The United States and Iran: A Troubled History

The United States and Iran: A Troubled Past

Common Core Standards: RH2, RH6, WHST1

Connections: This lesson can be used as part of a larger unit related to twentieth century issues and conflicts in the Middle East.  The lesson can also be relevant for a sociological and/or psychological examination of propaganda techniques and their impact.  Additionally, aspects of the lesson can be connected to a broader analysis of human rights issues in the Middle East and globally.  From a skill-based perspective, this lesson can be used to analyze primary sources, editorial cartoons, understanding the relationship of causes and effects, and making predictions based on relevant evidence.

Time: three to four class meetings


Students will:

  • analyze and describe the causes and effects of historical events associated with American-Iranian relations.
  • compare and contrast primary source materials to evaluate past and present relations between the United States and Iran.
  • make predictions about the nature of future relations between the United States and Iran.


Project or otherwise display the images found in the Appendix section of this lesson plan.  Use the images to generate student discussion focused on the following questions:

  • What characteristics or features of each image stand out the most?  Why?
  • How are symbolism and imagery used in each image?
  • What might be the message of each image?  How do you know?
  • Who might be the audience for each image?  Why?
  • Are these images examples of propaganda?  How do you know?  What is the purpose of propaganda?
  • Why might one nation or group attempt to portray another in a negative light?
  • What can we determine about Iranian-American relations based on the images?

(Please note that it may be useful to review guidelines for examining political cartoons from

Learning Activities:

Part A

  • Students will create a timeline of historical events in the troubled relationship between the United States and Iran.  To do so, students will use Internet resources (many web links can be found in the Appendix section of this lesson plan) to construct a group timeline of the major events, focusing specifically on the causes and effects of various episodes in the nations’ joint history.  One particularly effective way to do this is to assign each small group of students to a particular decade (1940-1949, 150-1959, 1960-1969, 1970-1979, 1980-1989, 1990-1999, 2000-present).
  • When the research efforts are completed, one student from each assigned decade will join a new group, so that the new groups are comprised of members who have information from each decade.  Of course, teacher discretion should be used in determining the size of each group as well as the time frame for which each group is responsible.  Also, the final presentation of material can vary depending on time issues and other factors.  For example, each decade group can create a multi-media presentation to convey their findings to the class.
  • Using the information from each timeline, students will present their findings in order to complete a class graphic organizer which identifies the causes and outcomes of various events in the history.  The instructor should use this time to further explain, clarify, and otherwise elaborate on the history.

Part B

  • Using the full text or excerpts from the Speeches section of the Appendix of this lesson plan, students will identify key words, phrases, and overall sentiment to determine the nature of the strained relationship between the United States and Iran.  According to teacher discretion, students can read a packet of abridged versions of each speech, or speeches can be assigned to different students so that all are covered.
  • Students will use a chart or notebook in order to keep a running record of quotes and words that stand out (i.e. the use of inflammatory rhetoric).
  • In a whole class setting, elicit evidence from the readings for the purpose of generating a class discussion.  Use this time to set up the closure exercise.


  • Supporting their responses with information from the lesson, students will write a three-paragraph minimum essay that includes: an evaluation of the modern relationship between Iran and the United States, a comparison of the U.S. and Iranian attitudes toward each other during the Ahmadinejad and Khomeini eras, and a prediction of future relations between the two countries.

Other Ideas:

Other Primary Sources:

  • Avalon Project at Yale University:

  • Electronic Briefing Book: Declassified documents on Iran and the U.S.:

  • Documents related to the Cold War (search for “Iran”):

  • Excerpts form an Iran hostage’s diary:

  • Middle East Media Research Institute:

  • Iran Watch:

  • United Nations documents about Iran:

Further Reading:

§  Abrahamian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran (2008).

§  Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2008).

§  Majd, Hooman. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran (2009).

§  The New York Times: Iran News:

§  BBC News: Iran Country Profile:

§  CIA: The World Factbook – Iran:

  • U.S. State Department information on Iran:


Political Cartoons


  • Excerpts from speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini, 1987:

  • President Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world, June 4, 2009:

  • Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech of April 17, 2010.

Timelines and Related Websites

  • New York Times timeline:

  • BBC News timeline:

  • NPR timeline:

  • U.S.–Iran Relations:

  • Council on Foreign Relations timeline:

  • Discovery Channel timeline:

  • PBS Frontline timeline: