- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

TEHRAN — Released at a time of growing popular dissatisfaction with anti-Western Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Hollywood box-office hit film “300” has produced a rare moment of accord between the Iranian people and their government.

The movie, based on the second Greek-Persian war, was condemned almost immediately after its March 9 release at the highest levels of the Iranian government, which saw it as a Western conspiracy intended to prepare international opinion for a military strike on Tehran.

“When such films are produced, they have the unfortunate effect of uniting us, the Iranian people, with our government, which is not a patriotic one, but an Islamist one,” said Hamid Bakhtiari, 68, a retired civil servant.

Since the film’s debut, events have given Iran’s Islamist government an additional boost in public support. They include: Iran’s capture of 15 British sailors and marines, a U.S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf and passage of sanctions by the U.N. Security Council over Iran’s nuclear program.

The United States has repeatedly said that it has no intention of attacking Iran. But many, if not most, Iranians believe otherwise.

“Under the present circumstances, if the Americans attack Iran it will raise vast protests by the Iranians because it is the Iranian people who will pay the cost of that attack,” said Ibrahim Yazdi, the head of Iran’s Freedom Movement. “So this will benefit the rightists, the extremists in Iran.”

The Warner Bros. film is an adaptation of a comic book based on the 480 B.C. battle of Thermopylae, when a small Spartan contingent held off the Persian army long enough for Athens to prepare for the decisive battle that was to come, according to Greek historical accounts. The film is rapidly approaching $200 million in box-office earnings.

It is expected to become the most popular movie of all time in Greece. But in Iran, it has triggered bewilderment and popular anger at what people perceive as a consistent negative stereotyping of the ancient Persians by Hollywood.

Just off Tehran’s central Haft-e Tir Square, customers cram into a tiny shop selling bootleg video discs inside a dusty shopping arcade. They flip through pirated action and art-house films while an employee keeps a lookout on the street for approaching police.

“All Hollywood likes to do is paint us in a bad light,” said a disappointed, middle-aged customer who was looking to buy “300.” “They like to show Iranians in a racist way.”

The movie is in great demand, but has not officially arrived. The shop’s owner, Siavash, is unwilling to give his full name because of the danger that his shop will be shut down for selling films that have not passed the Islamic republic’s stringent morality reviews.

“We don’t have a problem with history, with the fact that the Greeks beat us at Thermopylae,” Siavash said. “What we have a problem with is the ways in which the Americans like to show us. We don’t have a problem with the Greeks, but with the American film industry.

“Hollywood must always have a good and bad guy, but why is it that in historical films the Persians are the baddies and the Greeks the goodies?” Siavash asked rhetorically.

None of Iran’s 250 cinemas is scheduled to show the film. Few foreign films are distributed in local theaters, most of which show an almost exclusive repertoire of lighthearted Iranian comedies and existential, romantic dramas.

Javad Shamqadri, a cultural adviser to Mr. Ahmadinejad, set the tone for the criticism when the “300” film opened in the U.S. earlier this month.

He called “300” a “deviation of history” and slammed the portrayal of Persians as “ugly and violent creatures rather than human beings,” in comments to the Fars news agency.

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