Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 4

As Cliff and I read comments on all three of his posts on Iran, we realized that there was a missing piece – that of more detail on the dialogue. There is only so much you can fit into a blog post before losing the attention of readers, so he has continued the series with one more post.

I think this could be one of the most important posts ever published on Communicating Across Boundaries for in it we have word for word some of the concerns of a country isolated for 30 years. Please read and share as you feel appropriate. 


Many of you have asked for more specific details of the conversations our delegation had with the Iranian thought leaders we met during our week in Tehran and Qom. In this post I want to go deeper into some of what was discussed during our time in Iran. 

It is important to know that our delegation consisted of ten academics from ten different institutions and went to Iran as private citizens. We were political scientists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and theologians. We were Christians, Jews and agnostics. We were Republicans, Democrats, Socialists and Libertarians. Our goal was to meet with Iranian academics, clerics and think-tank leaders. We were well aware of the chasm that has existed between our two governments, as well as the perceptions of our populations, since the Iranian revolution.

According to mediator, Douglas Noll, one of the key principles of peacemaking is the following:

The peacemaker is charged with the sacred duty of creating a refuge where people from different backgrounds know they will be heard and understood, where their needs and ideas will be respected, and where they can safely do the difficult work of reconciling their differences.”

Each of us stepped off the plane at Imam Khomeini International with a desire to listen to our Iranian hosts but to also have the freedom and tact to ask some of the “hard questions” in our mind about Iranian human rights and academic freedom.

During the week we met at eleven different venues with over two hundred people, representing over thirty different organizations. As you can imagine that is a lot of talking, and listening and you could imagine translating. The majority of the speakers we interacted with spoke English and many of them has obtained their higher education degrees in the U.S. or Europe.

Our delegation leader, Dr. James Jennings, would begin each session with a reiteration of why our delegation had come. We were there to listen and begin a dialogue between our parties. We did not represent the U.S. government or its foreign policies, but were there to discuss a wide-range of topics.

I would say that the hardest realization was to hear how isolated Iran has felt these three decades since the Iranian Revolution. We were listening to people, who for some of them, had the first opportunity to share (i.e., vent) with an American audience. I could envision years of conversations they had been having with each other about this regional and global isolation and the effects the sanctions had on their society.

As mentioned before, Iranians are passionate and vocal by nature and we were able to listen to them. Let me list a few topics that the Iranians wanted us (and vicariously other Americans) to hear:

“Your sanctions are killing us slowly, We cannot import certain chemicals to ease our traffic pollution and many of our medicines are too expensive for the general population.”

“Your academic journals are rejecting our papers and research in the name of ‘sanctions’.”

“We want to collaborate with your academic institutions.”

“We want Iranian-American exchange programs for university students.

“We want you to see how the sanctions have limited us and made us more self-reliant.

“We are proud of our Islamic Revolution and its principles.

“Our Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa stating that any nuclear bomb is anti-Islamic.”

“We are providing women with education and support. Sixty percent of our university students are women.”

“Your government is hypocritical. You talk about human rights, yet you support the country of Saudi Arabia that will not even allow its women to vote or drive cars.”

“We believe that our government needs to protect society from the ills of modernity.”

“We have challenges with our youth and joblessness.”

“We have a problem with drug smuggling from Pakistan and Afghanistan. We have over one million drug addicts that we are trying to rehabilitate.

These are the topics that members of our delegation wanted the Iranians (and vicariously their government) to hear:

“We are individual academics. We do not represent the American government or U.S. foreign policy.”

“How is your society addressing human and civil rights violations?”

“Why is your government supporting the regime of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon?”

“What is the status of women in your society?”

“Why can’t American tourists come to Iran and travel on their own.”

“What are your nuclear intentions? Are they just for energy purposes or for obtaining a nuclear bomb?”

“What about the freedom of religion in Iran? In the first declaration of human rights, Cyrus the Great stated in principle #4: Every man has the right to choose his own religion.”

“What is the status of Iranian Christians, Zoroastrians and Baha’i who have been imprisoned for their beliefs?”

“Many Americans want relations between Iran and the U.S. to be normalized.”

We had many honest and probing conversations with our Iranian hosts in the formal sessions and also over meals and tea. We were involved in peacemaking by trying to explain the rationale of some of the decisions made by our government, academic intuitions and journals. We listened to one another and trust that we will be able to bring more delegations to Iran and to host Iranian participants at our U.S. institutions.

Peacemaking is never clean-cut and solutions are rarely solvable in one sitting. The desire to be heard by the other party is the first step in reconciliation and rapprochement.


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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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