TEHRAN—Memo to Secretary Clinton: Iran is neither a military dictatorship nor or a police state. Yet. There is no visible military presence at the international airport, where despite a European ban on flights to and from its capitals in mid-April when I arrived, jumbo jets discharged and loaded thousands of passengers a day arriving and leaving for points east and west. Tehran's sleek and bustling Imam Khomeini international airport reminded one that an Icelandic volcano had temporarily managed to do to Europe what no American administration has succeeded in doing to Iran: isolating it -- though not for lack of effort.
There is also no visible military presence in the sprawling city of some 12 million souls and at times it seems an equal number of cars -- save for the occasional hapless-looking, newly shorn, and unarmed young army conscript in fatigues, begging a ride on the back of a motorcycle or in a shared taxi, a presence that has always been visible in any city in Iran, even in days of the monarchy. The mind-numbing traffic congestion, complete gridlock, on the newly transformed one-way Valiasr Avenue, the broad boulevard that runs from the south of the city all the way to the foothills in the north, the Sunset Boulevard of Tehran and the scene of many past marches and demonstrations in support of the Green Movement that sprang up after last year's disputed election, is as it always was. Drivers -- men, and often mal-veiled and heavily made-up women -- listen to loud pop music of the sort frowned upon by religious authorities, just as they always did, ignoring traffic laws and even the entreaties of the occasional traffic cop. The restaurants and cafes are bustling; weekly, and sometimes nightly, salons at the homes and offices of the elite continue unabated in a city where public entertainment is limited, the conversations usually fearlessly political in nature. Taxi drivers, reliable barometers for the average Iranian as they include everyone from professional working class drivers to the highly educated unemployed, and moonlighting office workers, continue to offer wisdom on everything from the political situation to social ills and the state of the economy.
My driver at the airport, an eager man in his forties who jumped out of his car with a smile, rather than the more normal scowl, to stow my suitcase, was likely from the professional class of cabbies -- for the airport trade is strictly controlled -- and it didn't take him long to explain his latest theory. "Business is bad, huh?" I first asked him, as he took off at an unsafe speed, barely missing a family struggling to load their private car with a mountain of luggage, presumably containing Western consumer goods from Dubai. "Yeah," he said, "there are no flights from Europe." I mentioned something about the travel ban potentially contributing to Iran's economic stagnation. "I hear Europe could be cut off for days, even weeks!" he excitedly replied. "But you know, Allah always finds a way to punish the wicked, doesn't He? England is the worst country in the world and what happens? Their airports are shut down by God."
I laughed. "England is evil," he continued. "What if their airports don't reopen for a month, or forever! What if Allah decides the volcano will continue to erupt forever? England will finally go down the drain, and we'll be standing!" My driver's dislike of the U.K., and his suspicion that Britain is behind all of Iran's (and the world's) woes, is actually shared by many Iranians, even middle and upper-middle class Iranians, although perhaps not to his extent. But Britain, particularly since the Iranian presidential election of 2009 and in the age of a likeable Barack Obama, has to some degree replaced the U.S. as the Great Satan (it was always labeled the "Little Satan," along with Israel) for Iranian supporters of the Islamic system. As if reading my thoughts, though, the driver then said, "Of course, I'm not saying we don't have problems here in Iran; not at all."