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Why Iranians like America again

It reflects a sense of alienation from their own rulers.

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.