June 11, 2005


In Iran, presidential hopefuls talk of restoring relations with U.S. (EVAN OSNOS, 6/11/05, Chicago Tribune)

A generation after Iran's Islamic Revolution enshrined the United States as the "Great Satan," some top Iranian politicians have concluded that their best strategy for Friday's presidential election is not vilifying the West but embracing it. In speeches, posters and even Web logs, would-be presidents of Iran are jockeying not over who can speed up development of nuclear technology but who might restore relations with the United States.

"They know the will and the wishes of the people and they want to make a breakthrough with the United States," said former diplomat Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Tehran University.

The prospect of restoring a quarter-century of broken ties contrasts sharply with the mounting tension between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear efforts, which the U.S. suspects could be for military use. But the issue of normalizing relations with the United States highlights the widening gap between a young, reform-hungry population and Iran's regime.

Beyond the diplomatic wrangling, a large if uncertain number of Iranians say they would rather live with the United States than struggle against it.

Iranians routinely say they have a national right to develop nuclear technology. But when asked in interviews to make a choice between nuclear power and an economic and political relationship with the United States, many pick the latter.

"In the history of U.S. and Iranian relations, we once had a strong relationship. Iranian businessmen have done very well there," said Hussein Mohammadi, 44, a telecom worker. "The biggest mistake was saying, `Down with America, Down with America.'"

The Islamic Republic has sought quietly for several years to soften its image, buffing away the impression left by episodes such as the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Ordinary Iranians have long had a softer stance toward the West than their leaders; after the Sept. 11 attacks, Iranians held a spontaneous candlelight vigil in Tehran.

The difference today is that some aspiring leaders are changing their rhetoric as well.

With nearly two-thirds of the country's population born after the 1979 revolution, there is growing pressure for change. For many young Iranians, their financial and practical longing to join the world trumps their ideological conviction to stay isolated from it.

The old murals across Tehran denouncing the United States - renderings of the U.S. flag with skulls where stars should be - have all but disappeared, replaced with Calvin Klein ads and salutes to Shiite Muslim icons or Palestinian suicide bombers. Preachers still condemn America during their Friday sermons. But step away from the mosques and it's harder to find that sentiment. It is easier to dig up pirated DVDs of the last season of "Friends."

"The United States has interfered in some of Iran's internal affairs, but the hostility toward the U.S. government and people is not very deep and it could improve," said teacher Hassan Rajab, 39, who drove overnight from the western city of Hamadan to visit the sprawling shrine to the late revolutionary icon Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

We both have enough to be sorry about. Time to move on.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2005 7:06 PM
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