In the Arena

Just Back From Iran

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Steve Kinzer, author of a timely new book about Iran and Turkey–and a constant purveyor of sanity when it comes to all things Persian–has just returned from a trip to Iran with this report. It tracks closely with things I’ve heard from average Iranians in my visits there over the years: They like us. They really, really like us. But they don’t want us to interfere in their internal affairs:

Finally, I was struck — though not surprised — by the unanimity with which Iranians, even those who joined last year’s protests and fervently support the reform agenda, reject help from the US or any other outside power.

“Many people don’t like the regime, but they don’t want the Americans to come and rule us,” a shopkeeper in the Shiraz bazaar told me. “They would rather live under a regime they don’t like than a regime placed in power by foreigners.”

This sentiment is widespread and powerful in Iran. The reason is to be found in modern history. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Iran was ravaged by foreigners who subjugated its people and looted its resources. Whenever Iran has sought to modernize — whether by building a steel mill in the 1930s or by nationalizing its oil industry in the 1950s — outsiders have intervened to block it. This has made Iranians as sensitive to foreign intervention as any people in the world. It leads them to reject political forces that they see as sponsored, supported, or encouraged from abroad.

Some Americans would like to see Congress and President Obama embrace Iran’s democratic movement vigorously and publicly. But not even the movement’s own leaders want this support. Far from helping them, an endorsement from Washington would stigmatize them and de-legitimize their cause. Americans often assume that their support for like-minded friends in the world is helpful. In Iran, it would not be.

“Bush was very bad,” mused a math teacher I found sitting beneath a fig tree in the town of Rayen. “Obama is a little better. But Iranian people believe that when America and England look at Iran and Arab countries, it is only because they want to steal what we have.”

In other words, John McCain and the other armchair imperialists should cool it…although I do believe that there are ways–especially in helping average Iranians get around the regime’s internet-jamming methods–that we can help. I’ll have more to say about the current U.S. thinking about Iran’s nuclear program in my print column this week.