Middle East


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Tension, distrust, hostility: For more than 30 years, those words have described the relationship between Iran and the U.S. But there's one overriding word to describe it: silence. That's because since 1979, no American president had spoken with a leader of Iran. Nine days ago, that changed...


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody.

RATH: ...when President Obama entered the White House Briefing Room and said these words.


OBAMA: Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

RATH: It was big news.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A short phone call but a major breakthrough.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They indeed spoke by telephone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...leaders from the U.S. and Iran have spoken (unintelligible) since 1979.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: ...over 30 years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is a phone call that will be committed to history.

DIANE SAWYER: ...a single phone call opening a world of possibility.

RATH: When President Obama spoke with Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, it was greeted with great hope and deep skepticism, born from three decades of bad blood, mistakes and sometimes outright aggression. That's our cover story today: the U.S. and Iran, breaking the silence.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: The end of Iran's monarchy came early today when Khomeini's followers took control of the palace of the shah.

RATH: The beginning of the long silence starts in 1979, but the roots of the discord are much deeper. In 1953, Iran was a democracy with a popular prime minister, but the CIA helped overthrow that government and reinstalled a monarch, the shah, who was much friendlier to U.S. interests. He would rule brutally until 1979 when he fled amid mass protests. Stepping into that void was Iran's revolutionary leader, Ruhollah Khomeini.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Khomeini was greeted by scores of Muslim religious leaders and political allies. In an obvious reference to the United States, he said: Foreign advisers have ruined our culture and have taken our oil.

RATH: Khomeini came out of exile to become the grand ayatollah, the supreme leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran.

GARY SICK: Political Islam was a new creature as far as not only the Americans were concerned, but the Iranians and just about everybody else in the world.

RATH: This is Gary Sick. Today, he's a professor at Columbia University. But in 1979, he served on the National Security Council for then-President Jimmy Carter. Gary Sick says nobody was ready for the new Iran, an Islamic state.

SICK: To say we were unprepared is absolutely an understatement.

RATH: At first, the two countries kept talking, but that began to change in late 1979 when the U.S. allowed the Shah of Iran to seek medical treatment on American soil. Iran's young revolutionaries demanded the shah return home to face justice. And on November 4, 1979, protesters and militants overran the American embassy in Tehran, taking dozens of staff members hostage. Gary Sick says the Iranians essentially stumbled into a crisis.

SICK: They suddenly went from being militants and protesters to being jail keepers.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Some 60 Americans are now beginning their sixth day of captivity inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: So day 26 draws to a close...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: This is the 84th day that Americans have been held hostage by Iranians at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

RATH: Iran ultimately kept the hostages for 444 days, and the crisis caused the U.S. to formally break diplomatic relations with Iran.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Tuesday, January 20, 1981, a day that began as the 444th day of captivity and ended as the first day of freedom for the American hostages in Iran.

RATH: But the release of the hostages did not bring back normal relations. The two countries have gone through many periods of tension and occasional opportunity. The U.S. suspects Iranian involvement in several terrorist attacks over the years. And when Iraq went to war with Iran in the 1980s, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein.

Gary Sick says relations were especially tense during the George W. Bush years. Here's Bush's famous assessment of Iran in 2002.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.

RATH: Gary Sick says U.S. diplomats were ordered to stay far away from their Iranian counterparts.

SICK: So if an Iranian diplomat came in the room, we had to go hide in the other corner or leave to avoid possibly even having a handshake with them. That was true for many, many years.

RATH: The antagonism was mutual during the last eight years. Here's Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking to the U.N. through a translator in 2008.


PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road. And its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders.

RATH: Ahmadinejad became known as a Holocaust denier. His government aggressively jailed critics and protesters in a popular uprising after a contested election in 2009. And he pursued a nuclear program over international objections. Ahmadinejad said the program was a peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy.

The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have imposed tough sanctions for several years now to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But this summer, Iran elected a new president with a new tone: Hasan Rouhani.

Here's Rouhani speaking through a translator in his own U.N. speech last month.


