Being American in Iran

“Down with Israel / Down with USA”

Wearing the Stars and Stripes

When we told other tourists in Iran that we were American, they, after expressing surprise that we could get an Iranian visa at all, were intensely curious at how our experience was, usually assuming the worst. We imagine you’re curious as well. So, what’s it like being American in Iran?

First and overwhelmingly, any impression that you may have of Iranians hating America or believing America to be the “Great Satan” is 99.9% wrong. To the contrary, almost all Iranians have an almost irrational love of America and Americans. My Iranian-American friend had told me this many times, but even then I did not realize the extent to which merely being American would make us recipients of so warm a welcome, indeed make us so popular in Iran. Almost everyone reacts favorably to our being American–more so than in any other country we have visited. When we told one older lady that we were American, she cooed, “Ooh–great! We love Americans!” One Swiss tourist that we spoke to told us that before she arrived in Iran she was afraid that people would think that she was American, and react badly to her. “I was so wrong,” she told us, “Iranians love Americans. They want to go to America!” We saw one man wearing second-hand U.S. military clothing and many others wearing New York Yankees baseball caps. One young man insisted on writing in my notebook, in English, “The people of Iran love the people of the U.S.A.,” and wanted me to distribute his message in the U.S. [done] We were even told that many young Iranians, despising their own government, like George W. Bush!

Why do Iranians love America so much? I think there are three factors: political, economic and cultural.

A primary reason that many Iranians like America is that they find their own government backward and oppressive, and think of America as the epitome of progress and personal and political freedom–to put it tritely, a beacon of hope. I am cautious of believing that this is the dominant reason why Iranians like America, but I do believe that it is at least as important as the economic and cultural ones, especially with younger Iranians. We even heard it said that if America invades Iran (yes, the thought is on their mind, although most Iranians seem to recognize that the U.S. currently has enough on its plate), there will indeed be some Iranians lining up to welcome the U.S. troops (though I imagine that in the event of an actual invasion nationalism and self-defense would kick in, and the vast majority of people would oppose the alien invaders). All of the anti-American propaganda put forth by the Islamic regime and its press? It seems almost totally disregarded. (I even recall reading an article during the darkest days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq that Iranians believed that the invasion was probably actually going smoothly, and that the Iranian media was misrepresenting American progress.) Far from thinking America an enemy, I imagine that many educated Iranians’ worldview is far more similar to that of people in the U.S. and the West than that held by their government.

Probably close behind, America represents economic prosperity and opportunity. Iranians have a sense that their country has what it takes, including especially a talented and well-educated populace, to be far more successful than it is today (and from our time in Iran we believe that this sense is correct), and many Iranians believe that the main thing stopping Iran from such material progress is its government. One Iranian told us that the Islamic Revolution, with its accompanying brain drain, flight of foreign investment and know-how, disconnection from the global economy and medieval laws, set Iran back 200 years, not an uncommon belief. (Part of what depresses the Iranian economy are of course international sanctions. But interestingly, and perhaps changing my ideas on the efficacy of sanctions, some Iranians we met put the blame for sanctions on their own government for its unwillingness to improve relations with other countries, rather than other countries for imposing them.) With so many problems at home, not only political but economic, many young Iranians hope to emigrate, we ourselves having met in our brief stay not only people who will be leaving Iran in the next year for the likes of Canada and Australia but many more who wanted to and were making longer-term plans to emigrate. Almost all Iranians who were planning or hoping to emigrate told us that America would be their first choice, were it attainable, I imagine not only because America is uniquely a land of immigrants and has a large Iranian community but because Iranians are very familiar with America from American popular culture.

Which leads us to the final reason, which is that there may be certain cultural affinities between Iran and the U.S. Traveling in Iran has helped me recognize how Hollywood is perhaps America’s greatest asset. Many Iranians have satellite television, and multiple channels feature solidly American programming, from movies to reality shows (they even get NPR!). Iranians took quickly to addictive American popular culture (its brashness may be in tune with Iranian culture, one person hypothesized), and see through it a world not only different from their own but also more appealing. We were also repeatedly told that Iranians like Americans more than Brits or Europeans because they think that Americans are friendlier, while Europeans are relatively cold and impersonal. Are Americans actually friendlier? Maybe, but we also suspect that Americans in particular (along with perhaps people from other English-speaking countries) are quicker to engage Iranians at a personal level, including especially in political discussions, instead of staying somewhat more aloof or cautious about approaching certain subjects, and that this eagerness to converse frankly may lead to a feeling of intimacy or closeness. (A western woman who studies Iran told me that despite America’s somewhat troublesome history with Iran and the Pahlavis in the 20th century (see my post of 6.5), few Iranians held a grudge against the U.S., although many Iranians still hold strongly negative views against the U.K. for its historical negative involvement in Iran.) Finally, it doesn’t hurt that there are so many Iranian-Americans, and that the U.S. is home to a pre-revolutionary Iranian culture in exile. Often, we heard music playing that was identified to us as “L.A. Iranian music,” or music from Iranian artists (including women, who are legally prohibited from singing in Iran) who fled to “Tehrangeles” after the Islamic Revolution.

