Iran: Complicated Relations

My time in Iran happened to include the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy — the event that started the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979.  There were anti-American signs all over Tehran.  My new Iranian-American friend mentioned that there’d be a government-organized event commemorating the anniversary.  Always willing to get my camera into the middle of unusual spectacles, I said: “Can I go see it?” “Sure, we can go,” he said.   I asked what it would look like. “Just a bunch of signs and chanting.” “Oh. What will they be chanting?,” I said.  His response: “Uh… like ‘Death to America’ and stuff like that.  But they don’t mean it! They’ll be very nice to you!”  Having spent the previous two weeks in Iran, this actually made perfect sense to me.  I tried to go, but by the time we got over to Taleqani Street there was barely a trace of it.  Instead, I got a very weird tour of the former U.S. Embassy.


A sign at the exit of the Taleqani subway station, on the walls of the former U.S. Embassy. The facility is still controlled by the same group that took it over in 1979.


The site of the rally. This was all that was left when we arrived. Notice the U.S. flag painted on the street and labeled “Down With The USA.” (I think that may be a permanent fixture.) The middle banner says “We will Crush American Hegemony”, with a picture of the US sailors they held captive briefly in 2016.


The next day’s newspaper, showing Taleqani street an hour or so before I’d arrived.


You’ll see plenty of friendly faces in the pictures I took in Iran. The hundreds of people I met were almost all enthusiastically welcoming. When they asked where I was from (“What country?” they’d say) and heard “America” I could see their eyes widen a little in surprise. Then they smiled — excited to see an American visiting their country.  As often as not, the older ones would offer tea; the younger ones would ask me to join them in a “selfy” (photo).   Even from those who knew very little English, I’d almost always hear “Welcome” and “Thank you.” The Iranians I met were warm, kind and friendly people who were especially welcoming of American visitors.


Meanwhile, the government of the “Islamic Republic of Iran” is led by a powerful Supreme Leader (successor to the Ayatollah Khomeini) who repeatedly announces that America is Iran’s biggest enemy. While I was in Tehran, there were billboards up all around town (erected by the government) denouncing America, and the government staged its annual “Death to America” rally on the anniversary of the 1979 embassy takeover. The headline of the next day’s paper read, “Outburst of Hatred Toward U.S.” 


Their government often defines its very identity in anti-American terms. The Republic was born of a 1979 revolution against a controversial Shah ( king) whom they viewed as a U.S. puppet. The biggest event in its subsequent history is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and they blame the U.S. for that, too.  This was on page one of the state-run Tehran Times while I was there:   “’Death to America’ is the spirit of the Islamic Republic [of Iran] and its body can go no far [sic] without this slogan. Of course, America is the symbol of all satanic deeds, not letting the inhabitants of the planet earth progress and experience a free life.”  

It’s worth noting that in all the anti-American propaganda put up by the Iranian government, I don’t recall any of it being about religion (except for metaphorical references to the U.S. as the devil).  Their complaint is not that they think we’re infidels — it’s that they think we’re imperialists.  (Never mind that since the 6th Century B.C., the Persians have been some of the planet’s most prolific Empire-builders whenever they were able).  Without delving too deeply in the connection between religion and terrorism, I should also point out that Iranians are almost all Shi’a Muslims.  On the other hand, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin-Laden and Saddam Hussein are (were) all Sunnis, who often don’t get along with Shias much better than they do with other religions (or infidels).  Americans’ concerns about Islamic terrorism often fail to separate these groups.

America isn’t nearly as obsessed with Iran as the Iranian government is with America, but we do list it – along with just Sudan and Syria – on our formal short-list of nations who consistently sponsor terrorism.   The same month I was in Iran, President Trump declined to make a major certification in the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, and the U.S. Congress had a near-unanimous bipartisan vote to impose additional sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program.  Iranian people believe that most Americans think they are all terrorists. It’s an obvious exaggeration, but of course the Iranians are partly right about Americans’ perceptions. The worried reactions I’d heard from American friends about my Iranian trip bear this out. 


