U.S.-Iranian Relations

Iran is an incredibly complex country that cannot be covered in just one unit. This resource guide is centered around helping teachers and students understand the complex relationship between Iran and the United States. The following tools provide context about the history of the relationship, what went wrong, and why tensions still exist today.

Major moments in the U.S.-Iran relationship include the CIA’s 1953 ousting of Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadegh, the 1979 Hostage Crisis, the creation of the 2015 JCPOA (commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) and Trump’s subsequent (2018) withdrawal from the deal, which all lead up to current sanctions against Iran, the January assassination of a major military leader, and ongoing tensions in the Strait of Hormuz.

We strongly encourage pairing this unit with other lessons on Iran in order to provide students with a broader perspective of Iran’s history and political, religious and military significance.

Click here for a list of vocabulary terms about the Middle East, which can be helpful to have on hand when teaching this topic.

Recommended Topics to Discuss
  • American involvement in Iran’s government, including the CIA’s 1953 coup
  • The 1979 Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis
  • The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) a.k.a the Iran Deal
  • Trump-era sanctions against Iran and 2019 summer tanker attacks
  • Simmering low-level conflict between the two sides in late 2019 boils over with the death of Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike
Background Information
Lesson Plans and Teaching Guides
Films & Documentaries
  • Argo — “chronicles the life-or-death covert operation to rescue six Americans, which unfolded behind the scenes of the Iran hostage crisis” (2h10m; available on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and iTunes for $3.99)
  • PBS: Our Man in Tehran “a revealing series on life inside Iran…Thomas Erdbrink shares a rare journey into a private Iran often at odds with its conservative clerics and leaders” (two parts, 1h 54m each)
  • PBS: Showdown with Iran — “FRONTLINE examines how U.S. efforts to install democracy in Iraq have served to strengthen Iran’s position as an emerging global power” (55m), plus a teaching guide for viewing the video
  • PBS: Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia — “FRONTLINE investigates how a dangerous political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has plunged the Middle East into sectarian war” (also addresses U.S.-Iran relations) (two parts, 1h 56m and 54m)
YouTube Videos
Podcasts
Books
Need more info? Click here for a list of National Resource Centers on the Middle East — especially consider checking out Princeton’s Center for Iran and Persian Gulf StudiesClick here for additional centers on Persian and Iranian Studies across the world.
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