It is arguably the most politically charged matchup in World Cup history.
The United States face off against Iran tonight with a place in the knockout stages potentially at stake and diplomatic relations between the two countries at an all-time low.
Initial hopes may have been for a repeat of the tranquillity of their encounter at France ’98 where the Iranians brought white roses for their American opponents before winning 2-1.
But the idea that this match could suddenly lead to a thawing in the frosty relationship has been dismissed by one historian as ‘simply a fantasy’.
John Ghazvinian, author of America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present and Executive Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center, told Xoivotv.live: ‘We’re in a very different place to where we were in 1998.
‘In fact, the atmospherics around this match probably couldn’t be more different, even though the relations between the two countries are still non-existent.’
Back in 1998, Iran had just elected a reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, who made improving ties with the West a significant part of his agenda.
He made overtures towards the US and spoke warmly about American history and the American people during a famous CNN interview – the first by an Iranian president since the revolution.
Bill Clinton also welcomed the tie, which his soccer federation chief called ‘the mother of all games’, saying it was ‘another step towards ending the estrangement between our nations’.
‘But here, 24 years later, we’re in a very, very different place,’ Mr Ghazvinian says.
‘Relations between the US and Iran have probably never really been worse than they have in the last few years.
‘Of course, they were at the absolute low point at the beginning of 2020 when the Trump administration assassinated the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
‘Tensions have ebbed of course since then, since the election of Joe Biden, but the fact is that the US and Iran have not returned to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the nuclear deal – sanctions are largely in place and the official relationship between the two countries has gone back to being non-existent and hostile.’
But that wasn’t always the case.
Mr Ghazvinian says: ‘It’s very easy for us to get caught up in this cycle of mutual hatred and animosity that has characterised the relationship between the two countries over the last 42 years or so, but there is a very long history that the two countries have with each other.
‘For most of their history, they have either been close allies – as they were after the Cold War in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – or before that there was a long history of mutual admiration and fascination between the two cultures, a kind of warm relationship between the Iranian and American people.’
The first diplomatic contact between the two countries was back in the early 1850s, when they began negotiating a treaty of friendship.
It actually took longer to thrash out than the nuclear deal agreed more than a century later.
One of the sticking points was an Iranian request for US warships flying the stars and stripes to be deployed in the Persian Gulf to deter the British and Russians who were interfering in their affairs.
The Americans declined.
‘I always find that interesting, because the first disagreement between the two countries ever had was Iran wanting the United States more involved in its affairs and the US saying no, we don’t want to get involved in your business,’ Mr Ghazvinian remarks.
‘It’s quite striking how far things have come in the century and a half since then.’
Over the next 100 years there was a long period of mutual idealisation.
Mr Ghazvinian observes: ‘For the Americans, Iran was this exotic Persian oriental kingdom that was just to the east of a lot of things they didn’t like.
‘The Ottoman Empire, which was in possession of the holy land and had been seen as the evil empire of its day, the Persians were seen as less Muslim because they were Shia rather than Sunni Muslims, they were less threatening.
‘They were seen as not occupying holy sites or biblical sites and there was a long history of idealising Persian history and Persian society dating back to the Bible, dating back to British literature at the time as well.
‘For the Iranians, they tended to idealise the United States as a rapidly growing, prosperous, Western European power, one that was rapidly growing in prosperity and strength and constitutional government and so on but had the benefit of not having an imperialist mind set towards Iran or towards any part of the world really in the 1850s and 60s.
‘At the time, Iran was struggling a lot with the pressures from British and Russian and other types of European imperialism, and what they saw in the United States was a country they could learn from, seemed to be going places, but had absolutely no interest in interfering in their affairs.’
Bar a brief break-off in ties in the 1930s following a dispute over a speeding ticket given to the Iranian ambassador in a small town in Maryland, relations remained good until 1953.
That year the CIA gave its backing to a military coup against the popular democratically-elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh.
The agency supported the Shah as he slowly drifted towards autocracy and dictatorship over the next 26 years until his overthrow in 1979.
On November 4, Iranian students took over the US Embassy in Iran and held 62 Americans, among others, hostage demanding the Shah’s extradition from the States where he was undergoing cancer treatment.
The crisis dragged on for 444 days, by the end of which diplomatic ties had been shredded.
Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power as supreme leader in December, turning Iran away from the West.
‘The rest, as they say, is history,’ Mr Ghazvinian says. ‘Relations have never been restored between the two countries since April 1980.’
There have been attempts at rapprochement in the decades since.
