"The regime feeds off American hostility," says Robert Tait, who spent nearly three years in Iran as a correspondent for the Guardian until he was forced to leave last December when the government refused to renew his visa. "Every time there's another threat from Washington, that gives them more oxygen. They won't be able to use this threat indefinitely. There's a widespread feeling in Iran that the way things are isn't the way they should be. People believe that too much isolation has not been good for them. But as long as there seems to be a clear and present danger, the government has what it sees as a justification to do whatever it wants."
This justification is especially convenient at a time when growing numbers of Iranians are expressing their unhappiness with the government. Low wages, spiraling inflation, high prices for gasoline, discrimination against women, suffocating social controls, religious-oriented university curricula and the spread of social ills like prostitution and drug abuse have angered much of the population. Some of this dissent hovers just beneath the surface of everyday life—as in Tehran, where a bus has been converted into a mobile discothèque to evade religious authorities. Other forms of dissent are more overt, and even go so far as to co-opt government idioms. Last fall, striking workers at a sugar factory chanted "Our salary is our absolute right!"—a play on the government slogan "Nuclear energy is our absolute right."
The rhetoric of nationalism no longer satisfies Iranians. Their country has finally achieved independence, but now most wish for more: freedom, prosperity and engagement with the outside world. Iran will not be truly stable until its leaders offer them those great prizes.
Former New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer wrote All the Shah's Men and, most recently, A Thousand Hills, which documents the rebuilding of Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.