Americans in Iran are generally regarded with a degree of skepticism, but not for the reason you might think. Iranians want to know what you’re doing in Iran, not because they suspect you of plotting a coup, but because they know American passport holders could spend their vacations anywhere else on earth (give or take a few tin-pot communist police states), and feel sorry for you. They are almost always friendly and eager to tell you there are no hard feelings. “Ninety percent of Iranians love America,” is a widely cited statistic, though its not clear if this is based on actual data. Eventually, this becomes rather eerie, as if everyone is reading off the same approved script.
Nazri, a student studying computer animation, offered the boldest riff on the “We love America” line, leaning in close to whisper “and Israel,” though I am not convinced this is a 90-10 issue. Moments later, a mullah in a black turban strolled by and leered in our direction. “Very dangerous,” Nazri said after he passed. “I f—king hate them.” Also, can I get him a job in California? Not everyone is so gracious toward Americans. A few (say 10 percent) of the locals, mostly older men, simply said, “Okay,” and sauntered away after I told them my nationality.
Talking to locals seems to always paint a slightly different picture of the country than the one we received from our guides on the bus. One day I stumbled upon a coffee shop run by Armenian Christians. The barista disagreed with Cyrus’s assessment that religious minorities were valued members of Iranian society, and could practice their faith openly without harassment. “No, it’s not good,” he told me. “If I could, I’d leave.”