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Stars (and Stripes) in Their Eyes
Most of the Middle East hates America, but Iranians see a more appealing image. It's their own president they can't stand.

By Azadeh Moaveni
Sunday, June 1, 2008

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 jalapeƱo 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.

To add to Iranians' weariness, there are the interminable lines that have accompanied the government's new gas-rationing scheme. During the busy early evening, it takes an hour to fill up on gas, and policemen are required to direct the snarled traffic. Ahmadinejad has insinuated that the unpopular plan was a precaution against possible Western sanctions, but most people I spoke with considered it another instance of his administration's mismanagement.

Beyond the new penury, Ahmadinejad has also resurrected unpopular invasions into Iranians' private lives. On the second day of my trip, newspapers announced that police would begin raiding office buildings and businesses to ensure that women were wearing proper Islamic dress. One of my girlfriends, an executive secretary, told me that as a precaution, her office had set up a coded warning message to be broadcast over the intercom. On the third day, police swept our street to confiscate illegal satellite dishes. I climbed to the roof to remove the coding device from my parents-in-law's dish. Such gadgets are costly to replace, unlike the dish itself, and the raids of recent months have made Iranians expert in such matters. "I'm going to miss 'American Idol,' " a neighbor sighed, fiddling with her satellite dish.

Yet another issue helping restore Iranians' regard for the United States is the withering relevance of Iran's suspected nuclear program. At the height of his popularity, Ahmadinejad successfully rallied public support around the program with catchy slogans (at least in Farsi) such as, "Nuclear energy is our absolute right." But that defiance failed to win Iran much more than the disagreeable whiff of global-pariah status, moving many Iranians to reconsider the costs of nuclear enrichment. Today, a scrawl of graffiti on my old street mocks the slogan: "Danish pastry is our absolute right." (Authorities ordered the city's Danish pastry shops to rebrand themselves after a Danish newspaper ran cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005 that were deemed offensive.)

Of course, a minority of Iranians -- perhaps the 10 percent of society that sociologists estimate is hard-line -- still hate the Great Satan. But the strain of anti-Americanism in Iran is more mellow than the rage found elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. The Palestinian cause is less deeply felt here, making it easier for even Washington's critics to view relations pragmatically. Most Iranians belong to generations with compelling reasons to admire the United States. Those old enough to remember the shah's era are nostalgic for the prosperity and international standing Iran once enjoyed; those born after the revolution see no future for themselves in today's Iran and adopt their parents' gilded memories as their own. These longings have young and old Iranians alike following the U.S. election. Most seem to favor Sen. Barack Obama, who they believe will patch up relations with Iran.

Strolling down Revolution Street, a wide avenue in the polluted heart of Tehran dominated by murals of war martyrs in outmoded glasses, I stopped to chat with a young man selling bootleg DVDs of American films and TV series such as "Lost." "Before the revolution, we had relations" with the United States, he noted. "Was that bad for us? We were at the top of the region, the world."

Many Iranians make this point. But the mullahs in power still can't figure out how to stop being U.S.-hating revolutionaries. Until they do, most people here will consider the "Great Satan" just great.

azadeh1355@gmail.com

Azadeh Moaveni covers Iran for Time magazine. She is the author of "Lipstick Jihad" and a new memoir, "Honeymoon in Tehran," which will be published next February.

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