My husband Ben was insatiably curious about the world we live in. Before he died in 2011 he had traveled to 150 countries. I lagged far behind. At his urging, I traveled to Egypt, returning home just a few days before the revolution in Tahrir Square shut down Cairo airport.
When I finally decided to book a trip to Iran, the international situation was more volatile and dangerous than in the previous decade. My visa application was being processed through the Embassy of Pakistan when the Trump administration issued the first travel ban. Iranian citizens were included in the ban, although none of them played a role in the 9/11 attack, engaged in terrorist acts against the U.S., or practiced suicide bombing.
The visa came through, the agency I traveled with proceeded with plans, and none of its clients opted to stay behind. Determined to see Iran, we were somewhat apprehensive. After decades of anti-Iranian policies, we had experienced two years of frenzied rhetoric by opponents of the multinational agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear program. We had witnessed the unprecedented intervention of a foreign leader who voiced his opposition to the agreement in the halls of the U.S. Congress, without even a courtesy call to our President. Our media depicted Iran as they did in the days after the 1979 Revolution and the occupation of the U.S. Embassy: a country ruled by religious fanatics, intent on domination of the Middle East, the foremost danger to American interests in the region.
I was grateful for the opportunity to step out of my bubble, to be able to compare the dominant narrative offered by our media with at least a glimpse of a different reality. First, nothing in Iran reminded me of underdeveloped countries I have visited in the past. Iran has the highest literacy rate and per capita income in the region, with the exception of Israel. Second, while significant pro-Western and ultra-religious opposition groups undoubtedly matter, the government is stable and functioning, in contrast to everyone of the adjacent countries.
Iran has impressive natural resources, in addition to oil, and plenty of potential brain power. The sanctions imposed after the 1979 Revolution, and strengthened for various reasons over decades, are holding Iran back from developing those natural and human resources. As happened in Cuba, for the Iranian government the sanctions are the gift that keeps giving. Quite credibly, the government can claim that U.S. control of the international financial system stifles economic growth and thus impacts everyone’s standard of living.
Iran trades with many countries and hosts millions of tourists from Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. However, the convoluted maneuvers required to connect indirectly with the international financial system come at very high cost to Iranian businessmen and consumers.
Are the sanctions and the fragile nuclear agreement topics of daily newscasts and conversations? Not really. Two crucial issues are on the minds of the Iranian elites, whether supporters or opponents of the current government. These are the dramatically visible impact of global warming on Iran’s vast, arid plateaus, and the future of its huge cohorts of children and teenagers, more than 40% of the population.
As Iran’s leaders try to address these existential threats, they also face the most perilous international situation since the days of the Great Game between Russia and Britain in the 19th century. To say that Iran is in a very bad neighborhood in which it has vital interests and very few tools to protect those interests would be an understatement.
Whatever they think of their own government, Iranians ask: why does the financial chokehold continue? Why don’t the U.S. and the international community pursue nuclear disarmament in the region, bringing all parties to the table, including Israel? Why are the U.S. and Israel strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, cradle of Wahabi Islam and of Osama Bin Laden? The lifting of financial sanctions and the pursuit of nuclear disarmament would enable Iran to focus resources on dealing with the crucial issues of desertification and youth unemployment.
The country is still recovering from the effects of the war it fought in the 1980s against a Shia-majority neighbor. Portraits of the young men who died in that war hang in every Iranian city. They are not martyrs who died for a religious cause. They died protecting the Iranian homeland against an Iraqi government that received arms and support from the U.S.
The people of Iran and their government are scared, and they have reason to be. In the 1980s they had one enemy, on their southwestern border. Today, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are unstable neighbors bristling with American military bases. The U.S. Navy dominates the Persian Gulf, to the advantage of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. And corrupt regimes with ties to the U.S. or Russia rule Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
This large country of 80 million people proud of their history and culture is not backward, it is not isolated from most of the world, it does not practice or promote radical Islam. It is a country under siege.