Four Good Reasons Why Iran Doesn’t Trust America

A brief survey of justifiable Iranian resentment

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Eyepress / SIPA USA

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks at his first press conference since taking office, at the presidency compound in Tehran, on Aug. 6, 2013

One basic obstacle for the new round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program that open today will be America’s basic distrust of the Iranian regime. Before striking any deal with Tehran, the Obama Administration will have to gauge whether a country where hostility toward the U.S. has been a core political theme since 1979 is acting in good faith. That could be a hard notion to swallow, given that some Iranian leaders still call America the Great Satan, and that Iran still celebrates the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran with a national holiday.

But as Iran and Western negotiators sit down in Geneva today, it’s worth considering some of the reasons why Iran bears such animus toward America, and why cutting a deal with the U.S. won’t be easy for Tehran either. Many of those reasons have to do with the basic Islamic fundamentalist philosophy of Iran’s clerical leaders, to be sure. But as the nuclear talks move forward, it’s worth remembering that the U.S. bears some blame for the poisoned state of the relationship between the two countries.

Consider the way Bill Clinton — then seeking a thaw with Iran — once put it. “It may be that the Iranian people have been taught to hate or distrust the United States or the West on the grounds that we are infidels and outside the faith,” Clinton said in April 1999. “I think it is important to recognize, however, that Iran … has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations. And I think sometimes it’s quite important to tell people, ‘Look, you have a right to be angry’” at things the U.S. has done. Here are four of them:

1. The Coup and the Shah

Iran’s 1979 revolution overthrew a monarch who had become despised for his corruption and political repression. The Iranian Shah was also known as a puppet of the U.S., thanks in part to his installation by a 1953 coup widely believed to be the handiwork of the CIA, after the Eisenhower Administration grew alarmed that Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was drifting into the Soviet orbit. “It it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conceded in a 2000 address, which also acknowledged that the U.S. gave “sustained backing” to the Shah’s regime, which, she admitted, “brutally repressed political dissent.”

In what may have been a gesture of contrition, the CIA finally admitted to its role on the coup’s 60th anniversary this summer. But all is not yet forgiven in Tehran, where Iran’s parliament recently gave preliminary approval for suing the U.S. in international court for staging the coup.

(MORE: Obama’s Top WMD Ex-Official on the Iran Nuclear Talks)

2. Iraq and Chemical Weapons

When Iran fought a brutal eight-year war against Iraq from 1980 to 1988, Tehran felt that it was also fighting a shadow enemy: the U.S. Saddam Hussein was sustained for much of the war by arms, money and intelligence assistance that flowed from Washington. Most infuriating for some Iranians, the U.S. tolerated and even aided Saddam’s repeated large-scale chemical attacks on Iranian forces using sarin and mustard gas. By some accounts, America actually assisted Iraq with intelligence like satellite imagery and maps in advance of what Washington knew would be gas attacks. (To Iranians aware of that history, Barack Obama’s outrage over his “red line” in Syria had a hypocritical ring.) “Aspects of U.S. policy toward Iraq during its conflict with Iran appear now to have been regrettably shortsighted,” Albright said in 2000.

3. Iran Air 655

In the summer of 1988, American warships were patrolling the Strait of Hormuz to protect commercial shipping, including oil tankers, during the Iran-Iraq conflict. It was perilous duty: a year earlier, an Iraqi jet had mistakenly fired a missile into a U.S. Navy ship, killing 37 Americans. And on the morning of July 3, a helicopter from the Navy guided-missile cruiser U.S.S. Vincennes came under fire from Iranian patrol boats.

With the Vincennes in pursuit of the Iranians, Iran Air flight 655 departed from Bandar Abbas in southern Iran, en route to Dubai. As the Airbus jet headed toward the Vincennes, the Americans misidentified the Iranian jet as a hostile fighter — Iranian fighter jets sometimes also took off from Bandar Abbas — and the Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles that destroyed the plane. Two hundred and seventy four passengers and 16 crew were killed, nearly all of them Iranians.

The U.S. paid $61.8 million to the Iranian victims’ families. But America has never admitted responsibility or apologized. And Iran has not forgotten: Iranian state television aired a documentary on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy this summer. An official Iranian government Twitter account noted, “Our civilian plane was shot down by U.S. warship in Persian Gulf, killing all 300. They awarded its captain medal of honor.” (Two top officers on the Vincennes were later awarded medals, though not for the Iran Air incident.) And an official Facebook page for Iran’s Supreme Leader posted this hard-to-forget image.

(VIDEO: Rouhani Takes New Approach at U.N. General Assembly)

4. The ‘Axis of Evil’ and Regime Change

In the late 1990s Iran and the U.S. made efforts at a diplomatic thaw. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the two countries cooperated against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and some diplomats saw a chance for a breakthrough. But in his January 2002 State of the Union address, George W. Bush described Iran as a member — along with Iraq and North Korea — of an “axis of evil” that threatened the civilized world. The line surprised and outraged Iran. According to Ryan Crocker, then a U.S. diplomat in Kabul who was engaged in talks with Iranian officials, it crushed momentum toward a rapprochement. “We were just that close,” Crocker recently told the New Yorker. “One word in one speech changed history.”

Some current and former U.S. officials call that an overstatement. But more serious for Iran than Bush’s “evil” insult is the belief that Washington’s goal is not simply to stop Iran’s nuclear program, but to replace the country’s Islamist regime entirely. Prominent figures like GOP Senator John McCain have openly called for a U.S.-backed regime change, an idea that President Obama felt compelled to address in his Sept. 24 speech to the U.N.: “We are not seeking regime change” Obama assured.

Whether Iran buys that assurance is critical to whether a nuclear deal can be struck. Iran’s leaders are well aware, after all, that Saddam might still be in power if he’d had a bomb.

MORE: What an Iran Deal Would Look Like