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In Iran, a kinder view of Uncle Sam

As the United States and Iran edge warily toward possible rapprochement, the Iranian public makes no secret of its appetite for restoring relations formally severed in 1980.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

On Revolution Day, the Iranian equivalent of the Fourth of July, Azadi Street was again transformed from east-west artery to carnival midway. Men lined up for free yogurt. Hawkers coaxed women to finger the material of baby clothes. Children clamored for a turn throwing darts at George W. Bush.

Hossein Asadi put three darts right between the eyes of the caricature, sketched on a pair of boards mounted in a sideshow tent. He walked away with a new yellow tennis ball but no change in his feelings, which were nothing if not admiring.

“They like me to hit George Bush, so I hit George Bush,” said Hossein, 15. “They say it’s the Great Satan, but I say it’s a great country.

“I’ve seen nothing bad from the Americans.”

Wednesday marked 25 years since an elderly Muslim cleric with eyes the color of coal declared Iran a theocracy. But while religious figures remain firmly in charge here, sweeping aside an entire reform movement last week with the stroke of a pen, another pillar of the revolution appears shakier.

Anti-Americanism is not what it used to be in Iran.

As the United States and Iran edge warily toward possible rapprochement, the Iranian public makes no secret of its appetite for restoring relations formally severed in 1980, after militant students took over the U.S. Embassy here. In recent months, Iranians say, the appetite has grown for an unexpected reason: Iranian pilgrims returning from Iraq are spreading admiring stories of their encounters with American troops.

Thousands of Iranians have visited the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala since the war ended. Many have expressed surprise at the respectful and helpful behavior of the U.S. soldiers they met along the way.

Leila Araki, waiting in the back of a Renault sedan as her husband peddled shoes, recalled that her mother-in-law somehow lost her money on the road to Karbala. She said a U.S. soldier reached into his pocket and handed her taxi fare back to Najaf.

'Quite contrary to what we have been told'
“This is something quite contrary to what we have been told about Americans,” said Araki, 31, who was told of Americans flashing thumbs-up and saying, “Good, Iranians.”

“They were really surprised. I would never be this respected and well-treated even in my country, by my countrymen.”

Esmaeil Omrani told of a relative with asthma struggling to breathe in the dust of Najaf. A young American in full battle dress advised him to switch inhalants, then gave the pilgrim his own, plus an extra for the road. “Everybody liked them,” Omrani said.

Hossein Amiri related a similar story from a thirsty relative given water by a U.S. soldier outside Najaf when the city was closed by a car bombing.

“Between our countries, there might be problems at the top,” said Amiri, 48, a civil servant. “There is no problem at the bottom.”

This unusual cultural exchange has emerged at a fortuitous time, according to analysts and ordinary Iranians. After a quarter century of mutual hostility, the U.S. and Iranian governments are working quietly to establish order both in Afghanistan and Iraq, neighboring countries that Iran considered hostile under the regimes that the United States and allied nations recently toppled.

The prospect of formal relations remains uncertain. Senior Iranian officials said they do not expect serious progress until after the U.S. presidential election and Iran’s own contest for a new president in 2005.

But the soft words rising from Azadi Street carry significance. The annual gathering on Revolution Day draws Iranians who remain most fiercely devoted to the hard-line government, loyalists who routinely chant “Death to America” at Friday prayers (a refrain not heard on Wednesday). Bussed to Azadi, their numbers include volunteers of the Basiji militia who have pledged fealty to the country’s supreme leader and veterans who defended the nascent Islamic republic in the 1980-88 war against Iraq.

'Good things could happen'
U.S. support for Iraq in that war has been an abiding complaint in Iran, along with the CIA role in a 1953 coup that replaced a nationalist government with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, widely seen as a U.S. puppet disrespectful of Islam.

“I was a volunteer during the war,” said Amir Hossein Yazdarian, 35, who has used a wheelchair since an Iraqi grenade pierced his spine. “I was injured by the weapons of Saddam Hussein, who was supported by the Americans. So I have suffered from the Americans. But I don’t see any reason why we should not have relations.

“We are a nation with an ancient civilization. America is a nation with a modern civilization. If we cooperate, good things could happen.”

In the complex geometry of Iranian politics, prospects for U.S. ties may actually be enhanced by the electoral crisis still unfolding here. Since 2000, the government has been stalemated between elected reformers and conservatives who occupy the appointed positions that carry real authority here.

Last month, conservatives summarily disqualified most of the most prominent reform candidates for parliament. The move prompted a mass resignation among lawmakers, calls to boycott the Feb. 20 election and a stern warning from the reformist president to the several hundred thousand assembled on Wednesday.

“Elections are a symbol of democracy if they are performed correctly,” said President Mohammad Khatami, who has reluctantly vowed to go ahead with the election. “If this is restricted, it’s a threat to the nation and the system. This threat is difficult to reverse.”

But analysts said a government dominated by conservatives may accelerate the move toward negotiations with Washington. Renewed U.S. relations long have been quietly regarded as the ultimate prize in domestic politics here, one that reformers and conservatives have been loathe to see the other side win credit for delivering.

As for anti-American rhetoric enshrined by the 1979 revolution, a foreign diplomat in Tehran said, “I think ultimately Iranians feel they’ve been fed a line.”

“Whatever the cost of living there, please take me to America,” said Mohammad Tehrani, a bus driver waiting to carry the faithful home. He stood beside a kiosk bearing the slogan, stenciled in English, “Down with USA.”

“We have no problems with America really,” insisted Hassan Diyanat, a fellow driver. “Why should we have problems?”