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For some in Iran, U.S. holds key to a better life

Published Sep. 4, 2005

Dipping bread into his steaming bowl of goat's head soup, Moshin Sinai dismisses the graffiti on the wall behind him _ it calls for the destruction of America _ as irrelevant.

"People are tired of their condition. But they cannot do anything. Now they are waiting to see what (President) Bush will do," says Sinai, a Tehran businessman.

As the promise of Iran's Islamic revolution wears thin, many people are beginning to see the United States, the Great Satan of yesterday, as the great hope of tomorrow.

Sinai was eager but fearful to talk about Iranian politics. Frustration and fear has been mounting since last month, when the government launched a crackdown on people making even minor criticisms of the regime.

The recent arrest and death sentence against scholar and war hero Hashem Aghajari, who said that Muslims need not follow mullahs blindly, has further shaken many Iranians. Aghajari was close to reformist President Mohammad Khatami, whose battle with religious authorities escalated last month when he introduced resolutions in Parliament aimed at reducing the clerics' power.

To many Iranians, the political and social reforms of Khatami had seemed the only answer to their swelling aspirations. With the new crackdown, they worry that their hopes for reform are being extinguished.

"For years, people have been telling us to be patient and that change will come," says Rakshan Panahi, a university student. "But I want the change now. I have only one youth and I want to live it now."

For some, the U.S. campaign against the regime in neighboring Iraq could be a catalyst for change. The equation is simple: America has been challenged; it must respond. The debates in Washington and in the U.N. Security Council about the wisdom of unilateral U.S. action are eerily absent here.

"Bush has to do it," says Mansoor Badian, who runs a barber shop where war with Iraq is the No. 1 subject of conversation. "If Bush gets weak now it will be all over for America."

One reason for shifting Iranian sentiments toward the United States is the Sept. 11 terror attacks. "People feel the attacks were inhuman and a provocation in the name of Islam," says Javad Ghatta, a professor at Esfahan University.

On campuses, where a visceral hatred of America once defined student culture and fueled the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy and the hostage crisis that followed, two decades of failed promises have also changed perceptions.

"Everyone knows America is the best and most powerful country in the world," says Panahi. "It is best because it is free and I want to be free too."

Earlier this month, the ritualistic demonstrations to celebrate the embassy storming were tired and faded remnants of earlier ones. In the southern city of Shiraz, where such demonstrations once caused hundreds of thousands of impassioned protesters to pour into the streets, a few thousand high school students were bused in by the government.

The Iranian government has reacted with a series of arrests. Among them is the arrest of Abbas Abdi, a journalist and prominent activist, who was jailed for trying to conduct a survey on how Iranians feel toward America.

"The government is objecting to the war (against Iraq) by talking of Islamic brotherhood and regional instability," says Sinai, the businessman. "Of course they will do this. They fear instability because (they) know that even a small shudder" could damage Iran's stability.

Beyond the political crackdown, ordinary Iranians are struggling against an unofficial unemployment rate of 50 percent, galloping inflation that is eroding their living standards and widespread corruption that is sapping public faith in government.

Iran may be a society on the edge of change, but it is also a society weary and afraid of conflict. Iranians say they do not want another war or revolution. What they want, says Sinai, is for the United States to accept and engage with Iran, using trade and the international system to pressure the government into change, something akin to U.S. policy toward China.

Instead, the Bush administration has increased its isolation of Iran by naming it part of an "axis of evil" and taking punitive actions against even nonpolitical Iranians, including filmmakers and students, by denying them visas.

Such actions could strengthen the hand of the still sizable and powerful minority that remains suspicious of, if not hostile toward, the United States.

"America always needs an enemy," says Hameed Motafarian, a mullah who grooms religious students in the holy city of Qom. "Iran is strong, proud and that is something America hates," he says as the turbaned students around him nod vehemently in agreement.

Others, like Ghatta, hope that the imperatives of mending relations with Iran are too important and obvious to be missed. If the United States does manage to invade and democratize Iraq, he says, establishing a working relationship with Iran will ensure that all of Central Asia _ from Pakistan in the east to Turkey in the west _ is stable.

"It's like a game of pool," says Ghatta. "While pocketing the Iraq ball Bush needs to make sure he is also positioning himself well with respect to the Iran ball."