How the US-Iran relationship has changed over the last 70 years
1953 – The CIA helps orchestrate overthrow of Iran’s popular democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, restoring to power Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
1957 – The United States and Iran sign an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation.
1968 – Iran signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which permits it to have a civil nuclear program in return for a commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons.
1979 – Iran’s Islamic Revolution forces US-backed shah to flee, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns from exile and becomes supreme religious guide.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is proclaimed on April 1.
1970-1980 – In November, fundamentalist students seize the US Embassy in Tehran and hold staff hostage.
The United States cuts diplomatic ties with Iran, seizes Iranian assets, and bans most trade with it; hostage rescue mission ordered by President Jimmy Carter fails.
1981 – Iran releases 52 American hostages minutes after Carter steps down and Ronald Reagan is inaugurated as US president.
1985-1986 – Reagan reveals secret arms deal with Tehran in violation of US arms embargo.
2002 – President George W Bush declares Iran, Iraq, North Korea an ‘axis of evil’.
US officials accuse Tehran of operating secret nuclear weapons program.
2008 – Bush for the first time sends an official to directly take part in nuclear negotiations with Iran in Geneva.
2009 – President Barack Obama tells Iran’s leaders he would extend a hand if they would ‘unclench their fist’.
2012 – US law gives Obama the power to sanction foreign banks if they fail to significantly reduce their imports of Iranian oil. Iranian oil sales drop, sparking an economic downturn.
US and Iranian officials begin secret talks, which intensify in 2013, on the nuclear issue.
2013 – Hassan Rouhani is elected Iran’s president on platform of improving Iran’s relations with the world and its economy.
In September, Obama and Rouhani speak by telephone, the highest-level contact between the two countries in three decades.
In November, Iran and six major powers reach agree to the Joint Plan of Action nuclear deal. Iran agrees to curb its nuclear work in return for limited sanctions relief.
2018 – US President Donald Trump withdraws from the nuclear deal in May and reimposes crippling economic sanctions on Iran.
2019 – The US designates the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a ‘terrorist organization’ in April.
Iran says in May it will increase enriched uranium production, bucking its commitments under the nuclear accord.
Oil tankers are attacked in the Gulf in May and June. The United States blames Iran, a charge Tehran denies.
Iran shoots down an US drone in June it says was in Iranian airspace and seizes a British oil tanker in July.
Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company is attacked in September by drones and missiles believed to be from Iran; Tehran denies involvement.
In December, attacks on US military bases in Iraq kill a US citizen. The United States blames an Iranian-backed militia inside Iraq, and fires on its bases in retaliation.
Iranian-backed militias protest outside the US Embassy in Baghdad, storming the security post.
2020: Iran’s top military commander, General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the country’s elite Quds Force, is assassinated by a US drone strike in Iraq.
Iran promises harsh revenge and withdraws from the nuclear agreement.
The first backfired spectacularly with the Iran-Contra Scandal.
Ronald Reagan’s administration secretly sold weapons to Tehran, which was subject to an Arms embargo, during the Iran-Iraq war in exchange for Iranian assistance in freeing American hostages in Lebanon.
Funds from the deal were illegally channelled to anti-communist Contras battling against the government in Nicaragua.
The fall-out when it became public threatened to bring down the presidency.
In the 1990s, in the wake of the conflict and the death of Khomeini, the Iranian Islamic Republic began to moderate, shown by Khatami’s election and the 1998 match where it looked as though things might improve.
Mr Ghazvinian observes: ‘The US was a little bit slow to respond to that, and Khatami was also undermined by his hard-line domestic opponents.
‘And that produced a kind of swing to the right, if you will, in Iran and the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, and of course a couple of years earlier the election of George W Bush, whose administration took a much more hard-line approach in the aftermath of 9/11 and felt that Iran was part of the problem rather than part of the solution and labelled Iran an axis of evil and increased sanctions and increased scrutiny on Iran’s nuclear programme.
‘Things have never really improved since, except for an attempt by Obama, a very serious attempt, to reset relations with Iran in 2009, which also proceeded through several years of negotiations and was somewhat successful in producing the Iran Nuclear Deal, but of course that was repealed by Donald Trump in 2018.’
So, is there any chance this match might help repair relations?
Mr Ghazvinian says the two countries share many interests in the wider Middle East, while the Iranian population is ‘one of the most advanced and pro-Western in the region’.
However, he says: ‘Politics tends to overwhelm things and relations are in a very, very low place at the moment, so I don’t see any prospect of that in the immediate future.
‘But of course, the world is unpredictable. And Iran right now is unpredictable, so I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of making those sorts of predictions.’
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