The relationship between the United States and Iran have never been very good in the past 30 years. It sank to a low ebb when Bush was in the White House. Bush famously bracketed Iran with North Korea and Iraq in the "axis of evil" in his state of the union speech in 2002, a year before the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This relation has been in a state of flux with a new administration in Washington.
The United States government’s policy focused mostly on internationally threatening Iran. It labeled Iran as a state that: sponsored international terrorism, pursued weapons of mass destruction, threatened Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, supported anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism notions, opposed the Arab-Israeli peace process, and had a record of human rights violations. An accusation of Iran's harboring of al Qaeda operatives had been added to the list during the early years of war on terrorism, but it had proven to be false. The United States also took provocative actions against Iran such as supporting opposition to induce regime change, attempting to increase collective and unilateral sanctions, and deploying additional military assets in the region.
As a retaliation, Iran devised a deterrence strategy to prevent any possible military action by the United States and its allies. This strategy included: first, improving Iranian retaliatory capabilities inside and outside Iran. Second, modernizing its weapons locally. Third, developing indigenous missile and antimissile systems. Fourth, proliferate nuclear weapons while spreading doubts about its exact capabilities. Fifth, neutralizing US attempts to contain it through undermining the US interests in the region, and expanding its own sphere of influence in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestinians, as well as Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, Iran made a great effort to move closer to states that could counterbalance the US such as Russia, China, and Turkey.
Realist Explanation of US-Iran relations
In the post 9/11 era, the United States government became increasingly involved in trying to advance American security interests on the international arena. It started a war in Afghanistan in 2001 and invaded Iraq in 2003. Both actions destabilized the region and created a whole new range of potentially more dangerous security dilemmas.
Iran, on the other hand, exercised regional power and worked to export its this power to other regions in order to maximize its own security interest. This behavior exacerbated the security dilemma. The United States will be in direct conflict with Iran (a potential hegemon in the region) when it threatens to upset the balance of power and cause any risk to American national interests. On the other hand, Iran viewed the United States as a threat to the existence of the Islamic Republic and to the Iranian geopolitical interests in its prospective sphere of influence.
Constructivist Explanation of US-Iran relations
The root of conflict in the US-Iran relations goes back to the establishment of the current Iranian theocratic state known as the 'Islamic Republic of Iran' in 1979. Iranian ideas about the American and Western imperialism and interference (backed by the historical realities of America's role in the 1953 coup and support for the Shah) helped motivate the creation of dogma based on hatred to the U.S (as the great devil) and the West (as the source of all evil). Meanwhile, the US early encounter with post-revolutionary Iran was the horrifying incident of the American embassy in Tehran and subsequent 444-day hostage crisis. This event helped to establish the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a radically hostile enemy in American eyes. Relations between the two countries have thus arguably been halted over the last three decades by the intersubjective ideas that were the products of hostility, trauma, and distrust. According to Constructivists then, the nature of US-Iran relations cannot be blamed on conflicting geopolitical, military, or economic interests. Instead, it is the result of exchanged beliefs, ideas, and culture of grievance and threat developed in each country about the other.
Criticism of both theories
Constructivism explanation has clear strengths. It provides a theoretical base for cultural explanation of conflicting US-Iran relations. It analyzes the causes independent of the material aspects of the relationship.Yet it is not without flaws. From a realist point of view, it does not give sufficient consideration to the material aspects of the conflicting relation. Both states are taking advantage of their geopolitical and economic assets in order to maximize their power and protect their interests. For realists then, the real issues of US-Iran conflicting relation can be understood by the rational analysis of competing interests defined in terms of power. However, the realist explanation over emphasizes the US and Iran race to maximize their power. It fails to see how changing identities can effect state’s interests and goals and lead to shifts in state’s policies. For example, if the civil unrest in Iran succeeded in toppling the mainstream order and new open government initiated new policies and new relations with the international society, the realist can not employ this change in their explanation. Thus, from a constructivist point of view, the realist explanation fails to adequately explain long-term changes that might occur.