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Visiting Iran

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Ed visiting a mosque in IranEd visiting a mosque in Iran

May 1, 2007

The Islamic Republic of Iran is really, really, really and again really very different from what you hear in the West.
—S. Rahim Mashaee, VP of Iran speaking to the delegation

A few weeks ago (February 28 to March 13) I had the rare opportunity of visiting Iran. I say “rare” because few US activists - and few policymakers - know that controversial and fascinating nation firsthand. Despite being urged to do so by key Republicans, Mr. Bush refuses even diplomatic relations with Iran.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation [www.forusa.org] organized our 25-person “civilian diplomacy” delegation. Most of us were seasoned activists and internationalists. Accompanied by our Iranian guide/translator, we saw the cities of Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan and Qom.

Though we sometimes met reserve, without exception we experienced courtesy. (This came as no surprise as that’s generally the case abroad - even in countries extremely wary of the US.)

One of the many asymmetries between our two countries is that few US-born Americans speak Farsi, Iran’s first language, but many Iranians spoke to us in English. Although Farsi is spoken by tens of millions in one of the world’s most strategic countries, my computer spellcheck doesn’t even recognize “Farsi.”

I can’t claim to have had in-depth, one-on-one conversations: that will have to wait until next time and for less formal encounters. I did however have lunch with R., a grad student at the University of Tehran who fully expected the US to attack Iran soon. It would by no means be the first time Iran suffered from US aggression. The US supported its then-ally Saddam Hussein in his 1980s war on Iran. So significant is this war for Iranians that our first morning in-country we spent at the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support [www.scwvs.org]; next we were taken to a rehab center to meet veterans with spinal injuries from that war.

In Iran I was moved by the sheer beauty of design and architecture. I’m thinking of carpets and crafts, but more of the mosques and squares and bazaars in Iran’s centuries - or millenia - old cities. I particularly liked the lovely parks and bridges with which Esfahan frames the river that runs through it. In Shiraz, we paid our respects at the tombs of Iran’s famed medieval poets, Hafez and Sa’di - in the US prominent monuments like these are usually reserved for presidents or illustrious generals.

Tour constraints are real - whether in some western industrial power or in states with high degrees of social control and surveillance. Even with far more than this slight exposure to the country, I wouldn’t presume to generalize about such an old and demographically complex land as Persia/Iran.

The Bush administration’s self-excommunication from the 70 million people of Iran is nuts. More, it’s dangerous. The danger, let me hasten to explain, doesn’t come from Iran; it comes from what the US - in its greed and ignorance - may do to Iran. And, as in the Iraq debacle, from the blowback that’s sure to follow.