'We would welcome your troops with flowers...'
While Iraq has been grabbing the headlines, Iran, its once tempestuous neighbour, has been relatively quiet - or has it? John Casey spent two weeks in the country and found that a new generation has tired of the claustrophobic rule of the old mullahs, so much so that many people envy the invasion of Iraq
They were wildly excited. To my astonishment, one of them began saying "Pahlavi! Pahlavi!"
I said: "You mean the Shah? He was good?" "The son of Pahlavi - very good!" He was talking of the soi-disant Crown Prince, Reza Pahlavi, heir of the late Shah, Mohammed Pahlavi. Another said, with particular emphasis: "We are Iranians, Iranians." I said: " 'Persians' even?" "Yes, Persians - Cyrus the Great, Darius."
I then realised that the excitement was not just over the destruction of Saddam - a man universally hated for the eight-year "imposed war" that he fought against Iran, in which half a million died and many thousands were gassed - but over the prospects the war might have for Iran itself. Another said: "This government is worse than Saddam Hussein. You cannot be serious. But yes - if the Americans and English come and land at the airport with their troops, Iranians will throw flowers at them. Please tell them this in England, please, please, please!"
Does this represent Iranian opinion? Is their antagonism to their own government so intense that they would actually welcome foreign invaders? Well - I don't know. This was a sentiment uttered in the excitement of the moment - even though I heard it later more than once. Iran has known emotional convulsions in the past - such as the one that brought down the Shah. An enormous nostalgia for the days of the Shah has now built up, along with a yearning for a state not ruled by the clergy.
But I wanted to hear both sides of the argument, to talk to religious conservatives as well as liberal secularists. After all, the people who brought about the astonishing revolution of 1979 must still have something to say in their own defence.
A chief paradox about Iran is that the President, his government and the Parliament (Majlis) in effect constitute the Opposition. The regime is the religious authorities, especially the Supreme Leader - the Ayatollah Khamenei - and the essentially clerical Council of Guardians. They have an ultimate veto over candidates for the presidency and for the Majlis, and even over laws enacted by the parliament. They control the army and the security forces.
My taxi-driver from the airport had pointed out the old street names: "That was Eisenhower Street - after your President."
"I am English."
"Oh - there was also Churchill Street, and Elizabeth Street." I said: "Churchill once came to Teheran."
"Will he be coming again?"
His complaints about the regime began immediately: "The Basijis [the street-enforcers of the regime, who used to rough up women who showed too much hair from under their scarves] stop you - they say 'Have you been using alcohol?' - they smell your breath - off to prison.
"You are in your car with a girlfriend. They ask: 'Is she family? What is her father's name? Her mother's name?'
You say: 'She's my girlfriend.' Off to prison."
This is the inner toughness of the regime, what gives it the strength to face down, if necessary, the present extreme unpopularity of the Islamic republic.
And unpopular it certainly is. I was often told that so disliked are the mullahs that people in the ''shared taxis'' of Teheran will never allow the driver to stop to pick up one of the clergy, and even that mullahs will take off their turbans when riding in taxis, lest people shout abuse at them through the windows.