The police officer stepped into the traffic, blocking our car. Tapping the hood twice, he waved us to the side of the road. My driver, Amir, who had been grinning broadly to the Persian pop his new speaker system thumped out, turned grim. “I don’t have a downtown permit,” he said, referring to the official sticker allowing cars in central Tehran at rush hour. “It could be a heavy fine.”
We stepped out of the car and approached the officer. He was young, not more than 25, with a peach fuzz mustache. “I’m a journalist from America,” I said in Persian. “Please write the ticket in my name. It’s my fault.”
“You have come from America?” the officer asked. “Do you know Car . . . uh . . . Carson City?”
Carson City? In Nevada?
He crinkled his eyebrows. The word “Nevada” seemed unfamiliar to him. “Near Los Angeles,” he said.
It’s a common reference point. The city hosts the largest Iranian diaspora in the world, and homes across Iran tune in to Persian-language broadcasts from “Tehrangeles” despite regular government efforts to jam the satellite signals. The policeman said his cousin lives in Carson City. Then, after inspecting my press pass, he handed it back to me and ripped up the traffic ticket. “Welcome to Iran,” he beamed. “We love America.”
Back in the car, Amir popped in a new tape, by the American rapper Eminem, and we continued on our way to the former U.S. Embassy. It was there, of course, 25 years ago last November, that radical Iranian students took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, sparking one of the gravest diplomatic crises in U.S. history. The former embassy compound— now a “university” for Iran’s most elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guards—was an important stop on my itinerary. I’d gone to Iran to peel back some of the layers of its shifting, sometimes contradictory relations with the United States. America has played an outsized role in Iran over the past century, and is locking horns with Tehran once again over the country’s nuclear program.
Perhaps the most striking thing about anti-Americanism in Iran today is how little of it actually exists. After the September 11 attacks, a large, spontaneous candlelight vigil took place in Tehran, where the thousands gathered shouted “Down with terrorists.” Nearly three-fourths of the Iranians polled in a 2002 survey said they would like their government to restore dialogue with the United States. (The pollsters— one a 1970s firebrand and participant in the hostage-taking who now advocates reform—were arrested and convicted in January 2003 of “making propaganda against the Islamic regime,” and they remain imprisoned.) Though hard-line officials urge “Death to America” during Friday prayers, most Iranians seem to ignore the propaganda. “The paradox of Iran is that it just might be the most pro-American—or, perhaps, least anti-American—populace in the Muslim world,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst in Tehran for the International Crisis Group, an advocacy organization for conflict resolution based in Brussels.
He is hardly alone. Traveling across Iran over the past five years, I’ve met many Iranians who said they welcomed the ouster of the American-backed Shah 26 years ago but who were now frustrated by the revolutionary regime’s failure to make good on promised political freedoms and economic prosperity. More recently, I’ve seen Iranians who supported a newer reform movement grow disillusioned after its defeat by hard-liners. Government mismanagement, chronic inflation and unemployment have also contributed to mistrust of the regime and, with it, its anti-Americanism. “I struggle to make a living,” a Tehran engineer told me. “The government stifles us, and they want us to believe it is America’s fault. I’m not a fool.”
Amir, who is 30, feels the same way. “In my school, the teachers gathered us in the playground and told us to chant ‘Death to America.’ It was a chore. Naturally, it became boring. Our government has failed to deliver what we want: a normal life, with good jobs and basic freedoms. So I stopped listening to them. America is not the problem. They are.”