Axis of Evil or the Great Satan? Untangling the U.S./Iranian Relationship

Anthony Pellegrino, James Fichera, and Megan Walden

In 2002, President George W. Bush referred to the Islamic Republic of Iran as being part of an “Axis of Evil”; an assertion which resulted in Iranian officials’ condemnation and a retort that the United States was “the Great Satan.” Clearly, at the time, there was caustic antipathy between these two nations, each of whom played a significant role in the persistently delicate affairs of the Middle East in
the wake of the Cold War. Relatedly, each also exercised imperialistic tendencies in the region through proxy conflicts and engaging in opposing alliances, causing increased animosity and distrust. But how did the relationship devolve to that point?
How has the relationship fared since? What are the prospects for the future of this region given that both nations have deep geopolitical interests and often opposing ideologies?

As social studies teachers in the U.S., we have considered these questions as important in our roles to help learners understand the complex world
in which we live and the role of the U.S. in it. We have also recognized that addressing abstract and dynamic concepts surrounding international affairs
is especially challenging for teachers and students. With that in mind, we assert that by applying practices related to historical thinking in concert with employing principles of foreign relations, students can come to understand how events,
ideologies, and circumstances have led us to the current state of affairs. Moreover, we believe that this integrated approach can help students learn to take informed civic action based on analysis of evidence and understanding perspective.

To that end, we present an Inquiry Design Model (IDM) lesson to encourage students to grapple with the strained yet indispensable relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran as a means to understand contemporary foreign policy matters more broadly. In this two-day lesson, students will think historically about tensions between these two nations since the early Cold War and deliberate
about foreign policy postures to determine which best addresses the relationship. As a transition to the lesson, we present readers a primer on recent history between the U.S. and Iran followed by a brief overview of prevalent foreign policy stances and pedagogical perspectives that will be considered in the lesson activities.

Recent U.S./Iranian Relations: A Primer

To understand the complex relationship between the United States and Iran, one must look to the past for clarification. Today’s association begins during the tumultuous years of the Cold War when American and British intelligence effectively
overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran. This was in part because of an oil nationalization program undertaken by Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq and by perceptions that his government was becoming more closely
aligned with the Soviet Union (Leebaert, 2003). After installing the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the following two and a half decades brought America and Iran together into a new political partnership. Iran gained a powerful ally and for the U.S., an indispensable partner in the Middle East. During those years, Iran’s future would be determined without the consent or consideration of the Iranian people as Pahlavi initiated Iran’s conversion to a modern, secular nation.

Along with modernization, Iran’s energy policies moved in concordance scientifically when a U.S.-sponsored nuclear program began there in 1957. The “Atoms for Peace” initiative, whose stated mission included making available “peaceful, civilian nuclear technologies in the hope that they wouldn’t pursue military nuclear programs” (Inskeep, 2015, para. 6), provided a reactor for civilian purposes. Furthermore, Pahlavi signaled his espousal of Western ideological philosophies in
1962 by vowing to eschew communist influence with the understanding of continued support for his regime from the U.S. and its allies (New York Times, 2012). The following “White Revolution” ushered in a campaign of modernizing industrialization bolstered by massive oil revenues. Although these initiatives benefited many Iranians, rampant corruption accorded Iran’s elite colossal
rewards. Combined with other economic complications, this led to an emerging opposition. Amongst them were Shi’a clergy whose influence was being eroded by secular reforms. As arrest, torture, and murder of opposition forces became defining features of Pahlavi’s regime, he dissolved Iran’s two political parties. Nevertheless, America maintained political ties with the Shah, which did pay some dividends. As a U.S. ally, Iran, for example, chose not to participate in OPEC’s oil embargo following 1973’s Yom Kippur War (Myre, 2013). Thereafter, the U.S. indicated its interest in
furthering Iran’s nuclear program by allowing the purchase of a nuclear reactor and materials for itsoperation (New York Times, 2012).

Accompanying emerging economic issues and dismissal of calls for democratic reforms, Iranians erupted into revolt. Growing protests were answered with brutal reprisals, inciting further protests. Among those hostile to Pahlavi was cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His antagonistic denunciations had made him the most prominent face of the regime’s opposition. Khomeini’s return from exile in early 1979, precipitated by the Shah’s fleeing of Iran, gave rise to the Islamic Republic. With anti-American sentiment also running deep, huge protests were staged outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Relations deteriorated as dozens of
diplomats were taken hostage in reaction to news of Pahlavi’s asylum claim in the U.S. Even after the release of the hostages, negotiated by President Carter, but not executed until his successor, Ronald Reagan came into office, a new era of tense relations between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic was underway.

