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Rocky US-Iran Relations Date Back Decades

As nations of the world convene in New York City for the opening of this year's United Nations General Assembly, one of them, Iran, is in the spotlight for its inflexibility on nuclear inspections and its long-standing hostility toward the West, especially the United States. The roots of this hostility run at least as far back as Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and even beyond.

Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran's leaders have maintained a defensive posture toward the West, and especially, toward the United States.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a recent Associated Press interview, said criticisms of his nation, and sanctions placed against it, make normal relations impossible.

"Those who insist on having hostilities with us kill and destroy the option of friendship with us in the future," Ahmadinejad said.

While many Iranians place the start of troubles between their country and the United States in 1953, when Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq was overthrown, the breaking point came on November 4, 1979. The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun that day by supporters of Iran's new clerical leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. More than 50 U.S. diplomats and staff were taken hostage and held for 444 days.

Roughly 30 years later, the top embassy hostage, Acting Ambassador Bruce Laingen, told VOA the Ayatollah's anger made dialogue impossible.

"The Ayatollah Khomeini, I am convinced, never wanted a relationship with the United States," noted Laingen. "That he would do everything he could to prevent it from becoming a reality."

Diplomatic relations between the two nations were severed in 1980, and remain so to this day. And when war broke out in 1980 between Iran and Iraq, the United States supported Baghdad against Tehran.

In 1997, Iran elected a reformer, Mohammad Khatami, as its fifth president. This raised hopes that perhaps now some dialogue between Teheran and Washington might be possible.

And the following year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a speech that held out a hand toward Iran, calling for the two countries to "explore further ways to build mutual confidence and avoid misunderstandings," as a step toward "normal relations."

But President Khatami responded by saying normal relations could not begin before the U.S. apologized for its part in the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mossadeq.

"Through their confession, if the Americans accept to do it, I think that this will be a very big step toward removing our misunderstandings, but unfortunately in action, they have not done this," said President Khatami on September 7, 2000.

President Khatami's successor, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has stepped up the rhetoric against the United States, and has aggressively supported Iran's nuclear program, defying international calls for transparency regarding possible weapons development. This, in turn, has triggered U.N., U.S., and European Union sanctions.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he spoke to nations hostile to the United States, especially Iran under Ahmadinejad.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit, and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history. But, that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," President Obama stated on his inauguration.

So far though, Ahmadinejad's response has been defiant. Despite his tough stance, the Iranian president has indicated this week that he is willing to reopen nuclear talks with the United States and its partners, the so-called P5-plus-1 nations.

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.