One may be a Communist dictatorship and the other an Islamic theocracy, but Cuba and Iran have had something very special in common the past few decades - they both consider America the "Great Satan."

And just as important, one presidential administration after another here in Washington has returned the compliment: Fidel Castro and the various ayatollahs running Iran have been seen in these parts as the closest things imaginable to evil incarnate.The mutual hostility has been so deep over the years that anybody even thinking about patching things up and making friends has risked being branded a traitor. To give you an idea of how serious this gets, the popular mayor of Tehran was thrown in jail earlier this month because, among other things, he was considered too sympathetic toward the West, the United States in particular.

We aren't quite as extreme about these things here in the United States, but you could always count on the Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful exile group based in Miami, to call you a running dog of communism if you had anything the least positive to say about Castro or his regime.

This business has been going on for so long now - in Cuba's case almost 40 years and in Iran's almost 20 - that it has become almost an integral part of our thinking when it comes to these two countries. And theirs when it comes to us. We simply loathe each other.

That's why some of the things going on in recent months seem so downright peculiar.

Consider, for example, that President Clinton eased certain trade and travel restrictions on Cuba last month without Castro making any conciliatory gestures in return. And consider, too, that there's been a steady stream of top American business executives visiting Cuba in recent months even though they can't do business there yet because of the 36-year-old U.S. economic embargo.

Just this past week, some Cuban jazz and salsa stars made a well-publicized appearance at a Miami Beach nightclub, something that could have set off civil war in the city only a few months ago. This time, none of Miami's radical anti-Castro types made a peep of protest.

And how about the visit of an American wrestling team to Iran recently? Or the return visit of Iranian wrestlers to America? Sort of reminds you of that "Ping-Pong diplomacy" business that helped open up relations between the United States and China years back, doesn't it?

Or what about the new president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, saying that the people of America were fine and upstanding; it's just the government's policies he didn't like?

Is it really possible that after all these years of name-calling, all these years of trying to do each other in by all means short of actual war, that the United States, Cuba and Iran are actually going to be friends again?

I, for one, wouldn't count on it. At least not any time soon.

President Khatami may have had nice things to say about the American people, but the one official who really counts in Iran - the ultra-conservative spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - isn't having any of it. In a recent speech, Khamenei said that talking with the Americans about improving relations was not only useless but harmful. For him, Americans - leaders and public alike - are still the "Great Satan" and "Grand Oppressors."

We aren't completely pristine in all this. So yes, interesting things are happening in relations between the United States, Cuba and Iran. With patience and a lot of nurturing care, they might even develop into something positive.

Just don't count on it happening any time soon. There's a lot of bad history here to overcome.

Scripps Howard News Service