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United States (US) and Iran initially has good relations in mid to end 19th century. However, sour relations emerged after the end of the Second World War when the Persian Gulf started exporting huge amounts of oil and the intrigues of the cold war started taking centre stage in international politics.

The good relationship between Iran and America was observed under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s rule but it took a turn for the worse after the Iranian revolution of 1979 (Lesch, 2003, p. 52). Some observers attribute the poor relations to American arrogance but others note that such conflict was unavoidable because of the wave of Islamic revolution (directed against Western domination) sweeping across many Muslim states (Dow Jones & Company, 2010, p. 3).

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One of the greatest hallmarks to Iran and US relations lies in the overthrow of Musdaqq in 1953 (Lesch, 2003, p. 52). Many observers are of the opinion that since the US gave a lot of support to the then leader, Muhammad Shah, and helped plan the 1953 coup (that brought Shah to power), many people supported anti-US/Western ideals which led to the 1979 Islamic revolution (Lesch, 2003, p. 52).

The strong anti-US sentiments were largely harbored by many Iranians because it was widely believed that the US orchestrated the 1953 coup to overthrow Musdaqq in order to gain control of Iran’s oil wealth and establish a dictatorship government at the same time (Gasiorowski, 2004, p. 261).

After the success of the coup and an establishment of Shah as the Iranian leader, the American government gave a lot of support to Shah’s government. In fact, during Shah’s first week in government, the US gave Iran more than $68million in emergency fund after which it followed by giving the oil rich nation more than $1.2 billion, the following decade (Gasiorowski, 2004, p. 273).

US-Iran relations thereafter became very rosy until Iran started getting a lot of money from its oil revenues (within the 1960-1970 periods). This development slowly diluted US’s influence in Iran and consequently made Shah develop a bad reputation in the West. Nonetheless, the support US government had been giving Shah over the past years mounted a lot of criticisms on Shah as an independent leader.

Unrest therefore grew in Iran over an upheaval of Western ideals in the nation. These sentiments later lead to the ousting of Shah in the 1979 Islamic revolution which also took the US by surprise. It is however interesting that six months prior to the revolution, the US had passed a verdict on Iran, saying that it was nowhere close to a revolution or prerevolutionary state (Gasiorowski, 2004). After the revolution, Ayatollah was established as Iran’s interim leader.

Ayatollah was predominantly against Western ideals; further soiling relations between America and Iran. Subsequent events saw Iranians take Americans hostage for 444 days; a development that greatly angered the US and resulted in trade restrictions and embargoes on Iran (Beisner, 2003, p. 1222). This was to be later followed by warfare; like the failed coup to rescue the American hostages and the 1983 Hezbollah bombings carried out by the US on terrorism grounds (Beisner, 2003, p. 1222).

In 1988, the US carried out more attacks on Iran because of the conflict on Iranian mines and also in the same year, the US shot down an Iranian commercial plane which killed more than 255 people including 66 children (Beeman, 2008, p. 132). Nonetheless, these attacks seized after Iranian reformers advocated for more negotiations with the US in solving the persistent wrangles between the two countries.

In 2005, Iran got a new president, Mahmud, Ahmadinejad who to a great extent bases his policies on religious principles and anti liberal policies.

US concerns on Iran’s nuclear programme has been top in the list, defining US -Iran relations because the US under the Bush government consistently accused Iran of enriching its Uranium deposits and insisted that Iran had to pay the consequences for such actions. This has been the biggest issue between Iran and America today. However, after the exit of George W. Bush and an entry of Obama into White house, the issues plaguing Iran and US relations have taken a milder form, considering Obama’s change in approach to Iran issues.

However, this is not to be assumed that the pertinent issues affecting the two countries have disappeared. In fact, after Obama took office, Iran raised a number of concerns which it wanted the US to look into; starting from the 1953 coup, US’s support for Saddam Hussein to attack Iran and US’s shooting down of commercial air flight 655 (Beeman, 2008, p. 132).

Collectively, many observers point out that the US has greatly shifted its policies towards Middle Eastern countries and the threat of a nuclear armed Iran has never created peace between the US and Iran. This study proposes that the threat of an oncoming war between the US and Iran is very real because there are a number of issues that still underlie the relationship between the two nations and they are still to be solved decades later.

These issues include Iran’s exportation of terrorism and funding of terrorist activities, US’s accusations that Iran holds weapons of mass destruction, Iran’s threats to its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s constant assertion that it wishes “death on America”, Iran’s persistent opposition towards a peaceful Arab-Israeli world, and Iran’s historical violation of human rights.

These concerns characterize the Iran-US conflict and its magnitude is slowly weighing down on the two countries by the year. However, this nature of conflict can be explained through a number of theories which will be employed in this study to explain the threat of war between the two countries. The bottom line however remains that there is a high likelihood of war between Iran and the US in the near future.

Realist Theory

The realist theory has been used for a long time to define how nations relate. It majorly revolves around the concepts of state-centrism, survival and self help (Spegele, 1996, p. 1). State-centrism is based on the theory that states are often autonomous entities and their actions are centrally dictated without the influence of external parties. In this manner, the realist theory downplays the influence of non-state actors but upholds the influence of the state in defining international relations.

