On March 20, President Barack Obama sent Persian New Year greetings directly to the people of Iran. It was a powerful message. By mentioning the Islamic Republic by name, and not simply "Iran," the president was making clear that he considered the current Iranian government legitimate, a profound change in course from the last administration.
Some were surprised that President Obama was not met with equally warm language. Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamene'i, responded by saying that Americans "chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice." It seemed like a snub, but then again, context matters.
There is a very important reason for Iran's reluctance to change its tone overnight. It is due to a political trend I call the "cult of anti-Americanism." This is Iran's anti-American brand, one that has been the face of the country since the 1978-1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed king.
For over a hundred and fifty years before the revolution, Iran had been subjected to overt foreign power manipulation, first from Great Britain and Russia, and later from the United Unites, which went so far as to topple Iran's democratically elected prime minister in the now infamous 1953 coup. Having been a powerhouse of global politics off and on throughout its 2,500-year history, Iran came to see its dependence on foreign powers as utterly disgraceful.
To maintain their country's hard-won political independence after the revolution, and more important, to keep the power of the government intact, Iranian leaders fashioned several "tests" to differentiate supporters from detractors. In a climate in which the next foreign-planned coup was always around the corner, showing one's "anti-American" colors became a calling card to express loyalty to the regime. In the end, the cult of anti-Americanism had little to do with America, and everything to do with the domestic politics of Iran.
Of course, this is nothing new. During President Richard Nixon's historic visit to the China in 1972, Mao Zedung apparently couldn't believe that U.S. policymakers had taken his "anti-imperialist" propaganda to heart. Henry Kissinger writes: "[Mao] laughed uproariously at the implication that anyone might be taking seriously a slogan which had been scrawled for decades on placards and on the walls of public buildings all over China." In Iran, the cult of anti-Americanism has inspired government-sanctioned murals that depict the United States as a wretched country, and the phrase "death to America" ("marg bar emrika") is still something of a national political slogan.
Eventually, the cult of anti-Americanism will fade and a new generation of leaders will take the reins of power. In the meantime, the name-calling will continue, even as the United States and Iran work together constructively on the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Islamic Republic, the only country in the Middle East that is truly independent today, being the "angry Islamist" on the bloc is a small price to pay. For America, taking a few verbal jabs for the sake of stability in the Middle East should be fine too.
Nathan Gonzalez is author of Engaging Iran: The Rise of a Middle East Powerhouse and America's Strategic Choice (2007) and the upcoming book The Sunni-Shia Conflict and the Iraq War: Understanding Sectarian Violence in the Middle East (2009)