Iran is not what you think
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.