Iran's paradoxical yearning for America
Iran's paradoxical yearning for America
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Iran's paradoxical yearning for America

During World War II, Allied soldiers occupied Iran, using the country as a way station to transport supplies from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Union. As opposed to Britain and Russia, who had a long history of meddling in Iranian affairs, it was Iran's first exposure to Americans. "They arrived in our country with a certain innocence," said the respected Iranian historian Kaveh Bayat, "and without any colonial pretenses."

The Americans' supply train would regularly pass through my father's ancestral village, Arak, then a scenic oasis of green gardens and fruit orchards. "Whenever we heard the train coming," my father once told me, "all the young boys in the village would run as fast as we could through the apple orchard to greet the passing Americans. They would smile and wave and throw us whatever gifts they happened to have - playing cards, chewing gum, Life Saver candies. For us they were like heroes from another world."

So much has changed since then. Iran's 1979 revolution did away with the pro-American, undemocratic regime of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, bringing in its place the anti-American, undemocratic regime of the clerics. Relations between the United States and Iran have been officially non-existent since a group of radical students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran 25 years ago last month, taking over 50 Americans hostage for 444 days. Sixty years ago, Arak was a humble village known to American troops for its grapes; today Pentagon officials are honing in on it as an industrial city that is integral to Iran's worrisome nuclear program.

And yet few countries have a more paradoxical relationship than the U.S. and Iran. While the Iranian regime continues to be belligerently anti-American, the Iranian people are overtly pro-American. While the governments in Tehran and Washington appear to be strategic archrivals, in the words of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: "[T]here are few nations in the world with which the United States has less reason to quarrel or more compatible interests than Iran."

Indeed, Iran has likely benefited more than any other country from U.S.-led regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq, as both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were the country's sworn enemies. But neither side seized the opportunity to build on this common ground, and today U.S.-Iran relations are as antagonistic as they have been in years.

For the U.S., Iran's nuclear ambitions, opposition to Israel, and support for extremist groups have become increasingly intolerable after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Iran's long-standing opposition to relations with the U.S. is a bit more complex. To be sure, many of Iran's ruling elites came of age politically during the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist agitations of the 1960's and 1970's, and still cling to that worldview. Although their revolutionary zeal may have waned over the years, they still tend to share the cynical outlook of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who likened the relationship between Iran and the U.S. to that "between a sheep and a wolf."

Ideological rigidity alone, however, does not explain Iran's often-gratuitous anti-Americanism. For others among Iran's political and military elite, the increased competition and liberalization that would likely result from an opening of ties with the U.S. represents a threat to their interests. From their perspective, Iran is now a closed party - their party - and the fewer who join in, the merrier. With America bogged down in Iraq and oil prices hitting record highs, regime hard-liners see little reason to compromise these days.

On the other hand, some influential Iranians - led by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - recognize that relations with the U.S. are inevitable, given Iran's need to re-integrate into the international community and face its economic deficiencies. Moreover, the Iranian people are overwhelmingly in favor of rapprochement.

As author Afshin Molavi wrote in his incisive travelogue "Persian Pilgrimages," today's Iranian youths are not revolutionary idealists, like those of three decades ago. Instead, they have concrete demands, like jobs and political and social freedom. They are desperate to enter the global community and rid themselves of a damaged international reputation.

Today's Iranian intellectuals have undergone a similar maturation process, dismissing the "utopianist" and "nativist" political ideals of their predecessors. Referring to Jalal Al-e Ahmad's 1962 book "Gharbzadegi" ("West-toxication"), which became one of the manifestos of the 1979 revolution, one secular intellectual in Tehran remarked to me: "Nobody reads Al-e Ahmad anymore. On the contrary, we long for interaction with the West. If it can bring us more economic opportunities, as well as social and political freedoms, let us be 'West-toxified.'"

Still, despite popular demand in Iran, and common strategic interests, it could be years before America and Iran sit down and make amends. After 25 years of living without each other, reconciliation will not come easy. When it does come, however, there is good reason to believe that Iranians will greet their long lost friends with the same warmth and exuberance that they did over 60 years ago in Arak.  

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