As an American citizen, I'm well aware of the bad blood between the U.S. and Iran, dating back to the U.S. support of the the Shah Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, the Iranian Revolution, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis that followed.

What I don't understand is why, 38 years after the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. government still considers the Islamic Republic of Iran to be an enemy. Iran is one of the more stable nations in the region; they have a well-educated population.
Instead, the U.S. focuses on working with Saudi Arabia, a country that (to my understanding) is an absolute monarchy; has a significantly worse record on human rights than Iran; and reportedly has been home to a significant number of the terrorists who attacked U.S. interests and landmarks in the 1990s and early 2000s.

I'm also aware of the fact that Iran does not recognize Israel, a long-time American ally, and has supported several groups (namely Hamas and Hezbollah) that are responsible for attacks in that country. But these strike me as issues that would be best resolved through actual diplomatic negotiation, instead of a harsh anti-America/Iran rhetoric.

Is there something I'm missing? Because by all accounts, Iran appears to be much closer to the U.S. ideal of a strategic partner in the Middle East than Saudi Arabia.

  • 3
    @ColinZwanziger: I don't think Saudi-US ties should be adversely affected -- I'm merely pointing out what appears (to me) to be a weird discrepancy. We know that Saudi nationals were involved in attacks on U.S. citizens/soil; to the best of my knowledge, since the end of the Iranian hostage crisis there haven't been any direct attacks on the U.S. by Iranians (or Iranian-sponsored groups). If my knowledge there is wrong, that's one thing (please do correct me). Nor am I condemning all Saudis -- that's ignorant IMO. I'm looking for an explanation of why Saudi Arabia > Iran in U.S. policy.
    – tonysdg
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 18:02
  • 8
    @ColinZwanziger - if you think the full extent of extremism in Saudi Arabia, as it impacts the USA is "the mere fact that some jihadists were Saudi nationals," then you haven't been paying attention for the last 40+ years. Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records of any nation, so I'm not sure which part of the characterization is "highly debatable." independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/… Commented May 31, 2017 at 15:30
  • 3
    @PoloHoleSet: I think ColinZwanziger was debating my argument of SA having a "significantly worse record on human rights than Iran", not the fact that they both have crap records on human rights.
    – tonysdg
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 16:20
  • 3
    @tonysdg - I understand that, and I'm specifically stating that almost no one has a worse human rights record than SA. So stating that theirs is "significantly worse" than even another nation with a bad record is not a controversial statement. That coupled with the selective minimizing of the track record on extremism and terrorism suggests that Colin is trying to hand-wave SA's record to make a claim of Iranian equivalence. Commented May 31, 2017 at 16:38
  • 6
    "why Saudi Arabia > Iran in U.S. policy." In one word: petrodollars
    – Leon
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 7:04

10 Answers 10


Iran's foreign policy frequently conflicts with US goals and values. There are several grievances that cause the US to view Iran adversarially, including:

  • Iran finances and arms groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which have long histories of engaging in terrorist attacks, and which the US officially designates as terrorist organizations.*

  • Iran finances and arms the Syrian regime, which has killed extreme numbers of its own civilians, and which the US opposes.

  • Iran has an aggressive posture towards Israel (c.f. the Hamas and Hezbollah issue).

  • Until recently, Iran had pursued nuclear technology in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the US strongly supports. Their compliance with the recent "nuclear deal" and the eventual fate of their nuclear program remain major issues.

* @Rekesoft points out Saudi Arabia has funded jihadists during the Syrian Civil War. The US was perhaps willing to overlook this as a wartime expediency to combat the Syrian regime, which the US opposes. By contrast, Iran's jihadist financing has largely targeted Israel, a US ally.

