Under the Shah's regime most Americans were convinced that the Iranians supported the Shah and were friends of the United States. The prevailing US public opinion now seems to be that the Iranians support Khomeini and nurture a deep hatred toward the United States.
How can we know what the people of Iran really think and feel?
For the past ten years it has been impossible to conduct public opinion surveys in Iran because of the tight control of the Iranian Government. Yet we have able to conduct an in-depth study in Iran two years ago by using an inferential research technique that does not pose direct questions which could be considered politically sensitive. The focus of our study, which involved Iranian students from five different universities in Tehran, was the Iranians' way of thinking and their salient concerns.
The study findings give some important clues to the attitudes of Iranians -- not Khomeini or the terrorists but the Iranian people in general -- toward the US and the Soviet Union.
On the positive side, the Iranians strongly identified the United States with freedom, democracy, and a republic form of government. These identifications are particularly revealing since they reflect positive values that were on the minds of Iranians prior to the revolution.
To discount the likely objection that the Iranians may have given these reactions in order not to attract the attention of the secret police, we should metion that in thinking of each of these positive value terms -- freedom, democracy, republic -- the Iranians directly associated then with the United States.
On the negative side, the Iranians' image of the US included less weighty but still significant attributes of imperialism, exploitation, war, and foolishness. In general, the Iranians showed somewhat ambivalent, feelings toward the US but positive elements clearly outweighed the negative ones.
What did not emerge at all can be just as interesting as what was found to be salient. In similar studies Egyptians, Jordanians, and Koreans, for instance, were found to stress the United States's advanced technology, leadership in science, and economic wealth. These characteristics received little or no attention from the Iranians.
The lack of these components is consistent with some general conclusions about the Iranian frame of reference. It shows a very narro focusing on issues which bear on their specific domestic concerns and a strong opposition to the Shah's government. This opposition was found to be highly emotional and was at least partially responsible for their narrow outlook on the world.
The Iranian students were found to be surprisingly poorly informed about world affairs. They seemed to lack world perspectives as well as historical perspectives. The fact that, compared to practically all other groups tested, the Iranians paid the least attention to US technology and scientific know-how, is in itself quite surprising, considering the level of US technology exported to Iran.
Even more interesting is their narrow image of the Soviet Union, which showed a nearly complete lack of awareness of the history of Soviet-Iranian relations. The Iranians's image of the Soviet Union involved communism, but communism for them has a more positive meaning which comes closer to socialism, with relatively minor references to oppression or terror. Their more idealized view of communism was conveyed by the popularity of the ideas of socialistic brotherhood and egalitarian freedom and coexistence.
In contrast with the Americans' strong concern with the Soviet Union's political and military power and the threat communism may present to freedom, the Iranians showed little awareness of such problems. While the Americans were preoccupied with the fate of the Jews and other oppressed nations in thinking of the Soviet Union, the Iranians gave little thought to the human rights records of their powerful neighbor.
Despite the forceful annexation of such Islamic sister nations as Tadjikistan , Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, and despite the continuous Soviet attempts at interference in Iranian internal affairs, the Iranian students showed little indication they knew or cared about even the more recent history of Soviet-Iranian relations.
The Iranians' image of the United States and of the Soviet Union shows remarkable gaps in basic information which is also characteristic of their entire view of the world. What did emerge throughout the study was their narrow domestic focus, a high degree of emotionality, and a rather limited view of the universe. This becomes particularly apparent when compared with other Middle Eastern students.
This situation presents a special challenge for US communications policies. It calls for massive and carefully implemented communications policies to overcome the psychological and intellectual effects of the Shah's as well as of Khomeini's rule where the communications systems are centrally controlled. Similarly, the Iranians must be protected against massive propaganda campaigns staged by the Soviet Union.
Our study suggests that impressions about the anti-Americanism of the Iranians are probably grossly exaggerated, but what we are facing is a tremendous communication gap. To improve relations, we should seek contact more intensively with the people themselves rather than focusing on some extreme groups of eccentric politicians. One unfortunate consequence of our association with the Shah appears to be that, rather than our helping him to stay in touch with his people, he led us to gradually lose rapport with the Iranian people.
In other words, beyond military guarantees, the democratization and stabilization of Iran requires an active and effective US communications policy designed to reach the Iranian people directly.