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Cokie Roberts On The History Of U.S. Relations With Iran


President Trump has refused to certify the Iran nuclear deal. That's a deal that was brokered by President Obama. And we should note that deal represented a thaw in the long frozen relationship between the United States and Iran. Ties went into a deep freeze in 1979. That's when Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held U.S. diplomats there hostage. Jimmy Carter thinks he was defeated for re-election because he did not attack Iran to free those hostages.


JIMMY CARTER: I could have wiped Iran off the map with the weapons that we had. But in the process, a lot of innocent people would have been killed and probably including, you know, hostages.

GREENE: Now President Trump's handling of the Iran nuclear agreement prompted some of you to ask us questions about the history of the U.S. relationship with this country. And we have commentator Cokie Roberts here to answer those questions in the latest installment of Ask Cokie. Hi there, Cokie.


GREENE: And Cokie, I think this question gets right to the point for us. It is from Anzio O'Reilly. The question is, when did our relationship with Iran get so bad and why?

ROBERTS: Well, it goes back to the 1950s and the overthrow of the nationalist leader Mosaddegh and then on through the support of the Shah of Iran until his overthrow by the ayatollah and the Islamic Revolution in 1979. And that's when the United States became characterized as the Great Satan. Now, as you just pointed out, it was also at the same time that the hostages were held by the Iranians for 444 days. So the Americans didn't feel too kindly towards Iran either.

GREENE: Right. And Cokie you, mentioned the prime minister Mosaddegh. And our listener Chris Montague, he actually referred to him in a question he wrote. Can you ask Cokie about 1953 when the USA overthrew their government and installed a brutal puppet dictator?

ROBERTS: That coup is still invoked against the United States in Iran. Mosaddegh briefly displaced the Shah. He wanted to nationalize all the oil companies. The British were particularly upset about that. They enlisted the Americans to help them instigate a military coup against Mosaddegh and bring back the Shah. And the CIA carried out the plot, and the Shah came back and ruled for 26 years until 1979. And he was brutally oppressive to dissidents. But of course, since the revolution, the ayatollahs who have been in charge have not exactly been kind to dissidents either.

GREENE: Well, and the U.S. and Iran still don't have normal diplomatic relations, I mean, with that nuclear agreement or not. You know, since 1979, there have been several attempts to reach out to Iran. And here's one question about that from Sarah Fankhauser.

SARAH FANKHAUSER: My question about U.S., Iran history is what drugs and guns and other machinery has been exchanged between the two countries, covertly or otherwise? And has the CIA been involved with any of those exchanges?

ROBERTS: We don't know what's happened covertly for the most part. But the one we do know about was the infamous arms-for-hostages deal in 1986. The Reagan administration did try to open relations with Iran. The national security advisor secretly went there with a Bible verse hand-copied by the president and cake either in the shape of a key or with a key on it to symbolize the opening of new relations. It didn't work. So then the United States sold arms to Iran in exchange for getting hostages out of Lebanon. And the money from those secret arms sales went to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. That became the Iran-Contra scandal. We covered those congressional hearings live for 40 days with specials every night.

GREENE: Commentator Cokie Roberts talking to us about a country that has very much been in the news recently, Iran. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work. Just email us. The address is askcokie@npr.org. Or you can tweet us. Just use the hashtag, #AskCokie. Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Thank you, David. Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.