  • 22
    Every point you make bar the last one can be made about Saudi Arabia as well - supports wahabism extremism, which is the source of moviments like Al-Qaeda, ISIS or Boko Haram -, finances Al-Qaeda-like groups in Syria who have been known to kill thousands of their own civilians, it has the same aggresive posture towards Israel (so, is, it only pays lip service to the palestinian cause)... The OP is not asking what problems do the US have with Iran, but explicitly why it choses Saudi Arabia over Iran, given that everything that's wrong with Iran is worse with SA.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 15:25
  • 9
    @Rekesoft Saudi Arabia's posture towards Israel is de facto non-aggressive. They may be somewhat critical in public, but do not threaten Israel militarily and indeed have cordial relations in private. Although SA finances wahhabist teaching, they have not, as I understand, had a policy of funding jihadists during peacetime. They did fund jihadists in Syria and in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
    – Colin
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 16:12
  • 3
    To be true, Iran posture towards Israel is also non-aggresive (both de facto and de iure). It's its support towards Hezbollah which makes Israel angry, but Iran supports Hezbollah - just like Syria - because it's trying to make a shiite alliance against SA. Hezbollah is an enemy of Israel, Iran is not. It's Israel who is trying to drag the USA into a confrontation against Iran. Same for Hamas; Hamas is a sunni organization, and was traditionally supported by Sunni states, mainly SA. Since SA withdrew its support after an agreement with Israel, Iran took the opportunity of taking over.
    – Rekesoft
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 6:24
  • 6
    @Rekesoft, nope, Iran is hostile to Israel as a matter of longstanding state policy, and their support for hamas and hezbollah can't be separated from Israel stance.
    – Colin
    Commented May 23, 2017 at 7:23
  • 7
    Iran repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the right for Israel to exist and directly support attacks on Israel via support for Hezbollah, whereas Saudi Arabia all but openly work with Israel towards common goals huffingtonpost.com/samuel-ramani/…
    – Sam
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 16:10

On the paper, at least Iran seems as a country more worthy of a partnership. Iran is a more moderate and modern country with more educated population. Their diplomats rarely get caught abusing staff in the western world or smuggling drugs. Proxy groups they endorse are arguably far less extreme and target mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia on the contrary is a leader when it comes to terrorism exports to the USA, both in the ideology and the actual funding, private or state sanctioned.

Currently geopolitically Saudi Arabia is much more important to the US than Iran is. American companies have built oil refineries, rigs and pipelines to help oil extraction in newly created country. Now USA has multiple bases in Saudi Arabia to project their power in the region as well as to protect the oil extraction and exports in the event of regime change or other instability. Majority of their advanced military hardware is operated solely by Americans. To add the Trump angle to it, wealth disparity in Saudi Arabia is much higher and the country is much richer. As such Saudis are far more likely to buy flats in his fancy towers than any Iranian investors.

Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship that gives what US wants, Iran is less of a dictatorship that might not always give what US wants. Shift from supporting Saudi Arabia to Iran would be step into unknown with a payoff potentially much lower. It is impossible to predict if in the far distant future US could build multiple bases in Iran, expand their presence to central Asia through them or be a major supplier of weapons sold to Iran.

Much of the Iran’s treatment is due to an outdated rhetoric which will take a while to change. Media portrayal as a rogue terrorist state likely to start WWIII, stems from their actions against Israel and an open defiance against US dominated world order. While Saudis publicly condemn Israel they never act against it. Although Iran pursues/pursued their own nuclear programme we know that US can be happy with a far less stable country such as Pakistan having a nuclear arsenal. Iran is also on good terms with Russia. Russia supports Iran in the UN and the UNSC, they sell them goods otherwise under sanctions while Iran sells them oil at a below market rates. This again shouldn’t be much of a problem as US does not mind Pakistan being cosy with China.

That being said Saudi Arabia is a white elephant in the room for the western world’s long term interests and their special status should be slowly diminished. Iran has the potential to match Saudi Arabia’s oil exports as well as having much larger market to buy goods from the US for their industry which is much more diversified and technologically advanced. Best long term strategy for US would be playing Iran of against Saudi Arabia as well as having another big oil exporter around so that the chances of another unified oil embargo are much lower. I believe Obama has begun that process and it will hopefully continue following next administration change.

  • 2
    Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship that gives what US wants, Iran is less of a dictatorship that might not always give what US wants. Shift from supporting Saudi Arabia to Iran would be step into unknown with a payoff potentially much lower. I suppose this makes sense -- a case of "better to dance with the devil you know than the devil you don't." Thanks for the insight!
    – tonysdg
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 18:06
  • 6
    I would dispute than Iran has the potential to match Saudi Arabia as an oil supplier. Saudi Arabia's reserves are much greater, and the grade of their crude and accessibility for extraction is unmatched by any producer of crude. I realize that is just one point of many made in your answer, as well. Commented May 31, 2017 at 19:44

The politics is dictated by cold hard economics. There are several reasons why the US is pursuing these seemingly non-sensible and counter-productive policies to Iran.

