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Iran Is Not What You Think
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War, many people believe, often results from cultural differences and misunderstandings. President Donald Trump’s assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani has Americans considering the possibility that we may soon add Iran to our list of unwinnable wars in the Middle East. As that calculus unfolds, no one questions the assumption that there are irreconcilable differences between our two nations that can only be worked out via more bloodshed.

Nothing could be further than the truth. No other people in the world are more temperamentally similar to Americans than Iranians. Certainly, the Iranians’ religion is different. So is their language. But we are a lot more alike than most Americans, including members of the news media, assume.

The problem is that very few Americans have been to Iran. The absence of diplomatic relations following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the ensuing hostage crisis that brought down Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the trade sanctions that prohibit American airlines from providing direct air service make it all but impossible for travelers to get inside the country and see what’s going on for themselves.

I’m not an expert on Iran. But this seems like an appropriate time to share what I learned nine years ago when I visited that country.

As I said, getting in wasn’t easy. I paid numerous visits to the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations — the closest thing Iran has to a consulate in New York — to little avail. Ultimately I shelled out a $5,700 “arrangement fee” (some would call it a bribe) to a Washington D.C.-based agency that worked through the “Iranian Interests” section of the Pakistani embassy there to secure visas for myself and two fellow cartoonists.

The main purpose of our trip was to travel through Afghanistan for a book I was writing. Since our itinerary through that war-torn country would end with the Afghan city of Herat near the Iranian border, we wanted to leave via Iran after some tourism and relaxation.

You can get an idea of how unusual our plan was from the incredulous reaction of the Afghan border policeman who greeted us after we crossed the border from Tajikistan. “Point of exit?” he asked. When we told him Iran, he laughed. “You are American! There is no way,” he replied. When he showed our Iranian visas to his colleagues, they couldn’t believe their eyes. “How did you get these?” they wanted to know.

Several weeks later, we walked across the border between northwestern Afghanistan and northeastern Iran. It seemed incredibly simple. We were already stamped in and waiting for a taxi when three bemused agents of Iran’s feared Ettela intelligence service tapped us on our shoulders and invited us into separate interrogation rooms. They grilled us for hours. Before they released us, my agent asked me, “Do you know why we questioned you so diligently?” I didn’t. “You three,” he replied, “are the first Americans to cross this border since 1979.” I don’t know if that’s true. Clearly we were rare birds.

The first thing that struck me, especially compared to the bleak devastation of Afghanistan, was how modern Iran was, even in this remote corner of the nation. Americans have an impression of the Middle East as a bunch of dusty, pockmarked ruins, but Iran looked and felt like Turkey or Israel in terms of its terrain and infrastructure. The second was how nice everyone was, even — and especially — after learning we were American.

As required by the government, we had arranged for a travel agent to meet us and shepherd us around. He was a nice guy, even though he liked to scam our money; we kept being put up in two-star hotels after we paid him for four.

From the start, Iran wasn’t what we assumed. On the train ride to Mashhad, our fixer disappeared for about an hour. Upon his return, he apologized and explained that he had picked up a woman who had taken him to her cabin for a quickie. His promiscuity wasn’t unusual. We were repeatedly flirted with or propositioned by women. The desk clerks at our hotel asked our fixer about our long beards, which we had grown out in order to blend in in rural Afghanistan. “Are your friends fanatics?” they wanted to know. “Would they spend the night with us?”

Along with our beards, we had acquired the traditional “shalwar kameez” white robes worn by conservative Afghans. Our fixer suggested we had a unique opportunity to smuggle ourselves into the “haram”(forbidden) section of the Imam Reza shrine so we could check out the stunning Timurid architecture. If anyone talked to us, our fixer advised we pretend not to understand them. Muslims come from all over the world to pray there, so we could pretend to speak a different language. Worshipers circled the tomb of the 9th century Shia martyr Ali al-Ridha seemingly in a trance, but whenever someone spent too long in the center, an attendant lightly dipped a pink feather duster strung from a pole onto the offender to ask him to move on.

Two incidents stood out for me.

At our hotel in Tehran, we overheard a European couple complaining to the desk clerks that they had been robbed of 1,200 euros the night before. The clerks repeatedly entreated them to report the loss to the police, but the Europeans were understandably hesitant. The next day, I encountered the pair in the elevator. “You won’t believe what happened,” the wife told me. “We went to the police, and they gave us 1,200 euros.” There was a law that foreign tourists had to be made whole if they suffered a financial loss due to crime. Iranians we talked to were surprised that it wasn’t the same in the West.


