35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Documenting Iran-U.S. Relations, 1978-2015

Zarif-Kerry handshake

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands after signing an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Geneva, November 24, 2013 (photo from theiranproject.com)

Published: Dec 19, 2019
Briefing Book #692

Edited by Malcolm Byrne

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Every U.S. President Tried – at Some Point and for Different Reasons – to Engage with Iran

New Digital National Security Archive Collection of 14,000 pages Covers the 1978-79 Revolution to the 2015 Nuclear Deal (JCPOA)

Washington, D.C., December 19, 2019 – For 40 years, since the first year of the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the United States and Iran have been the bitterest of political adversaries.  Yet, every U.S. president has at a certain point reached out to the theocratic regime in Tehran, either for a short-term policy objective or a longer-term improvement of relations, according to declassified records published this month by the National Security Archive.  Furthermore, while Tehran rejected most of these probes, usually denounced as interference by “The Great Satan,” Iran’s own rulers have periodically found it in their interests to seek out the United States for a variety of reasons. 

These conclusions, perhaps surprising given the abysmal state of affairs between the two governments, are among the main findings gleaned from a major new publication of once-classified documents on U.S.-Iran relations from the non-governmental National Security Archive through the scholarly publisher ProQuest.

The collection, U.S. Policy toward Iran: From the Revolution to the Nuclear Accord, 1978-2015, published on December 12, 2019, consists of 1,760 documents and almost 14,000 pages of materials mostly obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or culled from years of research at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and its associated presidential library system.  Additional records come from British archives and other sources and include selected Iranian materials. 

Among the topics and themes highlighted in the collection:

  • U.S. reactions to the unfolding Iranian revolution, 1978-1979
  • U.S. planning and responses to the 444-day hostage crisis, 1979-1981
  • Reagan administration support to Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988
  • The Lebanon hostage crisis that led to the infamous arms-for-hostages deals with Iran, 1984-1986
  • The Khobar Towers bombing, attributed to Iran by U.S. intelligence, 1996
  • U.S. tracking of Iran’s relations with other Persian Gulf states, 1990s and after
  • Russia-Iran negotiations over nuclear energy, missiles, and other deals, 2000s
  • Iranian involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2001 onwards
  • Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, 2002-2010
  • Background to talks leading to the JCPOA nuclear deal, 2013-2015

The new materials complement but do not duplicate previous DNSA collections on the period of the revolution (Iran: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1980) and Iran-Contra (The Iran-Contra Affair: The Making of a Scandal, 1983-1988).  On the theme of presidential interest in Tehran noted above, U.S. Policy toward Iran traces the opportunities and setbacks experienced by each American president in attempting to reach across the political divide to the Islamic Republic. 

For example, from the earliest days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Iran – and ascension to political power – in February 1979, President Jimmy Carter sought to curry favor with the country’s provisional government, although attempts to establish ties to clerics rising to positions of political prominence failed badly because of the stigma of associating with the United States. 

President Ronald Reagan talked tough about combatting terrorists and at one point gave approval to military strikes against Iranian targets in the event of harm coming to American hostages in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, yet was eager to pursue supposed moderates in Tehran, using American weapons as currency, in hopes of freeing the captives.  (Some in his administration also banked on achieving a political rapprochement with those elements.) 

President George H.W. Bush, despite being tainted by Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal, continued to harbor hopes of winning freedom remaining hostages in Lebanon (held by allies of Tehran), until he was duped by an unknown Iranian who managed to speak to him over the phone pretending to be Iran’s Parliament Speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.  Bush soon turned his attention to Iraq. 

President Bill Clinton was much more wary of contacts with Iran after his predecessors’ humiliating experiences, colored further by evidence of Iran’s involvement in terrorist acts such as the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996.  But with the surprise election of the reform-oriented Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, Clinton went virtually all in on signaling to Tehran his desire for a breakthrough in relations.  After numerous communications and policy measures aimed at showing good intentions, however, domestic politics on both sides overwhelmed the two leaders’ best efforts.

Even President George W. Bush entertained the prospect of better relations with Tehran.  In the wake of September 11, Iran’s leaders were among the first to convey well wishes to the American people.  More concretely, Iranian and American envoys to the Afghanistan talks in late 2001 worked effectively together to advance the writing of Afghanistan’s new constitution. Despite acknowledgements in Washington of the positive results, other political forces in the administration held sway, producing the famous “Axis of Evil” reference in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.  That in itself did not immediately doom the outlook for closer cooperation, as witnessed by the May 2003 “fax” to the State Department ghost-written by Switzerland’s ambassador to Tehran (the United States’ official intermediary with the IRI), and offering a “road map” for better ties, which the U.S. government rebuffed out of hand.  Even after that, American and Iranian officials met several times to discuss developments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of all the presidents since 1979, Barack Obama is most closely identified with attempts to break through decades of mistrust with Tehran.  In his first year, the Cairo speech and Noruz (Iranian New Year) message set the tone.  By 2011, preparations had reportedly already started for secret negotiations that the two sides hoped would lead to a nuclear agreement.  President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election was a major boost to the process and by July 2015 an accord had been signed.  The American side went to pains to insist they had no aims or expectations for anything more than a nuclear deal.  But as the documents in this new collection make clear, solving the Iran problem – if possible through a new era of rapprochement (or at a minimum reduced tensions) – was on the agenda of every president at one time or another, whether acknowledged publicly or not.

The following documents are a small sample of the 1,760 records in the new ProQuest collection.  To arrange for a free trial of the full set, click here if your library does not currently have a subscription to DNSA.


Read the Documents