TOPICS : Why Iranians like America again

On a recent afternoon, while riding a rickety bus down Tehran’s main thoroughfare, I overheard two women discussing the grim state of Iranian politics. One of them

had reached a rather desperate conclusion. “Let the Americans come,” she said loudly. “Let them sort things out for us.”

Although their leaders still call America the “Great Satan,” ordinary Iranians’ affection for the US seems to be thriving these days, at least in the bustling capital. This rekindled regard is evident in people’s conversations, their insatiable demand for US products and culture, and their fascination with the US presidential campaign.

One can’t do reliable polling about Iranians’ views under their theocratic government, of course, but these shifts were still striking to me as a longtime visitor — not least because liking the US is also a way for Iranians to register their frustration with their own firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It might startle some Americans to realise that Iran has one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East. Iranians have adored America for nearly three decades, a sentiment rooted in nostalgia for Iran’s golden days, before the worst of the shah’s repression and the 1979 Islamic revolution. But today’s affection is new, or at least different.

Starting in about 2005, Iranians’ historic esteem for the US gave way to a deep ambivalence that is only now ending. President Bush’s post-9/11 wars of liberation on both of Iran’s borders rattled ordinary Iranians, and Washington’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme added to their resentment. In early 2006, when I lived in Iran as a journalist, I had only to step outdoors to hear the complaints.

It was a time when Iranians of all ages and backgrounds united in their pique against the US, turning their backs on its traditions and culture. But on a recent trip to Iran, I found a shift in sentiment. The most interesting aspect of the revival of warm feelings today is that the US has done so little to earn them.

Of course, a minority of Iranians still hate the Great Satan. But the strain of anti-Americanism in Iran is more mellow than the rage found elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. The Palestinian cause is less deeply felt here, making it easier for even Washington’s critics to

view relations pragmatically. Most Iranians belong to generations with compelling reasons to admire the United States.

Those old enough to remember the shah’s era are nostalgic for the prosperity and international standing Iran once enjoyed; those born after the revolution see no future for themselves in today’s Iran and adopt their parents’ gilded memories as their own.

These longings have young and old Iranians alike following the US election. Most favour Sen. Barack Obama, who they believe will patch up relations with Iran. But the mullahs in power still can’t figure out how to stop being US-hating revolutionaries. Until they do, most people here will consider the “Great Satan” just great. — The Christian Science Monitor