We flew from Tehran to Istanbul. At our last security checkpoint in Iran, airport security personnel ordered us to remove our baggage from the conveyor belt leading to the X-ray machine. Great, I thought, we’re going to be detained. “You are guests in our country,” the airport official advised us. “It would be rude to subject you to a search.” We were Americans, citizens of the Great Satan, at Ayatollah Khomeini International Airport!

Not everything was sweetness and light.

There is always a sense of tension that comes with lawbreaking and its potentially grave consequences. For the most part, however, we followed the rules. Most of the people we saw obeyed them, too, but just barely. Many women wore tightfitting manteaus and barely covered their hair.

When our Turkish Airlines flight lifted up from Tehran, many of the women on board dumped their chadors, revealing skin, sexy outfits and makeup. People smiled. Flight attendants began serving beer. This is what Iran would feel like if Iran’s government, which is not popular, were to go away tomorrow.

Trump’s latest actions and America’s myopic foreign policy, however, ensure that the religious government will probably remain in place for the foreseeable future.

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  1. Amuser says:

    Such a sterling example of ‘projection’! Following immediately after the Gen X’er article debacle, I now strongly suspect that good old ‘Look, I’m really, really am one of you and back on point’ Ted Rall is the one that is; ‘not what you think’! One solid whack like the recent Soleimani incident (Allusion intended) and all the sleepers who are not in the loop pop their heads up out of their ‘blinds’ and reveal themselves. Still, we can’t let a good crisis go to waste (on either level) can we Ted? So let’s besmirch their authenticity. Oh how I love the smell of irony in the morning! It’s the projection dummy!

  2. “So let’s besmirch their authenticity. ”
    “their” refers to the Iranians I guess? “besmirch” ? Well maybe, but, all in all, pretty weak job by Rall…. (good word “besmirch” though)

  3. Currahee says:

    Ted, I am no leftist but have always admired your candor.
    How is it that Los Angelean Persians, quite a few, regularly fly back and forth to Tehran? (I overhear their conversations now and then).

  4. Nowhere is not what you think. I have spent weeks and months in European countries, and never encountered what is portrayed in North America. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes worse. That is not to say that some incidents don’t happen, where and how often is the issue.

  5. SDC says:

    The Iranian government is far more popular in Iran than the American government is popular in America. If you seriously think most Iranians are like those ballers flying to Turkey, you are sorely mistaken. Do you seriously think those propaganda images of 70s Tehran are actually representative of the country? 70’s Iran was the equivalent of today’s Afghanistan with how impoverished it was. Even without the chador law, most Iranian women would wear them on their own. Perhaps before, the west could convince them the merits of promiscuity, homosexuality and outsourcing, but their puppet king screwed up one too many times and the Iranian people took matters upon their own hands in 1979. And you are a complete westernized fool if you seriously think replacing Iran’s government with a cookie cutter feminist liberal piece of garbage American vassal government like in Europe would go over well in Iran. Iranians would definitely not be smiling.

    The truth is Iranians and Americans couldn’t be more different, and that’s fine. Americans are disgusting, the less people act like them the better.

    • Agree: obvious
  6. @SDC

    Am I to understand that you don’t like the American people?

  7. Anonymous[266] • Disclaimer says:

    Why are Americans obsessed with the idea that Iranians (or Persians as many like to call them) are just longing to be Americans and would probably speak English with American accents and listen to gangsta rap music if only they weren’t brutally oppressed by Islamic despots? Converting Iran to the American “way of life” seems to be something of a “cause celebre” of many Americans.

    I notice that Americans only apply this line of thinking to Iranians, they mostly regard the rest of the Muslim countries as thoroughly un-American savages regardless of who is ruling them.

    • Replies: @SolontoCroesus
  8. Checks and security in Iran are much tighter within the country than in western Europe but overall, you can visit anyplace.
    When my fiancee (Iranian) and now my wife, would visit a park and hold hands we had these hatched faced women in full hijab spying on us. I would openly laugh at them and my wife to be would angrily scold them. I felt sorry for them, they were mostly widows of the the Iran – Iraq war, given employment by the Islamic republic.
    Iran is a very friendly country and smart too. Although English is not widely understood, it’s not hard to get around.
    Americans are nice folks too, but they are an occupied country now. Cheers.

