Many commentators greeted the recently announced agreement over Iran's nuclear program with deep skepticism. They dismissed the two years of negotiations between the six most powerful countries in the world and Iran with a single assertion: the deal should be rejected because the other side cannot be trusted.
Some of these naysayers are right. There is reason to doubt whether the United States can be trusted.
Iranians, like Americans, have long memories. They have not forgotten that in 1953 the CIA helped engineer a coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister of their country. And they have not forgotten the reason: at Mosaddegh's urging the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, and America wanted to help Britain continue to control it instead. So we helped reinstall a monarch, the Shah, who suppressed any dissent or political development until he was overthrown in 1979, just before the takeover of the American embassy.
There are other, more recent incidents that Iranians remember and Americans prefer to forget. In 1988, the cruiser Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner with 290 people onboard, including 66 children. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, American officials justified shooting down the aircraft by claiming that it was descending at a high rate of speed and headed toward the warship. That and almost everything else they said at the time turned out to be false. It is hard for Iranians to believe that the crew of a ship with the most advanced radar in the fleet could get all that wrong and mistake an Airbus for an F-14 fighter.
To add insult to injury from the Iranian perspective, the captain of the Vincennes was not only not punished; he was given a medal "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service." And George H.W. Bush, who was in the midst of his campaign to succeed Ronald Reagan, was quoted as saying, "I will never apologize for the United States -- I don't care what the facts are." He shouldn't have worried. The U.S. still has not apologized.
Of course, critics of the agreement in this country -- mainly Republicans, AIPAC and others on the right -- have their version of history and an equally distrustful perspective. They claim the lack of an inspection regime that provides access anywhere, anytime to all of Iran's nuclear and military sites will enable it to cheat. And over 170 Republican congressmen cosponsored a resolution condemning the agreement -- even before it was formally submitted to Congress -- which claimed it failed "at every level."
These reactions are due, in part, to our historical baggage. The takeover of the American embassy, seizure of over 50 of its employees and holding them hostage for 444 days was traumatic for Americans. And Iran's record of sponsoring groups we consider terrorists is proffered as another reason to reject the agreement. Iranians, however, could easily make the same argument against the United States.
Before Oliver North became a Fox News personality, he worked at the White House where he illegally sold weapons to Iran to raise cash to give to the Contras to terrorize Nicaragua. The Reagan administration gave millions of dollars to the group and paid millions more to the Argentine military to train them. No matter that the Contras were little more than the remnants of the security forces of the deposed dictator whose family had run Nicaragua since 1936. The Argentines were chosen because they were well qualified for the job. They had just murdered somewhere north of 9,000 of their countrymen in what became known as Argentina's "dirty war." So by the measure of many, America has also been a state sponsor of terrorism.
There are more contemporary reasons for Iran to doubt the agreement is worth the paper it is written on. The seemingly endless supply of politicians posing to be the next Republican presidential candidate appear to be in a competition to see who can claim they would cancel it faster. And then there is the open letter Tom Cotton and 46 other GOP senators sent to Iran's leaders, lecturing them on the constitution and stressing that whoever succeeds President Obama could revoke the agreement with "the stroke of a pen."
So why should Iran believe America will uphold the agreement? Because it is in Iran's interest to ease the weight of history and move ahead with creating a better life for its people. If it looks forward instead of endlessly rehashing the grievances of the past, the agreement might just work out for the benefit of both countries and the rest of the world.
And who knows? Maybe the Washington tendency to let nothing escape being a victim of petty partisan politics can be overcome in this case. But to assume America can have the vision and maturity to do so requires trust.