Opinion

Why Iranians like America again

It reflects a sense of alienation from their own rulers.

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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."

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.

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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.

I watched Ahmadinejad on television as he addressed Iranians from the holy city of Qom. He blamed everyone – the hostile West, a domestic "cigarette mafia" – for the economic downturn, just as he had previously claimed that a "housing mafia" was driving up real estate prices.

Many Iranians who initially believed this kind of conspiracy talk now admit that the president's policies and obstinacy are actually at fault. In a sign that even the regime is growing impatient, one of Ahmadinejad's chief rivals – former top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani – was elected speaker of Iran's parliament last week by an overwhelming majority.

To add to Iranians' weariness, there are the interminable lines that have accompanied the government's new gas-rationing scheme. Ahmadinejad has insinuated that the unpopular plan was a precaution against possible Western sanctions, but most people I spoke with considered it another instance of his administration's mismanagement.

Beyond the new penury, Ahmadinejad has also resurrected unpopular invasions into Iranians' private lives. On the second day of my trip, newspapers announced that police would begin raiding office buildings and businesses to ensure that women were wearing proper Islamic dress. On the third day, police swept our street to confiscate illegal satellite dishes. "I'm going to miss 'American Idol,' " a neighbor sighed, fiddling with her satellite dish.

Yet another issue helping to restore Iranians' regard for the US is the withering relevance of Iran's suspected nuclear program. At the height of his popularity, Ahmadinejad successfully rallied public support around the program with catchy slogans such as, "Nuclear energy is our absolute right." But that defiance failed to win Iran much more than the disagreeable whiff of global-pariah status, moving many Iranians to reconsider the costs of nuclear enrichment.

Of course, a minority of Iranians still hate the Great Satan. But the strain of anti-Americanism in Iran is more mellow than the rage found elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world.

The Palestinian cause is less deeply felt here, making it easier for even Washington's critics to view relations pragmatically. Most Iranians belong to generations with compelling reasons to admire the US.

Those old enough to remember the shah's era are nostalgic for the prosperity and international standing Iran once enjoyed; those born after the revolution see no future for themselves in today's Iran and adopt their parents' gilded memories as their own.

These longings have young and old Iranians alike following the US election. Most favor Sen. Barack Obama, who they believe will patch up relations with Iran.

But the mullahs in power still can't figure out how to stop being US-hating revolutionaries. Until they do, most people here will consider the "Great Satan" just great.

Azadeh Moaveni covers Iran for Time magazine. She is the author of "Lipstick Jihad" and a new memoir, "Honeymoon in Tehran," which will be published next February. ©2008 The Washington Post.

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