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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Why Iran Hates America. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired February 25, 2024 - 20:00   ET




ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Surprise attack by Hamas.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: By land, by air, and by sea.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): October 7th, 2023 was a day that changed the world.

TAPPER: Terrorist attack by Hamas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through text translation): We are the mighty people, the people of Gaza.

ZAKARIA: A brutal surprise attack by Hamas in Israel.

TAPPER: Israel is firing back.

ZAKARIA: Was followed by a horrific retaliation in Gaza. Now there are fears of a wider war, and America has a target on its back.

MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Iran-backed rebels struck a U.S. owned ship.

ZAKARIA: At the center of the fears of a wider conflict is Iran. It is linked to Hamas. To Hezbollah. To the Houthis. All part of its axis of resistance.

Why is Iran at the center of this conflict in so many ways? And why this relentless hostility to America?

To answer those questions, we need to go back decades and try to understand, WHY IRAN HATES AMERICA.


ZAKARIA (on-camera): Good evening. I'm Fareed Zakaria. Iran in the United States shared deep psychic and emotional scars going back years but none is remembered more by Americans than the hostage crisis of 1979. We watched what appeared to be an irrational, furious attack and wondered why or how anyone would act this way. But to Iran, taking the hostages was completely rational given the history that led up to that moment. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In November 1979 Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, turning it into a prison for American embassy staff. The young revolutionary spent months in the embassy's basement trying to piece together evidence of past American misdeeds.

Why? Because decades earlier, that basement was where American and British spies had plotted a coup against what had long been a close ally.

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN, AUTHOR, "THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR CRISIS": Iran and the U.S. from 1850 to 1950 had the best relations.

ZAKARIA: The man seen here shaking hands with President Harry Truman in 1951 was Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh.

ABBAS MILANI, STANFORD UNIVERSITY: He was very adept at the theater of politics. He was a great orator. He was incorruptible.

ZAKARIA: For years, Mossadegh had complained about the agreement that had given the British control of Iran's oil resources.

KARIM SADJADPOUR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: The vast majority of revenue for Iranian oil would go to the British government, not to the people of Iran. There was probably almost 90-10.

ZAKARIA: But in a momentous decision, the parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry then elected Mossadegh as prime minister one month later.

MILANI: As soon as he nationalized the oil, the British decided that they want to overthrow him. The Truman administration has stopped them, and said, no, this has to have a diplomatic solution. So from '51 to '53, there is an effort by the U.S. to broker a diplomatic agreement between the British and Iran.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) along with U.S. Ambassador Grady Sanders seeks to end the oil dispute between Britain and Iran.

MILANI: The agreement never materialized.

ZAKARIA: The United States was in the early years of tensions with the Soviet Union, the Cold War. Among their battles for supremacy the two superpowers were fighting for dominance in the Middle East.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oil deposits underlying Iran soil gave the Soviet premier good reason for him designs on this militarily helpless nation.

SADJADPOUR: There were many different political groups inside Iran at that time. And one of the most powerful was called the Tudeh Party, which was basically Iran's communist party which was heavily funded by the Soviet Union. And so the United States worried about the possibility of Mosaddegh siding with Tudeh Party.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Washington's Russian embassy throws a lavish shindig, but most important guest present is the premier of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh.

ZAKARIA: The U.S. was determined to keep communism out and to keep Iranian oil flowing to the Western world. So the British and the Americans plotted to take down Mosaddegh.

It was plotted in the British and American embassies.

JASON REZAIAN, THE WASHINGTON POST: The British worked with agents of the CIA, a grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt, to undertake a coup against this government.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The U.S.'s involvement in the coup is detailed in government documents that Malcolm Byrne shared with me at the non- profit National Security Archive where he is deputy director and director of research.

And these are documents that are original U.S. government documents written at the time, classified, and through a variety of means you have managed to get them either declassified or some reporter essentially got them leaked.


ZAKARIA: That's what these documents are?

BYRNE: Right.

ZAKARIA: Part three, covert action.

BYRNE: Covert action.

