Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Why Iranians like America (Washington Post)

These are just one reporter's impressions, but they dovetail with everything else I've read about Iran over the past decade or so. By comparison with (say) Arabs or western Europeans, most Iranians seem to be genuinely pro-American. (And, incidentally, also much less hysterically anti-Israel than anyone else in the Islamic Middle East outside of Iraqi Kurdistan.)


College girls react to an American visitor in Isfahan, a cultural center and university town in Iran. Steve Knipp

I suspect this is true, in part, for the same reasons that eastern Europeans--by contrast to western Europeans or Greeks--have tended to be relatively pro-American since at least the 1970s. Most Iranians don't like the regime that's ruling them, they would like to live in a more "normal" country, and for many the US symbolizes popular hopes for achieving a more open, democratic, and prosperous society. (Even George W. Bush, who certainly doesn't seem to be popular in Iran the way that--like it or not--Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were genuinely popular in eastern Europe in the 1980s, still doesn't seem to be inspire the kind of visceral hatred among Iranians that he does among western Europeans, Arabs, and others.)

Steven Knipp, the DC correspondent for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, was "astonished" to discover this on a recent trip to Iran:

-----------------------------------
Four days later, visa in hand, I boarded an Air France flight from Dulles to Tehran. There I met my colleagues arriving from various points; they were German, British, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Korean. I was the only Yank.
What took place over the next fortnight astonished me. Everywhere I went -- from the traffic-choked streets of Tehran in the north to the dusty desert town of Yazd in central Iran, to the elegant cultural centers of Isfahan and Shiraz -- I was overwhelmed by the warmth and, dare I say it, pro-Americanism of the people I met.
Ponder the irony of that last statement for a moment. While much of the rest of the world seems to be holding their collective noses at us Americans, in Iran people were literally crossing the road to shake an American's hand and say hello. Who knew?
Initially, when Iranians asked me where I was from, I'd suggest they guess. But this game quickly proved too time-consuming -- no one ever guessed correctly. So instead I would simply mumble "American." And then their faces would light up. For better or worse, Iranians are avid fans of America: its culture, films, food, music, its open, free-wheeling society. [....]
According to Iranian government officials, about 70 percent of Iran's 69 million people are under 30. They have no memory of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran's last monarch; the taking of U.S. hostages; or the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. Navy ship in 1988. And to me, few young Iranians seemed happy with their own government. I seriously doubt that if Iran had opinion polls, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity ratings would be any higher than George W. Bush's. Another irony.
Many people I spoke with did voice fears of what President Bush might do to Iran. Some were frightened of being attacked. But others were concerned about what effects U.S. economic sanctions would have on an economy that is already appallingly managed by mullahs. Yet I never sensed any personal hatred toward Bush. [....]
Everywhere I went, however, Iranians -- from high school students to middle-aged taxi drivers -- repeatedly asked me: "Why does America call us Evil Axis?" Then they would indignantly add: "We are good people -- we are Persians! Iran is a good country, some are bad, but most people here are good." They seemed genuinely wounded by the political rhetoric of the White House.
When told I was a reporter, college kids asked me to tell Americans: "Please know this: We are not Saudi Arabia. We are not Iraq. We are not Yemen. Please tell them we are not the same as these places!" [....]

What astonished me the most about Iran were its women. I met and spoke with scores of them from all parts of the country. And everywhere they were wonderful: vivid, bold, articulate in several languages, politically astute and audaciously outward-looking. While some men demurred, the women weren't afraid to voice opinions about anything under the sun.
In fact, women in Iran can work and drive and vote, own property or businesses, run for political office and seek a divorce. The majority of Iran's university graduates are women.
But socially, Iran's women still live under Islamic edicts: [....] It's the women who give me the most hope that this once noble nation will one day return to its tolerant roots. Most of the young people I spoke with insist that change is coming.
On my last night in Iran, as I waited to board my flight to Paris, a little boy named Ali queued up behind me with his father and his elderly grandmother who had come to see them off. The old woman, dressed in black, was distressed at the boy's departure and was smothering him with hugs and kisses.
I handed them sticks of cinnamon gum and snapped their picture. At this, the old woman pulled Ali close and whispered in his ear. The little boy's face lit up. He walked up to me and introduced himself in halting English, shook my hand and said: "We can be friends, yes?"
-----------------------------------

Of course, it's important to add the usual caveats and qualifications. Broadly pro-American sentiments undoubtedly co-exist with considerable underlying ambivalence, and I feel sure that these good feelings would fade dramatically if the US launched an attack on Iran (which seems unlikely, but is worth worrying about).

