Support for U.S. Ebbs Among Iranians

Messages from the United States are monitored closely in Iran, where the attitude toward America is at its chilliest in years. Recent talk about the possibility of using military force to stop Iran's nuclear program has hardened attitudes considerably.

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That message, and all the statements from the US, are studied very closely in Iran. Among them, President Bush's now-famous remark that he's committed to diplomacy, `but all options are on the table.' As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the attitude toward the United States in Iran is the chilliest it has been in years.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

It's almost as if the US and Iran have created a new cold war, in the view of Roosbeh Bolhari, a journalist in Tehran who specializes in international affairs.

Mr. ROOSBEH BOLHARI (Journalist): I can't call it the ice relationship, because there is no developed relationship. Some persons in the United States want to have a good relationship with Iran. In Iran, too, some people want to have good relationship with United States. But honestly, we haven't enough actions from the United States.

SHUSTER: It hasn't always been quite like this. Right after the September 11th attacks, thousands of Iranians spontaneously came out into the streets in a vigil of sympathy and support for the US. Even after President Bush included Iran in the axis of evil, there was still considerable support for the US in Iran, and it was not hard to find officials and analysts here who argued strongly for an opening to the US. No longer, says Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, editor in chief of the Hamshari newspaper, Iran's largest daily.

Mr. ALI REZA SHEIKH ATTAR (Editor in Chief, Hamshari): Like other Middle East countries, the sympathy of people towards United States--now it's minimal.

SHUSTER: The reasons are numerous. US troops are in Iraq on Iran's western border and in Afghanistan to Iran's east. The US has been hammering at Iran for years over its hidden nuclear program, support for terrorism and opposition to the Middle East peace process.

But the recent talk in the US, and in Israel as well, about the possibility of using military force to stop Iran's nuclear program has hardened attitudes considerably. Recent comments about the US from Iran's leaders have been especially harsh, including these from Iran's reformist President Mohammad Khatami during a visit to Venezuela.

President MOHAMMAD KHATAMI (Iran): (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: `We can now fully comprehend the roots of violence, terrorism and insecurity in the world,' Khatami said. `They stem from the belief held by those in power in America that in order to ensure their interests, they have the right to cause wars and overthrow governments.'

And these comments from Iran's intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, after Secretary Rice repeatedly used the `all options are on the president's desk' line during her recent trip to Europe.

Mr. ALI YUNESI (Intelligence Minister, Iran): (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: `Condoleezza Rice is the queen of violence and war,' Yunesi said, `and it is only natural that she would say such things. Since Ms. Rice began to appear on the international stage, she's been saying such things. She herself is a terrorist,' Yunesi added.

Still, there are some more moderate voices in Iran that would like to see some kind of diplomatic engagement between the two countries, but only on the basis of equal status, they always emphasize, suggesting that is a condition the US will never accept. Ali Salehi is a former diplomat who represented Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Now he works at Iran's equivalent of the National Science Foundation.

Mr. ALI SALEHI (Former Iranian Diplomat): When Americans talk about their national security, it is as if America is the only--the sole country in the international community that has a national security problem.

SHUSTER: This is a familiar refrain from even moderate Iranians. They argue the US has failed to understand the specific and very difficult security problems facing Iran, from the war with Iraq in the 1980s to chaos in Afghanistan, instability in Central Asia, uneasy relations with the Arab world and now thousands of US troops nearby. Iranian officials and analysts believe their government tried to cooperate with the United States in recent years to maintain stability in the region, but, says Ali Salehi, ultimately, the US wasn't listening.

Mr. SALEHI: No matter how much you help the Americans in Afghanistan, they say, `Well, Iran is interfering in Afghanistan.' No matter how much you help them in Iraq, still they keep on saying that we are interfering in Iraq.

SHUSTER: For many here, the logic of cooperation between the US and Iran is obvious. Iran is one of the most populous states in the region with enormous energy reserves, occupying a geographically strategic position. Ali Salehi says the United States simply cannot continue to overlook Iran.

Mr. SALEHI: Americans will have difficulties in the Middle East if they do not come into some sort of political detente with Iran. I mean, the puzzle of the Middle East will not be resolved and will not be completed without taking Iran into consideration.

SHUSTER: One other aspect of US policy toward Iran has presented a challenge to an altogether different sector of Iranian society: the reformers who want to change Iran, open it up and limit the power of the conservative clergy. President Bush has often appealed to the Iranian opposition to take matters into its own hands and change the government of Iran. But talk of a military option undermines their cause, says Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Mr. KARIM SADJADPOUR (International Crisis Group): It could be a while, but it is on its path towards democracy and is on a path toward progressive democracy. But dropping bombs on it, you could have the same thing you had happened in 1953, with the overthrow of Mossadegh, and it turned Iran in a different direction. That's a concern that people have here.

SHUSTER: In 1953, the CIA overthrew the popular nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh and reinstalled the shah. This has been a deeply emotive event for Iranians for the last half-century because of strong feelings of antipathy toward the US. So reformists like Ibrahim Yazdi often cringe each time President Bush has something to say to Iran's domestic opposition.

Mr. IBRAHIM YAZDI: Unfortunately, Mr. Bush, the statements always have been abused by the extreme rightists here in order to prevent the reformists (unintelligible) activities. Whenever he says something very nasty, here in Iran, they say, `Oh, these reformists are being the puppets of the Americans.' No, it doesn't help.

SHUSTER: Yazdi is one of many candidates in Iran's current presidential election, which is set for June 17th. It does not look like any of the reformists running has much of a chance to be elected, however. And from the talk in all political camps, it doesn't appear that a new president will make much difference in the current cold war between the United States and Iran. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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