Iranians make a clear distinction between governments and people. They consistently volunteered that they “love” American people but they don’t like American government. (The latter is not a new “Trump” thing: the same sentiment has prevailed since the revolution.) And they seem to assume that we can or should love Iranian people, even as we might sensibly be wary of their antagonistic government. If it seems tough to reconcile, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Most adult Iranians have lived through the transition from an unpopular monarch (the last Shah) to a revolutionary government in which an unelected Supreme Leader is the ultimate authority. There’s never been much reason or expectation that the sentiments of the Iranian people are well-represented by their government, so the mental separation of a country’s people from that country’s government’s acts and policies probably comes rather easily to Iranians.


We could probably learn a lesson or two from the Iranian people on this front, though it might also be easy to learn the wrong ones.  It would be an obvious mistake to confuse the Iranian government’s belligerence with the mindset of Iranian people, or to presume that the Iranian people are a bunch of terrorists who would attack or abduct Americans given half a chance. They’re not. They’re mostly nice and decent people, just like most Americans are. It’s natural to want to demonize the citizens of your country’s political foes.  (In time of real war, it’s probably both necessary and inevitable.)  But of course it’s mostly a psychological fiction: most likely, they’re just ordinary, decent folks. In this vein, I can remember Sting singing to us in in the Cold War 1980s about his hope that “the Russians love their children, too.”


At the same time, though, governments necessarily do what governments have to do — whether the citizens of their political adversaries are generally nice people or not. This may include saber-rattling, sanctioning, or worse. For example, our appropriate responses to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un can’t be much affected by whether the typical North Korean citizen is a nice guy or not. Similarly, the sincere warmth of Iranian people is probably of little relevance to our government policies toward Iran.


Iranians may be unrealistic in their desire to wholly separate friendliness for benevolent individuals from wariness of belligerent governments.  Who can blame America for being wary of the acts of a country that stages “Death to America” rallies? Given that Iran’s leaders openly call for bringing about America’s demise, it’s little wonder that we’d impose sanctions or immigration restrictions aimed at reducing Iran’s ability to do so — even though our policies will surely affect lots of friendly and blameless individuals. Given the billboards and the state-run newspaper propaganda and the rallies, there’s little reason to believe that the Iranian government has any desire to improve its relations with the United States.  That’s too bad, because I suspect our government would be as pleased as I am to have friends in the region.  

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Signs mocking President Obama have recently been replaced by signs mocking President Trump.

Several of the signs repeated the mantra that the US Embassy was a “Den of Espionage”

There was a famous quote from the late Ayatollah Khomeini that said something like “The US can’t do shit” or “The US can’t do a damn thing” against Iran.  On this series of billboards, that line is applied to the modern U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf.

This sign is about the U.S.’s accidental downing of an Iranian commercial airliner in 1988 in the midst of military clashes in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians insist that it was intentional. This is a 2017 sign complaining and propagandizing about a 1988 event.  Note that the plane is Iran Air Flight #655, while the U.S. missile is labeled 666.  


The defaced Seal of the United States of America. This was the main entrance of the U.S. Embassy, which is still controlled by the group that took it over in 1979. It now includes a very odd “museum.”

This guy showed us around the former Embassy. His entire pitch was to justify the 1979 hostage-taking by convincing visitors that the place was a CIA spy headquarters rather than a proper embassy.  Most of what they showed were the embassy’s efforts to prevent being spied UPON, like encryption technology, paper-shredders, and an electronic-surveilance-proof room.

Part of their argument that the Embassy was a “Den of Spies” was this area, labeled the “Forgery Room.” It’s the part of the Embassy where they routinely made and issued U.S. passports (as all our embassies do). The Iranians insist that the Americans were making fraudulent, forged passports for spies to use. Besides those manual typewriters, their key evidence included a shelf full of “chemicals” they’d found on the premises, which they insisted were the kinds of potions you’d use to manufacture those fake foreign passports.  Look closely: 2 gallons of automotive anti-freeze, some floor wax, 3 bottles of carpet shampoo, lighter fluid (it was the 1970s!), Krylon cleaner and lube, and a couple of cans of Glade air freshener.