Much of the coverage of the proposed nuclear deal with Iran by the United States and five major countries has focused on why the U.S. should not trust Iran. But little attention has been given to why Iran does not trust the U.S.

What are some major reasons?

  • The U.S. overthrew Iran’s government.

The U.S. and Britain overthrew the democratically elected Iranian leader, Mossadegh, in 1953, a fact acknowledged by our CIA in 2013.

The primary issue was oil. During World War II, Britain occupied Iran to protect a supply route and to keep oil out of Nazi hands. They retained control after the war through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but in 1951, Iran voted to nationalize the oil. Britain objected to Iran’s plans and enlisted U.S. assistance in orchestrating a coup to oust Mossadegh.

The U.S. then reinstalled the shah, under whom Mossadegh had been prime minister. The shah, a corrupt and despised monarch, was seen as a puppet of the U.S., and his support by the U.S. and the West in general led to the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged in a 2000 address that the coup “was clearly a setback for Iran's political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."

  • The U.S. backed Iraq against Iran.

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the U.S. backed Iraq in an 8-year war that cost the lives of 300,000 Iranians and caused more than $1 trillion in damages. And the U.S. stood by when Iraq used chemical weapons (sarin and mustard gas) against Iran. Some accounts said we did not just stand by but assisted Iraq with satellite imagery and maps.

  • The U.S. shot down a civilian airplane.

Toward the end (1988) of the Iraq-Iran war, the U.S. shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people on board. Although this was an accident, Iran perceived the downing as a deliberate attack, and the tragedy no doubt confirmed their view the U.S. was committed to their destruction.

  • Iran was listed on U.S. “Axis of Evil” list.

In spite of the above history, Iran has made overtures to the U.S. over the years. For example, after 9/11, Iran was one of the first countries to condemn the 9/11 attacks. Iran assisted the U.S.in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, rounded up Arabs to counter al-Qaeda, contributed more than $750 million to the reconstruction of Afghanistan and denied sanctuary to suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

Although they also expressed interest in a broader dialogue, they were listed as part of the “axis of evil” (with North Korea and Iraq) in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.

Given the above history, it is not difficult to see why some Iranians do not trust the U.S. and believe the U.S. is committed to “regime change” (distinct from human rights and other changes) in Iran. This view is further reinforced when prominent American political leaders like Sen. John McCain publicly call for regime change.

Such statements provide an excuse for the hard-liners in Iran to continue their opposition to dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear weapons. A member of Parliament has even threatened to kill one of the Iranian negotiators.

It is long past time to engage Iran. In a 2008 CBS interview, Hillary Mann Leverett, Bush administration negotiator during the 2001-03 period, and her husband, Flynt Leverett, former career CIA analyst and former National Security Council official, proposed the next president reorient U.S. policy toward Iran like President Nixon did with China in the 1970s, opening a U.S.-China relationship and even visiting the country.

More recently, an article in Congress Blog (The Hill.com) this year focused on the importance of engaging everyday Iranians. Titled “Iranians Like America: We Should Take Advantage,” the authors point out that “Iran is unique in the Middle East, in that it maintains a sizable young, urban and highly educated population that has favorable views towards America.” Andrew Bacevich, military historian, believes they “represent the future of politics in Iran."

Just as some of us hope Iranians do not judge the U.S. by the harshest comments of our political leaders, we should not judge Iranian views of the U.S. by their harshest critics of us.

The deal focuses on nuclear weapons, but it can be an opening for further relationships. Our multiple wars have risked American lives, our economic well-bring (trillions have been spent on the wars now and in future costs), and our international reputation. It’s time to take diplomatic and political risks for our future, Iran’s future and that of the Middle East.

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