ZAKARIA: This is the coup. So Eisenhower approves it 11 July 1953. The prime minister of England approves it 1 July 1953.

BYRNE: Yes, that's amazing.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Key to the plot was convincing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the monarch who ruled Iran, to personally take action to oust Mosaddegh.

MILANI: August 15th, at midnight, soldiers knock on Mosaddegh's door and deliver a letter to him, dismissing him from the role of the prime minister. In the morning he goes on the radio. He says there was a coup attempt against me.

ZAKARIA: Mosaddegh refused to accept his dismissal from office and fought back.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And on his orders, troops occupied the Shah's palaces and surrounded parliament.

MILANI: The Shah, who was waiting to see what happens, flees Iran immediately. On August 19th, the tide turns against Mosaddegh.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Former premier Mosaddegh's ruined house is a mute testimony to three days of bloody rioting culminating in a military coup, a Shah who had fled to Rome comes home backed by General Zahidi, military strongman, who engineered his returned to power.

ZAKARIA: After the coup succeeded Mosaddegh was convicted of treason, sentenced to prison, than spent the rest of his life under house arrest. As for the Shah --

ALI VAEZ, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: He started consolidating power, becoming more and more of an autocrat.

ZAKARIA: Iran's democratic experiment was over. Throughout the decades of the Shah's reign, Iran kept a very good relationship with Israel.

ROBIN WRIGHT, AUTHOR, "ROCK THE CASBAH": They traded oil. That kind of relationship between a Muslim country and Israel was very important.

ZAKARIA: Just as important to America was continuing to limit Soviet influence inside Iran.

SADJADPOUR: The United States are worried that in countries like Iran where there was enormous wealth disparity, it was going to empower communism because people would see this wealth disparity and say, there should be equality. And so for that reason the U.S. government pushed the Shah to enact these different reforms. Basically trying to promote more economic equality and gender equity inside Iran.

ZAKARIA: The White Revolution, as it was known, was not universally embraced in Iran. One of the most vocal critics was a Shia cleric and future leader of another revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini.

SADJADPOUR: He resented the land reform which was going to take land away from the clergy and he in particular resented any gender equality.

ZAKARIA: Khomeini's rhetoric would help foment wider dissent that led to rioting. Government forces eventually quashed the riots and imprisoned Khomeini before exiling him.


ZAKARIA (on-camera): The Shah remained pro-Western, surrounding himself with an elite class that was Western educated and oriented. Many of his admittedly progressive reforms created friction with Iran's more conservative Muslim population. And then there were many who are bitter about not benefiting from the White Revolution reforms.

What's more, there was growing resentment of the Shah's lavish lifestyle, which was epitomized by one extravagant party in 1971.


WRIGHT: This huge celebration that honored the 2500 years of monarchic rule, people from all over the world flew in and Maxim's in Paris provided the food and they had, you know, the finest European crystal. And it was in many ways that celebration of the monarchy that alienated so many.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): But any discontent would be put down by the Shah's ever more repressive regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could a generalist in Iran there to criticize his majesty?

MOHAMMAD REZA PAHLAVI, FORMER SHAH OF IRAN: He could, but I don't think that he would.

REZAIAN: And his secret police, the SAVAK, were brutal. hundreds, thousands of Iranians were executed and disappeared.

ZAKARIA: Yet the Shah's mistreatment of his citizens did not deter thousands of Americans who enjoyed living in Iran.

WRIGHT: I first went to Iran in 1973. There were casinos, fashion was at its height. It was a place where an American felt very comfortable.

ZAKARIA: A place where an American president Jimmy Carter would give this toast on New Year's Eve.

JIMMY CARTER, 39TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.

ZAKARIA: Before long, that illusion of stability would be shattered. In December 1978, throngs of protesters demanded the removal of the Shah and the return of Ruhollah Khomeini. Five weeks later, the Shah and his family fled to Egypt. It's a day Abbas Milani remembers well.

MILANI: On that day I want to see what's happening in the streets. There was joy in the street. People were passing around images of Khomeini.

ZAKARIA: Then they got the real thing. With Khomeini's return to Iran.