The concept of survival notes that states are often motivated by selfish interests and would advance their own agendas without much consideration to other relevant factors. This concept also advances the fact that there is no central authority in international relations and states would often do whatever they wish without much control from external agents.

The self help concept notes that a nation state should rely much on itself without expecting much assistance from another state. This means that many nations rely upon their resources and capabilities to advance their own interests without expecting much assistance from other states (Spegele, 1996, pp. 1-5).

From the above analysis, we can deduce the fact that the realist theory to a significant degree outlines the sour relationship between the US and Iran. Also from the same framework of the realist theory, we can quantify the potential threat of war between the two nations.

Most of the actions exhibited by the US expose how much state-centrism characterizes Iran -US politics. Much of US’s actions, starting with the Iran coup of 1953 to the support given to Saddam by the US in attacking Iran are all signs of an all-powerful state.

The Influence of non-state actors and international institutions in this conflict is conspicuously absent because of the aggressive nature of the US in determining Iran politics for its own interests.

The 1953 coup was a clear example of the state-centric approach exhibited by the US because the US acted as a billiard ball in influencing Iranian politics. In fact, the actions by the US to orchestrate the coup can be largely seen as a distinct action by the US because no other state or international institution had much to do with the coup.

Also, the principle of survival can be observed from US’s interests in Iranian politics. Iran’s actions can also be viewed in the same manner because there is a deep-seated sense of anarchy governing the politics of Iran.

The 1953 coup and the Islamic revolution of 1979 is evidence enough of a lack of central authority in Iranian politics. Coups for example often occur because of a lack of central authority where people can express their grievances and at the same time, it also shows a lack of maturity for democratic processes in any country.

In advanced countries, the law and the constitution form the government, which later becomes the central authority. In this case, the existing laws that should set up the government should be the central authority to be respected by all prospective leaders but apparently, this seemed to be what Iran was lacking.

This observation prompted the coup and later, subsequent ousting of leaders from power followed. All these actions show a lack of central authority not only on the part of Iran but also on the part of the US. Actions by the US, for example, bombing the Iranian air flight and not apologizing for it, shows the extent to which states go to extreme levels to uphold their selfish interests.

The selfish interest being protected in this case is the domination by the US on Iranian politics in order to control Iranian oil reserves. Additionally, Iran’s enrichment of Uranium and allegations of uranium enrichment with consequential effects on US security also reflect on the selfish interests of the states.

From the analysis of the realist theory, we can therefore deduce the fact that states are usually very autonomous and operate within an anarchic international system of politics which is largely unregulated. The level of deregulation in international politics and indeed international relations advances the fact that Iran and US can certainly go into war because there are not many international bodies or third parties to stop them.

The realist theory also suggests that the two states are likely to go to unprecedented levels (including war) to safeguard their own interests and address their security concerns (Spegele, 1996, p. 3). This therefore means that both Iran and the US can be potentially be very aggressive and war wouldn’t come as a surprise to many.


Constructivism, developed as a result of the failure of the realist and neo realist approaches to predict the end of the cold war. Nonetheless, the theory emphasizes a lot on social elements as a determinant of international politics (Kegley, 2008, p. 39). This idea can be evaluated progressively because the theory bases its foundations on the development of ideas.

These ideas later develop into international structures which states abide by, but the said structures are likely to lead to the development of state interests which later determine how states and non state actors relate to safeguard their own interests (Kegley, 2008, p. 39). Constructivism therefore derives its authority from the inclusion of social, cultural, persuasive and collective ideas in determining how states relate. This concept can be largely witnessed in the Iran- US relations.

Obviously, Iran being an Islamic state, most of its actions and policies are largely dominated by Islamic principles. The anti-western sentiments (leading to the Islamic revolution of 1979) are also social elements which characterize Iran’s relations with the US.

In fact, the Islamic revolution was largely dictated by social factors (religion) which the constructive theory relies on to predict international relations. In this manner, we can deduce the fact that international relations between the US and Iran has to a significant degree been socially constructed.

Social construction in Iran-US relations can be largely evidenced in a religious context, especially focusing on the actions of Iran’s leaders. Leaders who were perceived to be Western puppets such as Shah never got a huge following in Iran because of the different social beliefs that characterizes US and Iran.

However those leaders who to a great extent resisted Western influence got a huge following in Iran because the people felt like the leaders advanced their own social beliefs. This scenario can be evidenced through Musddaqq and more recently, Ahmadinejad. These leaders have significantly represented strong Muslim beliefs which have determined their actions with regard to Iran’s policies with the US.

To a significant degree, some of the most pressing issues between the US and Iran have not been economic but social because of the apparent differences in religious principles. In fact, Iran’s leader Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been quoted in some sections of the press purporting that US’s arrogance is brought about by the country’s dominance over minority groups (Muslims) (Kegley, 2008, p. 39). These sentiments were also expressed with regards to US’s relations with other Arab nations.

