Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 3

Today ends the 3-part series on Iran. Thanks for reading these posts. One of the things that Cliff and I have said for years to people who spend time overseas is to make sure to process your time. Often that processing takes place through visiting with friends and writing in journals, and in this case translating the journal into a couple of blog posts. 



Having lived in Pakistan and the Middle East, I was used to seeing photos of the current president everywhere. No office or government building in Pakistan was complete unless you had a photo of President Zia al-Haq or in Egypt with President Hosni Mubarak. But in Iran we saw no photo of President Hassan Rouhani. Instead we saw the photos of Imam Khomeini and Iman Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. There were 5-6 story banners hanging from buildings all over Iran, as well as in every government office. I felt like I got to know both Imams by having looked at their photos all week.



While in Iran we were given a small taste of the immense history of Iran dating back to earliest civilization. Iranians are very proud of their extensive history. They say no other area of land has had so many different rulers and civilizations and dynasties. Most Americans are familiar with the Pahlavi dynasty that was in place at the time of the Iranian Revolution. There are no photos or images of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza. While in visiting the Tehran Bazaar I came across a small shop that sold items with the picture of Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar. The Qajar dynasty ruled Iran from 1785-1925. I stopped and purchased a set of six teacups with the ornate painting of Nasser al-Din Shah. I could’ve also bought ceramic plates, glasses, boxes and even martini glasses with his mustachioed bust. We were to later visit his exquisite Golestan Palace in the heart of old Tehran and see that the Qajars lived in extremely opulent surroundings, much to the dismay of their poor subjects. It seemed that modern Iranians were allowed to be enamoured with the Qajar shahs, but not the Pahlavi shahs!

BACK TO THE FUTURE: January 1979

Our delegation visited two important historical sites that seemed frozen in time: January 1979. The first was the former American Embassy. We parked our vans across the street and were told to only take photos of certain walls. There were security cameras along the walls with barbed wire fences on top. There were murals of the Iranian Revolution, including those of Imam Khomeini, the U.S. flag with the skulls instead of fifty stars. There was the requisite “Down with the USA” mural, but over all it was sedate. The embassy now has a museum and a center for Islamic teaching.

The second place we visited were the grounds of Saadabad in North Tehran, with the backdrop of the Alborz snow-covered mountain range. Saadabad was the royal grounds for the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties. This beautiful complex has many buildings located among the pines. We visited the Green and White Palaces. The White Palace was the home of the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his third wife, Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi. The décor is quite exquisite but frozen unchanged when they fled the country in January 1979. The dining room last hosted King Hussein of Jordan. The color television in Farah’s boudoir was the first color television in Iran. It felt like going back in time.


After the tour of the elaborate palaces of Saadabad we were taken to the humble home of Imam Khomeini. He lived in a middle class neighborhood and we were given a tour of his home, the mosque he officiated at and a small museum, primarily a photo gallery of the life of Imam Khomeini, including his personal effects. It was striking to see how simply he lived in just two basic rooms that he rented until his death. The people we talked to during the week often referred to him or his fatwas, religious statements, but they also seemed realistic about him as a person.


Even though the primary religion in Iran is Shi’a Islam there are Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian minorities. We had many discussions about religious freedom and pluralism in Iran. We had the privilege to visit an Armenian Catholic Church and speak with some of the Christians that attended it. Across the street we visited a fire temple for Zoroastrians, a monotheistic religion that centers around the worship of Ahura Mazda (Great Lord) and worshipped via light, including fire and the stars. We met a few Zoroastrians who were reading the Avesta in the fire temple and learned of their freedom to worship.


Each day I woke up and went out on my balcony on the 14th floor. I had a spectacular view of the Alborz mountain range, but within 2-3 hours that view was blocked by the pollution and smog of modern Tehran. Everyone spoke of how bad the pollution was and we heard multiple times that due to the sanctions on Iran, they were unable to import certain chemicals that would reduce pollution from cars, trucks and motorcycles. We heard, “the sanctions are slowly killing us” by the pollution. One of the days that we were there the pollution was so bad that all the public schools were closed.

We heard of the various other sanctions imposed on Iran. Iran can only export oil to five countries in the region. They cannot be paid in Iranian Rials but have to keep the money in banks in these countries in the currency of that country. No foreign banks can work in Iran, but it appears that this door might be opening for 1-3 foreign banks entering the market. Many banks and companies are poised to enter when the international community gives the green light.

One delegate we met said that the sanctions have been very hard on Iran but in one sense had made Iran less dependent on other countries and that they had allowed Iran to create new infrastructures, independent of foreign collaboration.


Our delegation made our way to the Imam Khomeini International Airport in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We had a 3:00am flight to Frankfurt. We were sad to leave and four of our handlers came with us and we had an emotional departure. They wanted to make sure that all of our needs were met and that we were taken care of until the very end. I often told our Iranian hosts, “This was my first trip to Iran, but will not be my last.”

You can read Part 1 and Part 2 by clicking here and here.
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37 thoughts on “Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 3

  1. I live in Saudi Arabia, but lived in Iran as a child. My husband and I are thinking of travelling there in the near future so your post was a very useful commentary. Did you write the follow up posts after your proposed future visit?