WRIGHT: Watching Khomeini step off the plane and he was so mobbed they actually had to kind of scurry him off.

ZAKARIA: Still, there was unrest. The U.S. embassy was attacked. And although this time the mob eventually left, it was a harbinger of what was to come eight months later after President Jimmy Carter allowed the now exiled Shah of Iran to come to the U.S. for cancer treatment.

MILANI: The Shah had kept his sickness a secret. So some suspicion began to grow that the cancer issue is excused.

ZAKARIA: Iranians did not believe the Shah was ill and worried that the U.S. would return him to power. VAEZ: I think there's a straight line that could be drawn from 1953 to

1979. The fact that the popular government of Mohammad Mosaddegh was toppled through a British and American coup created fears in 1979 that the U.S. would try to do the same thing and admitting the Shah into the U.S. was the trigger for the revolutionaries to try to prevent that from happening by taking hostages.

ZAKARIA: Coming up. After the Shah, there was hope for democracy. But instead what emerged was a brutal theocratic regime.



ZAKARIA: People forget that the trigger for the taking of the U.S. embassy was a very specific decision that Jimmy Carter made.

(Voice-over): In October 1979, President Jimmy Carter agreed to admit the Shah to the United States for cancer treatments.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Shah of Iran is in a New York City hospital tonight. An American government source in Washington says the deposed Iranian monarch is suffering from cancer and a blocked bile duct.

ZAKARIA: But the Iranians did not believe the Shah was sick. They had another more sinister theory.

BYRNE: There was a big fear among the revolutionaries that the United States and the Shah might try to pull another coup.

ZAKARIA: A coup that would involve the U.S. placing the Shah back in power and putting an end to the revolution. Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran to look for direct proof of the American plot, and to demand that the U.S. extradite the Shah to stand trial for what they considered were his crimes against the Iranian people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And if President Carter does not release the Shah, you're going to fight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. We have to fight.

ZAKARIA: Nearly six months into the hostage crisis the U.S. launched "Operation Eagle Claw," a covert mission to rescue the 52 hostages, which ended in a devastating crash. Eight U.S. service members lay dead in the Persian desert.

BYRNE: A humiliation for the American people, hopelessness for the hostages.

ZAKARIA: For Khomeini and his disciples, the failed rescue attempt was a divine victory and further proof that the Americans could not be trusted.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Although the Iranians had been caught completely by surprise, they capitalized on the failure of the raid.

BYRNE: Some of their leaders could not resist lording it over the Americans.

ZAKARIA: While Iran's religious hardliners were dead set against influence from the West, Iran's moderates had been moving their country towards democracy with the support of much of the population.

WRIGHT: The overwhelming sense of the day of the revolution was that this was the beginning of a democratic era.

MOUSAVIAN: A democracy system based on Islamic values.

SADJADPOUR: An there were individuals that people hoped could emerge as leaders of a democratic country.

ZAKARIA: One such leader was a popular moderate who was appointed to be first prime minister of the provisional government. His named, Mehdi Bazargan. And later the moderate, Abolhassan Banisadr, became the Islamic Republic's first president.

The two were devout Muslims and advocates of Islamic democracy, human rights, and social justice. But it did not take long for Khomeini and his religious hardliners to turn against this liberal vision.

JOHN LIMBERT, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR IRAN: They were not going to let this provisional government turn Iran into a secular democratic state.

ZAKARIA: Khomeini used the hostage crisis and the showdown with the United States to isolate and sideline the new provisional government.

MILANI: To consolidate authoritarianism and tilt the country even further against the U.S., and it was very Machiavellian about it.

ZAKARIA: Prime Minister Bazargan, who was opposed to the hostage- taking, recognized that the momentum was with Khomeini, and he resigned shortly after the embassy was seized. President Banisadr was impeached in June, 1981.

SADJADPOUR: And I think everyone underestimated Khomeini. I think people thought that he was going to be this pacifist, religious leader, and once the monarchy was overthrown in Iran, he would simply retreat to Ohm (PH) and become a spiritual leader.



