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Iranians have odd view of US and vice versa

"Blacks are still lynched there without trials, by ordinary people," contends the latest portrait of the United States in the English- language Tehran Times. The picture of carefree hanging parties seems but one distortion on one side of a communications gap complicating the two-month- old hostage impasse at the US Embassy here.

UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, in Tehran to try to bridge the gap and resolve the impasse, had a second "useful and constructive" meeting with Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh Jan. 3. But at the end of the day, it remained unclear whether Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would meet the UN envoy.

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Many Iranians, particularly younger ones like the militants holding the US mission, seem convinced that US history froze somewhere in the tumultuous 1960s. They sometimes portray an American society on the verge of collapse from within.

Blacks battle whites, women battle men, rich battle poor, as many Iranians see it. Atop a corrupt American power pyramid, they reason, sits a President soon to toppled by an outraged, oppressed people sympathetic to Iran's grievances against Washington.

This vision, more than anything, may explain the release of 13 black and female hostages in November and Iran's stayed preference for black clerics in arranging a Christmas service for the remaining captives.

The strategy has not visibly paid off. There has been no immediate sign of a second American revolution or a surge of support among US blacks or women for the Tehran hostage-taking.

Yet it takes two to make a communications gap. Some Iranians, particularly those more recently in the United States, acknowledge that substantial American support for the embassy attack seems unlikely.

But, as one puts it, "The American view of Iran and of the embassy situation is equally subjective and unrealistic."

The Americans, as much of Iran sees it, have underestimated this country's animus against the deposed Shah, its resentment of US support for the old regime , and its fundamental sympathy with the students who seized the embassy.

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"Americans do nothing but talk about the hostages," one official here says. "They act as if the embassy incident were an isolated attack by a bunch of crazy kids. They seem incapable of realizing that there are widely held and legitimate grievances that underly this action."

Even educated Iranians tend to agree. Many are disturbed by the idea of holding typists, Marine guards, or cultural officers hostage for the policies of American presidents. But even some of these Iranians often stress that the students' grievances seem justified.

The students also appear to have struck a wide vein of nationalism -- and a resentment by an ancient land of a relative historical upstart such as the United States.

"All Americans seem to care about is their cars and their hamburgers," complains one woman professional, educated in Britain. "Americans must learn to respect other people."

An Iranian professor adds: "I want to go to America on vacation next year, and I want Americans to know I am Iranian and to realize and respect what that means."

Abolghassem Sadegh, chief Iranian liaison with foreign reporters, sits at his desk and leafs through an album of atrocity photos he says were compiled from seized records of Savak, the deposed Shah's secret police.

"Look at these," he says quietly, pointing to the images of mistreated, sometimes mangled humans. "Can't America see that this is the issue, that the real story lies beyond the walls of the embassy?"

A few days earlier and a few hundred miles south, a high-school teacher in a small hill town asked this reporter much the same question.

"If Americans came here, if they really saw Iran, don't you think they would understand our revolution? Don't you think that, because they are open people, they would see things and understand the embassy action?"

One answer may lie beside the Savak album on Mr. Sadegh's desk, in a letter sent by two private citizens from Washington, D.C., in mid-December.

We write "in anger," the Americans said, at Mr. Sadegh's charges that the American news media had distorted the embassy incident and hoodwinked the US public.

Did the media lie about the fact that hostages were being held, the handwritten note asks? That, the Americans said, was all that mattered.

They stressed that they were no great fans of the Shah. "But as long as 53 of us [Americans] are held, our ears are closed," the letter concluded.


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