"So, is America going to attack us?" asked the grinning young tough at Tehran's Grand Bazaar, a vast labyrinth of well-stocked shops where he was idling with four of his friends, one of whom was a slightly older man dressed in militant black. I had approached them as an American journalist on my second day in Iran, hoping to record a little vox populi on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical Iranian president. Somewhat startled to have the tables turned on me so quickly, I said I didn't know for sure, but no, most likely we wouldn't attack. My response provoked a testosterone-filled round of chest-thumping and chortling. The black shirt, whose name was Hassan Mirzaie, recounted his experience as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. He told an obscene joke about how tough even the female Iraqi commandos were back then. Hassan's friends laughed loudly. "If I can handle the Iraqis, I can handle the Americans," Hassan said. "We faced a very rough enemy, and they committed many atrocities, but we managed to defeat them." For good measure, he added that he'd recently been to Iraq on a "religious pilgrimage" and had seen how bogged down the U.S. military was. "The Americans can't do anything to us."
Message to George W. Bush: if you're going to strike Iran, a country nearly three times the size of Iraq with 70 million people, it had better be with something a lot bigger than "shock and awe." Both the Iranian regime and many of its people, including the five comrades I talked to at the bazaar, seem fairly confident that Bush can't and won't. Apparently they're reading many of the same Western media reports that we are—about how Bush has no army left with which to invade. About how air strikes alone can't reach Iran's main underground facility at Natanz, which is buried under 100 meters of concrete and dirt and whose entrance makes a U-turn underground that would likely foil a cruise missile. And about how Iran could, in retaliation, inflict terrible casualties (using its Shiite Iraqi proxies, and perhaps Sunni insurgents, too) on the U.S. troops next door in Iraq.
The Iranian regime has been regurgitating many of these stories to the populace through state-controlled TV and radio, and even the many Iranians who don't like Ahmadinejad (among them, Hassan) tend to see him as someone who's standing up to a country they increasingly view as a bruised and battered giant. Ahmadinejad "is the only president we've had who has known how to use power," said one shopkeeper, Majid Rezai. "He isn't afraid of anybody." Even firm opponents of Ahmadinejad and his radical conservative movement say the neocons and hardliners back in Washington who still harbor hopes that U.S. strikes will weaken the regime are dreaming dangerous fantasies. The opposite, they say, is certain to happen: Iranians will rally around him. Inured to sanctions after 25 years, toughened by war (almost as prevalent on billboards around Tehran as the paintings of the revered Ayatollah Khomeini are pictures of "martyrs" from that 1980-88 war, which Iran said resulted in nearly 200,000 casualties), many Iranians tend to laugh at U.S. efforts to promote regime change. "If America wants to fix anything, let it fix itself. Look at what happened after [Hurricane] Katrina," said another shopkeeper, Mehdi Douri, who has obviously been keeping up on his propaganda as well.
Even more than in Iraq, the prospect of U.S.-sponsored regime change brings back ugly memories that only vindicate, in Iranian eyes, the Islamist government's portrayal of America as the Great Satan. Iran's modern political mythology began in 1953, when the CIA and Great Britain allegedly aided the ouster of the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh and installed Reza Palahvi as the Shah of Iran. "The memory of 1953 in Iran is still very vivid," Ebrahim Yazdi, a reformist politician who also opposes Ahmadinejad, told me in his spacious living room, with a pool visible out back. "Many Iranians cannot forget that U.S. and British coup actually suffocated the democratic process in Iran at a very embryonic stage. No. 2, during the 25 years of the Shah's regime, the U.S. was directly involved in what he was doing. And when Iraq attacked Iran, the U.S. fully and militarily supported the Saddam regime. They all knew Saddam was the aggressor, and yet they did it." Khomeini and his followers, in fact, artfully used this political mythology to launch their Islamic revolution. And the likely result of any U.S. attack on Iran would be to revive the radicalism that Bush hopes will fade away.
My tour through the shops as well as the homes and offices of Tehran's elite suggests to me that change for the better will come when America loosens, rather than tightens, its grip. We may indeed have to accept some uranium-enrichment capacity; outside of Washington, even many European diplomats agree that it is not yet certain the Iranians want to go all the way to building a bomb right now. As Mohammed El Baradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), recently suggested, it may be time for the West to acknowledge what Iran has already built at Natanz and cut a deal that, with the right kind of intrusive inspections, will keep them from fully arming. Only the same kind of approach—full U.S. engagement—will blunt Iran's efforts to undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq and now, apparently, in Afghanistan. Tehran's reported efforts to arm the Taliban as well as Iraq's Shiite militias reflects classic Iranian tactics of going at enemies indirectly, using proxies. Most of the Iranians I talk to—again, even opponents of Ahmadinejad—agree that keeping the United States bogged down will remain a consummate Iranian national interest as long as Tehran has a hostile Washington breathing down its neck.
The possibility of winning over the Iranians, rather than facing them down, was another thing that became apparent to me in my conversation with the five friends at the bazaar. Remember the young fellow who asked if Bush was going to attack? Well, as I was leaving, he called out to me: "Can you get me a visa to America?" No, I said, I didn't think I could, but why do you want to go? "To join the Army, fight al Qaeda," he said, grinning again. I gave him a thumbs up and walked away. That, anyway, is the message from the bazaar.