US-Iran, through an expat's eyes

After nearly five decades in Iran, this Virginian has seen everything from 'death to America' chants to vigils for Sept. 11 victims.

Hard-line clerics in Iran tried to prevent it. But on Sept. 11, 2001, as the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldered, sympathizers half a world away mourned the victims with spontaneous candlelight vigils in Iran - the only Islamic nation in the Middle East to witness such spontaneous solidarity with America.

This solidarity, in a region filled with intense anti-Americanism, is an irony that Louise Firouz has seen evolve in her 45 years as an American living in Iran.

Mrs. Firouz has lived through much of what has made the US-Iran relationship one of the most extreme and enigmatic in the Middle East. She was witness to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the US hostage crisis, and the birth of the chant, "death to America." In the past decade, she has watched students and democratic reformers butt heads with hard-line clerics in a battle that still rages daily. And now, she has seen President George W. Bush label Iran as part of an "axis of evil."

After spending more than half her life in Iran - one of very few Americans to have done so - this horse breeder from Great Falls, Va., embodies the seemingly contradictory feelings that many Iranians here share: admiration for the freedoms the US represents juxtaposed with disgust over hypocrisy and imperial attitudes emanating from its government.

"I'm still referred to as the American," Firouz says at her horse farm - a leafy green patch of paradise 25 miles west of Tehran, with a sign on the gate that reads: "Private Property: Entry by Invitation Only." She offers carrots and apples to a handful of Turkoman and Caspian horses, the latter an ancient breed she rediscovered here years ago.

"The official view now is very anti-American. We walk over American flags on the streets, but I have a feeling there may be a lot of negotiations going on behind the scenes," says Firouz. "It's two different worlds, what is in the newspapers and on TV, and what is really going on."

US values respected

While deep respect remains for the values that Iranians see in America, she says - freedom, justice, and equality, the values that were the focus of the Sept. 11 candlelight vigils in Iran - they are under strain as never before.

"There was an enormous sympathy for the US" as the Twin Towers fell, Firouz says. But the reasons why that goodwill is eroding is simple, she says, listing grievances commonly cited in Iran: the US conduct of the war on terror, the virtual lack of American involvement in Middle East peace efforts - bar giving Israel an apparent blank check in dealing with Palestinians, and concerns over the looming war with Iraq.

This is on top of widespread incomprehension here over why Iran, which helped the US military with critical intelligence during the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, rated membership in Mr. Bush's "axis of evil." Election results last November that gave Bush and the Republicans a resounding vote of confidence confused Iranians even more.

"People tell me: 'If this large portion of the American people are going to vote for Bush, they deserve the next Sept. 11,'" says Firouz. "It's amazing, America's backing of Bush and all this war-mongering. Do you think Americans have done this because they are scared?

"As empires come and go, maybe this will simply hasten the end of the American Empire. It's beginning to look a bit like the last days of Rome," Firouz says. "Iranians think - they are hoping, anyway - that Bush is a passing wonder, and maybe the US will recover from this, one way or another."

The horse whisperer

Firouz first traveled to the Middle East during a junior year abroad from Cornell University - she was forced to give up dreams of becoming a veterinarian after failing physics. During her year at the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, she met her Iranian husband-to-be. After finishing her degree in classics and English literature, she moved to Iran in 1957.

Today, Firouz is working to export 60 horses to Canada for national-level endurance racing. She stables 35 horses on her farm here, and more on land near Iran's border with Turkmenistan. She also operates adventure horse-treks in northern Iran, through a company called Magic Carpet Travel, Ltd., with a range of clients from Americans to Australians. The journeys have been listed by The Times (London) as among the top 10 rides in the world.

"People are constantly asking me why I've stayed here, why I haven't gone back to America, since everyone here seems to want a green card," says Firouz, noting that roughly half her time in Iran has been spent during the rule of the pro-US Shah Reza Pahlavi and half following Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

"This 'death to America' is a mantra, repeated without anybody thinking about it any longer," Firouz says. "Nobody hates America.... They all see the vast amounts of money that Americans make, and drive around in new cars, and with satellite TV, they see this life and think it is much better."

Young people's rising expectations

The tide of rising expectations is highest among the 60 percent of Iran's population who are under 25, and whose dreams are rarely met inside the Islamic republic. "I don't think in this age of electronic news and information transfer that you can actually keep people like that ignorant any longer. It's becoming a mental melting pot."

While that melting pot may sound like democracy in action to most Americans, ironically, in Iran and elsewhere, it also one reason for a hardening of anti-American views.

"All these people are going to start thinking the same way, which is why your average Iranian understands why people are criticizing the US, and why [the US] is attacked like Sept. 11," Firouz says. She is concerned that broad Iranian understanding of American culture - through bootleg smuggled films and satellite dishes that remain illegal here - contrasts sharply with most Americans' views of Iran.

"They probably can't tell the difference between Iran and Iraq," says Firouz. "I don't get the impression that Americans really know much about the geography of the rest of the world, or that they really care. Because, just like the sun [once] never set on the British Empire, now it doesn't really set on American influence."

"Americans have created a lot of hatreds," says Firouz, noting the US rejection of a number international accords, from the Kyoto environmental restrictions, to the international criminal court, to the ban on land mines. "I think America has lost direction of what it is supposed to be doing [globally], for its own safety, and the safety of the world."

Despite those criticisms, Firouz says thatthe shine of what America represents abroad is still very bright and that, in many quarters, America still represents the good guy. "It still projects this idea of freedom and equality, and the whole overall image of prosperity and freedom is stronger than the events of today, and will persist until something catastrophic happens," she says. "It is still the place everybody wants to go - especially Iranians."

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