  2. Cliff, this is the most fascinating series of posts I have read in a long time. I certainly agree with you and Marilyn that you have to make sure to process your time … and we were the the lucky recipients of your observations and experiences. I know that’s how we felt when we were living in Khartoum for the implementation of Sharia Law and ultimate ouster of President Nimeri. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed – richly deserved. All the best, Terri


    1. Terri, thanks for reading these posts. I really wanted to share some of the amazing people we met there. It is important to process our visits outside of our comfort zones and to share with those who will listen around us. I’m sure that your time in Khartoum were amazing. You should write a blog post and send it to my wife here. Five members of our peace delegation had been on similar delegations to Khartoum meeting with academics, human rights activists and President Omar al-Bashir.


  3. What a fascinating series of posts! I dream of seeing rug weavers in the tribal regions of Iran someday. Your stories give me hope that it might actually be possible. Thank you so much for sharing your insightful experiences.


    1. Thanks for reading. Iran has some of the most stunning carpets in the world. I almost purchased one in Tehran but really wanted a different style. I was also in an expensive shop and not in the normal bazaar. You should try to go on a tour that would visit the tribal areas. One of my favorite carpets is the Black Baloch carpet.


    1. Lloyd, so pleased that you have been able to read these posts. I have been blessed to have traveled the world over (that’s how I met you when we were posted at Bitburg AFB) and to study languages. It looks as if I’ll be leading two more groups back to Iran this year, so more tales to tell.


  4. I wanted to thank all of you for reading these three posts about my recent trip to Iran. These posts were primarily written to take you on a journey behind the “Persian Curtain” and to provide a glimpse into modern post-revolutionary Iran. Marilyn has agreed to let me post one or two more posts sharing in more details our dialogue with our Iranian hosts. We had very frank and honest discussions and insights on a variety of topics from modern international & regional politics, the Iranian revolution, views of theocracy and democracy, academic freedom, a candid look at human rights and current prisoners and especially we brought us the protection of religious minorities in Iran (including Christians, Jews, Baha’i and Zoroastrians). Peacemaking is an important task and one must listen intently, speak deliberately and engage in a trust-building manner. To quote Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”


  5. One can’t ask more from a few blog posts than to gain a little understanding while being entertained. Thanks, Marylin for sharing him with us!


    1. I agree, Bruce, these posts were primarily to share about my trip there and the desire to humanize Iranians in a context that we don’t have the everyday opportunity to engage with.


  6. I agree with Weaving Tapestries…you can’t stop! I have so many questions. You’ve been granted an unusual and sacred privilege to travel to this place and it behooves you to keep talking! Keep unpacking it all. Keep processing it. And please do travel there again and again…but next time take a few of us with us. Imagine–we could form a delegation from Communicating Across Boundaries!


    1. I wanted to suggest the same thing, Robynn, and say, “please, please take me with you next time!” but didn’t have the nerve. Thank you for saying it first! I’m feeling braver now: We wanna go next time, Cliff!


    2. Robynn, thanks for reading these posts. I have been “unpacking” my trip and Iranian encounters the past month and will continue to do so in person and on this blog (as Marilyn permits).


  7. I very much enjoyed reading Cliff’s account of his visit to Tehran. It must have been fascinating. Of course the tour guides were selective in what they showed the group and told them. They took the group on a tour to see the austere lifestyle of the original Imam Khomeni, followed by the lavish lifestyle of the deposed Shah and his wife Farah Diba. No mention of the lavish lifestyle of the present Syed Khameni and his fellow Imams. They saw an active church and fire temple, seemingly enjoying freedom of worship. The group must have thought about and the imprisoned Christians and Bahais.


    1. Hu, thank you for your comment. It is true that our delegation was shown a limited view of current Iranian culture. I will be drafting another post to describe more of our substantive dialogue and especially our chance to discuss protection of religious minorities in Iran and about imprisoned people of faith.


  8. Cliff, I have so enjoyed this account of your too-short time in Iran which I have just read, back-to-back in one sitting! So great to have you represent America to people who have been “waiting 32 years” for you to come. You know just how to ingratiate yourself in social situations where others would feel awkward. The best part is that you will now have a new slew of stories to share with your fans back home! Thanks for using this blog to “process” your time in that amazing country.


    1. Ann, thanks for your comment. I have been sharing my stories with anyone in Boston who would listen. It is vital to share our “stories” about cross-cultural experiences to help us process them in our mind and to provide those around us with a closer view of another culture. I have been asked to co-lead two more delegations this year, so more posts to come.


  9. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying this series, Cliff. Your words and photos do indeed communicate across boundaries and you are revealing a world that most Americans have never seen. Thank you for that. Ever since we lived in Abu Dhabi back in the late ’80s and fell in love with the beauty and art of intricately hand-knotted Iranian carpets, I’ve wanted to travel to Iran. You have confirmed for me again my deep belief that people are more the same than they are different. I’ve known clerics of various religions over the years and most have a great sense of humor, their jokes made even more amusing by their unexpectedness. Perhaps I should stop being surprised! I especially love the welcome from the lady in the market. I’d like to think she’s waiting for me too. Someday!


    1. Stacy, thanks for your comments. You’ve lived so close to Iran it is a shamed that you were never able to visit. I know that many Iranians travel to Dubai for vacation. My hope is the more and more Westerners will be able to visit Iran as the doors open to tourists (and friends!)


    1. Pari, thanks for reading these posts. I will be submitting at least one more post to share more details of our delegation conversations about the current political, religious and society reality of modern post-revolution Iran.


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