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Issue Date:  December 9, 2005

Iranians like Americans but resent U.S. government


We flew into Tehran in September. We were 13 American academics and peace activists eager to promote dialogue between the United States and Iran. We believed that where dialogue is lacking, the chances for war increase. And none of us wanted to see Iran turned into another Iraq.

Iran Air may be one of the most comfortable and roomy airlines in the world. In contrast, Iran’s capital is a crowded and polluted city of some 13 million. The traffic in Tehran makes Manhattan look like a small town on Sunday, and crossing a major downtown street is a near impossibility. In the midst of all this urban congestion the government is engaged in a great building boom that makes the city look like a chaotic work in progress. Iran’s population has grown immensely since the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the ubiquitous construction is a response to a great housing shortage. Yet despite this activity, Iranians face high unemployment, especially their youth. High inflation has meant that even those employed work two jobs to make ends meet. These are economically tough times in Iran.

Despite these problems, the men and women of Iran are remarkably friendly and open. Iranians know a lot about the United States. Many have satellite dishes, though technically they are illegal, and Iranians seemed well supplied with computers. Several independent news services access the Web and supply Iran’s newspapers and magazines with an array of foreign stories. Most educated Iranians speak some English and they are anxious to practice it with the few Americans who visit their country. When you meet them in the bazaars and shops, parks and mosques of Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, they will readily ask you to explain why the United States acts as it does in the Middle East.

Iranians today may be more pro-American than any other population in the Middle East. But while they have a positive feeling toward the American people, the Iranians greatly fear the intentions of the U.S. government. People would often ask us whether President Bush intends to attack their country, for they are virtually surrounded by American bases and troops, all sustained by a regime in Washington that openly calls for the overthrow of the Iranian government. Not all Iranians love their government, but they all love their country and have no hesitation telling you that they will defend Iran to the death in the face of an American or Israeli attack.

In private discussions though not in the press, Iranians speak their minds freely. It is not just the American government of which they are critical. They are also open in their criticism of the Islamic Republic and its religious leadership. Some think that the clerics running the country are corrupt and incompetent. “The mullahs are out to make themselves rich” was a common refrain. Some bemoan the lack of cultural freedom in dress and entertainment under an Islamic government. All complain about the country’s economic condition and are hoping that the new government of President Mahmoud Amadinejad will bring more jobs and a more just sharing of resources.

The issues that concern Westerners about Iran’s Islamic culture are not priority issues for many Iranians. For instance, the legally enforced dress code for women in public, of which the hijab is a symbol, is not a great concern for most Iranian women. Those women we met pointed to progress in their lives over the last decade. Women are well integrated into the work force and receive equal pay for equal work. Over 60 percent of those enrolled in universities in Iran are women. Women told us about their ongoing demands for greater rights, particularly in the areas of divorce and child custody, to which the government is proving to be slowly responsive. They also emphatically told us that they do not need the United States and the West in general to teach them about women’s rights. They want support from abroad, but not guidance.

This last message reflected the fact that the Iranians are a proud people. They talk to you about the ancient roots of their civilization going back to Cyrus the Great and the need for the United States to approach Iran with respect rather than threats. Thus, one can understand the sense of effrontery expressed by Iranians over the finger pointing and double standards coming from Washington. For instance, when U.S. spokesmen talk of human rights, they seem to have cynically converted the concept into a weapon to attack others. While human rights abuses undoubtedly exist in Iran, the faculty of Shahid Behesti University’s Center for Peace and Democracy proudly told us that Iranian universities have been teaching about human rights for 15 years. Law students and police learn about the issue as part of their training. When the Bush administration threatens Iran over its nuclear program, it only strengthens Iran’s resolve to continue with this program. There can be no doubt that there exists an Iranian national consensus in support of nuclear development. Thus, many warned us that present American tactics in regard to Iran are simply counterproductive. They only strengthen anti-Western sentiment in Iran and make the work of reformers all the harder.

We came away with the impression that Iran is a self-confident country. Having suffered through an eight-year war with Iraq, its citizens are not anxious for another conflict. However, there is a deep resentment of what Iranians see as U.S. bullying and they are not a people easily pushed around. They have strategies to counter U.S. sanctions and their vast oil reserves give them leverage. Wisdom dictates dialogue rather than force. We came to Iran to tell its people that we favor dialogue, and we have now come back to tell our fellow Americans that it is in our national interest to favor it as well.

Lawrence Davidson is a professor of Middle Eastern history at West Chester University in West Chester, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, December 9, 2005

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