Q: What is the largest misconception even educated Americans seem to harbor about the Iranian public?
The biggest misconception even educated Americans harbor about the Iranian public is that it is homogeneous. There are over seventy million Iranians; all individuals with their own tastes, views, and hopes. Some are not that devout, but most are religious. Some regard religion as a private matter, others see it as a key component of Iran’s socio-political make-up. Among the latter there is great disagreement about what this actually means in practice. Some emphasize the basic ethical teachings of religion, while others look to religion for the very rules and regulations of everyday life. So the question so often heard–“what do Iranians think of…?”–has literally no answer.
While Iranian society is deeply divided on matters of lifestyle, relations with the West, the place of religion in society, and the ideal form of government, the vast majority of all Iranians is deeply patriotic, even nationalistic. In spite of their ethnic diversity, Iranians have a sense of nationhood: after all, the Iranian state in its current form has been there for five centuries, which is longer than any other state in the region. Iran was never anybody’s colony and has always been a player in international politics, albeit not a particularly powerful one most of the time. This means that even Iranians who profoundly disagree with the Iranian government do not want to see their country pushed around by other countries.
—Dr. Houchang Chehabi is a Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University. He has published two books, Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran Under the Shah and Khomeini and Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran Under the Shah and Khomeini. In 2013 he co-edited Iran and the Challenges of the Twenty-First Century: Essays in Honour of Mohammad-Reza Djalili.