Misreading the domestic politics and mood of Iran over the years

LONDON — Whether or not you believe that history repeats itself, here’s something to think about as President Barack Obama and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani seem to be edging toward reconciliation.

Thirty-four years ago, I reported from Tehran that some of the leaders of the Iranian revolution thought the crisis with the US was about to be resolved. Militant Iranian students who had seized the US Embassy a month earlier were still holding 52 American hostages in the occupied buildings.

But on that cold December day, a Tehran newspaper thought it saw a ray of light. It summed up the official mood with a hopeful headline: “American Public Opinion is Shifting in Favor of Iran.”

The paper got it all wrong. Iranian officials had assumed that some of the sniping at American foreign policy in the US presidential campaign represented public opinion, rather than political opportunism, and thought the US was about to give in to Iran’s demands.

As it turned out, Carter administration officials had also misread the domestic politics of Iran. Members of the hard-line clerical faction were using the issue of what to do with the hostages as a means of attacking the moderates. The hostage crisis became bogged down in bitter political infighting and dragged on for another 14 months, until President Jimmy Carter lost re-election and President Ronald Reagan took office.

The hostage crisis left an indelible impression on the American psyche. Mention Iran, and most Americans think of ranting mullahs and angry crowds chanting “death to America.”

That’s what they saw on their televisions, but it wasn'tt all you saw if you were an American journalist in Iran. What we put on the air or described on our reports was largely political theater — a show meant to frighten foreigners and strengthen domestic support of Iranian politicos.

The Iranians who orchestrated the demonstrations in front of the occupied US Embassy knew we would put them on the air because they made “great television.” So did the Friday mass prayer meetings in Tehran that became a highlight of American reports from the country.

But if you were there, covering the demonstrations, it eventually became apparent that they were a sham, and the Muslim clergy was beginning to have trouble getting large numbers of people to turn out.

It bothered me that we were giving the folks back home a false picture that people all over Iran were baying for American blood. So one day, we went around the corner to film what was happening on a main street a few blocks from the embassy. Nothing was happening. People were going about their daily business, oblivious to the show a few blocks away.

I reported during one of the demonstrations in March 1980 that “the atmosphere was a mixture of carnival and rent-a-crowd. It was certainly not an angry mob.”

In fact, the militant “students” who were holding the embassy once suggested to our CBS crew the best camera angles to make the crowd look as large as possible.

And I recall when a group of demonstrators who were marching up the street chanting death to my country spotted our CBS camera in front of the embassy and stopped in their tracks. One of them shouted with delight, “CBS News!” and rushed over to ask whether I knew several of his friends who lived in New York.

A number of the young Iranians who took over the embassy had been educated in American schools and universities. They had learned something useful about demonstrations and the power of TV images.

But they also liked America and Americans, even though their own leaders insisted the US government was “The Great Satan.”

A surprising number of Iranians still like the US today, despite the bitter feud between the two governments. I have visited and reported from Iran since the 1960s, and get the sense that it has the most pro-American population in the Middle East. That seems to be especially true of its educated urban population.

I also have no doubt that these same Iranians would rally to the defense of their country if it were attacked by the US or Israel.

The cold war between the US and Iran will not be ended overnight. The two governments have a long list of recriminations.

The US conspired to bring down Iran’s first truly democratic government in1953 and gave Saddam Hussein intelligence help in the 1980 to 1988 war with Iran, when he used poison gas on large numbers of Iranians and even some of his own citizens. Recently, Washington has imposed painful sanctions on the Iranian economy. Iran seized the US embassy and humiliated the Carter administration, and has been taking pot shots at American interests in the Middle East ever since.

Above all, there is the difficult question of Iran’s nuclear pretensions and the Israelis’ fears of what that could mean for them.

Over the years, the US and Iranian governments have engaged in sporadic back channel discussions that were mostly fruitless. Iran put out feelers that were rejected by the George W. Bush administration. The hand of peace that President Obama extended to Iran in 2009 went nowhere.

This time both governments say they may be ready to do business, but neither has done much to prepare its citizens for possible reconciliation.

US media, after years of mostly negative reports on Iran, has only recently been giving a more nuanced picture of an old adversary, and Israeli lobbying still heavily influences American politics and public opinion.

A new poll by the Pew Foundation shows that 69 percent of Americans have a negative view of Iran. Reconciliation with Iran would be a hard sell for President Obama, especially when he has major problems with Congress, which could block any lifting of sanctions.

On the other hand, a 2009 World Public Opinion poll recorded that 51 percent of Iranians have a favorable opinion of Americans. As long as he retains the backing of Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani would have an easier job selling reconciliation.