To be popular and liked is nice, of course, even if only because we come from a particularly country. But traveling in Iran has also made us aware of some things about ourselves and America.

We are reminded how core to our beliefs certain American ideals are. Even with what we think are our liberal, open minds, certain issues stand out as black and white for us, and being in Iran has made these issues seem more clear and important than ever, as the lack of certain basic freedoms in Iran is mentioned with despair by many Iranians that we speak to. We didn’t come here to be propangandists for our system, or to make any kind of political point–we came as tourists. But political discussions constantly arise in Iran because Iranians love talking about politics, and because the circumstances of their country bring so vividly to the fore many political issues. Sometimes, Iranians we speak to simply ask what we think about our government or theirs. Other times, we get questions about Western perceptions of Iran or what we think about the hejab, or Islamic dress code. Because we are not satisfied at feeling smugly relieved that we’re from the “land of the free,” because we feel genuinely distressed about the laws in Iran and because Iranians feel close to us, making us feel close to them, we have felt a moral obligation to give honest and complete answers, and not cursory or glib ones, so that people understand how we think and exactly what our objections are to certain aspects of the Iranian system. In almost every conversation we have with Iranians, they are disgruntled with their system, and we want to make clear to them that most of the world would agree that they should be disgrunted, and that they are right that things in Iran are askew. The Iranians’ friendliness, their mastery of English and their relative sophistication, all made us feel that they really should have what we have, in terms of civil liberties and a free society; everyone should, but almost especially them.

At the same time, I have come to recognize some arguably negative things about life in America and the West. When describing things in the U.S. and elsewhere, it is amazing how often sex, alcohol, gambling, etc., arise. We mentioned that we were in Bahrain immediately before Iran, and, when asked about Bahrain, had to explain how Saudis drive over the causeway for alcohol and prostitution, a very visible aspect of downtown Manama. We were talking about indigenous peoples, and ended up describing how U.S. Native American economies are now based largely on gambling. The same, of course, with Macau, pictures of which on our iPod we sometimes shared. (From the same set of pictures, we found ourselves explaining the redlight district near the former Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.) Unwittingly, I would use sexual double-entendres with our tour guide (so much of our humor relates back to sex). Western culture is often, as Iranian clerics may argue, permeated with vice. While the same vices may exist to some extent in Iran, forced underground they are not nearly as visible or pervasive.

Perhaps most chillingly, being in Iran made me wonder whether this is the sort of outcome that religious conservatives want for America. Iran has it all: laws dictated by religion, sectarianism (in its persecution of faiths such as the Bahai), harsh punishments for private beliefs and acts, deviation from accepted international standards. I am not saying that the U.S. is Iran; while there is a strain of puritanicalism and evangelicalism running through American history the culture is nowhere near as traditional, the population as a whole not as devout, and, perhaps as important, separation of church and state is a stronger American tradition than adherance to a particular faith (whereas past Iranian governments, from the Sassanids to the Safavids, have very much tried to combine church and state). But many Iranians, at the time of the 1979 revolution, likely didn’t think that the new government would be an Islamic one, and to a certain extent it must have snuck up on them. And so it makes me believe freedom-loving Americans must be vigilant in making sure that the ideals they hold most dear persist in America.

One small story, a bit more personal: We met one Iranian man in Tehran who said that he had lived in the U.S. for over thirty years, and finally decided to move back to Iran, bringing with him his two young, American-born children. He told us how happy he was with his decision, including by relating to us that, on the first day of school in Iran, his boys had come home so relieved, so comfortable to be among people like themselves and away from the racial tension of their California school. I was simply appalled. Given the lack of freedoms in Iran, given the lack of economic opportunity, given that almost every young Iranian wants to move abroad, I simply could not believe that this man had brought his American children to grow up in Iran. My adversity was irrational, to a certain extent, but as an immigrant and having many immigrant friends, I was forced to imagine how different (and likely more difficult) the children’s lives would be because of their parents’ decision. I thought of all of the sacrifices my parents made to give us the chance to grow up in the U.S., and thought the Iranian-American selfish. Hearing him speak of America in the third person, as if he was not effectively American himself from having spent all of his adult life in the U.S., I was deeply offended. Hearing him say strongly negative things about American culture, including what I felt were outright falsehoods on the immigrant experience and the veracity of the “melting pot,” as if modern Iranian culture was, in the balance, superior, I feared that Iranians would believe his slanders. I expressed my outrage, somewhat to my discredit, which the man handled well.

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