America's relationship with Iran is complex, convoluted and colored by events that occurred decades ago.
The freeze in United States-Iran relations has its roots in the Cold War, during which time America had no qualms about setting up repressive puppet governments. In 1953, the CIA and its British counterpart brought off a coup to replace Iran's left-leaning democracy with a military-supported monarchy. The Shah ruled as absolute monarch for more than a quarter-century, until the Islamic Revolution deposed him in 1979; his secret police suppressed all political dissent.
The Reagan administration openly supported its "friend" Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Toward the end of the war, Americans moved past economic support and provided direct military assistance to Iraq.
President George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech in 2002 did nothing to improve relations, and almost 20 years of progressively more restrictive sanctions have damaged Iran's economy as they moved to develop their nuclear energy capability.
Our government believes, apparently with good reason, that Iran, under its previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, intended to develop nuclear weapons. Iran fears that America would use military force to stop it, either directly or through our Israeli allies. Whether real or imagined, the Iranians have ample reason to distrust and dislike the United States.
And America has ample cause to dislike Iran's government. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini's anti-Western obsession led him to call us the "Great Satan," and Iranian "students" stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.
In 1983, Hezbollah, Iranian-supported terrorists, blew up a Marine compound in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. Iran, through Hezbollah, is considered a state sponsor of international terrorism.
Its threats against Israel and to smaller states in the Persian Gulf have direct impact on the worldwide price of oil; they have threatened to block the straits of Hormuz, which would cut off oil supplies going through the Persian Gulf. Iran's actions destabilize the world's most difficult area, the Middle East.
With that as background, it's no surprise at all that America and Iran have not had direct diplomatic relations since 1980. However, earlier this week, events occurred that could presage a small softening of the extremely hardened positions between the U.S. and Iran.
On Tuesday, president Obama spoke before the United Nations. He said, "if we can resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship - one based on mutual interests and mutual respect." He also acknowledged that the Iranian Supreme Leader had issued a fatwa against developing nuclear weapons, that the United States does not seek regime change and that these provide the basis for "meaningful agreement." The president also announced that he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Iranian diplomats.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appears more moderate than his predecessor, Ahmadinejad. In an interview with NBC News, Rouhani said, "The massacre by the Nazis was condemnable. We never want to sit side by side with the Nazis. They committed a crime against Jews - which is a crime against Christians, against Muslims, against all of humanity." He couldn't have made this statement without the approval of the senior Ayatollahs.
Rouhani also said he is willing to engage in talks with the United States over Iran's nuclear program. Even if this is a sham, we must pursue this opening.
Iran has been hurt by sanctions and wants relief from them. In exchange, the United States will demand that Iran provide ample proof of its sincerity. Both sides can take some small first steps toward building trust.
Iran could agree not to enrich uranium beyond a 5 percent concentration, enough to power nuclear reactors, but not to build a bomb. The United States could move to ease the SWIFT sanctions that block Iran from international electronic fund transfers. Many years ago, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said, "you don't make peace talking with your friends. You make peace by talking with your enemies." Let us hope we can prove him right.