US stirs mixed feelings in Iran

23 years after the seizure of the US Embassy, Iranians rallied – and talked of better relations.

The scene on Tehran's streets Monday was a familiar one: Homemade American flags burned as fist-pumping Iranians chanted "Death to America!" to mark the anniversary of the 1979 US Embassy seizure.

But Iran's Islamic revolution hardly draws the popular fervor it once did, as Iranians reexamine their love-hate relations with America, their own hard-line clergy, and the popularly elected reform camp that has been stymied at every turn.

From the "anti-American" demonstrators – most of whom weren't even born when the revolution swept away the pro-US monarchy – came a reaction that recent polls suggest is more in keeping with true Iranian thinking.

"You are American?" a young man asks a visiting journalist. "Ah ... welcome!" he chimes after hearing yes, offering two sponge cookies and a packet of orange juice with a straw.

A political war for the future of Iran's revolution is taking place, even as some analysts argue that Iran – beneath its surface – may be the most pro-American country in the region.

For a regime that considers anti-Americanism one pillar of its legitimacy, the demonstration could have been only a fraction as satisfying as the massive turn out last spring, shortly after President George Bush labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil."

Instead, Monday a handful of torched American flags yielded occasional paltry puffs of smoke. Early in the proceedings, organizers at the podium even warned the crowd not to burn anything, for safety's sake.

Such precautions seemed a far cry from the heartfelt ideology that drove militant students in 1979 to begin a 444-day hostage saga with 52 American diplomats. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini heralded this as "a second revolution, greater than the first," and declared the US the "great Satan."

But Iranians savor quietly tolerated American culture as much as any society in the Middle East. Coke and Pepsi are found in abundance, along with pirated versions of American films. Recent polls show that almost 75 percent of Iranians want to renew some contact with the US; just under half said that America's tough policy toward Iran is "to some extent correct."

Those results – and others that show the breadth of support President Mohamed Khatami has for his reform program – led hard-liners to shut down two polling centers in the past month, the second last Thursday. One poll director was jailed on charges of changing the results and of espionage, and the second – former embassy hostage-taker and prominent reformer Abbas Abdi – is also behind bars.

The news further etched the battle lines between unelected hard-liners, who control the judiciary and used security forces to shut down some 80 newspapers in recent years and jailed opponents; and elected reformers, who control the presidency and parliament.

"The Americans are finally coming to grips with this," says Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "While the rest of the Mideast is becoming more militantly Islamic, Iran is becoming heavily secular."

The internal battle in Iran has caused thinking to change "very dramatically" in the past six months, Mr. Ansari says. "Both sides are itching for a fight, and US policy has polarized them."

There have been signs of a tentative softening on the US-Iran front. Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi has made clear that the US may be backpedaling on its "axis of evil" label; Iranian officials Monday confirmed that Osama bin Laden's son was among several hundred Al Qaeda operatives captured in Iran as they fled Afghanistan, and were handed over to their home nations.

More often, though, rhetoric is still uncompromising. Septuagenarian US defense chief Donald Rumsfeld predicted last week that the Islamic regime would be toppled in his lifetime, prompting Mr. Kharrazi to call the comment "another US mistake."

During prayer time in Tehran last Friday, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, head of the conservative Expediency Council and former president, warned that Mr. Rumsfeld "will take his audacious wish to hell with him."

Mr. Rafsanjani's sympathizers had their day Monday, beneath a forest of "Down with USA" and "Down with Israel" posters, and an effigy of George Bush that was struck with wads of thrown trash and even wooden Iranian flag poles. The rally was broadcast live on the Internet, and its mass-produced red signs were numerous, though badly spelled: "DWIN WITE U.S.A."

"This event must be remembered by the revolutionary generation – the day of braveness and sacrifice of the martyrs," one female student told the crowd. "This is the lesson to fight against the global arrogance [of the US]. The students of all Iran are represented here."

In fact, there were subtle signs of division: Mentions of Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, were met with religious chants of "Peace be upon the Prophet Muhammad." The name of President Khatami – also a ranking Shiite Muslim cleric – drew polite, secular applause.

One speaker pledged that if Mr. Khamenei "gives us the order for jihad, the armies of the world can do nothing against us." Another said the rallygoers were "an example of the brave people" who will "take to the streets anytime the revolution needs them."

No speaker mentioned how most of the 1979 student hostage-takers have since become ardent reformists. And the anniversary was not entirely packed with anti-West conservatives. Some female students sported bandages across their noses, indicating recent plastic surgery to beautify, in a very Western way. Two other students danced to the martial music – though public dancing is prohibited – holding their anti-US posters overhead.

For one longtime observer of Iranian revolutionary rallies, the scene simply highlighted the divisions in Iranian society, and the clash about to come.

"After 23 years, these are just the same old slogans," the Iranian said, as another hard-line speaker pounded his point home at the podium.

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