There also seem to be significant generational differences. Older people whose ideological orientations were formed before the 1979 Islamic Revolution are more likely to retain the kinds of anti-American perspectives that pervade the rest of the region, whereas these are weaker or non-existent among younger people (and most Iranians, as we know, are young). And this reporter's interactions with Iranians may not have allowed him to pick up possible class and regional differences. The kinds of pro-American attitudes that Knipp encountered seem to be dominant in the big cities, especially among middle-class Iranians, but the picture may look a bit different in smaller towns out in the countryside.

But with all that having been said, I still feel confident about reiterating some observations I made in 2004, when the whole effort at political "reform" within the system, headed by then-President Mohammed Khatami, was already collapsing in the face of massive obstruction and increasing repression by the hard-liners (The Iranian Dubcek bows out):
In retrospect, the Khatami experiment, beginning in 1997, will almost certainly be seen as the last shot at reforming and democratizing the system from within (like the Prague Spring of 1968). It was tried, and it failed.

What happens next is less clear. Like the eastern European regimes during the 1980s, the Iranian regime seems to have decisively lost its legitimacy and support among the great majority of Iranians. But historical analogies are rarely exact. By the 1980s, the eastern European elites (with some very rare exceptions) didn't really believe in the system either, had become cynical and demoralized, and collapsed fairly rapidly when they were challenged. Unlike those regimes, the Iranian regime still commands the loyalty of a sizable hard core who are committed to it from genuine ideological belief and/or from materialistic motives, and who seem willing to use as much violence as it takes to crush opposition. I suspect this means that Iran can look forward to an indefinite period of very unstable political equilibrium, probably marked by increasing repression as well as potentially dangerous efforts by the ruling elite to build up support through nuclear brinksmanship and other types of foreign-policy adventurism.

Or maybe not. After all, when Solidarity was suppressed in Poland in 1981, almost no sane person imagined that the whole edifice of eastern European post-Stalinist state socialism would come crashing down a decade later. History is unpredictable. And Iran remains one of the very few countries in the Middle East where, if the current regime collapsed tomorrow, it's plausible that it would NOT be replaced with an even worse regime. In fact, I think we could still see an Iranian 1989 ... sometime down the road.
This long-term prognosis still strikes me as plausible--and that represents one of the few reasons for feeling hopeful about broader prospects for the Middle East. But this will be a long-term process, which offers no solutions for immediate problems and crises. The key is to contain the damage that the Iranian regime can cause (and make every effort to keep it from getting nuclear weapons) while bearing in mind that the Iranian people are basically on our side, mostly want a better (not an even more awful) social and political order than the one they now have, and deserve the greatest possible sympathy, support, and encouragement from the rest of us. Let's not blow it.

--Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. See also this report the current buzz in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni.]
====================
Washington Post
Sunday, September 3, 2006 (Page P1)

LETTER FROM IRAN
A Different Face of Iran
Despite the Politics, an American Finds Hope in a Forbidden Land

