to destabilize a friendly Shiite Iraqi government led by Nuri al-Maliki? Bush administration critics ask. Al-Maliki and Iranian leaders have reached economic, political, and military agreements, including one that will link by pipeline the two countries' oil reserves. "The crux of the Bush Administration's strategic dilemma is that its decision to back a Shiite-led government after the fall of Saddam has empowered Iran, and made it impossible to exclude Iran from the Iraqi political scene." (Seymour Hersh, "Shifting Targets," The New Yorker, 10/8/07)

Another link between the two countries, writes Peter Galbraith in New York Review, is the Badr Organization, "a militia founded, trained, armed, and financed by Iran. When U.S. forces ousted Saddam's regime from the south in early April 2003, the Badr Organization infiltrated from Iran to fill the void left by the Bush administration's failure to plan for security and governance in post-invasion Iraq."

In the following months, says Galbraith, U.S. officials "appointed Badr Organization leaders to key positions in Iraq's American-created army and police." They also "appointed party officials from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq to be governors and serve on [their] councils throughout southern Iraq. This Council was recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and the Badr Organization is the militia associated with it. (Peter Galbraith, "The Victor?" New York Review, 10/11/07)
The accuracy of the charge that Iran supports terrorists depends upon who is defining "terrorists." From the Iranian point of view, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories are freedom fighters resisting Israeli invaders and occupiers of Lebanese and Palestinian land. The Taliban are fundamentalist Sunnis who are unlikely to be receiving support from Iran's Shiite clerical leaders. The U.S. supports Afghan President Karzai, who is also supported by ethnic groups like the Hazara that have close ties with Iran.

Critics argue that the U.S. did not object to what Iranian leaders would regard as terrorism during the summer of 2006 when the Israeli army and air force devastated Lebanon in their pursuit of Hezbollah fighters who had captured Israeli soldiers. Israeli bombs killed many civilians, destroyed Lebanese homes, apartment houses, roads, bridges and dumped tons of oil into the Mediterranean Sea. Israel also dropped a million cluster bomblets into Lebanon that are still capable of killing people.

Critics also say the Bush Administration is hypocritical. It has ties to two Muslim Kurdish groups in northern Iraq listed by the State Department as terrorists. Juan Cole writes in the Nation: "The U.S. military, beholden to Iraqi Kurds for support, permits several thousand fighters of the PKK terrorist organization, which bombs people in Turkey, to make safe harbor in Iraqi Kurdistan." The PKK recently killed a number of Turkish soldiers. The Bush Administration has also tolerated "the expatriate Iranian Mjahedeen-e-Khalq, which works to foment violence in Iran." (Juan Cole, "Combating Muslim Extremism, The Nation, 11/19/07)

"We will never know if we can succeed in negotiating with Iran until we try," wrote Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, in The Nation. "Only Washington can offer Tehran what it really seeks: decontainment and reintegration into the Middle East. Iran wants a seat at the table and a say as a legitimate player in all regional decision-making. Iran can make it costly for the United States not to recognize it as a regional power.

"Creating a new regional order, in which the carrot of Iranian inclusion is used to secure radically different behavior from Tehran, is neither a concession to Iran nor a capitulation of American interests. Rather, it is a recognition that stability in the region cannot be achieved and sustained though the current strategy of pursuing an order based on the exclusion of one of the region's most powerful nations. To change Iran's behavior, we must change our own." (Trita Parsi, "The Iranian Challenge," The Nation, 11/19/07)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why did the U.S. recently impose additional economic sanctions on Iran? What do you think the Bush Administration hopes to gain by them?

3. What is the relationship between the governments of Iran and Iraq and how do you explain it? How does this relationship complicate U.S.-Iraq relations?

4. Another complicated matter is terrorism and the U.S.-Iran relationship. Do you view Iran as a supporter of terrorism? The U.S.? Explain.

5. Do you agree with Trita Parsi's final sentence? Why or why not?


Student Reading 4:

Nuclear weapons complications

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was created in 1970. Its primary aim is "to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology-and to further the goal of the nuclear disarmament." At the time five nations had nuclear weapons-the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China.

Under the NPT, non-nuclear nations agreed not to manufacture or import nuclear weapons. The nuclear nations agreed (1) to provide non-nuclear nations with the technology and help they needed to develop nuclear power for civilian use; 2) to permit uranium enrichment for nuclear power plants and the generation of energy for peaceful purposes; and (3) to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

Of the 183 nations that have ratified the NPT, none but the original five have nuclear weapons today. But several countries not participating in the NPT have developed nuclear weapons since 1970: India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. The first three nations never ratified the NPT. North Korea did, but resigned its membership after its nuclear program, a violation of the NPT, became public.

U.S. government behavior toward nations that developed, or are accused of developing, nuclear weapons has been inconsistent. The U.S. lifted its sanctions against India and Pakistan some time ago though the two nations have nuclear weapons stockpiles. It has been working in recent years toward a nuclear agreement with India that would allow sales of nuclear fuel and technology to that nation, a violation of the NPT. Pakistan has gotten billions of dollars from the U.S. for its military in the "war on terror." Israel, an ally of the U.S., has also received billions in military aid.

On the other hand, the U.S. has for years conducted an economic boycott against North Korea, one of the three nations in President Bush's stated "axis of evil." But the U.S. and five Asian nations have had off-and-on negotiations with North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons that now seem close to success.

President Bush has accused the other two "axis of evil" nations of developing nuclear weapons. According to the president, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was aimed in part against its nuclear weapons program. But Iraq proved not to have one. And now Iran is suspected of nuclear weapons ambitions and under a tightening economic boycott.

The original nuclear weapons powers—the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China have never worked seriously to meet their NPT commitment—"to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

"Perhaps the grandest illusion of the nuclear age is that a handful of states possessing nuclear weapons can secure themselves and the world indefinitely against the dangers of nuclear proliferation without placing a higher priority on simultaneously striving to eliminate their own nuclear weapons, too," wrote George Perkovich, an expert on nuclear weapons proliferation, in the conclusion of his book, India's Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation .

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have said little, in most cases nothing, about the U.S.-Iran relationship over the past 50 years. They have concentrated almost exclusively on Iran's nuclear program. Why do you suppose this is so? What difference might it make in a candidate's statements if he or she considered the nuclear program in the history of that relationship?

3. Based on what you know, do you judge Iran to be a military threat to the U.S.? The Middle East? The world? Why or why not?

4. How would you explain the inconsistent behavior since 1970 of U.S. governments toward nations with, or accused of developing, nuclear weapons?

5. How would you explain the failure of the original nuclear weapons powers to live up to their NPT commitment?

6. What does George Perkovich think are the consequences of this failure? What evidence is there to support his view?


For inquiry

The readings suggest many subjects for possible further inquiry, among them the following. Have students first prepare one or more questions to guide their inquiry. See "Thinking Is Questioning" for suggestions about a question-asking process.

  • presidential candidates' views of U.S. policy on Iran
  • U.S. overthrow of the 1953 Iranian government
  • U.S. support for the Shah
  • 1979 Iranian revolution
  • 1979-1981 hostage crisis
  • U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war
  • Hezbollah
  • Hamas
  • Iraq-Iran relationship
  • Israel-Iran relationship
  • Nuclear weapons issues raised by the readings


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: