Why the US and Iran love to hate each other
Despite harsh rhetoric, some say Iran may be the most pro-US nation in the region.
TEHRAN, IRAN — The ritual burning of the US flag is not going to stop. Nor will the chants - especially on Iranian revolutionary anniversaries - of "Death to America."
Unlike every other presidential candidate who hinted at a thaw in relations, to appeal to the majority of Iranians who say they want better US ties, hard-line president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran "has no significant need" for the US.
But beneath the anti-US façade is a nation that has much in common with its stated nemesis - from an ambitious self-image and public reliance on the divine, to a habit of often defining itself in terms of its enemies.
In some ways, the duel is between two peoples who hold national pride and their own brand of manifest destiny above all else. The result is a clash over nuclear and national ambitions, which both might better understand if they held up a mirror.
Certain factions within Iran and the US have a "common mind-set," says Javad Vaeidi, editor of the conservative Diplomatic Hamshahri newspaper. "They look at the world in black and white; they think they have a duty from God and are on a mission ... and both people [Iranians and Americans] think they are emperor of the world." [Editor's note: The original version could have been read to refer to the leaders instead of the people.]
In front of the mosque where Mr. Ahmadinejad prays every Friday, the perspective on the US as "Great Satan" is manifest by a large American flag painted on the street, where it is daily trampled upon.
"I painted it to confront despotism and authoritarianism," says Saleh, the bearded law student who put it there two years ago. "We know the identity of America. We know what is behind the screen."
Iranians do indeed know - and recognize - much about America, analysts here say. "The American people like this crazy man [Bush], because he says, 'I will defend and secure this nation,' " said Mr. Vaeidi in an interview done well before the current election. "Iranians are similar because they are willing to support any mad adventurer to keep their safety and security." [Editor's note: The original version failed to mention the interview took place prior to the election.]
That dynamic alone can put Washington and Tehran at odds. But it is no secret here that the Iranian people may be the most pro-US nation in the Middle East.
A poll secretly commissioned by a parliamentary committee in 2002 found that nearly two-thirds of Iranians supported détènte. That led to the jailing of one pollster who was, ironically, a student during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and who helped plot the US Embassy takeover.
Americans are constantly greeted by Iranians on the streets with handshakes, kisses, and hugs. Declarations of warmth toward the American people are just as common. Still, this election prompted a new round of mutual taunts.
The Bush administration, which includes Iran in the "axis of evil," preemptively dismissed the vote as a sham, saying that power remained in the hands of unelected leaders who "spread terror across the world." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decried the "mock election," saying that Ahmadinejad is "no friend of democracy ... no friend of freedom."
Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, countered that the election - with nearly 60 percent turnout - taught the US a lesson. "Despite its babbling, your enemy is now humiliated deep inside," he said. A hard-line paper referred to "the bloodied face of Uncle Sam."
Some Iranians said Bush's comments prompted them to vote. Several winked when attributing Bush's words to "one hard-line theocracy helping out another."
"There are three ideological capitals, in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington," says Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst. "They are apparently against each other, but they love each other. They need each other. We need a foreign enemy to control the country."
But Iranians draw other comparisons, too. Ayatollah Khamenei and Bush regularly invoke the power of God. "In terms of political discourse, Bush and [Iranian] conservatives are very similar - they try to use religious language for political targets," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a political sociologist at Tehran University.
"In the US, having a system that thinks religiously is not bad.... I prefer people in the US who go to church," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative newspaper Resalat. "But war between these two peoples - who think they are acting on behalf of God - is not good.... War between believers is too dangerous."
Parallels would not appear to stem from national histories. Persia's proud imperial history stretches back 2,500 years and more; America's proud Puritan heritage dates back only a fraction as far.
"The people of America are great," outgoing President Mohammad Khatami told Newsweek in 2004. "And the essence of American civilization comes from the Puritan culture, which I greatly respect."
But both cultures have cherished independence, and yielded societies in which humble origins can turn to leadership. Iran's president-elect - only the most recent example - is the son of a blacksmith.
"Iran has an absolutist, cruel, dictatorial history, in which the ruler always destroyed the aristocracy," says Reza Alavi, an academic and former managing editor of the Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review. "So you can easily find people who came from nowhere to high levels of power."
"As in the American mind, [there is] the same cultural value of success," says Mr. Alavi. The result is "an extreme individualism. That's why you find so many Iranians adjust so well to America. When they go there, they are like a fish in water."
But differences are pronounced, too. America is a largely law-abiding society, while Iran is not a country of laws. And widespread professions of faith in the US are quite different from those in Iran.
"The Bush crowd comes out of the revivalist movement, but in the West, that is a reaction to modern science, and never really succeeds because modern America and Europe are defined by science," says Alavi. "But in Iran, the traditional idiom has survived into the modern age, and religion is part of that.
"If an American does something wrong, he says, 'I'm sorry.' A Persian would say: 'God wanted it that way,' " he says. "It's so different when Mr. Bush says 'God' - it's a radically different articulation than when Mr. Khamenei says it."
And despite similar rhetoric of the "enemy," analysts say, comparisons have limits. "Here, the hard-liners live in an isolated world - they won't see foreigners, or hear them at all. They kill [dissidents], abuse human rights," says a Western diplomat. "In the US, you have a different class of hard-liner. [T]here is a belief ... in the power of freedom. Hard-liners here have a whole different set of values."
Still, Ahmadinejad has sought to temper his reputation. "In domestic policy, moderation will be the policy of the government," the president-elect said. And, he said, "Those in the US who want to have relations with Iran should state their policies transparently, so that we can examine the possibility."
But first, officials say, Iran expects to be treated as an equal - something the US has ruled out until its charges of terrorism and nuclear-weapons ambitions are cleared up.
Some draw parallels with the pro- Western rule of the shah, fêted as an ally before being swept from power in 1979. Ties then were so close that the US helped plan Iran's original nuclear-power program.
"If the Americans have the right to become emperor of the world, Iranians think they have the right to be the emperor at least of their region," says Vaeidi. "If we can find the best way to bring these two hegemons together, it will be good.
"America recognized this role for the Shah's regime, but as an agent [of the US], not an ally," he adds. "If the US can consider Iran an ally, not an agent, it can work. The message to the American government is: You have to accept our existence."