Early in his rule, Khomeini mothballed Iran’s nuclear program, partly out of apathy to programs undertaken by the Shah, but also declaring it contrary to the teachings of Islam (Leebaert, 2003). To defend those same teachings, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah were created. Their commitment to promoting popular revolution in the region however, was not entirely welcomed by Iran’s neighbors. Anticipating plans for exporting those ideas, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein attempted to weaken Khomeini’s hand by preemptively launching an attack on Iran in 1980.
This decision ignited a decade-long conflict that would include the use of chemical weapons and result in massive casualties.

Further complications arose from clandestine U.S. operations providing aid to Iran’s
religious and geopolitical rival, Iraq. Later, Hezbollah-backed bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and of American military personnel elsewhere in Lebanon in 1983 only mired the U.S. further in the crisis. Additionally, Iranian-backed forces opposing Israel in Lebanon and Palestinian territories pushed the U.S. and Iran further apart on nearly all issues in the region. After denouncing Iran as a “state sponsor of terror”, Iranian-supported organizations took more American hostages late in White House officials reacted, despite an arms embargo, by secretly selling weapons to Iran
to secure their release while channeling resulting funds to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, thus prompting the firestorm of controversy known as the Iran-Contra Affair (Byrne, 2017).

As Hussein pursued his own nuclear program, Khomeini secretly restarted Iran’s.
Henceforth, the U.S. would actively seek to impede these efforts. As hostilities continued, America and Iran became embroiled in a phase of the conflict known as the “Tanker War” when Iraqi and Iranian forces targeted oil vessels. Iran soon expanded targets to include ships of Iraqi supporters Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (Ishaan, 2015). In the ensuing campaign, an American naval vessel was attacked
by Iranian forces and another was struck by an Iranian mine. American retaliations struck several ships and oil platforms, but hostilities took a tragic turn when an Iranian passenger jet was mistakenly shot down. Despite this intensifying violence, the conflict would not escalate any further. This wearisome and fruitless war finally came to a conclusion in 1988. Less than a year later Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who famously defied and denounced the United States as “the Great Satan,” died.

The next year, Saddam Hussein, who was recently aided in an effort to keep Iran in check, became motivated to invade neighboring Kuwait. When the ultimatum to leave went unheeded, the ensuing Gulf War resulted in a decisive military victory for the U.S. and coalition forces, but became a political quagmire. Iran remained officially neutral in the conflict, but their nuclear ambitions and persistent involvement in regional proxy wars ensured their relationship remained contentious. In a rare instance however, U.S. and Iranian interests aligned following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Taliban in Afghanistan had long been an enemy of Iran, but only more recently were they and al Qaeda of primary concern to the U.S. Iranians assisted U.S. efforts in Afghanistan by providing intelligence to seemingly improve their relationship (Sharp, 2004).

This brief thaw in relations was short-lived once President Bush denounced Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” in his State of the Union Address four months later. By year’s end, disclosure of active nuclear facilities in Iran seemed to confirm many U.S. officials’ worst fears. Despite denials for decades, many remain convinced that Tehran’s intention is weapons development with the United States’ staunch ally, Israel, as a target. This currently remains another vexing issue and additional basis for the differing diplomatic postures the U.S. may take in the future, ranging from coercion to containment to engagement as noted by U.S.-Iran relations scholar Mark Gasiorowski (CSPAN, American History TV, 2019). Present relations between the United States and Iran remain a diplomatic minefield fraught with uncertainty,
inflated rhetoric, and direct attacks on military and economic assets. The basis for this lesson begins with the 2002 State of the Union address and allows students to gain a sense of the complexity in the history entangled in this relationship as they
consider ways to manage it moving forward.

Pedagogical Framework

The pedagogical basis for this lesson is drawn from a combination of historical thinking and fundamental foreign relation practices. Historical thinking allows us to situate the relationship between the U.S. and Iran in its recent historical context while providing space for learners to challenge traditional narratives of the role the U.S. plays in its geopolitical relationships. In 2011, history education scholar Keith Barton distilled components of historical thinking into tenets of perspective, interpretation of evidence, and agency. Together, these complementary ideas informed the way this lesson draws upon the study of the past. According to Barton (2011), students learn about the past through examining a person, event, or
phenomena using multiple perspectives. In so doing, students must analyze a variety of sources and question how each may support or challenge their understanding of a traditional narrative. In the process, students must also interpret evidence in sources based on audience, context, and intent; thus, requiring further corroboration to best understand the subject (Drake & Nelson, 2005). Finally, Barton (2011) advocates that when students utilize any historical source in these ways they develop agency and the notion that every piece of evidence holds some power to foster understanding. Agency manifests in how they recognize the role each source plays to inform the whole. Certain texts may have more value than others, but in order to gain the
deepest possible understanding, one must consider all available evidence as useful. Through recognizing the agency in evidence and in one’s ability to interpret evidence a democratization of the process begins to occur since it is no longer one
perspective that dominates the voice of all others. In this lesson for example, recognizing the perspectives of Iranians in concert with those we most often hear from the U.S. is critical to the process. Further, when students gain the knowledge
and skills necessary to recognize agency in the sources they use to learn, they also foster their ability to see how their own roles as investigators gives them power to form evidence-based interpretations (Doolittle, Hicks, & Ewing, 2004).

