TAKE THIS QUICK QUIZ: In which Islamic theocracy were there immediate and repeated public outpourings of sympathy for Americans following the 9/11 attacks in 2001? If you did not know about the several candlelight vigils in Iran, you are not alone. In fact, few Americans know that hundreds of Iranians gathered publicly to pay their respects and to show their solidarity with the American people, first on 13 September, then in two other vigils. The crowds chanted "Death to terrorism!" "Death to Bin Laden!" and, "America: condolences, condolences!" Three days after the attacks, a moment of silence for the American tragedy was held before the start of the World Cup-qualifying soccer game, the same day the Tehran Friday prayer leader said the terrorist attacks against America were "heart-rending. . . . Everyone condemns, denounces, and is saddened . . . by it."1 While note of the candlelight vigils appeared in some Western papers, The Wall Street Journal, for example, Iranian sympathy for the U.S. terrorist tragedy is largely unknown here.2
Because of widespread predetermined and unchallenged assumptions about Iran, these sorts of positive public attitudes are not just unfamiliar but are also nearly inconceivable to many Americans. American misperception and a lack of clear thinking about Iran significantly affect policymaking and unnecessarily close off policy options.
Currently, the United States is grappling with how to respond to suspected Iranian development of a nuclear weapons capability while Iran's 2005 presidential elections just constituted a conservative monopoly over domestic political institutions. Significant features of Iranian demographics present both an opportunity for a major political breakthrough as well as the conditions for potential serious long-term hostilities with the United States.
Capabilities, Intentions, and Perceptions
"The paradox of Iran is that it just might be the most pro-American or, perhaps, least anti-American, populace in the Muslim world," says Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst in Tehran for the International Crisis Group.3 That is quite a challenging idea for most Americans, who continue to imagine Iranians chanting "Death to America" and calling us the "Great Satan"-rhetoric that dates from 1979 but is little in play in Iran today. However, conceptions from the hostage-crisis period of that year appear to still dominate American interpretation of current events. That signal event of America held hostage is a collective wound that helps perpetuate certain conceptions about Iranian intentions.
That the hostage-crisis period remains manifest in the American emotional perception of Iran after a quarter century was quickly revealed recently when some of the former hostages mistakenly identified the newly elected Iranian president as one of their captors. Major news sources featured accusatory photos purporting to show Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with blindfolded American hostages. And, although a month later the stories were finally reported as false, the public rehashing of Iran's flagrant disregard for international law and the reinscribing of the enemy for the American public was easily given major attention using the hostagecrisis fulcrum, which seemed to be a well-timed, politically motivated reaction to the election of a conservative Iranian president.
In 2002, being included in U.S. President George W. Bush's speech defining the Axis of Evil was an offensive surprise to Iranians who felt their sustained cooperation with U.S. policy in Afghanistan made that designation particularly unjust. Both publicly and privately Iran cooperated with the United States in supporting the Northern Alliance and in establishing the Karzai Government.4 Iran was a longstanding opponent of the Taliban, and throughout U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, Iran has assisted on a range of issues. Linking Iran to Iraq and North Korea, Bush declared that "states like these, …