The approach taken by US in defining its relationship with Iran has also been largely dictated by Iran’s funding of terrorism activities. This is largely a serious security issue, brought about by the social construct of the US and Iran. Indeed, through the funding of terror groups such as Hezbollah, Iran is doing so with a common purpose of fighting for Muslim interests, especially with regards to the conflict in Lebanon. The US has therefore imposed restrictions and embargos on Iran due to such activities.

More vivid is Iran’s stand on the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Iran is in support of Lebanon while the US has been largely assumed to support Israel. What is predominantly seen is the big religious divide that exists in these states. The US and Israel are Christian states while Iran and Lebanon are Muslim states. Therefore, the underlying premise behind the US and Iran relations have been partly attributed to the religious differences between the two nations.

The difference between the constructive theory and the realist theory is that the constructive theory does not emphasize a lot on security issues like the realist theory does. Instead, a lot of weight is given to the social construct of the society and its influence on foreign policy.

Proponents of the Constructive theory note that international conflicts based on constructive elements may have far reaching implications and may go on for long periods of time. In the same manner, such type of conflicts may trample over materialistic interests because state actions may go beyond rational thought (Kegley, 2008, p. 39). These factors withstanding, war is not an out of the ordinary occurrence between the two nations.

Marxist Theory

The Marxist theory purports that international relations are majorly driven by materialistic and economic factors. In this manner, states operate within a wider capitalistic system of operation where they are driven by economic interests above all other factors of concern (Chatterjee, 2010, p. 27).

This ideology also necessitates the development of class structures, not only in the society but within international relations as well. Coming back to the Iran-US relations, it is evidently clear that the bad relations started because of a pursuance of US economic interests in Iran. More notable is the 1953 coup that installed Shah as the Iranian leader. Shah rose to power with the help of the US because the US found it easy to relate with Iran if it had a pro-western leader.

Also, the US’s stand on Iran has been largely motivated by its overall Middle East agenda. In other words, the US has a lot of interest on oil exports from the Persian Gulf and the increased dominance of Iran in the region (which adopts an anti Western stand) has the potential of destabilizing the economic balance in Middle East which the US is benefiting from (Chatterjee, 2010, p. 28).

It is therefore important that in the interest of the US, Iran has a Western friendly leader. Such are the intrigues that characterize US’s relations with the Iran. However, subsequent leaders (after the Islamic revolution) saw Iran adopt an anti Western policy on many of its foreign relations.

These leaders (like Mahmud) have further soiled relations between the US and Iran because they didn’t/don’t agree with the US’s policies in the Middle East. Nonetheless, these intrigues characterize the Marxist theory because US is largely seen as having adopted an economic agenda which is characteristic of capital accumulation. Of importance is the subcategory of the Marxist theory advancing the fact that globalized capitalistic systems have facilitated the dominance of wealthy nations over poor, third world countries.

In this case, the dominant wealthy nation is the US while Iran is the third world state under exploitation. The level of economic interests in play between US and Iran is therefore alarmingly high and when analyzed according to the Marxist theory, the economic interests at stake may lead to a fully blown out war (Chatterjee, 2010, p. 27).

This conclusion is drawn from the firm belief by Marxists that economic interests have the potential of transcending all other elements of concern. It is therefore important to note that as much as the relation between the US and Iran is characterized by other issues such as security, if the US continues to lose on its economic agenda in Iran, it may resort to protect it through military means.


The probability of an emergence of war between Iran and the US is high because of the nature of the conflict between the two nations. Underlying premises to the war can be best analyzed through the realist, constructive and Marxist theories.

The realist theory analyzes the concepts of self-help, state-centrism, and survival which are evidently seen in the Iran-US analysis, especially due to the lack of influence from non state actors in the conflict. As a result, the US can take extreme measures in advancing its agenda in Iran and this may include the probability of war.

Also, because the conflict between America and Iran is characterized by religious and social differentials, the constructive theory outlines that these factors will characterize future relationships between the two countries to a great extent. Under the constructive theory, such kind of conflict can take a very long time to end and social influences may override economic interests. The probability of a war breaking out, especially from the Iranian part (which is more religiously socialized) is very high.

Lastly, the Marxist theory advances the fact that since the US has considerable economic interests in the Persian Gulf; it may go to unprecedented levels to protect it.

This obviously includes war. Considering there is no let up between the two parties, the US and Iran can surely go to war if provocation is felt from the Iranian side. This is in accordance to the Marxist theory, purporting that economic interests may transcend all other interests. The nature of international relations between Iran and the US therefore still remains very volatile.


Beeman, W. O. (2008). The “Great Satan” Vs. The “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States And Iran Demonize Each Other. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Beisner, R. (2003). American Foreign Relations since 1600: A Guide to the Literature, Volume 1. New York: Abc-Clio.

Chatterjee, A. (2010). International Relations Today. New Delhi: Pearson Education India.

Dow Jones & Company. (2010). Q&A with Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Americas Affairs. Retrieved 24 October, 2010, from

Gasiorowski, M. J. (2004). Writing in Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran. London: Syracuse University Press.

Kegley, C, W. (2008). World Politics: Trend and Transformation. London: Cengage Learning.

Lesch, D. W. (2003). The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment. New York: Routledge.

Spegele, R. (1996). Political Realism in International Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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