By Steven Knipp

As a journalist, I've spent considerable time over the years in places where America was not always popular. In the bad old days, that meant Russia, China and Vietnam; more recently I've reported from such human-rights black holes as Uzbekistan and North Korea. Then there were the destinations with elements of danger: Israel, the southern Philippines, Northern Ireland. None of those ever gave me pause.
But I wouldn't be truthful if I didn't admit being slightly uneasy about going to Iran -- now in the United States' cross hairs because of its developing nuclear technology -- when a U.N. contact invited me to join a group of international reporters on a trip in May.
The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran haven't had diplomatic relations in 26 years, since students in Tehran seized 66 American hostages inside the U.S. Embassy and held some of them for as long as 14 months. Neither nation has an embassy in the other's capital, and the U.S. State Department has a travel warning on Iran. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is pressuring Iran to stop its uranium enrichment, and the Bush administration is talking sanctions.
I applied for my visa in a room on the second floor of a nondescript building in upper Georgetown marked "Iranian Interests Section." This facility is technically part of the Pakistani Embassy (which handles Iran's affairs in the United States), but Pakistan's embassy is actually two miles away. What I saw here didn't ease my mind. Inside were a dozen Iranian Americans waiting for their own visas. As they waited, they gazed at videos on a large plasma television. On the screen was the classic image that most Americans have of Iran: a bearded, red-faced mullah wagging a bony finger at a stadium of young people. For what, I didn't know.
Four days later, visa in hand, I boarded an Air France flight from Dulles to Tehran. There I met my colleagues arriving from various points; they were German, British, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Korean. I was the only Yank.
What took place over the next fortnight astonished me. Everywhere I went -- from the traffic-choked streets of Tehran in the north to the dusty desert town of Yazd in central Iran, to the elegant cultural centers of Isfahan and Shiraz -- I was overwhelmed by the warmth and, dare I say it, pro-Americanism of the people I met.
Ponder the irony of that last statement for a moment. While much of the rest of the world seems to be holding their collective noses at us Americans, in Iran people were literally crossing the road to shake an American's hand and say hello. Who knew?
Initially, when Iranians asked me where I was from, I'd suggest they guess. But this game quickly proved too time-consuming -- no one ever guessed correctly. So instead I would simply mumble "American." And then their faces would light up. For better or worse, Iranians are avid fans of America: its culture, films, food, music, its open, free-wheeling society.
In a small stall at the bazaar in Isfahan, for example, I was nonchalantly eyeing a carpet while the young rug merchant looked on sleepily. But when I responded to his casual question about where I was from, he became as energetic as an 8-year-old near an ice cream truck. Straight away, he launched into a virtual love sonnet to all things Hollywood.
"Do you agree," he pressed, "that Marlon Brando was the greatest actor in the world?"
Indeed he was, I granted, slowly edging toward the exit. But he beckoned me back. Reaching under his desk, he pulled out a large paperback, which turned out to be a well-thumbed Brando biography . . . in Persian.
He turned the pages with gentle reverence, gesturing at specific photos of the Great Man. Then, holding his hand up in a "don't go" gesture, he broke into an impersonation of Brando doing Don Corleone. "Ya come to meee on desse de day of ma daughter's wadding . . . " It was the worst Brando impersonation I've ever heard, but surely the most heartfelt.
During my visit, I could not pause on a street corner for more than 30 seconds without someone coming up and shyly asking if they could help. Discovering that they had an American in their midst, they would often insist on walking me to my destination. Some told me of their friends and relatives living in the United States. (Precise figures are impossible to come by, but Iranian immigrant groups believe that between 1.5 and 2 million Iranians and Iranian Americans live in the United States.)
According to Iranian government officials, about 70 percent of Iran's 69 million people are under 30. They have no memory of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran's last monarch; the taking of U.S. hostages; or the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a U.S. Navy ship in 1988. And to me, few young Iranians seemed happy with their own government. I seriously doubt that if Iran had opinion polls, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity ratings would be any higher than George W. Bush's. Another irony.
Many people I spoke with did voice fears of what President Bush might do to Iran. Some were frightened of being attacked. But others were concerned about what effects U.S. economic sanctions would have on an economy that is already appallingly managed by mullahs. Yet I never sensed any personal hatred toward Bush.
Iranians seem readily able to separate in their minds the difference between the American people and America as a nation, with a U.S. government whose policies they strongly oppose.
Everywhere I went, however, Iranians -- from high school students to middle-aged taxi drivers -- repeatedly asked me: "Why does America call us Evil Axis?" Then they would indignantly add: "We are good people -- we are Persians! Iran is a good country, some are bad, but most people here are good." They seemed genuinely wounded by the political rhetoric of the White House.
When told I was a reporter, college kids asked me to tell Americans: "Please know this: We are not Saudi Arabia. We are not Iraq. We are not Yemen. Please tell them we are not the same as these places!" In fact, Islam came late to the Persia party. The Persian empire boasted a rich civilization several centuries before Arab invaders swept in from the west. During my visit, I got the distinct impression that Iranians admire Islam's sense of discipline and are grateful for the art and architecture that were its gifts. But younger Iranians have little interest in its rigid dogma and social intolerance. After all, it was Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet, who wrote the famous line celebrating life's earthy essentials: "A loaf of bread . . . a flask of wine, a book of verse -- and thou."
What astonished me the most about Iran were its women. I met and spoke with scores of them from all parts of the country. And everywhere they were wonderful: vivid, bold, articulate in several languages, politically astute and audaciously outward-looking. While some men demurred, the women weren't afraid to voice opinions about anything under the sun.
In fact, women in Iran can work and drive and vote, own property or businesses, run for political office and seek a divorce. The majority of Iran's university graduates are women.
But socially, Iran's women still live under Islamic edicts: They must wear the hijab when leaving the house, and they cannot normally associate with any male who is not their father, brother or son, or shake hands with a man. Despite these restrictions, they manage to remain utterly feminine. They are keen on bright lipsticks, nail polish and eye shadow. And they have a passion for imported handbags and shoes.
It's the women who give me the most hope that this once noble nation will one day return to its tolerant roots. Most of the young people I spoke with insist that change is coming.
On my last night in Iran, as I waited to board my flight to Paris, a little boy named Ali queued up behind me with his father and his elderly grandmother who had come to see them off. The old woman, dressed in black, was distressed at the boy's departure and was smothering him with hugs and kisses.
I handed them sticks of cinnamon gum and snapped their picture. At this, the old woman pulled Ali close and whispered in his ear. The little boy's face lit up. He walked up to me and introduced himself in halting English, shook my hand and said: "We can be friends, yes?"
Steven Knipp last wrote for Travel about Hong Kong after SARS. He is the D.C. correspondent for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

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