TEHRAN, IRAN — 'What do Americans think about us?" asked an old lady on the bus. That was the question most often asked of me during my three-month stay in Iran last year. Messages to the American people were also common. "Tell the Americans that we're not crazy, scary people," she continued. Her comment came after she and others had been dancing in the aisle (with curtains drawn so the police wouldn't see) while the rest of us – along with the driver – clapped as we raced down the highway. So maybe they are crazy. But in a good way.
Many Westerners are afraid to come to the Middle East nowadays, and understandably so. But it's at times like these when face-to-face contact is most crucial. As I traveled alone through the Iranian countryside conducting anthropological research, I took note of local opinions about US-Iran relations. I was heartened by what I heard.
While I'd often visited Iran as a child, the current political situation in the region made me apprehensive about taking the trip. Tensions were rising – as they still are today – over Iran's pursuit of nuclear enrichment, and there were reports in the American media of possible military action against Iranian targets.
However, I was soon put at ease. After speaking with numerous Iranians from all walks of life – lower and upper class, religious and secular, Westernized and traditional, government- affiliated and civilian – I became convinced that this vilified member of the "Axis of Evil" is actually one of the most welcoming places for Americans to travel in the Middle East. Indeed, all Iranians with whom I spoke shared a positive opinion of Ameri- cans.
Iranians don't hate America. On the contrary, many of them envy Americans to an unrealistic degree and think of the US as a paradise, a land where no problems exist.
One encounters this sentiment in even the most unexpected places. For instance, when I ran into problems renewing my visa, an austere senior official at the immigration ministry offered to help. "Because you're American, I'll do this for you," he said. This was not unusual. Generally friendly to foreigners, Iranians were especially friendly to me once they discovered I was American. It was as if they were trying to prove a point. "Go home and tell the Americans we like them," the official continued. "You know, I have family in Chicago. Can you help me go see them?" On the way out, a soldier in the lobby was excited to see my passport, handling it as one would a priceless object. "How can I come study in America?" he wanted to know.
Paralleling Iranians' favorable opinions of Americans as a people, however, is their unified opposition to any US government intervention in their country. This directly contradicts what Vice President Cheney and others believe – that if the US were to attack, the population would rise up to help the Americans fight the Iranian regime. Judging from my experience, this couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, US intervention seems to be the only issue that will unite most Iranians with the Islamic regime.
We can blame the Bush administration's poor grasp of daily realities in Iran on an almost three-decade-long freeze of contact between the American and Iranian governments. As a result of this isolation, so-called experts who have never been to Iran (or at least not since the Islamic Revolution of 1979) advise US government officials on the opinions of the Iranian populace. The comment by one influential US scholar comparing Iran to a concentration camp in which people would rather be bombed than live another day under such conditions, is a glaring example of misinformation.
At a private party in a trendy suburb of Tehran, I sat down with a group of young professionals as they relaxed after a busy workweek. Iran is not like a concentration camp, they assured me. Yes, they're repressed by government restrictions, but they find ways to get around them. And the situation is certainly not to the point of rising up against the regime.
In fact, politics was the last thing on their minds – that is, until I brought up the possibility of US intervention. "As much as I despise this regime, I love my country more," said Reza, a 20-something. "If America were to attack Iran, I would be the first to lay down my life. Ask anyone and you'll hear the same."
And indeed I did. Whether they were the village teenagers in southern Iran who took me to eat chicken kabob and drink smuggled Turkish beer in the forest, or Hamid, the opium smuggler in Bam who moonlighted as a taxi driver, the reactions were the same: Though unhappy with the Iranian regime, they would join forces with the mullahs to deter an outside attack. Listening to them speak, I couldn't help but think that these young moderates could well become the future insurgents in an expanded regional conflict.
This may be avoided if we actually listen to the voices coming out of Iran. Iranians are overwhelmingly in favor of normalizing relations with the US, but oppose any intervention in their nation's internal affairs. Forces seem to be aligning in favor of direct dialogue between the two estranged governments.
Pragmatic voices are wresting control from both neoconservatives in the US and their fundamentalist counterparts in Iran. Let's hope they win out. Opening up relations with Iran is not appeasement; it's necessary because it allows home-grown demo cratic forces to work on their own terms.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, overt US calls for regime change and direct support of dissidents and NGOs have a negative effect on Iranian civil society because they result in government crackdowns and increase popular anger aimed at the American government.
In the dispute over nuclear enrichment, the stakes are growing higher each day. If Iraq is the beginning of the end for security and goodwill toward America, then an attack on Iran would be the nail in the coffin. The tragic cost of American misjudgment regarding the Middle East was made painfully clear in Iraq, when US soldiers were greeted with roadside bombs instead of flowers. Let's not repeat that mistake.
We should take Iranian nationalism seriously when even Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, vows, "We will defend our country to the last drop of our blood. We will not let an alien soldier set foot on the land of Iran."
We cannot afford to squander the vast majority of Iranian hearts and minds that we have already won. We must instead convince the Iranian people – through displaying the courage to open dialogue with the ruling regime – that we are committed to furthering our shared ideals of universal life, liberty, and justice.
• Ali G. Scotten is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Chicago and a former Fulbright scholar.