ZAKARIA (on-camera): Instead, it was just the beginning of Khomeini's reign of terror. A government takeover marked by repression and brutality.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): A zero tolerance, theocratic regime under the rule of a religious leader.

SADJADPOUR: A philosopher king who would guide society and tell people how to live according to Islamic values.

ZAKARIA: Khomeini and his new government ruthlessly consolidated their power. Targeting officials from the Shah's former administration.

VALI NASR, AUTHOR, "THE SHIA REVIVAL": Revolutions eliminate the old order by putting it to the sword.

SADJADPOUR: It's oftentimes the individuals who are most effective in mobilizing violence who prevail, and Khomeini was that person in Iran.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And if he calls you to fight a holy war, what will you do?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But how will you do it? Do you have the weapons?


ZAKARIA: Khomeini created revolutionary committees to purge key figures accused of being enemies of the revolution.

NASR: They all wanted to eliminate all the top bureaucrats, technocrats, political appointees, political activists, journalists who were accused of being close to the monarchy.

ZAKARIA: Armed citizen militias were organized, empowered to carry out summary justice. A revolutionary court was established to adjudicate cases in a bogus legal system.

SADJADPOUR: The newfound revolutionary government under Khomeini was really in the business of retribution, not justice.

ZAKARIA: The Western press dubbed the notorious head of the court, the hanging judge, who swiftly declared individuals guilty and sentenced many to death. After the purge of the monarchists, Khomeini turned on the leftists and socialists. There was imprisonment, torture, and public hangings, firing squads, mass executions, and forced confessions.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hundreds of arrests and executions not only of Mujahideen, but also of Marxist-Leninist and Maoist, monarchists and members of ethnic and religious minorities.

ZAKARIA: Iranian exiles estimate up to 30,000 people were killed during that country's period of repression.

SADJADPOUR: This created an atmosphere of terror among Iranians who quickly had buyers' remorse. They started to realize that this new revolutionary government was going to be far more brutal than the government, which they helped to overthrow.

ZAKARIA: Overnight, everyday Iranians lost their freedoms and were forced to conform to Khomeini's radical brand of Islam. SADJADPOUR: He wanted to control all aspects of people's lives inside

Iran. How you can dress, what you can eat, what you can drink, what music you can listen to, what movies you can watch, whether you can go out with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Same-sex relationships became a capital offense. A big part of the cultural revolution in Iran was the role of women.

ZAKARIA: Under Khomeini, women were relegated to a life of, quote, "motherly duty."

SADJADPOUR: All of a sudden, women weren't allowed to show their hair. They had to cover their bodies and that really was an obsession for the Islamists. In some ways, the hijab, the mandatory veiling of women, became the flag of the Islamic Republic, you know, the chief way to distinguish post-revolutionary Iran from pre-revolutionary Iran.

NASR: Marriage, divorce, custody of children, and the like. Inheritance. They all became sort of much more favorable to men in accordance to religious law.

ZAKARIA: A special police force was established to enforce Islamic laws.

SADJADPOUR: They set up these morality police. They could raid people's, to check and see if there was alcohol, to check and see if they are watching contraband movies or reading contraband books. And they could essentially arrest and intimidate people at will.

ZAKARIA: Many of these laws and their effects still exist in Iran today.

VAEZ: Look, I think if you had portrayed the reality of Islamic Republic today to people who were on the streets in 1979, the revolution would not have succeeded.

SADJADPOUR: They're still willing to kill young women and beat young women who go to the streets showing too much hair. And even when it triggers a national uprising, they're still not willing to make any meaningful political reforms.


ZAKARIA: The Islamification of Iranian society after 1979 became known as Iran's Cultural Revolution. Khomeini's economic policies, which included the government takeover of key sectors of the economy, stunted growth and sometimes line the pockets of the new regime's elite. All this was too much for many in Iran's middle class, and Iran saw the greatest exodus of people in its modern history.

Up next, the Ayatollah's regime was barely one year old when its very existence was threatened by a surprise attack. Saddam Hussein invades Iran, coming up.



UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Weeks of hit and run border clashes between Iran and Iraq have now erupted into full-scale war.

ZAKARIA: September 1980. Iran's next-door neighbor, Iraq, launches an invasion.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It's pretty clear that the Iraqis do control the port and a good part of the town.

ZAKARIA: The brain child of its brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. Saddam had recently become president of Iraq and launched a merciless purge of his rivals. He hoped to become the leader of the entire Arab world. His first move, conquer Iran. With its vast resources of oil. Saddam was smelling blood.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There was a triumphant and tumultuous welcome in Tehran today for the Ayatollah Khomeini.

ZAKARIA: The Islamic Republic was weak less than a year old. And much of its military brass had been wiped out by Ayatollah Khomeini who feared a coup.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Iraqi troops pushed 20 miles into Iran.

ZAKARIA: As the Iraqis poured over the border, the young Iranian regime faced an existential threat. But eight years and hundreds of thousands of deaths later --

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Rage far as the eye can see, martyred for Khomeini and the revolution.

ZAKARIA: Iran had survived.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The tide of the war has turned sharply against Iraq.

ZAKARIA: Withstanding all that Saddam and the West could throw its way.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Ayatollah turned the conflict into a crusade for God.

ZAKARIA: It was that war that made Iran. That taught its current leaders valuable lessons. Never be outgunned.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hezbollah has been supported by Iran.

ZAKARIA: Never be alone in the world.


ZAKARIA: And always think twice about giving up the ultimate trump card. Nuclear weapons.

VAEZ: The Iran-Iraq war was certainly the most formative experience that most of the Iranian leadership has had.

WRIGHT: We think of Iran as aggressive, which it has been. But from the Iranian perspective, they believe they are reacting to the aggression of others.

ZAKARIA: Saddam Hussein's forces vastly outmatched Iran and captured a major border city soon after invading.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The main city of Khorramshahr does now seem to have fallen into Iraq.

ZAKARIA: But surprisingly --

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Iraq thought Iran would be a pushover.

ZAKARIA: The fledgling Iranian regime held firm. Led by their newly formed Revolutionary Guard.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thousands of young Iranians have taken up arms against the Iraqis.

NASR: Guerrilla warfare by young revolutionary volunteers.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: With the regular army, chaotic and demoralized, the Iranians had to rely on this likely armed but fanatical militia.

NASR: They use very unconventional methods, including almost like kamikaze attacks against Iraqi positions.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Iraq doesn't have enough friends to keep its supply.

ZAKARIA: Iran was utterly isolated.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Because of fears it will export its fanaticism.

ZAKARIA: Backed only by Syria and Libya among Arab nations.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Iraq is getting everything it needs.

ZAKARIA: Iraq had most Arab states' support as well as that of the Soviet Union.

WRIGHT: It was really Iran standing alone against the rest of the world. And it has defined its security strategy ever since.

ZAKARIA: Meanwhile, Washington faced a hard quandary. It had no love for Saddam. But it hated Iran more.


So the CIA sent an agent to Baghdad with valuable intelligence, beginning a years-long U.S. relationship with Saddam Hussein.

LIMBERT: Our support of Saddam Hussein during their Iran-Iraq war I think was disgraceful. ZAKARIA: Iraq launched devastating missile strikes against Iran


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Iraq is believed to be firing 10 missiles for every one of Iran.

ZAKARIA: Raining hell fire on civilian populations.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: He says he's 17 years old, his boyish face suggests otherwise.

ZAKARIA: Meanwhile, the outmatched Ayatollah was sending untrained men and boys to fight, sometimes even without weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: 25,000 Iranian soldiers squared off against Iraqi tanks and artillery. A few hours later, only 250 Iranians were alive.

NARGES BAJOGHLI, AUTHOR, "IRAN REFRAMED": This is one of the primary reasons they developed a ballistic missiles program.

VAEZ: There's a long historical memory of how vulnerable Iran could be at moments of weakness.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The latest battlefield for chemical weapons.

ZAKARIA: Then Iran experienced a nightmare.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The display of civilian victims of an Iraqi poison gas attack.

