TEHRAN — As world powers in Geneva negotiate the future of Iran’s nuclear development program, Islamist hard-liners here continue to warn of a deceitful, perfidious West scheming to enfeeble the Islamic Republic.
Yet in the trendy, smoke-filled cafes of this busy capital city, ritualistic denunciations of the United States are as passe as instant coffee among the mostly young, jeans-clad set.
“In art, in fashion, in cinema and in our daily lifestyle, we copycat American culture,” said Sarah, proprietor of a cozy cafe in the basement of a high-rise in northwest Tehran. “There is a big difference between the approved culture and the reality of urban lifestyles in big cities like Tehran.”
Just as Western perceptions of Iran are far from monolithic, the view here is diverse, especially among those born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, roughly half the population. The passage of time, the growth of mass media, satellite television and the Internet, the relative ease of travel — many Iranians have relatives in the West and have visited the United States and Europe — have helped temper hostility since the days of the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy.
The surprise landslide election in June of President Hassan Rouhani, who vowed to reach out to Iran’s longtime enemies, dramatized a desire to put aside revolutionary exhortations and end the nation’s isolation and crippling economic sanctions.
Many young Iranians gravitate to the snug coffeehouses that have sprung up in recent years and wouldn’t be out of place in London, New York or Los Angeles. The venues are occasionally subject to crackdowns by the nation’s so-called morality police, who appear to view the caffeine-driven gathering spots, though legal, as vaguely seditious in a culture where tea remains the preferred beverage and men and women are not supposed to mingle in public.
Among the espresso crowd, “Death to USA!” — the cherished motto of Iran’s hard-liners — seems an unwelcome throwback to a distant era.
“I wear jeans and I eat fake American fast food,” said Sasan, 26, seated in a cafe near Revolution Square, who, like others interviewed, asked that his family name not be used because of privacy concerns. “The Islamic revolutionary culture has not influenced our tastes. In fact, our parents’ generation has failed to instill revolutionary values in us.”
Indeed, many younger Iranians regard the storming of the embassy and the seizure of U.S. hostages — long considered iconic symbols of resistance — as rash acts that initiated decades of animosity and economic isolation.
“It was a blunder that my father’s generation committed,” said Amirali, 26, another cafe patron. “Why should we suffer for their mistake?”
Some here fervently anticipate an end to trade restrictions.
“My marketing professor was saying that if the United States and Iran resume normal relations, the Iranian middle and upper classes will rush to buy U.S. brand refrigerators, washing machines and so on,” said Sasan, an engineer enrolled in a marketing course to expand his skill set in a sanctions-ravaged economy. “I believe this 100%.”
The exotic attraction of Western products was evident on a recent day at a small refreshment stand where a pair of fashionable young entrepreneurs was promoting sugarless fruit juice and Western-style coffee.
“We are telling our customers that one important ingredient of this juice is imported from the USA,” said Vida, who flashed jet-black hair beneath her mandatory, but colorful, head scarf. “How can we chant, ‘Death to USA!’? We don’t want anything to do with politics,” she said, eliciting nodding agreement from her partner, Omid, a spiky-haired twentysomething wearing purple shoes and a black overcoat.
Many young Iranians apparently believe that those who have profited from the sanctions are reluctant to see any easing of trade bans.
“This whole ‘Death to USA’ business is serving the interests of those who make a lucrative living as middlemen breaking the sanctions,” said Alireza Qajar, 36, a plastics importer who was washing down pancakes with French-roast coffee at a cafe.
One sector that has experienced a sort of boom in the sanctions era is real estate, since affordable housing is perpetually in short supply.
In some instances, empty buildings slated for demolition have attracted another Western-oriented, edgy phenomenon: graffiti artists, who, like coffeehouse patrons, tend to take a dim view of the officially enforced antipathy for the West. They see their transitory creations as bold individualist statements against a stultified status quo.
“Here, we are free to express ourselves and vent our frustrations,” said a tagger who goes by the handle Bum! Bum!, part of a crew that recently spent 16 days spray painting the walls of a condemned apartment building with whorls, curlicues and stylized letters and figures.
Once finished, the crew photographed its work and posted it on the Web before the building was torn down.
“We have practically lived here for 16 days, eating and sleeping,” said graffiti artist Shayan, 21, an engineering student with dreams of emigrating to Canada. “Now we have to find another place to take out our anger.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.