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Iranians' love affair with America

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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.

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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."

Moderates today, insurgents tomorrow?

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.

Build relations upon shared ideals

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.

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