It might startle some Americans to realize that Iran has one of the most pro-American populations in the Middle East. Iranians have adored America for nearly three decades, a sentiment rooted in nostalgia for Iran's golden days, before the worst of the shah's repression and the 1979 Islamic revolution. But today's affection is new, in a sense, or at least different.
Starting in about 2005, Iranians' historic esteem for the United States gave way to a deep ambivalence that is only now ending. President Bush's post-9/11 wars of liberation on both of Iran's borders -- in Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east -- rattled ordinary Iranians, and Washington's opposition to Iran's nuclear program -- a major source of national pride -- added to their resentment. In early 2006, when I lived in Iran as a journalist, I had only to step outdoors to hear the complaints. Standing in line for pastry, I heard indignant matrons suggesting a boycott of U.S. products. The pious bazaar merchant who lived across the street grumbled that America was trying to "boss Iran around." On the ski slopes outside Tehran, I heard liberal college kids in designer parkas lionize Ahmadinejad for "standing up to the U.S. like a man."
It was a time when Iranians of all ages and backgrounds united in their pique against the United States, turning their backs on its traditions and culture. A movement emerged to replace Valentine's Day (long celebrated here in satin-hearted American style) with Armaiti Day, a love festival in honor of an ancient Persian deity. DJs began playing homegrown Iranian rap at parties, instead of OutKast and Tupac Shakur. For the first time in years, millions sat at home in the evenings watching a domestic Iranian comedy, "Barareh Nights," rather than bootleg DVDs of American films.
But on a recent two-week trip to Iran, I found the shift in sentiment palpable. This year, restaurants were booked solid for Valentine's Day months in advance. Heart-shaped chocolates and flower arrangements sold briskly enough to annoy the authorities, who reportedly began confiscating them on the street. American-style fast-food chains such as Super Star, seemingly modeled after the West Coast burger franchise Carl's Jr., are drawing crowds again. Walking through my old neighborhood, I discovered people lining up at a grill joint called Chili's, bearing the same jalapeño logo as the U.S. chain. (The Iranian government shuns international trademark laws).
I used to hear similarly pro-American sentiments frequently back in 2001, when Iranians' romance with the United States was at its most ardent. A poll conducted that same year found that 74 percent of Iranians supported restoring ties with the United States (whereupon the pollster was tossed into prison). You couldn't attend a dinner party without hearing someone, envious of the recently liberated Afghans, ask, "When will the Americans come save us?"