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Why Iranians like America again

It reflects a sense of alienation from their own rulers.

By Azadeh Moaveni / June 3, 2008


On a recent afternoon, while riding a rickety bus down 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."

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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 US products and culture, and their fascination with the US 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 US 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, or at least different.

Starting in about 2005, Iranians' historic esteem for the US 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 rattled ordinary Iranians, and Washington's opposition to Iran's nuclear program 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.

It was a time when Iranians of all ages and backgrounds united in their pique against the US, turning their backs on its traditions and culture. But on a recent trip to Iran, I found a shift in sentiment.

The most interesting aspect of the revival of warm feelings today is that the US 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 Mr. Ahmadinejad has replaced the US 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.

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.