Foreign Policy Postures

In terms of these tenets of historical thinking, examining fundamental stances related to foreign policy postures offers students the opportunity to consider the ways individuals with varying perspectives and experiences use historical evidence to make inferences and evaluations that guide decisions. In 2019, Mark Gasiorowski offered three general postures of foreign policy aimed at bringing fundamental change to Iran, or at least restricting Iran’s “objectionable behavior.” All three
postures have been employed at various times in the relationship between these two nations (C-SPAN, American History TV, 2019). For us, they served as a framework around which we developed this lesson that asks students to determine foreign policy objectives and actions the U.S. may take in its relationship with Iran.

The first of these positions is engagement, whereby the United States enters into a dialogue with Iran and others, if need be. The aim is to come to a mutual agreement that will encourage restraint on the part of Iran. The second stance is coercion.
By these means, the United States attempts to change Iran’s behaviors through the use of aggressive actions such as use of military force, economic sanctions, or other threatening measures in an effort to forcefully intimidate, and curtail undesirable conduct from Iran. The last posture, containment, is notably the only one not seeking to enact fundamental changes upon Iran. Instead, this stance aims at constraining Iran’s undesirable actions but with no realistic expectations of realizing any consequential changes as the other two postures seek to achieve.

Lesson Overview

This lesson provides students the opportunity to understand these fundamental
approaches to foreign policy by studying the example of U.S./Iranian relations through an inquiry process as articulated through the C3 Framework by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Ultimately, students will draw upon historical and contemporary evidence to help determine which foreign policy posture is most appropriate to address tensions between the U.S. and Iran and present their recommendations to the President of the United States. We have developed a website to house resources and additional detail to execute this lesson (Axis of Evil or the Great Satan? Untangling the U.S./Iranian Relationship Since 1953).

Grounded in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the momentous “axis of evil” sentiment expressed in the 2002 State of the Union speech by President George W. Bush, this lesson calls on learners to ultimately devise a presidential advisory document to help forge a foreign policy path with Iran. In keeping with Dimension 1 of the C3 Framework, which focuses on developing and parsing compelling questions, this lesson is guided by provocative statements
made by both sides in this relationship: President Bush including Iran in the “axis of evil” and Iranian leadership referring to the U.S. as “the Great Satan.” Together, these comments underscore the divide between these two nations and allow students
the opportunity to examine evidence and foreign policy perspectives on the nature of this geopolitical relationship (NCSS, 2013).

From the introductory question, the first activities draw on Dimensions 2 and 3 of the C3 Framework, which call on learners to use disciplinary tools and concepts as well as evaluate sources and evidence (NCSS, 2013). Students begin by watching an excerpt from the 2002 State of the Union speech that introduced the idea that an “axis of evil” of nations actively sought to undermine democratic values across the globe. Working backwards from the speech and a brief discussion of the context and its message (15-20 minutes), learners will gather into small groups to assemble and annotate a timeline with pivotal events that have occurred between the U.S. and Iran since the 1953 coup d’état, which saw the U.S. and Britain support the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, creating considerable animosity between
Iran and the U.S. (30-40 minutes). A completed task will include placement of each event in chronological order, inclusion of a brief summary of the event, and a statement regarding how the event changed the relationship between these two nations.

Next, four-person student groups will be provided two sources that offer differing
perspectives on the animosity between these nations (20-30 minutes). The first is a resource articulating examples of Iran acting nefariously in foreign affairs. The second describes Iranian reactions to the “axis of evil” comment from President Bush. Student groups will use this material to inform their position on whether Iran belongs in an axis of evil or whether the U.S. is unfairly targeting Iran as a “bad actor” on the world stage. In the spirit of a structured academic controversy model, teachers may leverage the group makeup to ask that individual members concentrate on only one source and share their expertise with others, who, in turn,
share information from their source. The deliberation on these perspectives will inform their final task of advising the president on the path forward for U.S. relations.

Day two begins with the penultimate activity in this lesson. To begin this day, student groups will pivot to general foreign policy considerations by exploring the fundamental foreign policy postures of coercion, containment, and diplomacy (20
minutes). To better understand the differences between these postures, each student will complete a Frayer model graphic organizer for each posture,
which calls on students to include characteristics, examples, and non-examples of each concept.

