You are now free to move about the country

It is not impossible for an American to visit Iran, as very determined P&G prof Patrick O’Neil found this summer. His report:

“Why are you going to Iran? You can’t go there, can you?”

Last winter I began to plan a trip to Iran, and as it started to take shape these where the two questions I most frequently encountered. In fact they were questions I asked myself. The reasons were complicated.

As an undergraduate 20 years ago I decided against a typical study-abroad program and instead headed for Eastern Europe, interested in experiencing communist rule firsthand. A year in a small town in southeastern Hungary exposed me to more than I could have imagined, and while no one saw it at the time, soon communism would be finished there. That trip made me certain that I wanted to study and teach politics, which culminated in a return to Hungary and a dissertation on the collapse of the Communist Party.

After Sept. 11, I began to offer a course on terrorism in the Department of Politics and Government at Puget Sound and also to teach a section on Iran in my introductory course in comparative politics. These were new topics for me; I hadn’t been to the Middle East and had to immerse myself in the nuances of the region. I finally traveled to Israel for a workshop on counterterrorism but still had no personal experience in the Muslim world. So why not Iran? While an outlier in the region, Iran was a central player in the rise of political Islam and the current tensions across the region and with the West. Plus I had a sense of the similarities between Iran now and Eastern Europe 20 years ago, where a utopian ideology prevailed under an authoritarian system.

The only problem, of course, is that you can’t go to Iran. Or at least that’s what everyone told me, including no less an authority than Foreign Policy Magazine, which recently stated that restrictions on Americans “makes independent travel essentially impossible.” But since I’m both stubborn and prone to Web surfing, I eventually found a travel agency in Tehran authorized to handle Americans. They worked up a guided itinerary, ran the paperwork through the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and after a couple of months I was issued a visa and ready to go. The university also helped support my trip, and my students provided a list of things they wanted me to see—not tourist sights, but everyday life in Iran.

The first realization that I was really headed to Tehran came when I was changing planes in Paris and saw that I was one of the few Westerners to board the flight. Female passengers and cabin crew donned headscarves as we touched down, and, while others moved  through passport control quickly, I was left to cool my heels for two hours as paperwork was circulated and various phone calls made. Finally the authorities fingerprinted both my hands, and I was allowed to leave. I had 10 days ahead of me—a nonstop run through the major cities: Tehran, Yazd, Shiraz, Esfahan, and sights in between.

Tehran is crazy, noisy, ugly, wonderful. Like most capital cities, it’s the center of liberal politics, where women pull back their headscarves as far as permitted, where the wealthy shop in malls filled with imports no average Iranian could buy, and where the universities have been flash points for political protest.

My guide was a retired air force officer who had learned English from a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. He trained with the U.S. military, then returned home to revolution and the long Iran-Iraq war. We swapped lessons on Iranian and American politics, and he brought me up to speed on the last few thousand years of Iranian history.

In keeping with my interests, I wanted to attend Friday prayers at Tehran University, a massive event that first emerged during the 1979 revolution. A mixture of religion and politics, Friday prayers includes speeches by government and religious officials and is broadcast on national television. Imagine a mix between an American state of the union address and a sermon in a megachurch and you’ll get some idea of the event. I was told that a foreigner, especially an American, could not attend, but I thought we might at least ask. Again, persistence paid off. After some paperwork I was handed a journalist badge and led up into the press box, where I could watch and photograph to my heart’s content. Indeed, for the Iranian media, I became part of the event; when I would put my camera down they’d ask me to hold it back up, so they could photograph me photographing the crowd as they went through the obligatory ritual of chanting “down with America!”

But the chants, like much of the ideology in the country, seemed somewhat exhausted. This was similar to my experiences in Eastern Europe, where few retained their faith in communism or felt that the political system was headed in the right direction. But what this meant for Iran was not completely clear. For example, while the theocracy has alienated many people from religion, large swaths of the population remain very religious. Not all women wear headscarves because they are required to by law—for many it is an important symbol of piety and modesty, independent of politics. This became clear as one left Tehran and traveled to more conservative cities like Yazd, where the fashions of the capital were nowhere to be found.

