- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2002

TEHRAN Beneath the public anger that most Iranians seem to share with their government over President Bush's "axis of evil" speech lies another sentiment heard only from hushed, anonymous voices a hope that American pressure can force changes in Iran's government.
Mr. Bush's State of the Union speech, in which he linked Iran with Iraq and North Korea as nations with evil and oppressive governments seeking to spread terror in the world, came at a time of widespread frustration in Iran with the government's failure to provide basic services.
That frustration is felt by people like Bahram Razavi, who sells pomegranate and other fruit drinks in his shop across the street from Tehran's sprawling People's Park. Business should be brisk, but few picnickers or joggers dare traverse the street to his shop because of the dozens of drug dealers who brazenly sell their wares outside his door.
"The police won't do anything," says Mr. Razavi. "I call them again and again and again, and they won't come. This government does nothing for the people. Why should I care what happens to it?"
Morale has been further sapped by economic hardship, corruption and the stagnant pace of a reform movement that is all but vanished. The International Monetary Fund recently named Iran the world's No. 1 victim of "brain drain." From 150,000 to 180,000 of the nation's best educated people emigrate every year.
Many Iranians heard Mr. Bush's speech through the filter of these hardships, and it appears to have colored their thinking.
In shared taxis, in a major city park and in private telephone conversations, Iranians express the hope that U.S. pressure though not war force changes in a government that is not doing much for its people.
Most Iranians seemed angered and startled by Mr. Bush's comments.
"We'll break their mouths if America tries to attack us," says Ali Barzegar, a 35-year-old veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and a construction site manager on a cigarette break outside one of the high-rise apartments sprouting in Tehran to cater to a new class of super wealthy.
The regime still has a core of diehard supporters, many of whom will turn out to chant "Death to America" in Freedom Square today, the 23rd anniversary of the proclamation of the Islamic Republic.
Mohammed Naziri, a 24-year-old spice shop owner, says he goes to the celebrations every year, if only out of respect for his older brother, who died of poison gas in the war with Iraq. "Why not chant, 'Death to America?'" he asks. "America brings death to every country in the world."
But even for Mr. Naziri, the chant is laced with irony. A beloved cousin and his family live in the United States.
Despite heated rhetoric from leaders in both countries, many ordinary Iranians dismiss the possibility of a U.S.-Iran war.
"There's no reason for the United States to attack Iran," says Hamid, a 38-year-old carpenter traveling from his job in the rich northern neighborhood of Niavaron to the poor southern section of the city where he lives. "It's already such a mess. What's to be gained?"
Iran's political establishment has been engaged in an occasionally ugly battle between hard-liners led by supreme religious and political leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a popularly elected reformist faction led by President Mohammed Khatami.
But despite easing some social restrictions, the reformists have not been faring well on the foreign policy front.
The Bush administration has accused elements within the political hierarchy of providing weapons and cash to forces opposing the provisional government of Hamid Karzai in neighboring Afghanistan.
The United States and Israel also accuse Iran of sending weapons to Islamic militant groups waging a terrorist war against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The seizure of a huge arms shipment from Iran bound for Palestinians added weight to these accusations.
Iran has strenuously denied the accusations, saying it supports the Karzai government and opposes all terrorism, though it backs the Palestinians in their terrorist campaign against Israeli occupation.
Ordinary Tehran residents express the hope that the United States will not judge them by the actions of their government.
"I don't have any idea if Iran did all the things America said it did," says Sara Sefi, a 22-year-old public policy student. "I wouldn't be surprised. The government in power now, I don't trust."
Many brushed off Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric and the angry responses of Iranian government officials as political rhetoric, an inevitable shift back to normal after the two countries achieved their shared goal of getting rid of the Taliban.
Standing behind a row of colorful juice blenders, Mr. Razavi says he isn't counting on the United States to begin any new initiative against Iran.
"The U.S. isn't going to do anything," he says. "Bush is just using Iran for his own political purposes. He's dishonorable, too."

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