The summative performance task consists of two parts. The first asks each group to imagine themselves as a presidential advisory team meeting just after the 2002 State of the Union Speech and the backlash that has come from Iran. This activity includes completing an online simulation (found on the lesson website) that walks students through ramifications of each posture. Students will use the graphic organizers they previously completed to inform the choices they make in this activity. From that perspective, and the information they have gathered from the previous class, they are to draft an artifact advising the president of the most appropriate foreign policy posture to take (30-40 minutes). As an extension to their work as a presidential advisory team, their final task is to find a more recent event involving the U.S. and Iran to analyze. Each group will revisit their advisory document in light of this new event to determine which posture was ultimately chosen and how it has fared in recent decades. Students can also revise their posture to chart a new path forward in
U.S./Iranian relations in light of the recent developments they find (20-30 minutes). The IDM Blueprint lesson plan is provided in the following sections.


In this lesson, we have attempted to provide an opportunity for learners to explore the complexities of the intersection of history and foreign affairs through the example of the relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. We believe that this particular relationship epitomizes certain unique
challenges as well as enduring features of foreign affairs. In the context of the Cold War, the U.S. engaged in covert operations that contributed to the emergence of the Shah. One can draw a direct line between the autocratic tendencies exhibited by the
Shah’s regime and the 1979 Islamic Revolution that sought to shed all Western influence. The 1980s saw the U.S. pivot toward Iran’s neighbor and enemy, Iraq, even when that meant supporting its tyrannical leader, Saddam Hussein. Through the
1990s, crippling economic sanctions and calls for regime change from the U.S. led to increased tensions even among Iranians who have protested their own government in increasingly vocal ways (BBC News, 2020). In the early twenty-first century, Iran felt the pressure of the vast U.S. military who now had many thousands of troops
stationed to their east in Afghanistan, and to their west, in Iraq. Yet, even with the antagonistic sentiments vehemently expressed from both sides since the Revolution and the events of September 11, 2001, each nation understood the geopolitical
importance of the Middle East and their respective roles in the region.

More recently however, tensions have again raised the possibility of more open conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Accusations of Iran’s involvement in attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq were followed by a U.S. airstrike on January 2, 2020, which killed Qassem Soleimani, a top general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (Al Jazeera, 2020). This event was followed closely by thus far unheeded calls for the U.S. to ease economic sanctions on Iran during the 2020 global pandemic (The Guardian, 2020). Both events in this new decade portend a future with continued interactions
between both nations, some of which may be overtly or covertly positive, but more are likely to reflect deep-seated animosity and distrust.

Exploring the ways these two nations have coexisted offers students the chance to understand perspective and complexity in foreign affairs, and to apply fundamental approaches to geopolitical relationships in an authentic inquiry. Whether students decide Iran belongs as part of an “Axis of Evil” or that the United States resembles “the Great Satan”, this lesson requires learners to try to untangle the historical context and overall messiness that is foreign affairs as a means to better understand the relationships we have with our allies, enemies, and those who fall somewhere in between. In doing so, we believe students will be better able to understand the importance of foreign relations and more likely to engage in informed civic action.


Al Jazeera, (2020, January 3). Who was Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s IRGC’s Quds Force leader? Al Jazeera. Retrieved from

Barton, K. C. (2011). History: From learning narratives to thinking historically. In W. B. Russell, (Ed.), Contemporary Social Studies: An Essential Reader (pp. 109-139). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

BBC News (2020, January 16). Iran protests: Who are the opposition in the country? BBC News. Retrieved from

Byrne, M. (2017). Iran-Contra: Reagan’s scandal and the unchecked abuse of presidential power. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

C-SPAN, American History TV (2019). U.S.- Iranian Relations featuring Professor Mark
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Doolittle, P., Hicks, D., & Ewing, T. (2004). Historical inquiry: understanding the past.
Historical inquiry: Scaffolding wise practices in the history classroom.
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Drake, F. D., & Nelson, L. R. (2005). Engagement in teaching history: Theory and practices for middle and secondary teachers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

The Guardian (2020, April 6). Former world officials call on U.S. to ease Iran sanctions to fight covid-19. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Inskeep, S. (2015, September 18). Born in the USA: How America created Iran’s nuclear program. Retrieved from

Ishaan, T. (2015, April 2). The key moments in the long history of U.S.-Iran tensions. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Leebaert, D. (2003). The fifty-year wound: How America’s cold war victory shapes our world. Boston, MA: Back Bay Books.

Myre, G. (2013, October 16). The 1973 Arab oil embargo: The old rules no longer apply. National Public Radio. Retrieved from

NCSS. (2013). The college, career, and civic life framework for social studies state standards: Guidance for enhancing the rigor of K-12 civics, economics, geography, and history. Silver Spring, MD: Author.

New York Times. (2012, April 7). Iran, the United
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Sharp, J. (2004, October 28). The U.S. and Iran part IV – hostile relations. Public Radio International. Retrieved from

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