We walked into our Tehran hotel last week and the pianist in the lobby startled us by playing The Star Spangled Banner. He did it again every time we returned from our outings in the city.
This was only the first of many surprises for our group of American visitors to Iran this May (2016). As a long-time Iran specialist and cultural consultant on this journey, I could see better than many first-time visitors evidence everywhere of the Iranian establishment advertising a stark public message of increased friendship toward the United States.
The terrible anti-American murals on the walls of Tehran have all been painted over with decorative motifs and positive images. One even features a full-length portrait of President Obama juxtaposed with a revered mythic Iranian hero. Here and there displays of international flags are starting to sprout American flags in their midst.
As has long been the case, Iranians come up to Americans and tell them spontaneously: "We love the United States; we love Americans." This is disarming for many U.S. visitors not used to such overt expressions of friendship. If anything, however, the number of such incidents was more intense now, after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA--the "Iran Deal"). One of our group exclaimed: "I feel like a movie star" as normal Iranian citizens asked to be photographed with her, asked for her autograph and invited her to their homes for tea or a meal. The invitations may be perfunctory, but the sentiment was both real and ubiquitous.
Iranians today have relatives all over the world, and many of them live in the United States. Sisters, brothers and cousins are studying in the United States or live there now. Their Iranian relatives visit often and return to Iran with wonderful memories. There is hardly an Iranian family today that does not have some strong personal tie to the United States, thus further cementing the bonds between our two nations.
It is not necessary for Iranians to travel to the United States any longer to be in touch with American culture. Iranians receive American television over satellite dishes in their homes. These dishes were once confiscated by conservative authorities, but it became clear that this exercise was useless. As soon as one dish was removed, a quick phone call brought another in its place. Some of the television programs our group saw in Iranian homes were shocking by American standards, and even more shocking against the stereotype of Iranian conservative values. Expletive-riddled American action films, swimsuit and sex scenes were all to be seen with no censorship. Our hotels didn't feature these sensationalistic films on their satellite-linked televisions, but the American channel CNN (as well as the BBC, and most European news channels) was available for the first time in many years.
What one doesn't find on the satellite dish can be seen on the computer. Although the government has long tried to censor unapproved internet sites, these sites too are easily viewed. Any six year old knows how to bypass the censors with a few taps of the keyboard, sending connections into an anonymous cloud. Facebook, long censored by Iranian authorities, is one of the most popular sites.
Of course there are still a few dead-end detractors trying to sabotage improved U.S. Iranian relations. Although "Death to America" chants have ceased in public gatherings, there are still a few mosques where one can hear these old slogans being promulgated to inspire revolutionary fervor. In particular the officers of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are anxious to see that free trade between the United States and Iran does not occur. They have a vested interest in sabotaging this trade, since they control virtually all imports and exports at present.
At one point on our group's trip to a major archaeological site we encountered a billboard with a long quote from Ayatollah Khomeini from the time of the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution that proclaimed that "The whole world should know that all of the problems of the Iranian nation and other nations are caused by the foreigners: by American. The Muslim nations hate the foreigners in general and America in particular."
Our group was so intrigued by this old sign, they wanted to photograph it. Immediately a military guard rushed over and said again and again: "This is not what we think! We tried to take this sign down, but our Revolutionary Guard commander wouldn't let us. We love Americans!"
The most common sentiment we encountered from our new Iranian friends was the wish that the United States and Iran would be friends again. As one elderly woman told us: "America and Iran belong together again. We have been qahr (estranged) too long. It is time for us to kiss and make up." Our American group was in profound agreement.