Nationalism Is A National Pastime

In order to more effectively engage Iranian opinion, U.S. officials as well as independent observers need to realize how deeply nationalism runs through Iranian society. When Iranians perceive the nation to be under threat, nationalism transcends resentment of the unpopular regime, helping explain how it can be both unloved and stable at the same time. We heard statements of pride in Iran’s civilization from reform-minded students and conservative shopkeepers alike. Insistence on Iran’s independence is contained not only in President Ahmadinejad’s bellicose rhetoric but also in the opinion of a shopkeeper who told us that he knew what the International Atomic Energy Agency was but did not care whether or not Iran’s nuclear program was in compliance with IAEA treaties. Despite such strident remarks, we learned that public support for the nuclear program is neither as universal nor as fixed as the government claims and that Iranians would have access to more information about the issue if the media were less strictly controlled.

A diplomat in Tehran who has served internationally told us, “The United States and Iran can work together only if their mutual interests are respected and not on the basis of U.S. interests dominating, as they have for more than 50 years.” While Iranians are tired of being a pariah state, they are also proud of their country’s growing global power and importance. “Iran has the power now while the U.S. is caught up in a quagmire in Iraq,” the diplomat commented. Said the university chancellor in Tehran: “The goals of the Iranian people are not simply limited to economic success and prosperity. The people want their country to have independence and a voice on the international stage.”

Our meetings in Iran were made through contacts developed in advance of our visits, often taking advantage of the personal connections of our members. We also conducted interviews on the spot during our travels around the country. Many people welcomed us and were glad to talk frankly and at length about a wide range of topics. But in a social context where the clerical power structure has a surveillance and enforcement apparatus in the Revolutionary Guard’s millions-strong paramilitary Basij force, reform-minded people were more accessible. We met fewer supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad than we did those who question or oppose them. The conservatives we did meet were deeply nationalistic, even if they did not understand foreign affairs. For example, a conservative school teacher in Tehran told us she continues to support the President and his foreign policy whatever it was because he has raised her salary. When asked about Ahmadinejad’s denunciations of Jews, she said that she didn’t know anything about the Holocaust but that she was proud that Ahmadinejad had “stood up for the Palestinians to the whole world.”

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