  1. Iran is not in the petro-dollar club. If I want to buy oil from Saudi Arabia, Gulf Arab states, and many other countries in OPEC I must buy in US dollars. Some exporters also take Euros as well. The Saudis don't get to keep much of their export dollars as they have to pay billions in purchase contracts with US 'defense' contractors. They are also required to purchase US treasuries. The Saudi royalty like the late shah Pahlavy monarchy in Iran are/were puppets of the US. Democracies don't work well when you are trying to exploit the country. If the USA could have its way, history should repeat itself by replacing the present Iranian democracy again with a Shah/Saudi type puppet dictatorship.

    In 1971, President Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard. In 1973 Nixon made the petro-dollar deal with Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries (including Shah's Iran) where they must sell their oil exclusively for dollars. Since then the dollar is backed by international petroleum reserves and other mineral wealth. Economists have predicted that if this was not the case and lets say the Saudis and other exporters stopped selling exclusively in dollars, the dollar would have no backing and the US economy would not last 6 months. Fiat currencies have no intrinsic value. The US cannot afford to have democracy in Saudi Arabia, and it is using Wahabism, an Islamic sect promoted by British intelligence, for social control to suppress the population.

    We all saw what happened to Kaddafy when he mentioned that he was considering selling the Libyan oil for gold and a proposed pan African currency instead of dollars and euros. Not just US but NATO finished him off, since Europe's economy would also be threatened. The US just cannot afford its dollar not to be backed by Iran's oil reserves. Its a dangerous precedent for the rest of OPEC. The nuclear threat is a lot of BS to arouse fear in the public so they can stomach military interventions, just as for the BS about WMD in Iraq with Saddam Hussein.

  2. The US economy needs endless war or conflicts. It cannot afford peace. What happened to the peace dividend we were expecting when the Soviet Union collapsed? Instead the US aggressively attacked many countries since. Aggression is usually the first option instead of the last option, especially for a country or failed state that cannot defend itself. Afghanistan is the longest running US aggression in history with no end in sight. What was the reason for the Vietnam war?

    Eisenhower warned us of the military industrial complex as he left presidential office. John F Kennedy was martyred when he didn't go along with it. The simple fact of the matter is that the US does not have anywhere near enough living wage jobs for its population. Especially since it has lost its manufacturing base. So where to warehouse the jobless excess population?

    • Military Industrial Complex
    • Education Industrial Complex
    • Prison Industrial Complex
    • and others

    The military is a huge sector of the US economy and biggest user of energy. The wages paid by 'defense' contractors for the most part are living wages. The soldiers who come back often have to repeat additional tours of duty because of lack of gainful employment otherwise.

    In order to keep the military industrial complex thriving, there must be a 'serious threat' from 'over there'. Thus an enemy must be created and this is the purpose of CIA and Mossad concocting Al Qaeda, ISIS, WMD, ... If there is a possible remote threat it is exaggerated and portrayed as an existential threat. In conflicts and civil wars, the objective of US and Israel is to keep the conflict going as long as possible. The Iran Iraq war dragged on for 8 years. During this time the US helped both sides, each side just enough so that they wouldn't lose the war and then helped the other side to keep the conflict going. The US provided intelligence to Saddam Hussein and supplied him with chemical weapons which he used on Iran. The US supplied arms to Iran through the Iran-Contra deal which was exposed.

    The same policy of endless war and conflict is being played out in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, ... They have not succeeded in destabilizing Iran despite the huge budget dedicated to this.

    For their ideal goal, the US and Israel would like to see Iran divided up into several countries and have these countries constantly at war with each other.

