Iran awaits more than just a change of face in the White House

Tehran taxi drivers might not know where the US embassy used to be, especially if they weren’t around when the Islamic Revolution took place in 1979. But ask for the “nest of spies” and they will head as fast as the permanently gridlocked traffic allows to Taleghani Avenue, where slogans and murals on a long brick wall proclaim a historic victory over “global arrogance”.

Americans remember the compound as the scene where their diplomats were held hostage for 444 days until finally being freed in January 1981 as a gesture to Ronald Reagan, the incoming Republican president.

Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter – the Democrat who had urged Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to make concessions to the opposition – ended his term with another stinging humiliation from the man who removed Pahlavi from the Peacock Throne, Ayatollah Khomeini.

It was a coincidence that this year’s anniversary of the storming of the embassy yesterday fell so close to the American presidential election, providing a vivid and timely reminder of the tortured relationship between the US and Iran .

The speeches to mark the anniversary from the podium outside what was once called Roosevelt gate were predictably fiery. Familiar slogans – “Death to America” “Death to Israel” and “Death to Zionism” – were chanted in Farsi, Arabic and finally English to ensure maximum impact. Young Basij volunteers in camouflage gear and green Imam Hussein headbands sang sweetly of sacrifice and martyrdom. War veterans in wheelchairs were given place of honour on carpets rolled out in the street.

Iranians say that the turnout at such set-piece official events is in decline and only kept up by bussing in soldiers, militiamen and children who are given the day off school to carry placards, wave banners, and burn the odd flag. The embassy rally has the ritualistic, symbolic quality of something that is done because it has been done for years, not because it means that much any more.

Massoud, a 15-year-old Tehran schoolboy, posed happily with a “Death to the USA” poster, oblivious to the irony of his Colorado Rockies sweatshirt, jeans and trainers. “I hate the US government, not the people,” he explained. “And especially not those who love justice and don’t want to dominate the world.”

Only the teenage girls, some in black chadors though many with headscarves draped loosely over carefully-arranged hair, looked any different from their American counterparts.

“If the US embassy re-opened and started issuing visas to Iranians again, a lot of these people would be queuing up to get one,” quipped Hussein, a teacher and trenchant critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Many of my friends are thinking of leaving the country if they can because they are so unhappy with the way the government is running things.”

Officially, there is little interest here in the outcome of the US election. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, has spoken of “deep-seated differences” between the two countries, apparently seeking to squash speculation about any sudden change, or at least ensuring that he will control it if there is.

“Obama and McCain have differences over tactics, not strategy,” argued Hamidreza Taraghi of the Islamic Coalition party, an Ahmadinejad ally. “Anyway they are both sponsored by the Zionists so we can’t expect they won’t be influenced by them.”

Jamal, a middle-aged driver, wanted to see John McCain in the White House because “he will attack Iran and set us free”. Yet he also wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons (the government insists, to widespread scepticism abroad, that its only motive in developing nuclear technology is to generate power). “We are threatened by the US and Israel. If the Jews have the atomic bomb, why shouldn’t we?”

Voices in the reformist camp are more nuanced about the prospects of an Obama win. Hossein Adeli, head of the Ravand Foundation, the country’s only non-official NGO, predicts that positive gestures from Washington will be met by greater Iranian cooperation over Iraq and Afghanistan. “If Obama wants to change the image of America in the world Iran is one area were he can demonstrate it,” he said. “It would give him the edge over his predecessors.”

With so much at stake it is natural that the world is focused on the drama of the race for the White House. But, the Iranian reformists suggest, it may be that their own presidential election next June will prove almost as crucial.

Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust – the latter at least an embarrassment to many here – will likely be a serious barrier to any rapprochement. But if Obama makes it to the Oval Office he could expect to find an easier interlocutor in Mohamed Khatemi, the former president who oversaw a partial thaw in US-Iranian relations until George Bush’s “axis of evil” speech and the subsequent focus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Reformists hope Khatemi will stand again, pointing to reliable polling that shows his popularity ratings more than double those of Ahmadinejad.

But it is highly uncertain whether he will stand, and unlikely that he or any other reformist could actually win.

“For Iranians, the election in the US is not important,” said Mohammed Ali Abtahi, a cleric and former vice-president under Khatemi. “What is important is what happens here.”

Farnaz, a 22-year-old animator, was born years after the drama of Tehran’s “nest of spies” and barely glances at the angry slogans on Taleghani Avenue. Farnaz prefers Obama to McCain or Bush. But for her, too, Iran’s biggest problems lie closer to home – and their solution in the hands of her compatriots. “If Ahmadinejad goes and is replaced by someone else,” she smiled, “then I’m sure things can get better here.”