The Iran We Don't See: A Tour of the Country Where People Love Americans

Why, when Americans look to Iran and see the dark history and political tension, do many Iranians look back and see an ideal, a peer, or even a prospective home?

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An Iranian woman walks past a mural painted on the former U.S. embassy in Tehran. (AP)

TEHRAN, Iran -- Except for one day each year -- the November 4 anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy -- the former American diplomatic compound on Taleqani Street is a lonely place. Now serving as offices of the Sepah militia, another branch of Iran's security forces, the building is still surrounded by the same brick wall that irate students clambered over to seize the building and take its inhabitants hostage for what would become a 444-day standoff. Anti-American slogans and murals are painted on the brick -- a Stars and Stripes silhouette of a handgun, the Statue of Liberty with its head replaced by a skull -- and the freshness of the paint suggests that government tenders spruce them up from time to time, especially for the largely scripted, anti-American stage show held each year. But the pedestrians strolling by do not give them much notice, just as they dismiss the state-controlled media outlets. For most Iranians, the most reliable sources of information remain not Iranian but Western, and often American: Radio Farda, the Farsi-language service of Radio Liberty, funded by the U.S. congress and supervised by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors; the BBC, with its new Farsi service; the Voice of America; and CNN, whenever the transmission can pierce the government filtering technology.

Probably no country in the world is more mischaracterized in Western eyes than Iran. Most Americans' perceptions of Iran are limited to images of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad delivering anti-American speeches and crowds chanting "Death to America!" with the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. Yet a 2009 World Public Opinion poll found that 51 percent of Iranians hold a favorable opinion of Americans, a number consistent with other polls, meaning that Americans are more widely liked in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle East. The U.S. favorability rating isn't even that high in U.S. allies India or Turkey, and is two and half times as high as in Egypt. The same survey found that almost two-thirds of Iranians support restoring diplomatic ties with the U.S. (Iranians' view of U.S. leadership is much worse, at 8 percent as of early this year.) But even these figures are likely on the low end of actual sentiment, as many Iranians might fear expressing such views to a strange pollster, out of fear of drawing the suspicion of the authorities, who sometimes monitor e-mails, phone conversations, and other forms of communication.

The appeal of the United States to ordinary Iranians goes almost entirely unnoticed, and therefore unexplained. Many Iranians regard the American ideal, at least as they perceive it, as a symbol of all they want their own society to be -- free, prosperous, "great" -- but isn't. Iranians I've encountered from all strata of society express an eagerness to exalt the country they have been conditioned to view as the "Great Satan." And yet, thousands of miles away, the vast majority of Americans are totally unaware of their Iranian admirers.

•       •       •       •       •

He spotted me strolling through the gardens surrounding the Naranjestan-e Ghavam, the Qajar-era pavilion in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz. It was a late November morning. There had been a light rain the night before, leaving the grounds damp and the air cool. The moisture released the scents from the flower beds and stands of cypresses, the aroma of late autumn filling the air. In my expensive athletic shoes and nylon jacket, I stood out as a foreigner, likely a Westerner. With bright eyes and a smile to match, he asked me where I was from. I told him.

"I thought so," he said.

I asked how.

"I can tell," he replied. "I just love Americans."

Then he told me his story. 

His name was Akbar and he had moved to the U.S. in 1976 on a student visa, three years before the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the onset of the Islamic Revolution, the social and political cataclysm that would turn Iranian society upside-down for a generation. At the time, there were over 50,000 Iranian students enrolled in institutions of higher education in the United States, a number that has shriveled to about 2,000 today. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi then still held a firm grip on power, backed by his hated Savak, the CIA-trained security force, and a series of American administrations that found favor with his pro-Western policies that stood as a reliable bulwark against Soviet adventurism.

After graduating from the University of Texas, Akbar got married, had a son, and lived a pleasant, relatively uneventful life in West Texas. Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The following year he had "gotten into a little trouble with the IRS," as he put it, and so in late 2001 his bank accounts were audited, and early one morning an FBI SWAT team raided his house. Soon afterward he was arrested and charged with "lending material support for terrorist organizations," including al-Qaeda, even though al-Qaeda is exclusively Sunni and Akbar, like almost all Iranian Muslims, is Shi'ite.

The U.S. government seized all of Akbar's assets, he says. "They cleaned me out," as he put it. For one year Akbar was held in a Texas federal prison before being moved to another facility in Louisiana.  In a few months he was transferred again, this time to a CIA prison in Big Springs, Tennessee. He spent the next four and a half years there and claims he was tortured, for what reason and to gain what information he still doesn't know. His son, just out of college, had several federal job offers pending, which were quickly withdrawn. His wife, a high school principal in the San Marcos School District, was passed over for a promotion. In 2008 he agreed to be deported back to Iran and relinquish any possibility of returning to the United States. He's now working with a human rights lawyer through the International Court of Justice to receive compensation for his losses.

I didn't know which was more astonishing, Akbar's story or the way he closed it: "I've got nothing against the American people. The American people are the best in the world. I just love Americans."  And he's still a Dallas Cowboys fan. Farhad Barghozi has never spoken to the media -- Western, Iranian, or any other. He is a painter in a pottery shop in the small town of Bahar, about 25 miles northwest of Hamedan. When the clay shapes emerge from the 900-degree oven, he adds the curvilinear lines and bright swaths of color that transform the smooth clay surfaces into brilliantly decorative vases and tiles.

Aside from the occasional trip to Tehran, he has not traveled much beyond Bahar, yet he is a man of the world. Scrawled on the stone wall beside his telephone are phone numbers left by visitors from around the globe. They are written in pencil and crayon, permanent marker and ballpoint pen. Some of the names are etched in Japanese, Arabic, and Korean, but the phone numbers he prizes most have U.S. area codes. These are few, and at the end of a visit one day he made sure that I added mine. It had been five years since I'd had an American phone number, so I made one up not to disappoint him.

Farhad has long wanted to migrate to the United States and asked me what his chances he might have of obtaining a resident visa. He had heard that a few slots were available for preferred professions and asked, half in jest, if I knew where the quota for potters stood. I asked him why, if he could resettle anywhere on the planet, he would choose the United States. His answer was simple: "Why, everyone wants to go to the U.S."

His dream wasn't at all surprising to me, or unique.  The U.S. consulate in Dubai, where the State Department operates a special Iran office, is so overwhelmed with requests for tourist visas by Iranians that interview appointments have to be made weeks, even months, in advance, and openings vanish from the consulate's Web site as soon as they appear. The demand is so heavy that special hours are set aside each day just to service Iranians.
It might seem odd that Farhad, Akbar, or anyone in Iran would hold the United States in high esteem, given the countries' long-fractious relationship. In 1951, the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh succeeded in a decade-long campaign to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The AIOC became the National Iranian Oil Company, effectively putting an end to British oil interests in Iran. This might have been overlooked had not Mossadegh received support from the Iranian Communist Party, alarming many in Washington, who feared Iranian drift into the Soviet sphere. On August 9, 1953, Mossadegh was driven from power in a CIA-backed coup that restored the Pahlavi dynasty to the Peacock Throne, and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi returned from exile with the support of the United States and other Western powers.

By the late 1970s, the shah's streak of nationalism had widened and proclamations of independence from Western-U.S. domination more frequent, and so he became a less trusted American ally in a world defined by cold war politics. Fissures in Iranian society also widened. Dissent was brutally suppressed by the Savak. , After fed-up students and other groups ousted the shah in a popular revolution that February, they vented their anger on the most visible symbol of pro-shah support within reach. On November 4, 1979, a group of protestors climbed over the U.S. embassy walls, taking 67 diplomats and embassy employees hostage. The ailing shah had been welcomed into the United States for medical treatment by President Jimmy Carter. Back home, many of the shah's supporters were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the new Islamic regime, treatment the shah had meted out to Mossadegh loyalists years earlier. 

Placing sole blame on the United States for a decades-long series of events that ultimately worked against the interests of the Iranian people would be simple-minded -- international geopolitics is far more complicated than that -- but the United States' role in recent Iranian history is undeniable. Many Iranians will claim that the United States and other Western powers acquiesced in the shah's downfall and quietly cheered the return of Ayatollah Khomeini and the establishment of the Islamic regime, believing -- and miscalculating -- that a government of Muslim clerics would put religion before politics and become a much more pliable pawn than the shah was proving to be. 

Two Iranians familiar with the longstanding friction between the U.S. and Iran are Mehrad and Negar, state-certified tour guides who work primarily with Western tour groups.  Mehrad is fluent in English, Negar in German. I met them at a traditional restaurant, behind Imam Square in the city of Esfahan, that offered a floodlit view of the blue-and-yellow dome of the Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque.

The process of becoming a licensed tour guide in Iran is an exhaustive one. Prospective guides require two years of study of Iranian history, from the distant days of the Persian Empire to the present -- or almost. While the guides' knowledge of Sessasian, Seljuk, Safavid, and Qajar history may be flawless, their interpretation of the rocky 60-year relationship with the United States is left to what might be called "personal spin."

Neither Mehrad nor Negar were interested in lecturing me on the toppling of Mossedegh or the return of the shah. Neither answered when I asked how Iranians felt about it today. They asked how I was enjoying my stay in the Iran, and then what chances they might have of migrating to the United States. Starting a new life in America had been their dream for as long as they could remember, they said, and to realize it they planned to polish up on American history to guide visiting Iranian tour groups. I didn't have the heart to tell them that few Iranian tour groups visit the United States. Instead, I asked Mehrad why he and his wife saw the United States as their destination of choice. There was silence, then Mehrad answered, "Why, everyone wants to go to the U.S."

Then he became reflective.       

"You know, your country isn't so strange to us," he said. "We feel like we understand it.  Both of us are culturally distinct, almost islands, in a way. The U.S. grew out of European culture but developed in a very different direction. Fifteen hundred years ago the Arabs brought Islam here but our identity is nothing like the Arab world."

This was intriguing, so I asked him to go on.

"Our society is also made up of many minorities, but we have a single Iranian identity and are very proud of our culture. We're also familiar with Western ways. For the last 200 years, we were open to the Western world and influenced by European culture, even if some of the ideas, like democracy, have never had a chance to take root. But we also know what it's like to be a superpower. For us it was a long time ago, but we play an important role in this part of the world for a long, so we can never see ourselves as a second-rate country."

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Christopher Thornton teaches writing at Zayed University in Dubai.

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