  3. A successful and democratic Islamic system independent of the west is anti-thetical to western interests. The attempted isolation has not worked. On the contrary Iran has been able to build its industry, infrastructure, military, and democracy independently without help from the west. A democratic Islamic country that works is a serious threat to the capitalist world order. It will embolden the muslim populations such as that of Saudi Arabia to revolt against their corrupt monarchies. These corrupt monarchies are essential for the petro-dollar as alluded to in point 1. An alternative to western capitalism that survives and heaven forbid, thrives, is very threatening to the western plutocrats who want to keep the corrupt systems going.

please note: I updated with more references, if you question any of the assertions and statements, please request references in comment section instead of down voting.

  • 1
    Looking forward to seeing the reference on "Wahabism, an Islamic sect promoted by British intelligence." Either I will have some rebuttal, or I will get an education on the topic. Commented May 31, 2017 at 19:47
  • 2
    @PoloHoleSet You got it. See the link in "promoted by British intelligence".They outline confessions and memoirs of a British spy by the name of Hempher whose mission for his government, sent him to the Middle East to discover ways to undermine the Ottoman Empire. To this purpose, Hempher located a particularly corrupt individual by the name of Mohammed Ibn Adb al-Wahhab. Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 14:29
  • 3
    You think Iran is a "democracy"? Then you have a funny definition of the term.
    – D M
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 20:25
  • 3
    "and it is using Wahabism, an Islamic sect promoted by British intelligence, for social control to suppress the population" This simplifies the complexities of Saudi society to suit an agenda. It isn't always about the US. There's always been an uneasy peace between the royals and clerics. In the past this often boiled over when the cleric's teachings had unintended consequences. And the history is very interesting.
    – user8398
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 0:46
  • 2
    Note that you cite globalresearch.ca as a reference. This site is a well-known crank website which peddles all sorts of conspiracy theories. Citing it does not improve your answer (quite the opposite in fact). See e.g. Wikipedia and RationalWiki.
    – user11249
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 11:21

In addition to Colin's excellent list of reasons, there is the Iranian regime's continual incitement against the USA, such as crowds chanting "death to America" at its behest and US flags that people are supposed to walk on to show their hatred of the US. (The linked story talks about people who refuse to walk on the flags).


What about mixture of realpolitics and internal political calculation?

I think areas of conflict and grudges were listed. Plus of course the fact, that Iran that is presumably the most democratic among American enemies.

However, USA is in long term good relationship with main real (Saudi Arabia) and mostly propaganda (Israel) enemies of Iran. Add to it recent confrontation concerning nuclear weapons. Presumably nuclear Iran wouldn't be even such big problem on its own, but nuclear arms race in Middle East would be a really scarring perspective. Their national pride project was smashed by US arranged sanctions, while in the US public opinion started to believe that Iran is planning some nuclear war.

Weakening those allies by the US for moderate improvement of relationships with Iran is presumably not considered as worthy. Especially that politicians on both sides, who would try to suggest some relationship improvement would presumably be perceived as traitors. For their carrier its not worthy. And when the whole conflict is mostly frozen, there is no grave need to quickly resolve it.

There is however interesting long term perspective - what if nuclear deal is followed and sanctions lifted... In spite of all hostile rhetoric on both sides, some moderate thawing would be quite possible.


As usual the short answer does not require a lot of explanations

the revolutionary dogma of Iran threatens the US allies in the region (The absolute monarchies of the Gulf states and Israel)

A. The absolute monarchies sees the revolution that toppled the strongest monarch in the area as a threat to their dynasties. they use whatever means they have, to destabilize Iran and influence the US policy, they also found a good friend in Israel as they share the same goal

even with the decline of the Gulf state importance (as oil exporters and source of massive fortune )

B. AIPAC domination on the US middle-east policy in favor of Israel leaves no space for US for freedom of choice or maneuver as Iran (and Iraq before that) was a declared enemy of Israel. the policy makers can not think of Iran except as an enemy.

Even if Iran is a nuclear power (which it is not) and even if Iran had the means of delivering those nukes (which they do not possess) it will be less danger on the US lets say than North Korea which have nukes and can deliver them to the US soil and much closer. however Iran is taken priority because it is classified by AIPAC as a threat on Israel. just as Iraq before (and you know where that led to before)

in short special group interest/lobbies forms the US policy toward Iran and it is not the best policy to serve the US interests


There are fundamental problems with US-Iran relations. There are two policies based on two ideologies which draw from two different ways of life.

