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Coup to Revolution: U.S. Foreign Policy in Iran
Lesson Snapshot

Learning objectives
Students will learn that many factors shape U.S. foreign policy through the examination of one case study: Iran.

Grade level
Grades 11-12

Time estimate
Three 45-minute periods

  • Part 1: Introduction to Iran, reading and discussion of situation in 1950s
  • Part 2: Continued discussion of 1950s, introduction to 1970s
  • Part 3: Continued discussion of 1970s and comparison with 1950s



NCSS standards

What you'll need (see Resources for links)

Lesson Plan

Part 1

  • Distribute copies of the Iran Country Profile available from the CIA World Factbook.

  • Begin with a discussion of Iran. Note: Many of these questions are also asked in the Global Connections lesson "Middle East: Land, Resources, and Economics." If the class has already completed this lesson, the following will serve as a review.

    • Where is Iran? Who are its neighbors?
    • What natural resources does it produce?
    • What is its population?
    • What is the per capita annual income in the country?
    • What does it export? What does it import?
    • What type of government is in power?
    • What is the major religion practiced in the country?
    • What language(s) is spoken in Iran?
    • What are some major events in the country's history?
    • What are some important current issues?

  • Ask students to describe the current relationship between the United States and Iran. Ask them to speculate as to why they think the United States is interested in Iran.

  • Assign four readings:

    • "Britain Fights Oil Nationalism"

    • Chronology U.S.-Iran Relations, 1906-2002

    • "Man of the Year 1951 -- Mohammed Mossadegh: Challenge of the East"

    • "Mohammed Mossadegh: Eccentric Nationalist Begets Strange History"

  • From these readings, students should answer the following questions:

    • Describe the political relationship between Iran's prime minister and the Shah in 1952. Who do you think had more power?
    • What did Mohammed Mossadeq and his followers think about the "West" and the United States?
    • What was Mossadeq's position on Iranian oil? On communism?
    • What was happening in the United States in the early 1950s? Who was president of the United States in 1951 and then in 1952? Who were U.S. allies? Who were U.S. enemies?
    • How does the Time magazine article describe the United States' Middle East foreign policy?
    • What role did Britain have in Iran from 1900 to 1950?
    • What were British-American relations like in 1952?

Part 2

  • Spend a class period continuing the discussion of the research questions above as well as the following:

    • How did Mossadeq take power from the Shah? Why?
    • How did Mossadeq fall and the Shah assume power?
    • What were the main goals of the U.S. intervention in Iran?
    • What other international factors concerned the United States in 1953? (Cold War with Soviets, Korean War, Arab-Israeli relations, Nasser flirting with Soviets, launching NATO, etc.)
    • How might these have affected U.S. foreign policy toward Iran?
    • Should the United States and Britain have removed Mossadeq from power? Discuss moral issues, political issues, and whether with hindsight we would do the same thing.

  • Assign one reading:

    • "Man of the Year 1979 -- Ayatullah Khomeini: The Mystic Who Lit the Fires of Hatred"

  • From this reading, students should answer the following questions:

    • Describe the domestic policies and goals of the Shah.
    • Why did the United States support the Shah?
    • What role did the United States hope the Shah and Iran could play in the Middle East?
    • Who was the U.S. president in 1979?
    • What domestic issues was the United States facing in 1979?
    • What effects did rising oil prices have on Europe and the United States?
    • What countries or regions did the United States worry that "anti-Western" sentiment would spread to?
    • Why was this anti-Westernism considered a problem?
    • Why was the Soviet Union interested in the Middle East?
    • What were U.S.-Soviet relations like in 1979?
    • What were the responses of other Arab countries to the Iranian hostage crisis? What did they warn the United States not to do?

Part 3

  • Spend a class period continuing discussion of the situation in Iran in the 1970s together with the following questions:

    • What factors did the United States need to be concerned with when shaping a post-Islamic Revolution foreign policy?

    • What foreign policy options do you think the United States should have pursued in 1979?

  • Have students compare and contrast the situation during the 1950s and 1970s with regard to internal Iranian politics and U.S. foreign policy. Consider presenting answers in a chart showing key indicators or components of the situation.

    • Were U.S. and Iranian interests the same or different?

    • Were the nations' goals the same or different?


  • How well can the student articulate the situation in Iran and the relationship between the United States and Iran in the 1950s? The 1970s?

  • Using Iran as a case study, to what extent can the student explain factors (domestic, international, economic, etc.) that come into play to shape U.S. foreign policy?


Core Resources:

Global Connections Essays:

Internet Resources:

Print Resources:

  • Flanders, Stephen, and Carl Flanders. Dictionary of American Foreign Affairs.
    New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993.

  • Jentelson, Bruce, and Thomas Paterson, eds. Encyclopedia of U.S. Foreign Relations.
    New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Related Activities:

NCSS standards

Time, continuity, and change

  • Apply key concepts such as time, chronology, causality, change, conflict, and complexity to explain, analyze, and show connections among patterns of historical change and continuity.

Production, distribution, and consumption

  • Apply economic concepts and reasoning when evaluating historical and contemporary social developments and issues.
  • Distinguish between the domestic and global economic systems, and explain how the two interact.

Power, authority, and governance

  • Analyze and explain ideas and mechanisms to meet needs and wants of citizens, regulate territory, manage conflict, establish order and security, and balance competing conceptions of a just society.

  • Analyze and evaluate conditions, actions, and motivations that contribute to conflict and cooperation within and among nations.

Global connections

  • Explain conditions and motivations that contribute to conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among groups, societies, and nations.

For more information, see the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, Volume I.

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