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Opinion: Why Iran hates America

Opinion by Fareed Zakaria, CNN

(CNN) — October 7 was a day that changed the world. A brutal surprise attack by Hamas in Israel was followed by a massive and deadly war of retaliation in Gaza.

The US — a major security player in the Middle East, with its own allies and enemies in the region — now has a target on its back. An Iran-backed, Iraqi militia killed three US soldiers in a drone strike, carried out on a US base in Jordan at the end of January, leading the US to undertake a wave of reprisal strikes on Iran-backed forces across the region. Washington is also enmeshed in a conflict with Yemen’s Houthis, another Iranian ally that is defying US naval power by disrupting global shipping through a key transit point for cargo ships, the Red Sea.

Fears of a larger Middle East war have only heightened, as a result. Iran, and particularly its hostile relationship with the US, is firmly at the center.

Why is that? What has produced the tensions between Washington and Tehran that have now become so central to one of the world’s most potentially explosive conflicts?

The story is more complicated than that, as I lay out in my CNN special report “Why Iran Hates America,” airing Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET. But suffice it to say that America’s relationship with Iran has been hostile and confrontational for more than four decades.

No matter what happens in the world — the fall of communism, the rise and fall of jihadism — somehow this relationship seems destined to stay the same. Why? And could it ever change?

The answer is complicated, but its major elements will be well known to many. In 1953, the US and Britain colluded to support the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister and elevate the Shah, the son of Iran’s former strongman ruler. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, who fled. The US admitted the Shah for cancer treatment, sparking ire among his many critics in Iran. Americans in the US embassy in Tehran were taken prisoner. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter ordered an operation to rescue them, which failed. The US would later support Iraq with critical intelligence in its long and violent war with Iran. Mutual enmity between Washington and Tehran would continue, entrenched.

There are two ideas that often underpin American strategy that should be dispelled. The first is that the Iranian regime will collapse and suddenly morph into a pro-American ally as it was under the Shah. It’s not that this is impossible. Repressive regimes are often more fragile than they seem. But premising a strategy on hope is not a sound path forward.

In addition, it’s worth looking at America’s recent experiences with regime change — in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and beyond — to recognize that even after the end of a bad regime, things do not always steadily improve. In fact, look at Washington’s relations with Moscow more than three decades after the Soviet system collapsed. It has not worked out as many had wished.

The second idea — or hope — is that the US and the current government in Iran can be friends. The truth is that Iran is a very proud and nationalistic country, deeply imbued with a sense of its own historical grandeur. Recall that the empire that was a precursor to modern Iran was one of the few forces that held its own in battle with the Roman Empire. At different points, ancient Persians ruled over much of what is now the Arab world. With all the current dysfunction and poverty, Iran is the heir to one of the great civilizations of the world, which means pride and prickliness.

In addition, the Islamic Revolution is anti-American in its DNA. The ayatollahs who run Iran have constructed an ideology that permeates the regime and that is as much about the importance of religion as it is about the importance of resisting America. They justify their repression by declaring that they must resist the libertine and decadent ways of the West.

There are, of course, some strong ideas and emotions that underpin America’s hostility to Iran. Washington has viewed the fall of the Shah’s Iran as a deep betrayal from which it has never really recovered. It has always found it hard to deal with nationalism and anti-modern, reactionary ideologies.

But — ruling out regime change or friendship — is it possible to have a working relationship with Tehran? Not one that assumes victory or conversion or a happy marriage, but rather uneasy coexistence. That proposition has been attempted briefly but never consistently. President Ronald Reagan took some tentative steps in that direction, trading arms for hostages, but it exploded. After 9/11, Iran took some important steps to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan in helping set up a new government. But once President George W. Bush branded them part of the “axis of evil,” those overtures collapsed.

The most significant effort was made by US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who both spoke of creating a new relationship. It was not friendship. As Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif pointed out to me, the Iran nuclear deal was premised not on trust but on mistrust. Each side carefully protected its interests in that document. But it did create the possibility of a working relationship, and Iran did adhere to that deal, moving further away from a nuclear weapons program than it had for decades. President Donald Trump blew up the deal and that opportunity. And in Iran, forces opposed to the deal and any kind of rapprochement with Washington gained power, sidelined Rouhani, and now rule with an even more brutal fist.

Can Washington and Tehran find common cause again? It seems unlikely. That fork in the road lies far behind us. The path both countries are on is one they are both comfortable with despite the fact it is filled with tension and misunderstandings and could even lead to war.

This article has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly described the order of events at the time of the Iranian revolution.

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