US-Iran, through an Expat's Eyes ; after Nearly Five Decades in Iran, This Virginian Has Seen Everything from 'Death to America' Chants to Vigils for Sept. 11 Victims

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Hard-line clerics in Iran tried to prevent it. But on Sept. 11, 2001, as the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldered, sympathizers half a world away mourned the victims with spontaneous candlelight vigils in Iran - the only Islamic nation in the Middle East to witness such spontaneous solidarity with America.

This solidarity, in a region filled with intense anti- Americanism, is an irony that Louise Firouz has seen evolve in her 45 years as an American living in Iran.

Mrs. Firouz has lived through much of what has made the US-Iran relationship one of the most extreme and enigmatic in the Middle East. She was witness to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the US hostage crisis, and the birth of the chant, "death to America." In the past decade, she has watched students and democratic reformers butt heads with hard-line clerics in a battle that still rages daily. And now, she has seen President George W. Bush label Iran as part of an "axis of evil."

After spending more than half her life in Iran - one of very few Americans to have done so - this horse breeder from Great Falls, Va., embodies the seemingly contradictory feelings that many Iranians here share: admiration for the freedoms the US represents juxtaposed with disgust over hypocrisy and imperial attitudes emanating from its government.

"I'm still referred to as the American," Firouz says at her horse farm - a leafy green patch of paradise 25 miles west of Tehran, with a sign on the gate that reads: "Private Property: Entry by Invitation Only." She offers carrots and apples to a handful of Turkoman and Caspian horses, the latter an ancient breed she rediscovered here years ago.

"The official view now is very anti-American. We walk over American flags on the streets, but I have a feeling there may be a lot of negotiations going on behind the scenes," says Firouz. "It's two different worlds, what is in the newspapers and on TV, and what is really going on."

US values respected

While deep respect remains for the values that Iranians see in America, she says - freedom, justice, and equality, the values that were the focus of the Sept. 11 candlelight vigils in Iran - they are under strain as never before.

"There was an enormous sympathy for the US" as the Twin Towers fell, Firouz says. But the reasons why that goodwill is eroding is simple, she says, listing grievances commonly cited in Iran: the US conduct of the war on terror, the virtual lack of American involvement in Middle East peace efforts - bar giving Israel an apparent blank check in dealing with Palestinians, and concerns over the looming war with Iraq.

This is on top of widespread incomprehension here over why Iran, which helped the US military with critical intelligence during the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, rated membership in Mr. Bush's "axis of evil." Election results last November that gave Bush and the Republicans a resounding vote of confidence confused Iranians even more.

"People tell me: 'If this large portion of the American people are going to vote for Bush, they deserve the next Sept. 11,'" says Firouz. "It's amazing, America's backing of Bush and all this war- mongering. Do you think Americans have done this because they are scared?

"As empires come and go, maybe this will simply hasten the end of the American Empire. It's beginning to look a bit like the last days of Rome," Firouz says. "Iranians think - they are hoping, anyway - that Bush is a passing wonder, and maybe the US will recover from this, one way or another."

The horse whisperer

Firouz first traveled to the Middle East during a junior year abroad from Cornell University - she was forced to give up dreams of becoming a veterinarian after failing physics. …