PRESIDENT HASAN ROUHANI: (Through translator) The recent election in Iran represents a clear, living example of the wise choice of hope, rationality and moderation by the great people of Iran.

RATH: Later that week, Rouhani and Obama spoke on the phone. Gary Sick says that simple act changed the entire dynamic.

SICK: That was clearly the most important event that has taken place in the last 34 years. Nothing even comes close to it.

RATH: But there are skeptical voices. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the U.N. that Iran was hiding behind a screen of soothing rhetoric.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Now I know, Rouhani doesn't sound like Ahmadinejad. But when it comes to Iran's nuclear weapons program, the only difference between them is this: Ahmadinejad was a wolf in wolf's clothing. Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

RATH: Earlier today, we reached Isa Saharkhiz on the phone from Tehran. Saharkhiz is a journalist, and he's been a critic of the Iranian government. Because of his dissent, he had served more than four years in prison. Three days ago, he was released. He described to us the abuse he faced.

ISA SAHARKHIZ: When they captured me, hit me very hard and seriously, and broken my chest bones.

RATH: He says he was beaten and kept in solitary confinement, and he became seriously ill while in prison. But now that he's been released, he says there are signs of real change in Iran, and he's optimistic about the country's future.

We have been hearing in America that the new president of Iran, President Rouhani, is a reformer. Do you believe he's making genuine changes?

SAHARKHIZ: Yes. I am sure that he believes that should make some changes inside of Iran and Iran's relation with other countries.

RATH: Saharkhiz says he knows any change in the relationship between Tehran and Washington will be difficult. But he believes the two countries may be at a turning point.

SAHARKHIZ: I hope that the people of Iran like to solve this 35-year problem between Iran and USA. And for the aims of the people of Iran, I think Mr. Rouhani will go to - solve this problem.

RATH: Isa Saharkhiz. It has been just three days since his release from prison. He's already begun to write again, fully aware he may be arrested.

Suzanne Maloney worked on Iran policy for the George W. Bush administration, and she closely follows Iranian politics. She believes the change in the U.S.-Iran relationship is real and is the result of several factors.

SUZANNE MALONEY: The sanctions that have been in place over the course of the past several years that have had a debilitating impact on the Iranian economy, the fact that President Ahmadinejad was really very divisive and raised a lot of concerns about the future of the Islamic Republic, the culmination of all these different factors help persuade Iran's hard-liners - in particular, the supreme leader who is the ultimate authority in Iran - that now is the time, in fact, to engage in a very different fashion with Washington.

RATH: And at the same time, you also wrote about how, when President Rouhani returned, along with the young people who were cheering him, there were some hard-liners there also, you know, throwing shoes and protesting. How far do you think he can push things without antagonizing the country's hard-liners?

MALONEY: My own supposition is that Rouhani was elected quite deliberately with a mandate both from the people who came to the ballot boxes but also from the establishment and from the supreme leader to test the possibilities of a deal with the West and with Washington in particular on the nuclear issue.

There is today a debate within Iran about whether or not it was appropriate for the president of Iran to engage so directly with the leader of the country that is still officially referred to as the Great Satan. But I think that debate is actually quite a healthy one. And what we haven't seen is any indication that the establishment is prepared to shut Rouhani down.

RATH: If I asked you to forecast, how do you think the phone call between President Obama and President Rouhani is going to be remembered?

MALONEY: I think it's going to be remembered as the start of a long, slow thaw between two old adversaries that have a great deal in common in terms of political culture, in terms of their interests in a very critical part of the world.

RATH: That's Suzanne Maloney. She's a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Nuclear talks with Iran restart later this month. And there are more signs that the U.S.-Iran relationship is changing. Iran's parliament has overwhelmingly supported Rouhani's diplomacy with President Obama, though Iran's ayatollah also called the U.S. disloyal and untrustworthy. Eventually, the divided U.S. Congress will also have its say.

But for now, official relations remain suspended. And if you go to Tehran, the official U.S. embassy has become a museum - old typewriters and photographs left in place. The desks have been empty since 1979 when everything changed.


RATH: This is NPR News.

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