In the late 1980s the U.S. government had an opportunity to change its relationship with Iran from hostile to nonadversarial. It had been hostile since 1979, when the Islamic revolution overthrew the brutal U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Iranians held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.
The relationship deteriorated further when the Reagan administration helped Iraq after it attacked Iran and as the Iraqi forces used chemical weapons on the Iranians. During the war, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing the more than 200 people aboard. (On the other side, the Reagan administration sold arms to Iranians in an attempt to free American hostages in Lebanon and to finance aid to the Contras in Central America.)
Despite all this, reports Gareth Porter in his important new book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, change was in the air in 1989.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, died and was succeeded by the president, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Then Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the parliament, was elected president. His “victory brought to power a pragmatic conservative who was openly committed to integrating Iran into the global economic system,” Porter writes.
Meanwhile in the United States, George H.W. Bush had become president. Bush, Porter writes, “recognized the opportunity [for a new relationship] and pledged in his inaugural address … that Iran’s ‘assistance’ in the liberation of US hostages being held by a militant group in Lebanon would be ‘long remembered,’ adding, ‘Goodwill begets goodwill.’”
The Bush administration took steps toward normalization, and Iran went to work on freeing the hostages. On Dec. 4, 1991, the last American was freed.
“Reciprocal gestures” from the Americans, such as lifting some economic sanctions and removing Iran from the terrorist list, got a close look.
Then suddenly, in April 1992, the administration changed course.