Iranians Eager for Hussein to Be Ousted

Times Staff Writer

Iran would seem to be an unlikely corner of the Middle East to find support for Washington's plans to unseat Saddam Hussein. But despite decades of poor relations with the U.S. and their pique at being labeled part of an "axis of evil," most Iranians are eager to see the Iraqi dictator's demise.

Those who fought in Iran's war with Iraq in the 1980s and those for whom that war is little more than a childhood memory equally want to see Hussein's regime toppled. Few doubt that he is dangerous, armed with terrible weapons and a bane to the region.

"The day Saddam Hussein is arrested, killed or exiled, Iranians will pass out sweets in the streets," said Mehdi Ansari, a newspaper vendor. His clapboard kiosk on Vali Asr, Tehran's main boulevard, does brisker business these days as Iranians follow the latest twists in the U.N. inspection effort that they expect will eventually lead to war.

This enthusiasm for a campaign against Hussein is rare in the Middle East, where the prevailing belief holds that the U.S. is targeting Iraq to control its oil and ensure Israel's security. America's Arab allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, fear that war with Baghdad will further radicalize their already deeply anti-American populations. Iraq has historically been Iran's most serious rival for regional influence. Eight years of war drained Iran's economy and left deep wounds that still have not healed. The slaughter of tens of thousands of young Iranian men by Hussein's forces produced a grim culture of martyrdom that the country is still trying to shake.

At least 300,000 Iranians were killed in the war, and more than half a million were wounded.

However, the depth of Iranian antipathy for Hussein predates both the war and the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s.

Iranians and Arabs are ethnically and culturally distinct, and a prejudice against Arabs has run through Iranian history for centuries. After the Iranian national soccer team lost a game to Iraq in 1977, the shah wept openly before fans at Tehran's Azadi Stadium.

Because Iranians speak Persian instead of Arabic and identify with a culture that predates Islam, most of them do not have the emotional ties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that reinforce the anger Arabs feel toward the United States, which they see as Israel's sponsor. Iranians do not sleep and rise with televised images of Palestinian suffering, as Arabs throughout the region do.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iranians watched with satisfaction as a U.S.-led coalition routed Hussein from Kuwait. Where there is ambivalence about a new U.S.-led war against Iraq among ordinary Iranians, it often stems from a revulsion at the potential human cost rather than animosity toward the United States.

Azzam Rahimi, a 45-year-old homemaker, lost her son in the Iran-Iraq War and comes to Tehran's Behesht-e Zahra cemetery every week to visit his grave.

"Look at all these dead young men," she said, nodding down a seemingly endless stretch of slender gravestones of soldiers killed in the war. "They're all here because of war. If there had been no war, so many young men wouldn't be lying under the dirt."

But Iranians are also well aware of the implications of a new war for themselves. If Washington moved to disarm Hussein by force, the result would be the third war the U.S. has fought on Iran's borders in 12 years.

Some Iranians, particularly the young, say they would actually welcome a U.S. presence in Iraq because it would increase pressure on both their country's conservative Islamic regime and the fractured reformers who oppose it. The regime's efforts to portray the U.S. as the "Great Satan" have failed to sway young people, who are a clear majority of Iranians. About 70% of the country's 70 million people are younger than 30.

Young people in particular associate the U.S. with the opportunities and freedoms that Iran, with its sluggish economy and stern moral code, lacks. They believe that better relations with the U.S. would revitalize Iranian life and help the country shed its pariah status.

According to a poll conducted in September, 75% of Iranians support dialogue with the U.S., and some believe that a long-term U.S. military presence next door could accelerate the process of change in Iran.

Others, who despair of the clerical regime's capacity for reform, even hope that after Iraq, the U.S. will take on Iran.

The fantasy that the U.S. could swoop in and remove Iran's hard-line regime, as it did the Taliban in Afghanistan and threatens to do to Hussein, bespeaks the depth of frustration at the pace of internal reforms.

When newspaper headlines suggest that Washington's resolve may be wavering, anxiety sets in.

"Are they changing their mind?" Goli Afshar, a 23-year-old student, asked as she alternately tightened and loosened her grip on a mug at a cafe on Gandhi Street. "Can they hurry up with Iraq already, so they can get on with attacking us?"

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