After reading news coverage out of Tehran over the past weeks, one could be forgiven for assuming that Iranians can't wait to lash out at America. Pictures of the Stars and Stripes going up in flames were ubiquitous in newspapers, as were reported chants of "Death to America." It certainly appeared to be a hostile scene that most of us would want nothing to do with.
But was it?
Being invited to speak at a conference at the University of Tehran last week had become for me a welcome chance to peer behind a notorious curtain. I had expressed interest in visiting Iran before, but, alas, never with enough persuasiveness to garner a visa. Thankfully, my speaker's invitation, and the nascent thaw in relations, were enough to move things along.
Yet who knew what type of reception I would receive on the ground? I was apprehensive when I heard that the day of my arrival would coincide with the largest anti-American protest in years.
Predictably, my Iranian colleagues counseled me to simply steer clear of any politics. They assured me that the protest wasn't important enough to justify the trouble. There were only 50,000 demonstrators, after all, while 13 million others in greater Tehran chose instead to go about their daily lives. But then why the media focus, I wondered? Thankfully, my American curiosity ultimately got the best of me and I decided to walk across town and see this hatred for myself.
As I began to encounter the fringes of the protests, the first thing that struck me was how relaxed everyone appeared. Yes, there were Iranians in chadors and clerical robes, as well as many others in denim and more-liberal manteaus. But no matter the style, most people seemed — what's the word?
The farther I ventured into the heart of the demonstration, the more I encountered protesters very much at ease, almost as if their march with friends was exactly that: enjoying a beautiful fall day in Tehran. Sure, there were groups yelling, but this appeared to be largely for the benefit of the cameras.
Wading deeper into the masses, as one of the very few foreigners there, I was inevitably faced with how to respond to "Where are you from?" The first time I sheepishly replied "the U.S." But perhaps because I don't speak Farsi to frame such subtlety, this didn't really suffice. So for every subsequent query I'd just blurt out "America."
And time and time again, people in the crowd around me — the very same ones chanting the "Down with USA" mantra — failed to lynch me. Sure, there was initial surprise, and almost always a guilty grin, but never any hostility that I could sense. If anything, my new acquaintances seemed almost welcoming, appreciative that they could move even slightly beyond a routine that appeared to have become a little stale three decades after it began.
This doesn't mean everyone was happy I showed up. A large stage festooned with "Down with USA" bunting was erected in front of the long-surrendered U.S. Embassy compound for hard-liner Saeed Jalili to lash out against the United States and, more importantly, for his moderate political rival, President Hassan Rouhani. I for one didn't care much for Jalili's vitriol, and excused myself through an unlocked gate backstage, venturing into the U.S. Embassy compound for an exploratory stroll.
When I finally crossed paths with one of his security officers 10 minutes later, I casually introduced myself. Certain that I was supposed to be there — how could I not be — he calmly asked where I was from. When I shared the truth, his voice literally cracked as he coughed out "NooOOoo!!!" before throwing his hands in the air and pleading with me to shoo before he was held responsible for sullying the integrity of the "Down with the USA" rally.
But even that amusing encounter gave way to the larger hospitable truth. I was invited back the following day to spend more time at the U.S. Embassy — or "your place," as the Basiji militia guarding it later affectionately called it.
I spoke with several of the guards occupying the embassy, now for the 34th year. All were quite pleased to have a chat about America, laboring to stress that their political concerns were not driven by an inherent hatred of the United States, but instead by a specific contempt for our arguably hegemonic ways. And as if to highlight that point, I got the "Patrick, pass on our best to the American people" send-off as I finally tired of hanging out any longer at a relic stuck in the '70s. It was decidedly much less exciting than Ben Affleck implied.
My intent here is not to belittle the very real challenges that face American-Iranian relations. If anything, my time in Tehran has reinforced an understanding that there is much work to be done. Undoubtedly — and as more recent news reveals — the United States and others will take a hard line negotiating with the Iranians over the weeks and months ahead, and I am not necessarily opposed to that. There would already appear to be more nuclear weapons in both the Middle East and the Midwest than I would prefer.
But I question the belligerent discourse from the media and politicians alike that would seem to do little more than compromise the very moderates we are seeking to partner with and validate the hard-line skeptics of our historical efforts, which weren't without fault in Iran.
Could we perhaps consider that Iranian politics might be as dysfunctional as our own? That is, that just because politicians chant something doesn't necessarily make it representative, nor imminent? My largely positive welcome at the "Down with USA" rally, not to mention every other encounter I've had in Iran, impressed me with consistent respect and curiosity.
Perhaps it's time we give that a try.
Minneapolis native Patrick McGrann is researching youth in the Middle East at King's College, London.