Ironic Aspersion: 'Marg bar Amrika!'
They still shout 'Death to America!' in Tehran, but they love Americans
Before this latest U.S.-Iran confrontation results in a nuclear war, mini-war, or accident involving nuclear weapons, mull over the Shiite mullahs by reading Nicholas Schmidle's "The Paradox of Anti-Americanism in Iran" in Beirut's Daily Star. Twenty-five years of chanting death slogans, he writes, hasn't changed the fact that "there is very little the government in Tehran can do to cool pro-Americanism on the streets." Weird, huh? Schmidle, a grad student at American University in D.C. who spent the summer in Tehran, explains:
In a country where chanting "Death to America" is a provision of political assembly, the thought of being treated like a celebrity because of an American passport is almost unthinkable. After recently spending two months in Iran, my experiences attest that Iranians do, in fact, love America. But I also discovered that their love is a complex and twisted one.
Iranians' fondness for America is nearer to that of a secret admirer than what exists between lifelong chums. By distancing itself from the United States, the Islamic regime has allowed many of its citizens to create "America" in their own minds. For the older generations, "America" recalls an era of economic affluence that the mullahs have been unable to reinstate since overthrowing the shah. For the younger ones, "America" evokes a fantasy of liberal social attitudes. Many young Iranians now openly defy the regime's prohibition of alcohol and coed activities.
The other way the regime has strengthened fondness for America is by, well, being itself. Because the regime portrays America as its No. 1 enemy, and the population sees the regime in the same way, Iranians have come to love America out of detestation for their own government as much as for any other reason. And while many Iranians are certainly enticed by Western-style democracy and social freedoms, being pro-American is largely an issue of domestic politics. Proclaiming a love for America offers Iranians the chance to shoot a quick jab in a domestic tiff with the uncompromising mullahs in Tehran.
This weirdness runs both ways. All the anti-Iran saber-rattling coming from Doug Feith and the other Pentagon neocons these days is obscuring the fact that our officials and bidnessmen deal with Iran regularly. "Axis of evil," my ass.
A year ago, for example, all kinds of Westerners—including people from America—gathered in Tehran for the 8th Annual Institute for International Energy Studies (IIES) conference, where they all calmly and greedily discussed worldwide oil prospects. By the way, those prospects are pretty friggin' bleak for Americans, because our demand continues to rise (excuse me for a sec while I drive to the gas station to fill up my SUV . . . OK, I'm back), while our production capacity drops. As this Zawya.com story on the Tehran big-cigar confab says:
Fereidun Fesharaki, President of FACTS Inc., Honolulu, told the conference that he expected worldwide oil demand growth to average 1 million barrels a day (b/d), with the U.S. and China the only countries with prospects for major demand growth. "Over the next 20 years," said Dr. Fesharaki, "the U.S. will lose 200,000-250,000 b/d of oil production capacity each year, while U.S. demand will increase by 200,000-250,000 b/d each year. So, 400,000-500,000 b/d of new imports will need to go to the U.S." He added, "In the Asia-Pacific region, the only real spark in demand growth is China, where demand will increase by 300,000-320,000 b/d this year. One quarter of future demand growth will be in China."
We already know that from our own Slick Cheney, whose Halliburton still makes money in Iran and who famously says about pumping oil in volatile spots: "You've got to go where the oil is. I don't worry about it a lot." (See this August 13 Bush Beat item.)
So when it comes to world politics, not a whole lot else matters to the big cigars. As the Zawya.com story, by David Knott, notes:
Mohammad Hossein Adeli, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (for economic affairs), said that the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq would affect many areas, but the impact on the energy sector would be the dominant concern in the international geopolitical debate.
Just remember that people elsewhere—not just in the U.S.—are twisted and manipulated by irresponsible leaders and by stooges like Ahmed Chalabi, who fled to Iran (hmmm . . .) when his fortunes turned sour in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Just as there is still murk surrounding the Iran-Contra affair, which involved Bush the Elder, there are plenty of questions about Chalabi and his connections with Iran during the current Bush Error. John Simpson of The Telegraph (U.K.) pondered this last spring while commenting on "Marg bar Englistan" (you guessed it: "Death to England"):
There is anger throughout Iranian society. Last week [May 2004], American soldiers in Iraq fought a battle in the world's largest Shiite cemetery, in Najaf, and damaged some of the city's holiest shrines; something which, a month ago, one American general said that no one would be stupid enough to risk doing. The maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners has caused resentment in Iran. But is the government in Teheran encouraging the anger? Some people associated with it, like Hassan Abbasi [head of Tehran's Strategic Research Center] do. But he isn't in a position of power; and those who are, are careful to do no such thing.
For all the abuses of rights and power there, Iran has a complex, sophisticated political culture. After all, it is possible, as CIA sources suggested [in May 2004], that Iranian intelligence planted the information which led the hawks in the American Department of Defense to push through the invasion of Saddam's Iraq. What cleverer way to get rid of your old enemy, and empower the silenced Shiite majority in Iraq? Could the Pentagon hawks have been so dopey? The answer can only be "perhaps".
But does this mean that most Iranians (like the great majority of Iraqis who, the Pentagon confidently expected, would welcome the Coalition troops as saviours) actually support what is being done by the Coalition in Iraq? Is it just the 20 per cent of Iranians, rock-bottom government supporters, who shout and throw stones outside the British embassy? Are the likes of Mr. Abbasi behind it all?
No. The anger against the British and Americans is widespread, and the Iranian government, though keen to use it as a political lever, is careful to stop it getting out of hand.
See, other peoples get manipulated by government and media, too. What would happen if we pawns around the world got together and discovered our common interests? In the meantime, an American in Iran like Nicholas Schmidle is liable to get a religious experience:
Even at most renowned bastion of anti-Americanism in Iran, the Friday sermon at Tehran University where thousands gather to hear the regime's weekly wrap-up of world events, some people are unconvinced by the government's rhetoric. I went there one morning eager to observe the "other half" of the Islamic Republic, the half that reveres the fundamentalism espoused by the hard-liners and the half that actually does despise "The Great Satan." After a couple of hours spiked with rousing stanzas of "Marg bar Amrika," it appeared that I discovered one of the revolution's enduring strongholds. But on the way out of the front gate, a security guard stopped me. "You are American? It is very good to meet you," he said. "I like America very much. I wish you a nice visit in Iran." As he said this, a stream of sermon-goers exited behind us, resuming chants of "Marg bar Amrika" and "Marg bar Bush."
Translated into international parlance, however, that does not mean "Death to American Cars."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.