15 February 2008

Iran from the Street

Iranians tell Americans what they think of them:
“Yes, we sell a lot of these,” said Amin Gorbani, a young bearded clerk at the cash register [speaking of "Rugrats Go Wild,” “Meet the Robinsons” and “The Incredibles" DVDs]. Then he stood up, extended his hand and said, “When it comes to disputes between Iran and America, that is between governments. But when it comes to people, I don’t see any problem between the people.”
Generally speaking, Iranians like Americans — not just American products, which remain very popular, but Americans. That is not entirely new: Iranians on an individual level have long expressed a desire to restore relations between the countries. But the sentiment seems much more out in the open now.

“I think the problem we have with the Americans is the way Americans perceive Iran as a threat, as a rogue state,” said Masoumeh Ebtekar, a Tehran city council member who served as spokeswoman for the students who seized the United States Embassy and 66 hostages in 1979. “This perception has to change. I believe if they understand who we really are, the basis for reconciliation will be based on respect and equality.”

She framed the conflict as a matter of perception, of misunderstanding. Yet, there was a time when that kind of talk was seen as subversive. Now, there is Baskin-Robbins.

Not the real Baskin-Robbins, apparently, but an Iranian bootleg version with its own display of 31 flavors. “I used to be the one who chanted ‘Death to America,’ ” said Abolfazl Emami, owner of the ice cream shop in Mohseni Square. “It was a slogan that came up during the revolution. People don’t mean it now.”

With a smile and his hand raised, he said: “I like American goods, and I prefer American people. It’s just the government I don’t like.”

It may be hard to reconcile the images of men punching their fists into the air and chanting “Death to America” with a man serving scoops of peanut-butter chocolate ice cream in pink paper cups and sugar cones. But it is in some ways a measure of how distant many Iranians feel from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s administration.

“We never like our own government, never, ever,” said Morad Saghafi, a writer and philosopher in Tehran. “So it is a big concern for our government that it is not loved.”

“They come in and shut us down periodically because they think we are too American,” said Mr. Emami, owner of the ice cream shop. That is why, Western diplomats in Iran said, the best thing Washington could do to encourage more moderate behavior in Tehran would be to ease off. Less pressure would make it harder for Iran’s leaders to keep out Western influences.

“Take the foot off the gas,” said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize the Iranians.
“Even the ruling elite recognize that there are good things we can get from opening to America,” said a political analyst in Tehran who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. But, the analyst said, “We know we have to reconcile internally first.”
“Everyone here is thirsting for American brands, it’s that simple,” said Mehdi Mortazavi, who is helping create Friday’s, a restaurant in Tehran. The sign out front looks just like a T.G.I. Friday’s in the States, with red and white stripes. But the “T.G.I.F.” was dropped because Thursday is the last day of the work week here, and the reference to “God” might not have gone over well. But there will be waiters with suspenders decorated with buttons, Cobb Salad and hamburgers on the menu.

“Iranian people respect American business, American mentality, Americans’ demand to always have the best,” Mr. Mortazavi said.
One day in late January, Zahra Ahgangram pulled her black chador around herself as she visited the grave of a nephew, Mohsen Yazdani, 20, who died so many years ago. Her son, Amir Ali Muhamadalipour, stood by her side, and when he realized she was speaking to an American, asked that his message be delivered: “Iranian people like American people. We don’t get fooled by governments on both sides.”

Asked to elaborate, he looked down at his shoes and said, “We must self-censor.” And he and his mother walked away.

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