Except for one day each year — the November 4 anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy — the former American diplomatic compound on Taleqani Street is a lonely place. Now serving as offices of the Sepah militia, another branch of Iran’s security forces, the building is still surrounded by the same brick wall that irate students clambered over to seize the building and take its inhabitants hostage for what would become a 444-day standoff. Anti-American slogans and murals are painted on the brick — a Stars and Stripes silhouette of a handgun, the Statue of Liberty with its head replaced by a skull — and the freshness of the paint suggests that government tenders spruce them up from time to time, especially for the largely scripted, anti-American stage show held each year. But the pedestrians strolling by do not give them much notice, just as they dismiss the state-controlled media outlets. For most Iranians, the most reliable sources of information remain not Iranian but Western, and often American: Radio Farda, the Farsi-language service of Radio Liberty, funded by the U.S. congress and supervised by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors; the BBC, with its new Farsi service; the Voice of America; and CNN, whenever the transmission can pierce the government filtering technology.
Probably no country in the world is more mischaracterized in Western eyes than Iran. Most Americans’ perceptions of Iran are limited to images of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad delivering anti-American speeches and crowds chanting “Death to America!” with the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. Yet a 2009 World Public Opinion poll found that 51 percent of Iranians hold a favorable opinion of Americans, a number consistent with other polls, meaning that Americans are more widely liked in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle East. The U.S. favorability ratingisn’t even that high in U.S. allies India or Turkey, and is two and half times as high as in Egypt. The same survey found that almost two-thirds of Iranians support restoring diplomatic ties with the U.S. (Iranians’ view of U.S. leadership is much worse, at 8 percent as of early this year.) But even these figures are likely on the low end of actual sentiment, as many Iranians might fear expressing such views to a strange pollster, out of fear of drawing the suspicion of the authorities, who sometimes monitor e-mails, phone conversations, and other forms of communication.
The appeal of the United States to ordinary Iranians goes almost entirely unnoticed, and therefore unexplained. Many Iranians regard the American ideal, at least as they perceive it, as a symbol of all they want their own society to be — free, prosperous, “great” — but isn’t. Iranians I’ve encountered from all strata of society express an eagerness to exalt the country they have been conditioned to view as the “Great Satan.” And yet, thousands of miles away, the vast majority of Americans are totally unaware of their Iranian admirers.
He spotted me strolling through the gardens surrounding the Naranjestan-e Ghavam, the Qajar-era pavilion in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz. It was a late November morning. There had been a light rain the night before, leaving the grounds damp and the air cool. The moisture released the scents from the flower beds and stands of cypresses, the aroma of late autumn filling the air. In my expensive athletic shoes and nylon jacket, I stood out as a foreigner, likely a Westerner. With bright eyes and a smile to match, he asked me where I was from. I told him.
“I thought so,” he said.I asked how.
“I can tell,” he replied. “I just love Americans.”
Then he told me his story.
His name was Akbar and he had moved to the U.S. in 1976 on a student visa, three years before the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the onset of the Islamic Revolution, the social and political cataclysm that would turn Iranian society upside-down for a generation. At the time, there were over 50,000 Iranian students enrolled in institutions of higher education in the United States, a number that has shriveled to about 2,000 today. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi then still held a firm grip on power, backed by his hated Savak, the CIA-trained security force, and a series of American administrations that found favor with his pro-Western policies that stood as a reliable bulwark against Soviet adventurism.
By the late 1970s, the shah’s streak of nationalism had widened and proclamations of independence from Western-U.S. domination more frequent, and so he became a less trusted American ally in a world defined by cold war politics. Fissures in Iranian society also widened. Dissent was brutally suppressed by the Savak. , After fed-up students and other groups ousted the shah in a popular revolution that February, they vented their anger on the most visible symbol of pro-shah support within reach. On November 4, 1979, a group of protestors climbed over the U.S. embassy walls, taking 67 diplomats and embassy employees hostage. The ailing shah had been welcomed into the United States for medical treatment by President Jimmy Carter. Back home, many of the shah’s supporters were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the new Islamic regime, treatment the shah had meted out to Mossadegh loyalists years earlier.Placing sole blame on the United States for a decades-long series of events that ultimately worked against the interests of the Iranian people would be simple-minded — international geopolitics is far more complicated than that — but the United States’ role in recent Iranian history is undeniable. Many Iranians will claim that the United States and other Western powers acquiesced in the shah’s downfall and quietly cheered the return of Ayatollah Khomeini and the establishment of the Islamic regime, believing — and miscalculating — that a government of Muslim clerics would put religion before politics and become a much more pliable pawn than the shah was proving to be.
