The End Of The Great Satan?

One of the many streets in Teheran named after terrorists is Ahmad Ghasir Avenue, honoring the truck-bomb driver who destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. An American who was walking there recently was stopped by an Iranian engineer, a man who had once supported the revolution. "I apologize for this," he said. "We're ashamed to see our best avenues named for killers." Friday prayers at the University of Teheran are introduced by a radical mullah, Haj Husseini, who has an apparently inexhaustible supply of anti-American rhetoric. "All Muslims must hate the U.S.A.," he said on a recent Friday. "The Black House is the source of all evil." An Iranian listening just shrugged: "We call him the minister in charge of slogans." Even parliamentarians in the radical-dominated Majlis (whose secretary is one of the student radicals who seized the American Embassy) voice an occasional complaint. Said one deputy: "We can't keep feeding our people on slogans."

Many Iranians already seem fed up with revolutionary rhetoric. U.S. journalists permitted to visit Iran recently to cover the earthquake found a remarkable lack of hostility, even from Revolutionary Guards. That was surprising, given the ceaseless hate-America campaign that fills the newspapers, airwaves and available wall space, 11 years after ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution sent virtually all Americans packing. Radical and moderate Iranian leaders debated whether accepting American relief aid for the earthquake had been ideologically sound, and diplomats and Foreign Ministry officials had conflicting readings about whether this presaged an opening to the West. Many average Iranians made it clear that they hope it does. After recovering from their shock at seeing an American, most were quick to counter the official slogans. "I hope this means Americans will soon come back," said a Red Crescent relief worker who, like other Iranians, feared to give his name.

It will take more than good wishes to improve relations. While Teheran has begun to normalize ties with the Soviet Union, its position on the United States remains hard-line. "We don't shout 'Death to the U.S.S.R.' any longer," said a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official. "But 'Death to America' comes from the heart." It also comes from the pulpit, where "Down with the U.S.A." has practically become part of the Shiite catechism, recited just after "God is Great" and "Khomeini is our Leader." Iranian officials are furious at what they consider Bush administration ingratitude for Teheran's efforts to free two American hostages recently; for starters, they want Washington to return billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets. Asked if his country wanted better relations with the United States someday, Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri replied brusquely: "No." An adviser to the Foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Larijani, took a more measured view. "There are deep wounds which have been brought about by years of American direct intervention in Iran," he said. "We should not expect everyone would forget it immediately."

Iranian leaders do their best to remind their people of the worst. July 3 was the second anniversary of the U.S. Navy's downing of Iran Air Flight 655 off Bandar Abbas. The government shipped some of the families of the 290 victims out to the spot in the Persian Gulf where the airliner was shot down; wailing, the bereaved widows and parents tossed flowers into the sea. Iran Air's managing director, Mohammed Hassan Shafti, took the occasion to accuse the United States of "an act that was not only intentional, but well prepared in advance," although he could offer no evidence. The Bush administration has offered the families compensation of up to $250,000 per victim, but without apologizing or acknowledging fault. Iran has refused to accept that, insisting on taking the matter to the World Court. And the U.S. military's decision to award a medal for "meritorious service" to the skipper whose ship, the USS Vincennes, mistakenly shot down the Iranian air bus, angered even moderate Iranians.

Still, this year's memorial service for the Vincennes's victims differed from last year's, said those who had seen both: this time no families or officials shouted "Down with America." The takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran is still celebrated as a national holiday, but at demonstrations in front of the embassy last November, some Iranians defiantly called out, "We like America," according to a Teheran-based Asian journalist who was there.

Harsh fact: One of the most surprising signs of the times can be found at the "nest of spies bookstore" beside the American Embassy compound. It sells books of shredded CIA and State Department documents found in the embassy and meticulously reassembled by the Iranians. "We are tired of all the 'Death to America' slogans," said a clerk in that bookstore. "I'd like to see us give you this embassy back." The bookstore still does a brisk trade, although perhaps not for the intended reasons. Most books are prohibitively expensive in Teheran's inflationary economy, but the heavily subsidized offerings at the "nest of spies" cost a pittance. "These are the only books in English I can afford," said one shopper, who added that he would like to go to America to study one day.

Iranians often say that 90 percent of them are fed up with the Great Satan demonology of the radicals. They are also quick to point out a harsh fact: "The other 10 percent have all the guns," as one Air Force mechanic put it. So long as that's the case, most Iranians will have to keep their opinions about Americans quiet.