In December 1979, Soviet troops entered the small, poor, landlocked, Islamic nation of Afghanistan, assassinated the communist president, Hafizullah Amin, and installed a more compliant Afghan leader. For almost ten years, Soviet troops remained entrenched in Afghanistan before finally withdrawing in February 1989. During this period, the United States undertook a covert program to assist the anti-communist Afghan insurgents—the mujahideen—to resist the Soviet occupation. Beginning with President Jimmy Carter’s small-scale authorization in July 1979, the secret war became the largest in history under President Ronald Reagan, running up to $700 million per year. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acted as the war’s quartermaster, arranging supplies of weapons for the mujahideen, which were funneled through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), in coordination with Saudi Arabia, China, Egypt, and others. No Americans were directly involved in the fighting, and the overall cost to the American taxpayer was in the region of $2 billion. The Afghan cost was much higher. Over a million Afghans were killed, a further two million wounded, and over six million refugees fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. For the Soviet Union, the ten-year war constituted its largest military action in the postwar era, and the long and protracted nature of the conflict and the failure of the Red Army to subdue the Afghans is partially responsible for the internal turmoil that contributed to the eventual breakup of the Soviet empire at the end of the 1980s. The defeat of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan proved to be the final major superpower battle of the Cold War, but it also marked the beginning of a new era. The devastation and radicalization of Afghan society resulted in the subsequent decades of continued conflict and warfare and the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism that has shaped the post-Cold War world.
The United States and the Soviet-Afghan War, 1979–1989
Kelly J. Shannon
Historian James A. Bill famously described America’s relationship with Iran as a tragedy. “Few international relationships,” he wrote, “have had a more positive beginning than that which characterized Iranian-American contacts for more than a century.” The nations’ first diplomatic dealings in the 1850s resulted in a treaty of friendship, and although the U.S. government remained largely aloof from Iranian affairs until World War II, many Iranians saw Americans and the United States positively by the early 20th century. The United States became more deeply involved with Iran during the Second World War, and the two nations were close allies during the Cold War. Yet they became enemies following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. How did this happen? The events that led to the Islamic Republic of Iran dubbing the United States the “Great Satan” in 1979 do indeed contain elements of tragedy. By the late 19th century, Iran—known to Americans as “Persia” until the 1930s—was caught in the middle of the imperial “Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia. Although no European power formally colonized Iran, Britain and Russia developed “spheres of influence” in the country and meddled constantly in Iran’s affairs. As Iranians struggled to create a modern, independent nation-state, they looked to disinterested third parties for help in their struggle to break free from British and Russian control. Consequently, many Iranians came to see the United States as a desirable ally. Activities of individual Americans in Iran from the mid-19th century onward, ranging from Presbyterian missionaries who built hospitals and schools to economic experts who advised Iran’s government, as well as the United States’ own revolutionary and democratic history, fostered a positive view of the United States among Iranians. The two world wars drew the United States into more active involvement in the Middle East, and following both conflicts, the U.S. government defended Iran’s sovereignty against British and Soviet manipulation. The event that caused the United States to lose the admiration of many Iranians occurred in 1953, when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the British Secret Intelligence Service staged a coup, which overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, because he nationalized Iran’s oil industry. The coup allowed Iran’s shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to transform himself from a constitutional monarch into an absolute ruler. The 1953 coup, coupled with the subsequent decades of U.S. support for the Shah’s politically repressive regime, resulted in anti-American resentment that burst forth during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The two nations have been enemies ever since. This article traces the origins and evolution of the U.S. relationship with Iran from the 19th through the early 21st centuries.