Even among religious leaders there were those who were critical of the current political system, which they found to be an improper mix of faith and state. In Esfahan I wandered into a seminary and found myself invited in for a long conversation with an ayatollah—a high-ranking cleric. He expressed disdain for the theocracy, favoring instead faith guided by personal actions, not the dictates of those in power. This was not the expression of a “liberal” who sought a secular society, but someone who felt that a faithful society had to be one that emerged from the community, not from the dictates of the government.

Where the theocracy had failed to transform people’s relationship to God and politics, other values have remained and perhaps intensified. One is nationalism. Iran has always had a strong national identity, fused to faith in a way that is unlike many other countries.  Iranians are not Arabs and do not speak Arabic. Nor do they follow the dominant form of Islam, Sunnism, but instead are Shia. They are thus ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East—in some ways a curious mirror image of Israel. Not far beneath the surface one finds a nationalism that emphasizes the distinct nature of Shia Islam and views Arabs as foreigners who have historically conquered and oppressed Iranians, up to and including the war with Iraq.

In some situations, nationalism trumps faith itself. Many young Iranians have taken to wearing an ancient symbol of Zoroastrianism, an almost extinct faith that was once the state religion of the Persian Empire, as well as embracing certain pre-Islamic traditions and holidays. At an extreme, some have turned their back on Islam altogether as an alien faith, imposed by Arabs on Iran. At Pasargadae we visited the tomb of Cyrus the Great, one of the founders of the Persian Empire. There we struck up a conversation with three young Iranians, who heaped scorn on Islam and who insisted on teaching me “true” Persian expressions, as opposed to those borrowed from Arabic.

The Iranian economy is just as contradictory. As we know, the rising price of oil has been a great windfall to Iran. But this was also true in the 1970s, and that did not prevent the monarchy’s fall. While Iran is awash in oil, tight internal and external restrictions have made life difficult for the average Iranian. Some of the most basic aspects of globalization, such as international financial transactions, don’t apply. Credit cards? ATMs? Traveler’s checks? Forget it. To pay for my trip I entered the country with wads of hundred dollar bills stashed in various pockets. For me this was an inconvenience, but I soon realized that the real issue was that Iranians had almost no way to do electronic commerce or international purchases. Imports were controlled by the government and heavily taxed, so while an average Iranian might make less than $1,000 a month, a laptop computer would cost twice as much as here. Even gasoline is in short supply, a result of the absence of sufficient refining capacity. The difficult economic situation means that many of the young are unemployed and looking for a way out, to Europe, the U.S., or Canada.

And yet in the face of these difficulties, or perhaps because of them, Iranians find joy in their lives. The barrier between public and private is weak to nonexistent, and in summer the parks are filled with people picnicking, drinking endless amounts of tea, and smoking the occasional water pipe. Foreigners are treated with kindness and generosity. Before I arrived I decided that I would clearly identify who I was by wearing a pin with crossed Iranian and American flags. Iranians were delighted and baffled; I brought many and gave them all away. It seemed everyone I met had a family member in Los Angeles (or Tehrangeles, as they call it), and I have never felt so welcome in all my travels.

The lessons from my trip are not easily distilled. The revolution may have lost its fervor, but Iran is not necessarily headed toward a more secular culture. Citizens may be critical of our government and theirs, but this doesn’t extend to Americans themselves. As globalization quickens, Iran remains cut off from much of the outside world, for domestic and international reasons. None of this seems likely to change dramatically any time soon. As we drove past the nuclear research center at Natanz, ringed by antiaircraft guns, the diplomatic conflict we read about on a daily basis became frighteningly real.
There’s so much more to understand—a few days only scratch the surface—but I feel that at least I have a better sense of the complicated intersection between religion, politics, and society in Iran.  For me there is a strange déjà vu from 20 years ago, when I returned from another part of the world that Americans saw as inaccessible and dangerous, and to which few traveled. Iran gave me a better sense of the questions to be asked, not the answers. Answers will require much more work. And so I plan to return to Iran in the coming year.

— Patrick O’Neil