Two Iranians familiar with the longstanding friction between the U.S. and Iran are Mehrad and Negar, state-certified tour guides who work primarily with Western tour groups. Mehrad is fluent in English, Negar in German. I met them at a traditional restaurant, behind Imam Square in the city of Esfahan, that offered a floodlit view of the blue-and-yellow dome of the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque.The process of becoming a licensed tour guide in Iran is an exhaustive one. Prospective guides require two years of study of Iranian history, from the distant days of the Persian Empire to the present — or almost. While the guides’ knowledge of Sessasian, Seljuk, Safavid, and Qajar history may be flawless, their interpretation of the rocky 60-year relationship with the United States is left to what might be called “personal spin.”
Neither Mehrad nor Negar were interested in lecturing me on the toppling of Mossedegh or the return of the shah. Neither answered when I asked how Iranians felt about it today. They asked how I was enjoying my stay in the Iran, and then what chances they might have of migrating to the United States. Starting a new life in America had been their dream for as long as they could remember, they said, and to realize it they planned to polish up on American history to guide visiting Iranian tour groups. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that few Iranian tour groups visit the United States. Instead, I asked Mehrad why he and his wife saw the United States as their destination of choice. There was silence, then Mehrad answered, “Why, everyone wants to go to the U.S.”
Then he became reflective.”You know, your country isn’t so strange to us,” he said. “We feel like we understand it. Both of us are culturally distinct, almost islands, in a way. The U.S. grew out of European culture but developed in a very different direction. Fifteen hundred years ago the Arabs brought Islam here but our identity is nothing like the Arab world.”
This was intriguing, so I asked him to go on.
“Our society is also made up of many minorities, but we have a single Iranian identity and are very proud of our culture. We’re also familiar with Western ways. For the last 200 years, we were open to the Western world and influenced by European culture, even if some of the ideas, like democracy, have never had a chance to take root. But we also know what it’s like to be a superpower. For us it was a long time ago, but we play an important role in this part of the world for a long, so we can never see ourselves as a second-rate country.”
Merhad then said he’d always wanted to lead a group of Americans. I asked why.
“I don’t think Americans know very much about our country,” he replied. “All this talk about regional power and nuclear arms — that’s politicians talking. No one listens to them. We’re really a very simple people — like Americans.”
When we parted, Mehrad fished in his wallet and handed over a business card. “If you need anything in Iran,” he said, “anything at all, let us know. We really like Americans.”
Virtually all forms of American popular culture — movies, music, television programs — are officially “banned” in Iran. The result is a thriving black market in American pop culture that is as deep, vast, and heavily trafficked as the New York subway system. Blown-up, black-and-white photos of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro hang on the walls of the Coffee Palace café outside the Jana-Nana Museum in northern Tehran. The walls at Market, a restaurant in the Gandhi Street Shopping Center, are decorated with 1930s-era photographs of San Francisco and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Upstairs in the Café Française, a faded poster for Clint Eastwood’s For a Few Dollars More is tacked to the ceiling.For decades, the Iranian film industry has been the Middle East’s most vibrant, even though its most accomplished practitioners — Majid Majidi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, and others — have long worked in exile and their films are often banned in Iran. But the Internet has made pop hits easy to download anywhere on the planet, even in the fanatically repressive Islamic Republic, so pirated DVDs of Hollywood releases can appear on Iranian streets before the films appear onscreen. Thus, for many young Iranians, the world of cinema offers a ground on which the U.S. and Iran can meet as equals.
“Who’s your favorite director?” Golnaz asked me after dinner one night in the city of Hamedan, 150 miles west of Tehran. She and Arash, her companion, had invited me over to their takht, the bed-like platform where groups of Iranians traditionally sit, converse, sip tea, and munch from a smorgasbord of dishes as long as the food, drink, and conversation hold out, which can make for long evenings.
Golnaz was a fan of Martin Scorsese, especially Raging Bull, The Departed, andGoodfellas. Arash was partial to Robert Altman, but he had seen so many of his films he couldn’t pick a favorite. But he did disclose his prize possession: a set of the complete songs of Elvis Presley, which he had downloaded from the Internet for 10,000 Iranian rials, the equivalent of about 80 U.S. cents.As we picked over the last of the rice and chicken kebabs, I told them of an experience the day before on the outskirts of Esfahan, climbing to the top of a hill that is capped with the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple. Also on his way to the top was Mohammed, a university student majoring in English translation whose true desire was to become an actor — in American movies. Once at the temple, we looked out over the city and Mohammed asked if there might be a need for Iranian actors in Hollywood.
Given the stature of the Iranian film industry I was surprised. Golnaz wasn’t.
“Of course,” she said. “Everyone wants to go to the U.S.”
Thank you Jackson Cummings for sharing your story with us