ZAKARIA: Saddam's unconscionable attacks with chemical weapons. Thousands suffered a horrific demise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the true face of a regime that very unfortunately the United States administration is supporting.

ZAKARIA: The West knew about the strikes and did little to stop them. U.S. intelligence may even have helped Iraq hit its targets.

MILANI: The decision not to stand up to Saddam Hussein for his use of chemical weapons I think was a very costly mistake. And it helped the Iranian regime to have a moral upper hand. Every time the Iranian regime has done something egregious to its own people or in the region, they say, but what about Saddam Hussein? How come you didn't do anything about Saddam Hussein?

ZAKARIA: Iran also feared Saddam's nuclear ambitions. A fear shared by Israel when it struck an Iraqi reactor.

The Shah of Iran had been pursuing the bomb. The Islamic Revolutionaries had actually ended the program.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The deadly nerve gas had been found on Gulf battlefields.

ZAKARIA: But all of that changed in the Iran-Iraq war.

VAEZ: Iran decided to relaunch the Sha's nuclear program.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Iran has enriched uranium particles to nearly 84 percent.

ZAKARIA: And decades later, Iran is frighteningly close to becoming a nuclear power.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Potentially produce a nuclear bomb in less than two weeks.

MILANI: If Saddam Hussein had been justifiably punished for the use of chemical weapons, the conflagration might have been different. The consequences were profound.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The exact hour of the ceasefire where mosques comes the call to prayer. Special prayers for peace.

ZAKARIA: The war ended in a bloody stalemate with little gained but a million casualties. But Iran had survived its baptism by fire.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Ayatollah Khomeini's pledge to defeat the superpowers with the power of faith.

ZAKARIA: The war and its heroes are now part of its law.

REZAIAN: And murals of fallen soldiers are everywhere in the country.

ZAKARIA: And today's senior officials, many of them veterans of the war, have applied its lessons, with its arsenal of missiles.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This is video showing a helicopter belonging to Houthi rebels.

ZAKARIA: Its proxy forces. Keeping conflict away from Iran's borders.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Iran has made astounding nuclear progress.

ZAKARIA: And its most feared deterrent nearly achieved. A nuclear program that can be weaponized.


ZAKARIA: Coming up.

BUSH: Coalition forces have begun striking selected targets.

ZAKARIA: America gives Iran a great gift. Another war in Iraq and this time the Islamic Republic was the big winner.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States. BUSH: Terrorist underworld including groups like Hamas, Hezbollah,

Islamic Jihad, Jaish-e-Mohammed, operates in remote jungles and deserts, and hides in the centers of large cities.


ZAKARIA: Nearly five months after 9/11, President George W. Bush went on the offensive in his 2002 State of the Union Address.

BUSH: North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror. Iraq continues to plan its hostility toward America and to support terror. States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an Axis of Evil arming to threaten the peace of the world.

ZAKARIA: A presidential threat branded three countries as the Axis of Evil. And we all know what happened next.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Air raid sirens blared before dawn in Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The first American Marines had moved in.

ZAKARIA: March 2003, U.S. forces invade Iraq vowing to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, and put an end to Saddam Hussein's dictatorial rule.


ZAKARIA: But it was all a historic mistake.

DAVID KAY, FORMER U.S. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: It turns out, so we were all wrong.

ZAKARIA: There were no weapons of mass destruction. And the invasion set off a firestorm of violence and vitriol, stoking anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East.

BAJOGHLI: Iran sees itself as a part of the Axis of Evil. So it begins to feel that it has to create a defensive policy against a potential attack.

ZAKARIA: So Iran shifted to its axis of resistance. A forward defense policy that has been its protector for more than 40 years. Iran became a major presence in Iraq, arming Shiite militias that viciously attacked American soldiers. When almost all U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, those militias became an integral part of Iraq's army.

SADJADPOUR: One of the things which the Islamic Republic has managed to do is to mobilize proxy forces.

ZAKARIA: Iran was a Persian Shiite Islamic nation facing a sea of Sunni Islamic Arab states backed by America. So it cobbled together a coalition of allies many of them non-Sunni throughout the region.

