TEHRAN, Iran – Prior to the Islamic revolution, Iran and America shared very good relations. The former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had an army with modern hardware supplied by the U.S. There were direct flights between New York City and Tehran and the city was full of hotels run by major American chains.
But the once-friendly relations between the two nations came to a screeching halt in 1979 when cleric-led radicals ousted the U.S.-backed shah and the subsequent Iran hostage crisis when 52 Americans were held in the U.S. embassy for 444 days.
These days, Iranians’ relations with America are somewhat schizophrenic – the government is stridently anti-American, but many Iranians are not.
That is the opposite of other countries in the region where governments receive large amounts of money and military hardware from the U.S., but whose people generally dislike America.
Tehran’s dentist to the stars
A popular dentist in an affluent part of Tehran represents the love-hate relationship many Iranians feel toward the U.S.
In his Park Avenue-style dental practice, the latest Newsweek, Time and Architectural Digest magazines are on offer in the waiting room. A large flat-screen TV sits on the wall, along with an expansive fish tank and a framed dentistry degree from New York University.
Iranians are consumers who love brand names – even when it comes to their dental care. When a friend of mine introduced me to the dentist, he told me he is the guy to go to if I wanted to brag about where I get my teeth cleaned. He is, in essence, Tehran’s equivalent of a Beverly Hills “dentist to the stars.”
A large part of his reputation comes not just from the fact that he has all the latest, modern dentistry equipment, but that he was trained in the U.S. and offers Western-style service. He was educated in dentistry at NYU and lived, worked and studied from the East Coast to West Coast.
Coffee mugs bearing pictures of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs are on sale as a man works on a MacBook at a shop in northern Tehran on Jan.19, 2012. Despite the fact that Apple observes a U.S. embargo that restricts the sale of their goods in Iran, their products are wildly popular there.
Sporting fashionable glasses, a crisp blue button-down shirt and tie, the dentist, who is in his mid-40s, agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity.
“I am who I am because of my education in the States,” said the dentist. “I am very American, but my view on U.S. politics is very different.”
I asked him what he thought about the tough economic sanctions being imposed on Iran – which block access to the international banking system and hurt sales of Iranian crude oil – as a way to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.
“Why are there sanctions against Iran?” he said. “Wasn’t it America that helped Iran fire up its nuclear program 35 years ago? The sanctions just hurt ordinary people.”
At the same time, he praised Iranians’ resilience.
“After 30 years of sanctions, embargoes, war and threats of war, Iran has kept its head above water,” he said. “Most other countries would have collapsed, but Iranians have found ways to circumvent these problems; they help each other.”
NBC News speaks with citizens from around the globe, asking the question, 'What Does America Mean to You?'
The dentist believes that one reason for misunderstanding between America and Iran is that Americans have little real information on Iran – that they know only what they see on TV, which is often a very small part of the bigger picture.
For years, he says, he tried to convince American colleagues to give lectures on dentistry in Iran, but that they were reluctant to do so because of their perceptions. When one of them finally agreed to come, and experienced the famous Iranian hospitality and warmth, his perception of Iran changed very quickly.
Asked why he came back to Iran about eight years ago after spending most of his life in the States, he said he just felt like something was missing, adding that he loves Tehran because it’s like New York City – a noisy, fast-paced 24/7 place.
Steve Jobs photos on the wall
The desire for brand names in Iran that signify Western quality goes beyond dentistry.
Mohsen, who agreed to speak with me on condition that only his first name be used, owns an electrical goods store in Tehran selling mostly black market Apple products. (Typically, Apple, as well as other imported goods that would be subject to U.S. embargoes, come into Iran via Dubai and the Persian Gulf. They are sold openly in stores in Tehran).
He said that most Iranians love American products and culture and that personally he longs for the day that the two countries have normal relations.
Then a frown appeared on his face. “But,” he said, “they do things that even rub a moderate person, like me, the wrong way.”
“I read an article yesterday about an Iranian-American who went into an Apple store in the States and wanted to buy an iPad to send to her uncle in Tehran. When the sales person found out she was Iranian and wanted to send the iPad to Iran, the store refused to sell it to her,” he said.
“This is crazy! I sell 50 iPads and iPhones here a week. I have a picture of Steve Jobs on the wall! These sorts of things don’t do any good for relations between Iranian and American people.”
The story Mohsen related was widely reported in the U.S. An Apple employee in Atlanta declined to sell an iPad to an Iranian-American customer, citing company policy that aims to comply with U.S. trade sanctions with Iran that can lead to individual fines of up to $250,000.
In the meantime, Mohsen’s Apple products will have to remain on the black market.
Still, not all Iranians have such a moderate view towards the U.S. Hussein, a hard-line student at Tehran University, has a very negative view of the States. (He also spoke on condition that only his first name be used.)
“All America has done is try to bully Iran, chip away at its nuclear rights and steal our oil,” Hussein said.
“I don’t think we should be talking to the Americans because ultimately they want our demise,” he said. “Throughout history, they have interfered in our country, only harming us. We have nothing in common.”
This story is part of a series by msnbc.com and NBC News "What the World Thinks of US". The series aims to check the pulse on current perceptions of America's global stature during the election year and ahead of our annual Independence Day.
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