TEHRAN — In the ruins of the southern Iranian border port of Khorramshahr, a young driver for the Islamic Guidance Ministry, dressed in polo shirt, jeans and sneakers, asked a visiting journalist his nationality the other day.
"American," came the reply. To underline this, the reporter, repeating the familiar chant of the revolutionary days of 1979-80, cracked: "Marg bar Shah (Death to the Shah), marg bar Amrika (Death to America)."
"No, no," responded the driver in good English. "America OK now, America OK."
If America is not exactly OK to all 55 million Iranians, the mood in the country is much softer toward the "Great Satan" than it was during the 10 years that the revolutionary Islamic leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, held sway.
During two weeks of traveling between the capital of Tehran and various outposts on the long border with Iraq, little evidence surfaced of outright hostility toward Americans--or even America itself--among Iranians.
True, there was much lecturing and some hectoring on the subject; but often the complaints about the United States seemed delivered more in puzzlement and sorrow than anger.
In the northwestern mountain capital of Orumiyeh, an English-speaking, well-educated government official insisted: "President (Hashemi) Rafsanjani is trying to establish good relations with Western countries. But Washington doesn't want to have good relations with us. Why?"
Another official in the central provincial capital of Bakhtaran argued: "We want to reconstruct our country after eight years of war with Iraq. You helped Iraq during the war. And now you refuse to help us rebuild. Why? Why does America hate Iran?"
In Iranian Kurdistan, the mayor of Piranshahr asked: "The Americans are sending many supplies to the Kurds in Turkey but none to help the refugees here in Iran. Why is that?"
In this capital, Tehranis no longer pay any attention to the compound of the former U.S. Embassy, where 52 hostages were held for many of their 444 captive days in 1979-81 and anti-American slogans on the walls are weathered, almost forgotten.
But young Iranians in the capital--who seem to readily adopt American dress, listen to American music and drink Coca-Cola--add their complaints to the criticism of U.S. policy toward Iran: that the United States supported the dictator Saddam Hussein in Iraq's aggressive war against Iran from 1980-1988, that the United States has never bothered to apologize properly for shooting down an Iranian Airbus in 1988, after mistaking it for an attacking military aircraft, let alone pay indemnities, and that the United States still holds about $11 billion of Iranian frozen assets.
And many Iranians--like many Americans--are still confused over the much-criticized performance of the Reagan Administration in the Iran-Contra affair.
As Ali Sarafraz, deputy editor of the newspaper Resalaat, put it: "Iran cannot trust the United States. Even when Oliver North and his team came here for secret dealings, the U.S. sold Iran TOW (anti-tank) missiles that didn't work."
On the other hand, even thoughtful Iranians seem never to have realized the depth of anger that was engendered among Americans by the seizure of the hostages at the U.S. Embassy. Nor the bitterness Americans feel because six of their countrymen are now being held captive by pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon.
When an American brings up this delicate subject, the answers are invariably defensive: The United States aided and abetted the Savak secret police torturers during the time of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi--and that's that. No one seems prepared to admit the injustice and abhorrence of holding innocent American hostages.
Iranian reluctance to recognize that hostage-holding is beyond the pale of civilized international behavior today colors and constricts relations between Tehran and Washington.
In Washington's view, the chief impediment to improved relations with Tehran is the fact that 11 Western hostages--including the six Americans--are being held in Lebanon.
Further, U.S. officials and some Western diplomats here believe that the Iranian government holds the key to releasing those hostages from their captors in Lebanon.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati almost admitted as much recently when he talked about the need for the United States to force Israel to release hundreds of Lebanese prisoners they are holding as a condition for the freeing of the Western hostages.
Diplomatic sources here believe that a recent, secret mission of National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to the Middle East was to arrange a complicated swap that would have included the release of the hostages--but which somehow fell through.
That deal might be resurrected, observers here believe, since Rafsanjani realizes the need to seek foreign investment to rebuild Iran's ailing economy. And the United States and Britain will urge Western nations not to do business with him until there is movement on the hostage issue.
"What confuses U.S.-Iranian relations," observed a Middle Eastern ambassador here, "is the different American and Iranian way of looking at things. Iranians are by nature traders and see nothing much wrong in taking hostages to trade if they feel the injured party--a practice that most Americans find abhorrent. But Iran wants a quid pro quo for the hostages.
"President Rafsanjani obviously wants to restore good relations with the West--and even with the U.S.--despite the criticism he could get from the radical fundamentalists. But this won't happen until the central issue of the hostages and the blocked funds is resolved."