Tehran — THE LAST TIME I heard anyone here publicly say anything positive about the United States was in 2001. During the noontime rush at the bank on Vali Asr Street, a middle-aged woman grew furious at the teller who refused to cash her check and yelled out in frustration, "If the Americans come, I'll kiss their boots myself!" Everyone looked up momentarily and then went about their business.
Back in those days -- 2000 and 2001, when I first lived in Iran as a journalist -- Iranians were looking on jealously as U.S. soldiers removed the Taliban from power in neighboring Afghanistan; it was a moment when the United States competed with soccer for popularity. You could not buy a newspaper or ride a taxi without hearing the plaintive question: "When will Americans come to rescue us?"
Iranians romanticized the United States as a benevolent power at that time, and they were besotted with tokens of American popular culture. Young couples who could not even speak English celebrated Valentine's Day; U.S.-style fast-food places served hamburgers and shakes to endless lines; Barbie(smuggled in from Dubai despite the U.S. embargo) became the most coveted birthday gift of Iranian girls, and authentic Coke was the preferred beverage of Iranians under 30.
Bear in mind that in 2002, young Arabs in cities such as Cairo were burning down Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants and boycotting U.S. products in anger at American support for Israel, yet a poll conducted in 2001 found that 74% of Iranians supported restoring ties with the United States.
But today, the Great Satan is back to being, well, the Great Satan. Starcups, the Tehran coffee shop that in 2002 was packed with young people, sits deserted. The opening of a burger joint modeled on Carl's Jr. attracts just the neighborhood instead of the entire city. And in the evenings, if you catch young people at home, they are more likely to be watching reruns of the hit Iranian sitcom "Barareh" than the MTV they used to pick up on their illegal satellite dishes. Iranian young people's affection for things American has diminished dramatically, a reflection of the United States' substantial loss of political capital here in the last three years.
With their country lodged between Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranians have been well positioned to observe U.S. interventions in the region. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees have streamed back into Iran, reporting that their liberated country is unlivable outside Kabul, marred by warlord strife and resurgent Taliban. Every night, Iranian state television -- like television networks all over the world -- broadcasts images of sectarian killings in Iraq.
With little evidence of American progress in rebuilding these two nations, Iranians have grown increasingly skeptical of U.S. designs in the Middle East. If U.S.-led wars of liberation have not made life better for ordinary Afghans and Iraqis, people here want to know, then what is their real purpose?
A college student at the University of Shiraz recently told me that the answer to this question is so obvious that it does not bear asking. "Imagine, if the U.S. takes over Iran, it will then control all the oil and pipelines from Afghanistan to Iraq," he said. "This is not about helping people."
As we spoke, we were standing near a banner advertising a seminar series on "AIPAC [the pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States], the Holocaust, and Freemasonry," so you might reasonably imagine that such thinking is encouraged in propaganda-heavy classrooms.
But the truth is that most young Iranians have digested an official diet of anti-American propaganda since infancy, and despite it, they remained well-disposed toward the U.S. until the reasons to think otherwise grew. Today, they see fewer reasons to give the United States the benefit of the doubt.
And now there's another issue that's helping push Iranians away from Washington's arms: the country's nuclear program and the adamant U.S. opposition to it, which Iranians increasingly view as as a pretext to squeeze Iran itself.
Frankly, the nuclear program is popular among Iranians. When they look around the region, they see a modern Turkey leaning toward Europe, and they see the sleek commercial prosperity of Dubai. Their own failing economy and shabby capital skyline offer no similar source of pride. But what they do have that those other nations don't is nuclear energy. The regime encourages this feeling with clunky slogans like "Nuclear energy is our absolute right" (which has so worked itself into public life that Iranians jokingly repeat it in casual conversation).
One thing that's clear here is that if negotiations fail and the U.S. chooses to cripple Iran's nuclear program through military strikes, it should be prepared for the inevitable outcome: Iranians rallying around the Islamic regime.
Iranians' reaction to an all-out invasion would be equally defensive. As unpopular as the theocratic regime may be, an attack on it would not be considered a liberation, especially if the pretext is the country's nuclear program, which is viewed as a legitimate and sovereign right. "We've been developing nuclear energy for over two decades," an Iranian painter said to me recently. "If they attack us now, it's simply to attack us." The only Iranians I know who welcome the idea of an attack do not live inside the country.
The fact is, most people here, with images of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib fresh in their minds, would not trust the United States to conduct a responsible invasion
At this point, most people I talk to feel as a friend of mine recently described: "I would rather be oppressed by an Iranian than a foreigner."