An American Tourist in Iran – Crazy, Right?
No, not crazy at all. Let me explain.
A year ago, I wrote about taking the road less traveled and joining my adventure traveling son on a trip to Iraq. This year the destination was next door in Iran. For my son, it is his 154th country and for me a chance for some father-son time off the beaten track.
The author in front of the Imam Mosque in Isfahan, Iran
There is nothing wrong with a ski or beach vacation, but what an opportunity it is to visit a country that has been prominent in American news since the revolution and hostage crisis in 1979 during the reign of the hapless President Jimmy Carter.
Similar to Iraq, the US State Department issues this warning, “Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens. Exercise increased caution due to wrongful detentions.”
Canada says the same, “Avoid all travel to Iran due to the volatile security situation, the regional threat of terrorism and the possibility of arbitrary detention. You should consider leaving by commercial means if you can do so safely.”
Also like for last year’s trip, friends and family thought I was crazy and would possibly die. I was advised to have my affairs in order. At the time of this writing, I am back home, very much alive and well.
We flew to Istanbul, as we did last year, for some sightseeing and time for my son to work remotely using reliable internet access. The internet is trickier in Iran due to sanctions and many websites are not reachable without a VPN. We flew to Iran in the wee hours of the morning. After clearing immigration, we were met by an official man in a suit escorting us to his office. Oh, oh, the warnings were coming true.
But rather than being arrested or interrogated, he offered us chocolates and wanted the name of our guide, who was waiting for us at the airport. For Americans visiting Iran, a guide is required, one certified by the government. Americans cannot visit and galivant on their own, instead only with a guide, which is something we would have done anyway.
Our guide was my son’s age and a walking textbook about Iranian history, culture, and anything else we wanted to know. After a short sleep our adventure began.
A visa is also required, and an e-visa takes about 5-6 months to obtain, so plan early. We had no trouble here and our guiding company assisted with the process.
Our first stop in Iran was Shiraz. Then to Persepolis, the palace home to Kings Darius and Xerxes in around 500 BC. Xerxes is the Persian villain in the movie “300”. The palace was mostly burned to the ground by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. Talk about history! Walking the same ground as Xerxes and Alexander once did.
American history is 2-3 hundred years old, and in many places far shorter. In the Middle East, history is 2-3 thousand years old.
Next was to Yazd, the city of wind catchers, an ancient means of air conditioning. This is well needed in the hot dessert climate of Iran. Then on to Isfahan, home to the Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the second largest plaza in the world, surrounded by beautiful mosques (see photo) and palaces. Finally, to Tehran, a bustling city of 9 million, the second largest city in the Middle East behind Cairo. Anyone that complains about traffic in American cities should spend a day in Tehran to see what traffic is really like.
The food was delicious - kebabs, saffron rice, and a variety of stews and soups. Shopping included a Persian rug, turquoise and other Iranian jewelry, saffron, and delicious baklava. Just as in Iraq, I needed and got a local haircut, a fun and interesting experience. Visiting a local barbershop is a unique way to experience local culture.
Lastly was a visit to the former US embassy in Tehran, seized and abandoned during the 1979 revolution, now a museum with a variety of colorful anti-American murals adorning the walls of the embassy grounds.
The “death to America” chants are political talk, we were told, a standard ending to political speeches, similar to how our politicians end their speeches with “God bless America”. Separating people from politics, the people don’t take such rhetoric seriously and love America and its people but are not enamored with their or our political leaders. Neither am I.
President Obama is no favorite of Iranians, his sanctions throwing cold water on a prosperous economy, made worse by COVID lockdowns which closed Iran to visitors for close to two years.
Regarding nuclear weapons, the sense I got was that Iranians realize they are living in a dangerous neighborhood including some countries that have their own nuclear weapons. They also observe US interventionalist policies and what that could mean in the future given what the US did to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine with either direct military intervention or proxy wars.
Perhaps not unreasonably, Iran wants the deterrent self-protection of having their own nukes in case a present or future US president decides democracy or regime change is necessary for a country 10 times older than America. I can appreciate their perspective and concern. If I lived in a dangerous neighborhood, self-defense would be a priority.
We felt completely safe during our entire time in Iran. Politics and governments aside, the Iranian people we met love Americans and were both surprised and appreciative of our visit. They asked that we tell our fellow countrymen to visit Iran.
The women’s protests are long over and while most women still wear a hijab of some sort, many do not and dress as westerners. The morality or religious police have been shut down as a concession after last September’s protests.
But there is no doubt who is in charge, with ubiquitous posters around town of the two Supreme Leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini, and Khamenei. We walked past the madras where Khomeini was educated. Unlike America where we have separation of church and state, in Iran, the church is the state.
All in all, it was a great trip, experiencing the culture, history, food, and most of all the welcoming Iranian people. Safety was never an issue and I felt far safer in Iran than I would in downtown Denver. For any adventure travelers looking for a unique trip off the beaten path, skip the beach and venture to Iran. Carpe diem!
Brian C Joondeph, MD, is a physician and writer.
Photos and videos of my travels are on Instagram bjoons_adventures
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