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How Iranian students view US

Students, scholars and civil servants in Iran fear the end game after Trump's scrapping of nuclear deal

Iran is a dangerous place these days, at least in a car. Traffic in the cities moves like Tetris, with drivers pushing their cars into any open space that will fit.

Trips begin in chaos and play out in confusion. How it ends is always up to God's will, everyone says.

I went to Iran this month to attend a conference on the Palestinians, Jerusalem, and the greater Middle East sponsored by an Iran-based non-governmental organisation.

On the sidelines of the meeting, I met students at Mashhad University, Ferdowsi University and at a woman's educational institute, as well as with visiting scholars from Teheran.

Just before the trip, the US withdrew from the nuclear accord, and while I was in Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

"What does America want from us? To force us to negotiate? We did, we agreed, already, in 2015," said one student in a reference to the year the nuclear agreement was signed.

Another said: "Regime change - do Americans even know we vote for our government here?"

In answer to my query about Iranians having indeed overthrown one government 40 years ago, a graduate student responded: "The Shah we overthrew, yes, but he was not selected by the Iranians, you installed him. Trump and Bolton want us to change our government? And why do they think we will, because you make it harder for us to purchase Western goods?"

Two American Studies students collectively translated a local idiom into "Who can sail an ark on such waters?", when asked if perhaps smarter, more targeted sanctions might move Iran to negotiate a new accord.

"Who would we send to talk? The hardliners? Mr Trump just told them they were right in 2015 when they said not to trust America."

ACCESS

Iranians have reasonable access to information. Web tools such as VPNs get around government blocks. Instagram and Facebook are popular.

These students are terribly familiar with the US, while terrified of it. Too many sat with me in a quiet room at a university and worried other Americans will someday come to kill them.

Outside, in Mashhad, there were no demonstrations, no flag burnings, and when I visited the central mosque after Friday prayers, more people were interested in a selfie with a foreigner than anything else.

But this is a religious city, home to the sacred shrine of the Eighth Imam, and from reception chats, to a speech at the conference, to a sermon at the central mosque, the clerics were harsh.

People from the Iranian foreign ministry spoke of a deep frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why 40 years after the Revolution, the US still questions the legitimacy and stability of Iran's complex democratic theocracy.

It would be naive to think a place as complex as Iran could reveal itself in a short visit, but the people I encountered took that as their mission.

They left me anxious, trying to calm the fears of aspirational people now seemingly cut off from aspiration, while bad actors in Washington and locally fill their gaps in understanding.

"Our future," said one scholar, "is already forgotten." - REUTERS

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year US State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose The Battle For The Hearts And Minds Of The Iraqi People and Hooper's War: A Novel Of WWII Japan.

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