The death of General Soleimani at the beginning of the year brought forward a decades-old tension. To understand the scope of the unrest and anger from Iranians following the death of their general, we’ll first have to understand when and where the tension took root between the United States and Iran.
Many analyses of the United States and Iran’s rough relations place the start of trouble after World War II with the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh held nationalist beliefs and was appointed as the prime minister in 1951 under the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi.
The two leaders conflicted on their ideas for what was in the best interest of Iran, with Mosaddegh pushing for the nationalization of oil fields. This nationalization would mean decreasing the operations of British oil companies in Iran. Sources from the British intelligence and the CIA concluded Mosaddegh had communist leanings and if left in power, would lead Iran to be in line with the Societ Union. With this information, the CIA backed and financed a coup that overthrew Mosaddegh and placed the Shah back in power. Once in power, the Shah signed 40 percent of Iran’s oil fields to U.S. companies. For more information, read up on an article from History.com Editors and take a look at the New York Times’ timeline of key events in the 1953 coup.
The Shah stayed in power for a little over 26 years following the coup, but then was forced out of Iran during what became known as the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Later in the year, Iranian students protesting President Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow the deposed Shah receive cancer treatment in the United States seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November. Embassy employees were held hostage for 444 days, with the last employees released January of 1981. The start of the Iran Hostage Crisis was also when the first sanctions on Iran from the United States were put in place. History.com Editors also have an article that goes more in-depth on how the Iran Hostage Crisis was also about Iranians taking a stance on American interference.
When the war between Iraq and Iran began in 1980, tensions again rose when Iran threatened to cut off access to the Strait of Hormuz. This waterway connects the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world and sees 40 percent of the world’s oil tanker traffic, according to an article by Megan Specia and Rick Gladstone in the New York Times. Throughout 1988, Iranian and U.S. forces clashed repeatedly, with an Iranian mine damaging a Navy frigate and U.S. forces sinking Iranian warships and destroyed surveillance platforms. Tensions came to a head on April 18 when an American warship shot down an Iranian commercial plan, killing all 290 passengers on board, most of who were on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The new millenia brought to the forefront nuclear capabilities as well as another point of contention between the United States and Iran. In September 2005, the International Atomic Energy Association which serves as the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog found Tehran’s nuclear program was noncompliant with international regulations and enforced sanctions, according to a report by Zachary Laub from the Council of Foreign Relations.
In 2013, Iran entered an interim agreement with the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany (a group of world powers also known as P5+1). This agreement was named the Joint Plan of Action and froze portions of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for less sanctions. Two years later, Iran and P5+1 signed another deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or more commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal which again limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from sanctions. The Arms Control Association published a fact sheet on the Iran nuclear deal, complete with a timeline of meetings and significant developments. BBC News also has an article with details on aspects of the Iran nuclear deal.
This deal saw its end in May 2018 when President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran along with the threat to impose sanctions on countries and firms that continued to purchase oil from Iran. On June 13, 2019, explosions hit two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and the United States asserts the explosions were from Iran. A week later on June 20, Iran Revolutionary Guard reports they shot down a U.S. drone that had intruded into Iranian airspace. The U.S. insists the drone was still in international airspace. The events of June 2019 are recapped in a joint article published on CNN.
So even with these short snapshots of clashes between the United States and Iran, it’s clear to see the killing of General Soleimani and attack of the al-Asad air base in Iraq are incidents atop a long history of attacks between these two countries. Beginning with U.S. involvement in the governance of Iran to violence toward embassy employees and passengers on pilgrimage, the tensions between the United States and Iran have never been fully resolved, allowing negative sentiments to linger throughout time and outline current-day clashes.
For more background on United States and Iranian relations, Reuters offers a timeline from 1953 to 2016, and Megan Specia and Rick Gladstone’s article in the New York Times previously mentioned also provides more context. The Congressional Research Service also prepared public summary for the members and committees of Congress.