SINCE AT LEAST the middle of the 20th century, the Middle East, including non-Arab Iran, has played a central part in the American imagination. A turning point in American perceptions of Iran was that country's 1979 Islamic Revolution (engalab) and the ensuing 444-day hostage crisis. Instead of being seen as an exotic foreign land, Iran was henceforth portrayed as hostile and threatening by U.S. politicians and the media. Daily Americans saw threatening images repeated ad nauseam of frantic mobs shouting, "Marg bar Amrika!" ("Death to America!"), turbaned mullahs, and darkly veiled women.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Washington has trained its sights on Iran with renewed intensity. In his State of the Union Address of Jan. 29, 2002, President George W. Bush labeled it part of an ominous "axis of evil"-a label which, bolstered by previous prejudices, unfortunately has stuck. Iran's alleged involvement in Iraq, along with its outspoken stance on Israel, theocratic government, and nuclear energy program-all vehemently opposed by the Bush administration-have become the targets of heated American rhetoric. Nor have efforts abated to translate that rhetoric into action.
Because Iran is one of the region's most cloistered societies, Americans rarely hear Iranian voices. As a result, the public preconceptions go unchallenged, to the detriment of all.
Moreover, much as it might like to downplay it, the U.S. has played an important, and often negative, role in Iran's history-a role Iranians have not forgotten. In the opinion of those I spoke with during my most recent trip to Iran in the spring of 2007, the Middle East has remained an area of conflict in no small part as a result of foreign involvement. The example they cited most frequently was the 1953 overthrow, with CIA help, of the country's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had promised to nationalize oil and drive foreign influences out of Iran. Many Iranians were dissatisfied with Washington's hand-picked successor, Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose government was seen as being more concerned with international relations than with the well-being of the Iranian people, and were not willing to accept forced "modernization" under the Pahlavi regime.
While to most Americans, the 1979 Revolution and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini came "out of the blue," Iranians understood it as part of an historical continuum. Had they been left to their own devices, the people of Iran could instead have carved out a uniquely Iranian identity with a representative government and religion.
Today Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is thoroughly demonized in the U.S. media, which portrays him as uncivilized, unintelligent, warmongering, and an anti-Semitic fundamentalist. In the absence of any other "up close and personal" portrayals, these stereotypes have been extended to include Iranian men in general. Iranian women are presented as oppressed, uneducated, and downtrodden second-class citizens. In fact, they are highly educated, many having earned graduate degrees, drive alone, and are active in the professional fields of education, medicine, and business. During my visit a woman told me that she wanted Westerners to know that wearing her headscarf, or rusari, did not impede her life in any way. …