IN large gold letters, a lobby sign greeting visitors at the former Intercontinental Hotel in Tehran reads, ``Down with America.'' At the former United States Embassy compound a sign threatens, ``We will make America face a severe defeat.'' And troops at Iran's war front often take breaks from their duties to chant ``Down with Reagan'' in front of visiting journalists. But for all the anti-American rhetoric, and despite the continuing tension in Gulf sea lanes between Iran and the US, Iranians are generally still fascinated with the people and products from the nation officially branded ``the Great Satan.''
An Iranian child en route from Europe to Tehran squeals with delight as she recognizes the figure on the cover of Time magazine. ``Imam Khomeini,'' she says, pointing at Iran's leader. ``Yes,'' her mother says, ``but ask who her other hero is.'' The child gushes with a beaming smile, ``Tom Cruise.'' Her mother adds, ``She saw `Top Gun' four times.'' The child's aunt is absorbed in Newsweek's cover story on Elvis Presley.
Another Iranian child at the airport playfully waves three McDonald's pennants at an official searching luggage. Two restless children wearing Mickey and Minnie Mouse T-shirts skim up and down the terminal hall.
The interest in Americans is not limited to the Iranian upper classes who can afford European vacations. A handful of US reporters visiting Tehran have been approached with a wide array of requests. A student asks for help filling out papers to apply for an education visa to the US. A hotel clerk wants to send a note to CBS reporter Diane Sawyer.
The love-hate relationship is explained in part by the distinction Iranians draw between US policy and the American people. ``We have nothing against Americans. It's the government's policies that we don't like,'' is the common rejoinder from Iranians.
It also reflects the different perceptions Iranians and Americans have of their countries' relationship over the past four decades, the period during which the US replaced Britain as the main foreign influence in Iran.
Iranians say they take the long view, with the US role in the region considered in the context of Iranian and Islamic relationships with the West over the past five centuries. They charge that the US looks only at the post-revolutionary period.
Iranians point to the US role in the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq, when, with CIA help, the Shah was reinstalled on the Peacock Throne. They also refer to what they perceive as the strong-arm role of US military and diplomatic advisers during the Shah's reign, when he pushed modernization, increased Western influence, and suppressed religious and political dissidents.
American policymakers, many Iranians charge, take only the short view, dwelling on Iranian relations since the hostage ordeal of 1979 to 1981.
The US seems not to understand, they say, that the theocracy's actions, domestically and regionally, are an attempt to reassert the nation's dignity in a way consistent with proud Islamic tenets. The intent, Iranians say, is to ensure that no foreign power, including the US, is able to influence their political lives so strongly again.
Antipathy toward the US is most visible in Tehran's poor southern suburbs, where revolutionary sentiment has always been the strongest.
A young shoptender claims, ``Everything wrong for Iran is the fault of the US.'' Yet he admits his fashionable fatigue trousers are made in the US, and he is more than hospitable to three US reporters in showing them his neighborhood and discussing local politics.
Middle-class rug dealers in the capital's famous bazaar, another key sector in the 1979 anti-Shah demonstrations, are more tempered.
``Most bazaaris supported Khomeini and most still do, despite some problems for us,'' says one. Yet those interviewed said they yearn for better relations with the US, a former business as well as political ally.
After offering Coca-Cola - still a popular drink in Iran - to American guests, they express concern about what they view as new US hostility toward Iran, particularly the deployment of US warships in the Gulf.
``This I don't understand,'' one laments. Another expresses anger over what many Iranians, both pro- and anti-American, feel is US support for Iraq in the seven-year-old war. ``The US has betrayed us,'' one dealer complains.
In Tehran's posh northern suburb, an Iranian businessman expresses sadness that the recent arms-for-hostage swap resulted in widening the diplomatic gap between the two former allies rather than rebuilding bridges after eight years of tension.
Members of all economic classes agree, however, that any new relationship would be vastly different from the previous alliance.
As a Western diplomat explains, ``Independence from foreign powers is the historic achievement of this revolution in the eyes of these people.''
Despite recent reports of new Iranian economic ties with the Soviet Union, most Iranians reportedly prefer the US because of its superior technology, educational standards, and freedom. The Soviets rank low on the list of desired trading partners or political allies.
Suspicions run deep because of Moscow's military aid to rival Iraq, its eight-year occupation of Afhanistan, its World War II occupation of northern Iran, and most important, its ideological atheism, which is an anathema to devout Muslims.
Both Iranian analysts and Western diplomats argue that, under current circumstances, Iran is not likely to ally itself with Moscow. ``The economic agreement reflects proximity and financial necessity, not political preference,'' says one envoy. And all observers interviewed discounted recent reports that Iran might sign a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Moscow. ``Remember,'' said one diplomat, ``the slogan here is `neither East nor West.'''
Perhaps the greatest surprise is that a few Americans actually still live in Iran. Most are spouses of Iranians, but not all are women. Some are businessmen who came before the revolution and decided to stay. Others are Americans who converted to Islam and came to Iran after 1979. A handful are reported to be studying at Qom's famous Islamic seminary.
``As hard as it may be to believe, I'm treated very correctly by all aspects of society,'' a US businessman comments. ``The daily propaganda can of course be irritating, but I'm really quite comfortable here. The problems I have are the same as any Iranian businessman.''
Americans are not even unwelcome at the former embassy, where 52 Americans were held for 444 days, and which is now a school for Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
When three US reporters went to visit the compound, the surprised guard asked at first, ``Do you know where you are?''
``Are you sure you haven't made a mistake?''
After consulting with superiors, he explained that the school was finished for the day. But if the three would like to return early the next day, he added, a tour could be arranged.