The United States -- Through Iranian Eyes

by Richard Burkholder, International Bureau Chief

In Iran, more than two decades have passed since the fall of the shah, the establishment of an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini, and the break in diplomatic relations following the seizure of America's embassy and its diplomats by militant students. Although diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran remain severed, there were indications in 2001 of a possible thaw under what were seen as the reformist policies of President Mohammad Khatami.

But in recent months, both countries have voiced harsh criticism of one another's actions. In President Bush's State of the Union address in January, he labeled Iran as part of an "axis of evil" that supports international terrorism. In May, Khatami reciprocated by urging his allies in Iran's parliament to halt any efforts to improve the country's relations with the United States.

Looking beyond official policies and rhetoric, how does the Iranian public itself view the United States? In December and January, as part of its survey of nine predominantly Islamic countries, Gallupinterviewed a scientifically selected nationwide sample of 1,500 Iranian adults -- arguably the most comprehensive sounding of Iranian public opinion in the past quarter century.

The result? A profoundly negative image of the United States persists at the popular level in Iran -- particularly regarding American foreign policy conduct. Despite this, many Iranians hope for a better understanding between the Islamic world and the West, and a substantial number say they would like to visit the United States.

Views of the United States and President George W. Bush

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of all Iranians hold a predominantly negative view of the United States. In fact, more than half (54%) go so far as to describe their assessment of the United States as "very unfavorable" -- while only 14% express either a generally or strongly positive assessment of America. To help put this finding in context, the poll also found that Iranians are somewhat more likely to hold a positive view of France than a negative one (38% versus 27%, with the remainder being either neutral or unsure).

More specifically, a majority of Iranians view the United States as "aggressive" (76%), plagued with a "high rate of crime" (73%), "ruthless" (70%), "conceited" (61%), "arrogant" (55%) and "easily provoked" (also 55%).

On the positive side of the equation, 40% of Iranians see the United States as a country that is "scientifically and technologically advanced." Yet only minuscule proportions -- just 1% or 2% view America as being trustworthy, peaceful to live in, or friendly.

Iranian perceptions of Bush echo their appraisal of the United States itself, with predominantly negative assessments outweighing positive ones by a very wide margin -- 63% to 5%, with the remainder either neutral or insufficiently familiar with the American president to venture an opinion.

Interest in Improved Understanding, and in Visiting the United States

Despite these negative assessments, roughly a third (34%) of all Iranians interviewed say they feel a personal concern for the possibility of an improved understanding between the cultures of the Islamic world and the West. In fact, those who share this sentiment slightly outnumber the proportion of Iranians who say that an improved understanding is of little or no concern to them personally (28%).

Iran's citizens are skeptical, however, that such an understanding is reachable in the near term. Only 10% think it can come "very soon," while twice as many (22%) voice the far more pessimistic view that such an improvement in mutual understanding "will never come."

Similarly, despite the many negative associations they say they have with the United States, the poll indicates that a substantial number of Iranians are interested in seeing the United States firsthand. More than half of all Iranians (54%) say they know personally someone who has emigrated from Iran to a foreign land. And roughly one in six (17%) named the United States as a country they would like to visit -- nearly as many as express a desire to visit France (22%). Among the best-educated segment of the country's adults -- those with a college education -- fully 41% say they have a personal interest in visiting the United States, which their country's more conservative elements continue to label "The Great Satan."

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