  9. bjondo says:


    Rall probably writing from a CIA cubicle.

  10. @SDC

    I spent three weeks in Iran in 2008. Visa cost about $75 iirc, not >$5000.
    Air travel in 2008 was from US to Western Europe via usual routes/lines, then Iran Air from i.e. Frankfurt or Amsterdam to Tehran – Khomeini. (Maybe Iran will create a memorial to Soleimani: USAians prolly would do so.)

    I don’t think IranAir is permitted to land in Europe any more — besides, the aircraft are likely unsafe. These days, flights from US cities to Turkey or to friendly Gulf states, then Tehran are usual. It’s not that difficult, and not terribly expensive.

    Had dinner at a restaurant near Keng (sp ?), a mountain village east of Mashad, which is very near Herat, at Iran’s border with Afghanistan. At dinner, we spoke with Afghanis who grew up in Iran as refugees from their home country, which they fled due to US military activity.

    These Afghanis, then in their mid-twenties, told us they were stuck: they had been educated in Iranian schools through (the US equivalent of) high school, but were not permitted to enroll in Iran’s universities. IIRC, university enrollment in Iran is merit-based and competitive: the best get slots in favored schools, often tuition-free; middle tier compete for slots in middling schools, for which they pay, and the rest enroll in proprietary colleges — I recall that one of Iran’s major families, maybe the Larijanis, owns a chain of proprietary colleges.

    Nor did those Afghani refugees believe they could safely return to their homeland, nor get out of Iran — they had neither the money nor the skills to make that passage.

    At that restaurant near the Afghanistan border, we were joined at table by a couple from Sweden; they had driven and camped in their sand-battered Jeep from Sweden cross-country and into Iran with no problems and a life-time of stories to tell their children. I long for the day —

    One quick take-away from the above is that Iran provided shelter and security to Afghan refugees (as well as about 2 million Iraqi refugees).

    Another is that Iran is not isolated from “the rest of the civilized world” — I shared lunches with Canadians; compared the elan with which Italian tourists adapted to Iran’s dress code, compared with the clumsiness of Americans; spent an evening in Shiraz with multinational students from a university in Rome who were pursuing research in Iran. The reception desk at the hotel in Isfehan displayed flags of countries of guests of the hotel from every country in the world — except USA and Israel.

    Americans travel to Iran by the hundreds, maybe thousands: one very small travel agency that I am aware of arranges for at least four extensive tours each year and has done so for the past 30+ years.

    Author Ted Rall might be, um, hyperbolizing scenarios for the sake of a good story, All Things Iran being topical at the moment.

  11. @Anonymous

    Converting Iran to the American “way of life” seems to be something of a “cause celebre” of many Americans.

    Back-of-the-envelope impressions:

    American Christian evangelicals feel they are enjoined to “preach the gospel and convert all to” — their beliefs.
    This proselytizing compulsion has not been as fruitful in Iran as many would like: most of Iran’s Christians and Catholics are Armenian, not linked to more Anglican-based systems of Christianity, which also seem to be the versions of Christianity that are most aggressive.
    I recall, but cannot find solid source material, that one of the first diplomatic impasses the USA experienced with Persia involved US government having to bail out a missionary group that got into financial entanglements in Iran, probably sometime in the mid-to late-1800s.

    That proselytizing impulse is at the heart of Neo-liberalism; as I understand the mindset, it is intricately linked to Jewishness-zionism in that, as Jake has helpfully educated Unz readers, Anglican versions of Christianity are Judaized.

    John Mearsheimer’s talk on Neo-liberal hegemony is highly instructive, particularly if you set as background this US Christian missionizing impulse which links with zionism – Tikkun Olam –> Social engineering –>Social Justice Warrioring.

    It might be helpful to re-calibrate understanding of Christianity in terms of the national influences that shape it — similar to EMJ but more nuanced): German Christianity is different from Anglican-Episcopal; Irish Roman Catholic is almost entirely different from Italian-Roman Catholic

    (here’s an informative essay on Italians in Rhode Island, their failure to gain acceptance, with a small mention of dominant Irish Catholic disdain for Italian Catholics ),

    and Russian Orthodox Christian and Catholic are different from other manifestations of Christianity.

    Different types of Christianity place different claims on Iran; non-Anglo-American Christians get along with Iranians far more comfortably than the proselytizing, Judaized Anglo-Christians.

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