No, Iranians Don't Hate You

In 2004, when I was Italy's ambassador to Iran, I had the occasion to tour the country together with a couple of American friends, at the beginning rather hesitant to come and visit, but then overwhelmed by the hospitality and politeness that are so typically Iranian and even more by the "extra" of both hospitality and politeness that came out when people realized that they were American.

One episode has remained marked in their memory (and in mine too): at the end of a visit to the tomb of the poet Saadi in Shiraz a mullah, who had been listening to the English translation of our guide, and had asked him where those tourists were from, went up to my friend, shook his hand, said (in English) "God bless you" and left.

What has always struck me is, however, the fact that if one was to ask the average American, the man-in-the street, to name a country that hates the U.S., it is a safe bet that Iran would come out on top, perhaps with the only possible competition of North Korea.

The occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the 1979 revolution, and the anti-American frenzy of the revolutionary crowds are projected without any significant change to the present time, so that most people who have seen the recent movie Argo (about the escape through the Canadian embassy of a group of American diplomats who were not in the U.S. embassy at the time of its seizure by the radical students) are convinced that what they see is contemporary Iran: still hostile, still radical, still violently and massively anti-American.

The truth is rather different. Certainly the regime finds in anti-Americanism (and "anti-Zionism') a sort of marker of identity, all the more important given the cooling of revolutionary fervor, the internal division within its ranks and the growth of political dissent. What is interesting, however, is that anti-American rhetoric is not focused on what America is, but on what America does. It is blatantly false that - to quote George W. Bush on Islamic radicalism - "they hate our freedom". The Iranian regime denounces and attacks America for its unconditional support for Israel, its sanctions against what they claim to be their right to an independent nuclear industry, its non-recognition of Iran's regional role. To this we must add that, just like the U.S. has not overcome the grievance of those 444 days of illegitimate captivity of its diplomats, the Iranian regime has not forgotten the 1953 Anglo-American coup against Mossadeq or the support given to Saddam in its 1980 aggression against Iran.

The fact is, however, that this regime narrative, and the hostility toward the U.S., is not really shared by the majority of Iranians. One important factor is the vast, and prosperous, Iranian diaspora in the U.S. -- a diaspora that has maintained strong ties to Iran, and whose members often travel back and forth between the two countries. When I was living in Iran I met a number of middle-class Iranians who had U.S. green cards when not U.S. citizenship, and who spent part of the year in the U.S. and part in Iran. Yes, because Iran -- and this will surprise the average American -- is not a closed country, and its citizens can travel abroad, if they get the necessary entry visas, of course. In the second place, educated Iranians (not a narrow minority, differently from other countries in the area) have access to reliable information about the world and also about the U.S., in spite of the attempts of the regime to filter "subversive" material in both TV programs and internet traffic. So it is very difficult to convince the Iranian public that America is a Great Satan. Actually, I found that in Iran there is a lot of admiration for America: not necessarily for its policy, but for its economy (Iranians are born businessmen, chafing under a corporatist system of state-controlled, crony capitalism without the free market) and for its culture, wildly popular especially among Iranian youth.

But what is more important is that Iranians, historically, have never been hostile to America. If one had to identify real antipathies and real prejudice, one should instead mention on one hand the British, accused by the average Iranian, often in such an absurd was as to be amusing, of being responsible for everything bad, almost all the way to earthquakes, and on the other the Arabs, toward whom Iranians are often guilty of a disdain bordering on racism.

On the contrary, Americans have often been, in Iranian history, the "good guys": from Howard Baskerville, a young American who died in Tabriz in 1909 fighting on the side of the constitutional revolution to Morgan Shuster, an American financial expert who worked between 1906 and 1911 to build a modern treasury for the country, being boycotted and eventually stopped by the joint action of the colonially-minded Russians and the British. Both Baskerville and Shuster are revered to this day as true friends of Iran.

A strong proof of the fact that America is not hated by Iranians came with September 11, when thousands of Iranians went spontaneously to the streets for a candlelight vigil in homage and solidarity to the victims of the attack on the Twin Towers.

The lack in Iran of the generalized and often virulent anti-Americanism that characterizes Middle Eastern populations is something that Americans traveling in Iran, even in the present tense political situation, can testify. Not only is there no hostility toward American citizens, but instead we see curiosity and friendship at the same time, though often combined with criticism for specific U.S. policies and behavior.

Definitely crowds chanting 'marg bar Amriki' (death to America) are today both very rare and not very much convinced: they tend to be formed by activists bused to the demonstrations.

It is to be strongly hoped that American policies will not put real content in today's regime rhetoric. Many, if not most Iranians, may be fed up with the regime, especially in its present incarnation in President Ahmadinejad, but they are a proud, patriotic people. They have problems with their leaders, but not with their country, especially in the event of an external attack.

Thus if you think that bombing Iran would accelerate the demise of the regime, please think again. In 1980 the regime was only one year old, very much divided, with still well-organized political parties that had operated clandestinely against the Shah. Saddam saved it by attacking it and prompting a heroic rallying-around-the-flag.

When Iranian-Americans (I am thinking in particular of those adhering to the National Iranian-American Council -NIAC) say "don't bomb Iran" they are not saying it because they are soft on the regime, but because they know that an attack (Israeli or American) would give the regime a new lease on life, and at the same time would turn anti-Americanism from regime lithurgy and rhetoric to an authentic and popular phenomenon. Allow me to express the hope that the mistaken picture of America-hating Iranians will not be turned, tragically, into a self-fulfilling prophecy.