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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