AFTER much conflict, the United States has reconciled with Germany, Vietnam, Russia and, most recently, Cuba. Now Barak Hussein Obama is trying to burnish the legacy of his presidency by restoring relations with Iran through a nuclear deal.
If the Islamic State of Iran truly wants to bury the hatchet, and keep its nuclear power facilities intact, it will have to alter the urban landscape of its capital. It will have to stop preaching hatred of America.
When I visited Tehran in 2008, the city was festooned with benevolent images of ayatollahs and mullahs. They communicated their messages on giant banners fluttering from light poles on the streets, proclaiming “Death to America.” Hateful words, in Farsi and English, painted on buildings, condemned the Great Satan (U.S.) along with the Little Satan (Israel).
I strolled down the streets and gazed at the repugnant signs. It was a sorrowful sight—pure propaganda to incite an unwilling public to despise the world’s foremost social and scientific powerhouse, home of the free and envy of the world.
Iran’s state enmity with the United States has raged for more than three decades, ever since the 1979 revolution when militants overthrew the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, installed the fiercely un-American Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as ruler, and stormed the U.S. Embassy where they seized 52 hostages.
I asked my driver and guide, who have been extremely accommodating all week, to take me to the former U.S. Embassy, now a bastion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They parked a block away, while I walked toward the embassy compound which was surrounded by a thick wall. I thought it best to stand across the street while taking pictures. A guard, in civilian clothes, standing in the entrance, waved his hand in a negative fashion. I put my camera down, walked a few feet on the sidewalk, stopped, and took some more pictures.
The walls around the compound were emblazoned with hateful words bearing the ubiquitous tidings of “Death to America” and Israel.
Of course this was the official party line generated by the reigning mullahs, overseen by Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, 74, the Supreme Leader since 1989.
That state of mind, I discovered—much to my –pleasant surprise—did not necessarily reflect the temperament of the people. Iranians are experts at hospitality. Everywhere I went I was warmly received (except at the former American Embassy). Even under the ever-present slogan of “Death to America” on banners hanging from telephone poles, people greeted me with friendly smiles.
One day I was photographing in Hassan Abad Square. It was teeming with women shopping and men going about their business. A typical working day. I stopped at a yarn shop where black clad women were crowding in the open doorway. I aimed my camera. Suddenly two men appeared. I didn’t even see them coming. They looked domineering in their leather jackets. Did I run afoul of the law? I sheepishly put my camera down, ready to be interrogated.
“Are you Russian?” one asked. “We don’t like Russians.”
“Where are you from?”
Suddenly they became amiable. “You are American? We love Americans.”
I aimed my camera. They smiled as I snapped their pictures. We shook hands, and they went on their way.
I told my guide I was interested in photographing a synagogue in Tehran. I found an address on the Internet. The driver had difficulty locating the place. He stopped in the middle of the street to ask a traffic cop. The police officer, smart looking in his spiffy white uniform, gazed in the car. The driver identified me as a journalist from America. The cop’s stern inquisitive face melted. Again, that warmhearted Persian smile. I asked if I may take a picture. His smile broadened even more.
Everywhere I went I found my encounters with the people to be courteous and warm, especially when they heard New York. Unlike the clerics, ordinary people harbor a deep affection for Americans. They welcomed me everywhere with open arms. I was having a wonderful time.
Several people proudly told me about family members living in the United States, whom they visit on occasion.
In Isfahan, the country’s second largest city after Tehran, I was walking in the park at dusk. I must have looked like a tourist with money to burn because a young man, apparently on the prowl for customers, pleaded with me to come see some wonderful tablecloths at his store. I had no interest in tablecloths. He asked where I’m from.
“I haven’t seen an American in months,” he exclaimed. “We want more Americans to come.”