Prosperity for Iran would be a defeat for the US. A successful Muslim country in the Middle East would become a new model for other countries that currently bow to the US. It would have serious effects even on non-Muslim countries like those in Latin America.

Both want to fight terrorism. But for Iran, Israel is a terrorist state that occupies Palestine and kills people, especially kids, on their own land. Iran considers Hamas and Hezbollah as liberator groups that fight for freedom against an occupier.

For the US, however, Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorists, fighting against a civilised ally of the US.

As you know and said, Iran and Israel have serious problems with each other, and in every conflict in which Israel plays a part, the US takes their side.

The US doesn't have any of these problems with Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Arabia and Israel don't have problems with each other, as mentioned here. The Saudis are fighting with Yemen and Hezbollah, not with Israel. Saudi actions are in favor of the US and Israel against Iran. The Saudis don't draw any independent way of life. They obey the US. Saudi Arabia supplies the US with oil, and in bad economic situations uses the dollars they earn from oil to buy US arms and kill US enemies.

So the US doesn't care about human rights or democracy in Saudi Arabia, even if it pretends to care about them wrt. Iran.


The USA has three fundamental problems with Iran:

  1. Iran doesn't accept the existence of Israel.
  2. Iran wants to topple monarchy in Saudi Arabia.
  3. Iranian Islamic revolutionaries kept 52 American diplomats as hostages for 444 days where 8 Americans got killed.

USA-Israel's relationship has nothing new to explain. Israel is the central piece of US foreign policy in the middle east. This relationship stems from the Jewish influence in the USA's economy plus politics, and Evangelical Christian influence in the USA's politics. That being said, Iran comes naturally when listing the USA's overseas enemies. Iran has kept no stone unturned to undermine Israel over the past several decades. E.g. funding Hezbollah, helping the Syrian regime, mobilizing Shia militias, and so on in countries like Iraq, and so on. Iranian nuclear and missile programs are setup targetting Israel.

Saudi Arabia is the second most important ally of the USA in the middle east in terms of Petrodollar-system and arms sales. Iran considers the Saudi monarchy as an illegitimate one and Iran considers that the monarchy has encroached the holiest place of Muslim worship. Iran also doesn't see Saudi-Israel secret relations with favorable terms. Iran also considers other Gulf nations (like UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and so on) are the stooges of Saudi Arabia. So, over the years, Iran either tried to topple the Saudi monarchy or tried to create political anarchy in Saudi Arabia or tried to undermine its influence in places like Iraq, Qatar, Yemen, Lebanon, and so on.

The final point is related to the honor of the American empire. Iran never apologized for the taking of hostages in the US embassy in 1979. Iran also never paid any compensation for the killed Americans and the damage of the embassy (Compare it to the aftermath of Lockerbie bombing).

Note: These three problems came along with Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. None of them existed during the Shah's time.

Note-2: The accepted answer is incorrect. It overlooks these three fundamental problems. Also, lacks sufficient information.


One of the facts that is largely ignored is that the Zionists and Saudis have great influence in the U.S. government and media. Only rich persons can influence a capitalist system. Some of these lobbies are unknown, but some are big structured organizations like AIPAC. You can read more about this in the book "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" written by John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Currently, the U.S. cannot be allied with enemies of Israel.

The other is that the U.S. has a completely contradictory ideology to Iran. Iran prefers an Islamic theory and sub-religion known as Shia, while the U.S supports secularist governments.

  • 1
    To summarize your answer: The main problem is that there are lobbies. The secondary problem is that America's values and Iran's values are fundamentally incompatible. An interesting take, at best.
    – Kovy Jacob
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 0:24

Simply put, governments don't have values, they have interests. Simply put, Saudi Arabia is a forward-looking oil-rich strategic partner, whereas Iran is a poor country run by radical Islamists that continues to overtly support terror groups that America is fighting. This in addition to the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia are enemies (it has to do with inter-Muslim fights), and Saudi Arabia is a far more valuable ally. You make a good arguement for shunning Saudi Arabia (like they did help Al-Queda perpetrate that 9/11 attacks), but again - Governments don't have values, they have interests. In reality the American government doesn't (and didn't) care much for the thousands of Americas killed, but they do care about strategic partnerships in the Middle East.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .