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.

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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."

Merhad then said he'd always wanted to lead a group of Americans. I asked why.

"I don't think Americans know very much about our country," he replied.  "All this talk about regional power and nuclear arms -- that's politicians talking. No one listens to them. We're really a very simple people -- like Americans."

When we parted, Mehrad fished in his wallet and handed over a business card. "If you need anything in Iran," he said, "anything at all, let us know. We really like Americans."

Virtually all forms of American popular culture -- movies, music, television programs -- are officially "banned" in Iran. The result is a thriving black market in American pop culture that is as deep, vast, and heavily trafficked as the New York subway system. Blown-up, black-and-white photos of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro hang on the walls of the Coffee Palace café outside the Jana-Nana Museum in northern Tehran. The walls at Market, a restaurant in the Gandhi Street Shopping Center, are decorated with 1930s-era photographs of San Francisco and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Upstairs in the Café Française, a faded poster for Clint Eastwood's For a Few Dollars More is tacked to the ceiling.

For decades, the Iranian film industry has been the Middle East's most vibrant, even though its most accomplished practitioners -- Majid Majidi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, and others -- have long worked in exile and their films are often banned in Iran. But the Internet has made pop hits easy to download anywhere on the planet, even in the fanatically repressive Islamic Republic, so pirated DVDs of Hollywood releases can appear on Iranian streets before the films appear onscreen. Thus, for many young Iranians, the world of cinema offers a ground on which the U.S. and Iran can meet as equals.

"Who's your favorite director?" Golnaz asked me after dinner one night in the city of Hamedan, 150 miles west of Tehran. She and Arash, her companion, had invited me over to their takht, the bed-like platform where groups of Iranians traditionally sit, converse, sip tea, and munch from a smorgasbord of dishes as long as the food, drink, and conversation hold out, which can make for long evenings.

Golnaz was a fan of Martin Scorsese, especially Raging Bull, The Departed, and Goodfellas. Arash was partial to Robert Altman, but he had seen so many of his films he couldn't pick a favorite. But he did disclose his prize possession: a set of the complete songs of Elvis Presley, which he had downloaded from the Internet for 10,000 Iranian rials, the equivalent of about 80 U.S. cents.

As we picked over the last of the rice and chicken kebabs, I told them of an experience the day before on the outskirts of Esfahan, climbing to the top of a hill that is capped with the ruins of a Zoroastrian fire temple. Also on his way to the top was Mohammed, a university student majoring in English translation whose true desire was to become an actor -- in American movies. Once at the temple, we looked out over the city and Mohammed asked if there might be a need for Iranian actors in Hollywood.

Given the stature of the Iranian film industry I was surprised. Golnaz wasn't.

"Of course," she said. "Everyone wants to go to the U.S."

Khalid, a studious, serious-minded media and communications major at Hamedan University, wasn't interested in discussing music or movies or boasting about his Elvis collection. We met in Hamedan's main square one evening while I was hunting around for a place for dinner. He led me to a basement restaurant, where we ordered grilled fish kebabs and talked politics -- specifically, American democracy.

"We don't want all this religion in public life," he said. "It should be private, not a part of government in any way -- like it is in the U.S."

I asked him what kind of government he'd like to see should the Islamic regime suddenly collapse. His answer was simple: "A democracy, like the U.S."

I asked him what was so appealing about the American government.

"The freedom."

"What do you mean, 'freedom'?"

"Anyone can say what they want, write what they want, do what they want."

"Freedom, like it is in the U.S." -- I heard variations on this so often that the words almost lost their meaning, or they could mean anything at all, depending on the perspective of the speaker. American "freedom," mythical or not, feels tangibly real to most Iranians, but in a savagely brutal police state like Iran the bar is so low that almost anyone's definition can clear it.  It is a notion as vague in concept as in application, and often reduced to a simple definition: anything not found in Iran.

In Shiraz, leaving the tomb of Hafez and its tree-lit, park-like grounds one night, I was stopped by three chemistry students from the local university. They asked, of course, where I was from.

"We just love America!" one cooed.

They had never been to the United States, but one had cousins living in suburban Los Angeles and another's brother was attending the University of Miami. I asked them what was so attractive about this country that they had only heard about from relatives and seen in pirated Hollywood movies.

"The freedom!" one replied.

"What kind?" I asked.

"From this!" another chimed, fingering the edge of her headscarf.

At Persepolis, the ancient Persian administrative capital sacked by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., another group of young men had similar sentiments. The 20-somethings approached me under the awning of the site's museum. The mid-June afternoon sun was blazing, so striking up a conversation with a visiting foreigner was a fine way to beat the heat.

"We want more freedom," Mohammed said. All around him, heads nodded in agreement.  "We want places to listen to music, socialize, meet people -- like in the U.S."

Again, heads nodded.

I asked them if they would migrate to the United States if they had the chance. All the heads nodded.

"We know we could learn a lot from the U.S.," Khalid, the Hamedan University student I'd met for fish kabobs, told me, "but we think the U.S. could learn a lot from us too. We've been here for several thousand years, but the U.S. is still a very young country. We've had a tradition of music and art and poetry built up over centuries. Nothing in the U.S. can match that."

Another hot afternoon a few days before in the bazaar in Yazd, a carpet seller had spotted "New York" stamped across the front of my T-shirt. He leaned out of his shop to shout, "I like your president!" Later the same day, the caretaker of the grand mosque saw an opportunity to exercise some minimal English: "Obama, good!" he said, adding a thumbs up.

Two days before I left Iran, the maid at the hotel in Shiraz paused in sprucing up my room to ask where I was from. I told her, and immediately her face brightened and her eyes glowed. The next morning she spotted me on the way to breakfast and from the far end of the hallway and called out in halting English, "Good morn ing!"

But, in all my time in Iran, I have heard few greater expressions of support for America than the words of the young man wiping the tables in the Azedegan Teahouse just off Esfahan's Imam Square. The cafe draws the occasional tourists and out-of-town visitors, but its bread-and-butter clientele are the clusters of shisha smokers who spend long hours puffing on water pipes and young couples who come to (discreetly) nuzzle in the back room. It was past closing time and most of the customers had left. Curious about the lone foreigner who had spent the past two hours nursing a pot of tea, he asked me where I was from. Then he rushed to the TV hanging in a corner overhead and turned it on. The U.S. soccer team had just beaten Brazil in a World Cup qualifying match and was playing again that night. "Go, America!" he shouted, pumping his fist in the air.

Iranians know their history well, and the Islamic Republic does not waste an opportunity to remind them of their country's prickly relationship with the "Great Satan." So Iranians are well aware that the CIA was largely behind the toppling of their first populist leader, and that an increasingly repressive Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was supported by a series of American presidents (images of Richard Nixon sharing a Christmas eve champagne toast with the shah often serve in state propaganda) but this history alone does not define the Iranian perception of America, and is even downplayed, or even dismissed. Elsewhere in the Middle East, memories of American misdeeds are long, but much of Iranian society has chosen the path of selective amnesia. For the moment, the past sins of the United States are forgiven, or at least forgotten. For the moment, the United States holds almost iconic status, perhaps because, as long as such an ideal exists, even if it is mostly a perceived ideal, Iranians can envision a much more promising future for their own country. That the United States ever lives up to such expectations is beside the point. The symbol is also a goal, a destination that they believe is worthy of their aspirations, and in this respect they also regard the United States as an equal, or a potential one.

Of the many things that the 30-year-old stalemate in U.S.-Iran relations demonstrates, one of them is Americans' shallow understanding of Iran and Iranians, who do not regard the U.S. as an unfamiliar, hostile, and alien land. Iranians lack easy access to uncensored media but are savvy enough to debunk much of  the state media they do receive. Americans are bombarded with information and images from Iran, the stories as powerful as they are ubiquitous, yet almost always framed by the country's conflict with the U.S.: wild speeches from the anti-American president, the controversial nuclear program, suppression of protestors, and not much else. With few Iran issues treated with the depth they deserve, stereotypes are reinforced and existing perspectives hardened.

One November afternoon, I was standing in a windswept valley somewhere between Esfahan and Shiraz. Off the side of the road, workers were restoring a 300-year-old mosque. The architect in charge happened to be onsite that day. He brought out a photo album and showed me pictures of other historic buildings he had renovated as part of a government-supported restoration campaign. As we parted, he put in a bid for another project: "Tell Obama I will redesign the White House. Anything to improve the relationship between the American and Iranian people."