The Iran we don’t see: A tour of the country where people love Americans

Christopher Thornton writes: Except for one day each year — the November 4 anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy — the former American diplomatic compound on Taleqani Street is a lonely place. Now serving as offices of the Sepah militia, another branch of Iran’s security forces, the building is still surrounded by the same brick wall that irate students clambered over to seize the building and take its inhabitants hostage for what would become a 444-day standoff. Anti-American slogans and murals are painted on the brick — a Stars and Stripes silhouette of a handgun, the Statue of Liberty with its head replaced by a skull — and the freshness of the paint suggests that government tenders spruce them up from time to time, especially for the largely scripted, anti-American stage show held each year. But the pedestrians strolling by do not give them much notice, just as they dismiss the state-controlled media outlets. For most Iranians, the most reliable sources of information remain not Iranian but Western, and often American: Radio Farda, the Farsi-language service of Radio Liberty, funded by the U.S. congress and supervised by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors; the BBC, with its new Farsi service; the Voice of America; and CNN, whenever the transmission can pierce the government filtering technology.

Probably no country in the world is more mischaracterized in Western eyes than Iran. Most Americans’ perceptions of Iran are limited to images of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad delivering anti-American speeches and crowds chanting “Death to America!” with the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. Yet a 2009 World Public Opinion poll found that 51 percent of Iranians hold a favorable opinion of Americans, a number consistent with other polls, meaning that Americans are more widely liked in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle East. The U.S. favorability rating isn’t even that high in U.S. allies India or Turkey, and is two and half times as high as in Egypt. The same survey found that almost two-thirds of Iranians support restoring diplomatic ties with the U.S. (Iranians’ view of U.S. leadership is much worse, at 8 percent as of early this year.) But even these figures are likely on the low end of actual sentiment, as many Iranians might fear expressing such views to a strange pollster, out of fear of drawing the suspicion of the authorities, who sometimes monitor e-mails, phone conversations, and other forms of communication.

The appeal of the United States to ordinary Iranians goes almost entirely unnoticed, and therefore unexplained. Many Iranians regard the American ideal, at least as they perceive it, as a symbol of all they want their own society to be — free, prosperous, “great” — but isn’t. Iranians I’ve encountered from all strata of society express an eagerness to exalt the country they have been conditioned to view as the “Great Satan.” And yet, thousands of miles away, the vast majority of Americans are totally unaware of their Iranian admirers. [Continue reading…]

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