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A New Day in Iran?

The regime may inflame Washington, but young Iranians say they admire, of all places, America

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It’s increasingly apparent that Iran’s young are tuning out a preachy government for an alternative world of personal Web logs (Persian is the third most commonly used language on the Internet, after English and Chinese), private parties, movies, study, and dreams of emigrating to the West. These disenchanted “children of the revolution” make up the bulk of Iran’s population, 70 percent of which is under 30. Too young to remember the anti-American sentiment of the ’70s, they share little of their parents’ ideology. While young Iranians of an earlier generation once revered Che Guevara and romanticized guerrilla movements, students on today’s college campuses tend to shun politics and embrace practical goals such as getting a job or admission into a foreign graduate school. Some 150,000 Iranian professionals leave the country each year—one of the highest rates of brain drain in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Iranian intellectuals are quietly rediscovering American authors and embracing values familiar to any American civics student—separation of church and state, an independent judiciary and a strong presidency.

But intellectuals are not running the show, and the government continues to clash with the United States. In a January interview, Vice President Dick Cheney said Iran was “right at the top of the list” of potential trouble spots. The most recent crisis is Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. At issue is whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium— important for a civilian nuclear energy program, but also crucial to creating an atomic bomb.

Recent news reports suggest the Bush administration has not ruled out military action, including an airstrike on the nuclear facility by Israeli or American forces. It wouldn’t be the first in the region—in 1981, Israeli jets bombed a nuclear reactor at Osirak in Iraq, prompting condemnation from the U.N. and the United States. Iranian president Mohammad Khatami described the idea of an American strike in Iran as “madness,” noting that Iran had “plans” to defend itself. A strike would likely provoke Iran’s government to retaliate, possibly against Americans in nearby Iraq or Afghanistan, setting off a cycle of violence with uncertain consequences. One thing’s for sure: Iran’s government would use an attack as an excuse to crack down once again, perhaps even declaring martial law.

After a few days in Tehran, I headed for Tabriz, known for its cool mountain air, succulent stews and reformist politics. It was a homecoming for me: I was born in Tabriz in 1970, when thousands of American businessmen, teachers, Peace Corps volunteers and military contractors called Iran home. I left with my parents for the United States when I was almost 2 years old. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I got to know the place again—first while reporting for Reuters and the Washington Post, then while researching a book on contemporary Iran. I was the only “American” that many Iranians had ever met. “Why do the Americans hate us?” they often asked me. After my book was published in 2002, I received dozens of letters from Americans who’d worked in Iran before the 1979 revolution and who remembered the country and its people with deep fondness. Clearly, there remained a lot of goodwill as well as misunderstanding between Iranians and Americans.

Situated on the northern route from Tehran to Europe, Tabriz has long been an incubator for new ideas. In the late 19th century, intellectuals, merchants and reformist clergy in both Tehran and Tabriz had begun openly criticizing Iran’s corrupt Qajar monarchs, who mismanaged the state’s resources and gave large concessions to foreign powers. Iran was a vital piece in the geopolitical struggle between Russia and Britain to gain influence in Asia, and the two powers carved the country into spheres of influence in a 1907 agreement. At the time, Iranian reformers, frustrated by royal privilege and foreign interference, advocated a written constitution and a representative Parliament, and they sparked Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11.

The affection that many liberal Iranians have for America has roots in Tabriz, where a Nebraskan missionary named Howard Baskerville was martyred. Baskerville was a teacher in the AmericanSchool, one of many such institutions created by the American missionaries who’d worked in the city since the mid-19th century. He arrived in 1908, fresh out of Princeton and, swept up in the revolutionary mood, fought a royalist blockade that was starving the city. On April 19, 1909, he led a contingent of 150 nationalist fighters into battle against the royalist forces. Asingle bullet tore through his heart, killing him instantly nine days after his 24th birthday.

Many Iranian nationalists still revere Baskerville as an exemplar of an America that they saw as a welcome ally and a useful “third force” that might break the power of London and Moscow in Tehran. Yet I found few signs of America’s historic presence in Tabriz. One day, I tried to pay a visit to Baskerville’s tomb, which is at a local church. Blocking my way was a beefy woman with blue eyes and a red head scarf. She told me I needed a permit. Why? “Don’t ask me, ask the government,” she said, and closed the door.

I went to Ahmad Abad, a farming town 60 miles west of Tehran, to meet the grandson of Mohammad Mossadegh, whose legacy still towers over U.S.-Iran relations nearly 40 years after his death.

Mossadegh, a Swiss-educated descendant of the Qajar dynasty, was elected prime minister in 1951 on a nationalist platform, and he soon became a hero for defying the British, whose influence in Iran had aroused resentment and anger for more than half a century. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which monopolized Iran’s oil production, treated Iranians with imperial disdain, regularly paying more in taxes to the British government than they did in royalties to Iran. Mossadegh, after fruitless attempts to renegotiate the terms of the oil concession, stood up in Parliament in 1951 and declared that he was nationalizing Iran’s oil industry. Overnight he emerged as a paragon of resistance to imperialism. Time magazine celebrated him as 1951’s “Man of the Year,” describing him as a “strange old wizard” who “gabbled a defiant challenge that sprang out of a hatred and envy almost incomprehensible to the west.”

Mossadegh’s move so frightened the United States and Britain that Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and FDR’s distant cousin, turned up in Tehran in 1953 on a secret CIA mission to overthrow the Mossadegh government. Together with royalist generals, Iranian merchants on London’s payroll and mobs for hire, Roosevelt organized a coup that managed to overwhelm Mossadegh’s supporters in the army and among the people in a street battle that ebbed and flowed for several days. Mohammad Reza Shah, only the second shah in the Pahlavi dynasty, had fled to Rome when the fighting began. When it stopped, he returned to Tehran and reclaimed his power from Parliament. The coup, which Iranians later learned had been engineered by the United States, turned many Iranians against America. It was no longer viewed as a bulwark against British and Russian encroachment but the newest foreign meddler. Mossadegh was tried for treason in a military court, and in 1953 was sentenced to three years in jail. He remained under house arrest in Ahmad Abad, quietly tending his garden, until his death in 1967.

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