Election 2008 The World is Watching

Video dispatch

Iran: Views from the Streets of Tehran

Iranians make clear distinction between American people and American policies

BY Neil Katz and Jonathan SchienbergAugust 24, 2008


Neil Katz is a multimedia reporter and field producer for the CBS News show 48 Hours. Jonathan Schienberg is an associate producer with the CBS news magazine series 60 Minutes and a multimedia news producer. Both reporters are graduates of the Columbia School of Journalism.

"I am not an expert." Ask an Iranian about domestic politics and that's what you'll hear. That is, until you turn the cameras off. Then it is politics all the time, much of it delivered with deprecating humor. Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, often feared in the West for his aggressive promotion of Iran's nuclear program and brutish statements against the state of Israel, is viewed by many Iranians as a comical figure.

But what does the country that invented "Death to America" really think about Americans and the upcoming presidential election?

The most shocking answer, if only because it was nearly universal, was a message of brotherhood and friendship to the American people. All the people we talked with, on camera and off, wanted us to understand that they view the American people and the American government separately. And while they may be critical of America's policies, they yearn for a better relationship with its people.

One young man, who deeply supports his own government's religious conservatism, wrote in our notebook, "All people of America are my brothers and my sisters. I love American people. Have a good time."

Granted, our survey was not comprehensive. We spoke with dozens of people in Tehran, the nation's capital, and Qom, the country's center of Islamic learning. A few times we encountered mistrust or hostility. One man asked our translator if we were spies. Another believed that President George W. Bush was involved in the destruction of the World Trade Center's twin towers, a theory that has wide currency in the Middle East.

As for the presidential election, some didn't think either candidate would change the relationship between Iran and America much. Others were excited about a Barack Obama presidency because he would bring change and open dialog with Iran. Some preferred John McCain because they felt that he is more experienced. If their opinions sound like the two sides of American cable news, it's because they are watching it on illegal satellite dishes, which are nearly ubiquitous.

The most interesting opinions came from unexpected places. A carpet dealer in Tehran's main bazaar told us McCain clearly had the face of a president. And a brilliant young scientist, invited to do medical research at MIT, told us many young Iranians like Obama because his name, when transliterated into Persian, sounds like "U-ba-ma," which roughly means "he is with us."

Whatever their political preferences, the Iranians we met were hopeful for a better relationship with America - Republican, Democrat, or otherwise.

share your reactions

Samira - Tehran, Iran
Thanks guys! This is exactly what happened in Iran. We had a great time together; we talked about different stuff, from "Friends" to presidential election. I think both of us got the true side of Iran and America and I'm sure listening to the voice of reporters like Jonathan and Neil is a confident way to know Iran more truthfully.I hope to see you soon :)

Wonderful to see the most credible news source provide something so real. So thankful.

Great program. Thanks for the work to show the true face of Iran and Iranians. Lots of people say they don't have problems with the people, it is the government that they have problems with. The problem is that the only way that the American and Iranian people can get together is when the two government decide to normalize relations!

Ramtin F. - Orumiyeh, iran
All of world know that Iranian people have problem with American people. Both of Iranian and American people know that this issue belongs to their governments, so both Iran and US governments must changed their politics; that's so hard, but we will hope.

FINALLY: A piece, done by AMERICAN journalists (as opposed to the B.B.C.) that shows the real face of Iranians. This piece shows that Iranians, like other people, are varied. There is no ONE face of Iran. No ONE political opinion in Iran. Iranians are real people (i.e. not just bearded "fanatics", fundamentalists, "Haters of the West", etc.) -- people with complex and varied opinions, just like that of any people in the world.
I truly wish that the mainstream media in the U.S. would start to show meaningful pieces on Iran. If you can't make the pieces yourselves, at least show the intelligent documentaries, etc. made by the British, Germans, etc.At the end of the day, Iranians are no different to their American counterparts. They have same hopes and dreams for their families, for their lives, for their nation.But, I suppose, if they were to show the real face of Iran, it would be that much harder for the government to wage wars and other such atrocities. It is all easier when they are the "other".

Calabasas Hills, California
Most Iranians are intelligent and well spoken, they know about the politics of the world since they have gone through a lot of social and emotional torture and after all that they are still standing with pride and respect. Forget about the Iranian government I am talking about the majority of Iranian people.

jack welsh - prescott, michigan
Yes we must talk to Iran. Look every one of their neighbors have nuclear weapons. When Russia parked those weapons in Cuba we were ready for WW III.

