Stars (and Stripes) in Their Eyes
TEHRAN On a recent afternoon, while riding a rickety bus down Vali Asr Avenue, Tehran's main thoroughfare, I overheard two women discussing the grim state of Iranian politics. One of them had reached a rather desperate conclusion. "Let the Americans come," she said loudly. "Let them sort things out for us once and for all." Everyone in the women's section of the bus absorbed this casually, and her friend nodded in assent.
Although their leaders still call America the "Great Satan," ordinary Iranians' affection for the United States seems to be thriving these days, at least in the bustling capital. This rekindled regard is evident in people's conversations, their insatiable demand for U.S. products and culture, and their fascination with the U.S. presidential campaign. One can't do reliable polling about Iranians' views under their theocratic government, of course, but these shifts were still striking to me as a longtime visitor -- not least because liking the United States is also a way for Iranians to register their frustration with their own firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It might startle some Americans to realize that Iran has one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East. Iranians have adored America for nearly three decades, a sentiment rooted in nostalgia for Iran's golden days, before the worst of the shah's repression and the 1979 Islamic revolution. But today's affection is new, in a sense, or at least different.
Starting in about 2005, Iranians' historic esteem for the United States gave way to a deep ambivalence that is only now ending. President Bush's post-9/11 wars of liberation on both of Iran's borders -- in Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east -- rattled ordinary Iranians, and Washington's opposition to Iran's nuclear program -- a major source of national pride -- added to their resentment. In early 2006, when I lived in Iran as a journalist, I had only to step outdoors to hear the complaints. Standing in line for pastry, I heard indignant matrons suggesting a boycott of U.S. products. The pious bazaar merchant who lived across the street grumbled that America was trying to "boss Iran around." On the ski slopes outside Tehran, I heard liberal college kids in designer parkas lionize Ahmadinejad for "standing up to the U.S. like a man."
It was a time when Iranians of all ages and backgrounds united in their pique against the United States, turning their backs on its traditions and culture. A movement emerged to replace Valentine's Day (long celebrated here in satin-hearted American style) with Armaiti Day, a love festival in honor of an ancient Persian deity. DJs began playing homegrown Iranian rap at parties, instead of OutKast and Tupac Shakur. For the first time in years, millions sat at home in the evenings watching a domestic Iranian comedy, "Barareh Nights," rather than bootleg DVDs of American films.
But on a recent two-week trip to Iran, I found the shift in sentiment palpable. This year, restaurants were booked solid for Valentine's Day months in advance. Heart-shaped chocolates and flower arrangements sold briskly enough to annoy the authorities, who reportedly began confiscating them on the street. American-style fast-food chains such as Super Star, seemingly modeled after the West Coast burger franchise Carl's Jr., are drawing crowds again. Walking through my old neighborhood, I discovered people lining up at a grill joint called Chili's, bearing the same jalapeño logo as the U.S. chain. (The Iranian government shuns international trademark laws).
I used to hear similarly pro-American sentiments frequently back in 2001, when Iranians' romance with the United States was at its most ardent. A poll conducted that same year found that 74 percent of Iranians supported restoring ties with the United States (whereupon the pollster was tossed into prison). You couldn't attend a dinner party without hearing someone, envious of the recently liberated Afghans, ask, "When will the Americans come save us?"
The most interesting aspect of the revival of such warm feelings today is that the United States has done so little to earn them. Instead, Iranians' renewed pro-American sentiments reflect the depth of their alienation from their own rulers. As a family friend put it: "It's a matter of being drawn to the opposite of what you can't stand."
I lived in Iran until last summer and experienced all the reasons why Ahmadinejad has replaced the United States as Iranians' top object of vexation. Under his leadership, inflation has spiked at least 20 percent, according to nongovernment analysts -- thanks to Ahmadinejad's expansionary fiscal policies, which inject vast amounts of cash into the economy. My old babysitter, for example, says she can no longer afford to feed her family red meat once a week. When I recently picked up some groceries -- a sack of potatoes, some green plums, two cantaloupes and a few tomatoes -- the bill came to the equivalent of $40.
Inflation has hit the real estate market particularly hard. Housing prices have surged by nearly 150 percent, according to real estate agents. For most Iranians, previously manageable rents have become tremendous burdens. On one of my first evenings back in Iran, I watched Ahmadinejad on television as he addressed Iranians from the holy city of Qom. He blamed everyone -- the hostile West, a domestic "cigarette mafia" -- for the economic downturn, just as he had previously claimed that a "housing mafia" was driving up real estate prices. Many Iranians who initially believed this kind of conspiracy talk now admit that the president's policies and obstinacy are actually at fault. In a sign that even the regime is growing impatient, one of Ahmadinejad's chief rivals -- former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani -- was elected speaker of Iran's parliament last week by an overwhelming majority.
Another trend turning people against Ahmadinejad is the conspicuous affluence of wealthy Iranians. Instead of bringing the country's oil wealth to ordinary people's dinner tables, as promised, Ahmadinejad is presiding over an unprecedented rise in status display. New-model Mercedes-Benzes and BMW SUVs now whiz past the local clunker, the Iranian-produced Peykan, thanks to eased controls on car imports. Posh restaurants with menu items such as "risotto sushi shooters" are packed, while cartoons in newspapers bemoan the shrinking size of bread loaves. (The government controls bread prices but not loaf sizes, allowing for a de facto cost increase.)
This newly stark class polarization, together with the economic downturn of the past three years, is reinvigorating young Iranians' vision of America as a land of opportunity. "You can compete in the United States because it has a much fairer legal system than most countries," Ali Ghassemi, a struggling 34-year-old graphic designer, told me. He spoke proudly of the financial success of a cousin who emigrated to Orange County, Calif., while complaining that Iran reserved prosperity for the heirs of ayatollahs.