What do Americans think about us? asked an old lady on the bus. That was the question most often asked of me during my three-month stay in Iran last year. Messages to the American people were also common. “Tell the Americans that we’re not crazy, scary people,” she continued. Her comment came after she and others had been dancing in the aisle (with curtains drawn so the police wouldn’t see) while the rest of us clapped as we raced down the highway. So maybe they are crazy.

But in a good way. Many Westerners are afraid to come to the Middle East nowadays, and understandably so. But it’s at times like these when face-to-face contact is most crucial. As I travelled alone through the Iranian countryside conducting anthropological research, I took note of local opinions about US-Iran relations. I was heartened by what I heard. While I’d often visited Iran as a child, the current political situation in the region made me apprehensive about taking the trip. Tensions were rising over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear enrichment, and there were reports in the American media of possible military action against Iranian targets.

However, I was soon put at ease. After speaking with numerous Iranians from all walks of life, I became convinced that this vilified member of the “Axis of Evil” is actually one of the most welcoming places for Americans to travel in the Middle East. Indeed, all Iranians with whom I spoke shared a positive opinion of Americans. Iranians don’t hate America. On the contrary, many of them envy Americans to an unrealistic degree and think of the United States as a paradise, a land where no problems exist. One encounters this sentiment in even the most unexpected places. For instance, when I ran into problems renewing my visa, an austere senior official at the immigration ministry offered to help.

“Because you’re American, I’ll do this for you,” he said. Generally friendly to foreigners, Iranians were especially friendly to me once they discovered I was American. It was as if they were trying to prove a point. “Go home and tell the Americans we like them,” the official continued. A soldier in the lobby was excited to see my passport. “How can I come study in America?” he wanted to know.

The tragic cost of American misjudgment regarding the Middle East was made painfully clear in Iraq, when United States soldiers were greeted with roadside bombs instead of flowers. Let’s not repeat that mistake. We should take Iranian nationalism seriously when even Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, vows, “We will defend our country to the last drop of our blood. We will not let an alien soldier set foot on the land of Iran.”

We cannot afford to squander the vast majority of Iranian hearts and minds that we have already won. We must instead convince the Iranian people — through displaying the courage to open dialogue with the ruling regime —that we are committed to furthering our shared ideals of universal life, liberty, and justice. — The Christian Science Monitor