SADJADPOUR: The best example of that was the advent of Lebanese Hezbollah, a byproduct of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. WRIGHT: The whole idea was to mobilize some Shiites and create a

militia so the Iranian Revolutionary Guards created the embryo of what became Hezbollah, the party of God.


ZAKARIA (on-camera): Iran exploited the chaos during times of crisis and conflict, and built an empire of proxy forces across the Middle East.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): In Lebanon groups like Hezbollah, the crown jewel of Iran's forward defense policy. In Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad largely responsible for the October 7th attack on Israel. In Yemen, the Houthis who have conducted missile strikes to disrupt shipping lanes and global trade. In Syria, a paramilitary group called Shabiha, organized by President Bashar al-Assad. And in Iraq and Syria, Shia militias. They all act as a conduit and an enforcer to convey Iran's message to the world.

NASR: Iran would recruit, train, organize these militia groups who had a strategic and a tactical relationship with Iran. They will receive funding for military weaponry and they would also be integrated into a command-and-control structure of the Quds Force.

ZAKARIA: Quds Force is the most elite part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard responsible for growing the axis of resistance. That task fell on the broad shoulders of notorious Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, who took great offense at Bush's Axis of Evil label.

BYRNE: Here was a person who is just hated by the West and by American officials because he has been the leader of most efforts that have involved threats to the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A rocket attack on the Baghdad airport kills Iran's most revered military leader.

ZAKARIA: When the U.S. assassinated Soleimani in 2020, the result might have backfired, galvanizing Iran and its allies.

BAJOGHLI: It was actually in many ways a goldmine because instead of him being killed by someone in ISIS he's being assassinated by the great Satan.

VAEZ: Iran is not a hegemonic power. I would say it's an opportunistic power. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon created Hezbollah.


In 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq created an opportunity for Iran to develop a network of Shia militias in Iraq. 2015 Saudi invasion of Yemen created an opportunity for Iran to double down on its relations with the Houthis in Yemen.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZAKARIA (on-camera): But has this proxy strategy worked for Iran?


ZAKARIA (voice-over): I sat down with Iran's president Ebrahim Raisi and pushed him on this subject.

A country that used to be one of the richest countries in the region now looks backward in comparison. Iran seems more isolated. Is it worth the price you have paid to have taken all these positions that you will have taken?

EBRAHIM RAISI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): In the situation brought about by the Americans in Syria, was Syria successful or America? Certainly Syria. In Afghanistan, were the people of Afghanistan successful or the United States of America? Certainly the people of Afghanistan. In Iraq, were the Iraqi successful or the United States of America? Certainly the Iraqis. Now where in the region has America been successful? Iran has been the one who has succeeded.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): And today, Iran's axis of resistance looks more menacing than ever.

Up next, my own thoughts on where all this goes.




ZAKARIA (on-camera): And now my own thoughts on the past and where it leads us.

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 change?

There are two ideas that often underpin American strategy that should be dispelled. The first is that the Iranian regime will collapse and suddenly morphed 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 a 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 that system collapsed. It has not worked out as many had wished.

The second idea or hope is that the U.S. and the current government in Iran can be friends. The truth is 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 its 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 liberty and undecadent 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 an easy coexistence. That proposition has been attempted only briefly and never consistently.

Reagan took some tentative steps in that direction, famously trading arms for hostages. But it all exploded. After 9/11, Iran took some important steps to cooperate with Washington in Afghanistan in helping to set up a new government. But once George W. Bush branded them part of the Axis of Evil, those overtures collapsed.

The most significant effort was made by Barack Obama and Iran's then president Hassan Rouhani, who both spoke of creating a new relationship. It was not friendship as Iran's Foreign Minister Javid 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 the deal, moving further away from a nuclear weapons program than it had been for decades. But Donald Trump blew up that 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 that it is filled with tensions and misunderstandings, and could even lead to war.

Thank you for watching this special hour on Iran. You can watch more Fareed Zakaria documentaries on Max.