Reza Y - Los Angeles, CA
IranNegah.com if you guys wanna learn about Iran and see videos from the country

Aachen, Germany
Thank you. Some of the best people I have met in Germany are Iranian. They have all expressed an attitude of brotherhood and solidarity with American people. I hope many Americans see this story and it puts a human face on a nation seemingly so far away.

Pepole of Iran and America are good but it is goverment problem that they want to make pepole fight but this is not true. Iranian and Americans are friends.

Bobby - Scottsdale, Arizona
Now that's what I call journalism! I seldom see an Iranian in front of a camera these days, so it was good that you did just that. Frontline has always been a champion for the peoples voice, so long live PBS.

Ali Golzar - Houston, Texas
A good attempt to get the view from the streets. Of course, like any society, the opinions are wide and varied. The question, though, is not whether Iranians hate Americans or Americans hate Iranians, as the Western media tries to portray. It's a war between Western corporate domination vs. smaller nations who try to stand up to them. Unfortunately most of the Iranian people are finding it difficult to choose between the two evils of fundamentalism and isolation vs. submission to corporate greed. The younger Iranian generation is sometimes euphoric about the thawing of relations with the West and the older generation knows all too well about having to give up your rights to foreign military attaches and their domestic puppets. The younger generation generally cares less about Islamic fundamentalism and hence the backward government ruling the country whereas the older generation sometimes flip flops between the two. As they say in America, the Iranian people are stuck between a rock and a hard place!

Korf Akan - Houston, Texas
Well done PBS! A positive portrait of the Iranian people and sentiments. What's fascinating is how well informed and perceptive some of the interviewees were on American politics. If you walk the streets of DC you would have a tough time finding people who have knowledge of international affairs or Iranian politics. With the media trying their best to demonize Iran on it's nuclear initiative this was a fresh perspective on Iran.

good work.

babak - lg, us
Normalized relations between the two countries will bring change in iran, because the US will have a fair chance to present itself to the people of iran and change the image of the great satan that the iranian government has painted for the past 28 years. There is no other way.

Here some tips if you decide to have real voices of Iran.
1) Please shave your face. You can't have a beard and expect to hear honest answer. Beard is a sign of Muslim fundamentalists, people who usually work in government, military, paramilitary, police force and something related to regime. That's a sign that people wouldn't trust you.2) Don't ever take camera with you if you want honest answer about how people think about Iranian regime and what they want or even what they think of the US. You need know that people can't express their opinions freely in totalitarian atmosphere and there is a constant fear there.3) Would you tell me, did you have obligation to contact a specific agency to use their guide for your interviews?! I don't know what is your answer but all foreign based reporters should use a guide from that specific agency in Tehran and to have this guide with them on their interviews. This agency belongs to Islamic regime of Iran and people who work there have specific responsibilities.So you better off to use your interpreter and guide, if you can!4) To get real voices, just take a taxi (we do share taxi rides from a source to a destination) [I recommend between major destinations which people tend to talk on the taxi like Enghelab Sq to Azadi Sq, Enghelab to Vanak St and so on but not in northern part of Tehran]
and drop your question or just wait and see how people start to complain and criticise everything in Iran, from mullahs existence and their wrong brutal policies to economy, from Ahmadinejad to PMs and altogether...then there you could ask about how Iranian feel about the US.I have to add this sentence to your report that Iranian people have been waiting to have good relationship with America for about 28 years. Because most Iranians know that the regime is an Islamic totalitarian regime so there is no connection between regime and people. People just waiting for some kind of force by Allah or something else to come and get rid of mullahs. You could see for yourself if you would sit down and talk to them.

Hassa Hassani - NYC, NY
I know from first hand experience that Iranians are proud and nationalistic, and resent being pushed around. At the same time, they do not 'hate America' as widely claimed -- despite the fact that each one of them can recount the misdeeds of the US against Iran going back to the 1953 CIA coup and the US support of Saddam. And despite their efforts to reach out to us, we respond with sanctions and threats, which will only end up alienating these same people.It is really too bad. What a wasted opportunity.

ellery samuels - rockville centre, new york
This is an excellent story. Gives us a look at a part of the world that many have come to hate but really don't know much about. Neil and Jonathan did a great job. Can't wait to see/read more of their work.