Dispatch from Tehran
Anna Thomas reports from Iran as the country finalizes negotiations with the United States.
In a sea of chadors, turbans, and “Death to America!” signs, we definitely stand out. It’s Quds Day, the annual Ramadan Friday spent protesting Israel and America’s influence, and my brother and I have been jostled into the middle of the crowd in the Iranian desert city of Na’in, where we try desperately to hide our blonde-and-blue-eyedness. For every impassioned citizen brandishing a burning American flag, there are five more Iranians with encouraging smiles, soliciting our nationality. Before we can respond “Swiss!” or “Australian!”, our irreverent guide, Abdullah, has already unmasked us.
And the crowd loves it.
“America, very good!” “Inshallah* negotiations!” “You are not terrorist, we are not terrorist!”
Even the guy with the burning flag wants in: “Yes, America, Obama, Los Angeles!”
Four days after this remarkable display of cultural dissonance, representatives from Iran and America, along with the other P5+1 members and the European Union, signed the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” With this long-anticipated agreement, Iran will trade enriched uranium for an invitation to the global economy. My brother and I spent the two weeks leading up to the agreement touring Iran and collecting the opinions, ideas, and grievances of any Iranian willing to share. While we didn’t expect our trip to coincide with the negotiations, we were fortunate to have a rare view into the kaleidoscopic Iranian psyche. It quickly became clear that with the potential freedoms that warmed U.S.-Iran relations might bring, modern Iranians face a difficult question: choose Los Angeles, or choose the burning flag?
In a country with over 4,000 years of recorded history, including a particularly tumultuous 20th century, I cannot imagine it’s easy for an Iranian to now stand squarely in favor of one global attitude or another. While the overwhelming majority embraced the concept of thawed relations and a modernizing homeland, no one was willing to submit blindly to the notion of American (or Western) primacy. I was, however, surprised by the universal confidence Iranians had to get a fair agreement. It was very a much a “when”, not an “if”. Most Iranians also saw a certain set of outcomes – which I’ll discuss below – as a given once the agreement is implemented. While I prefer a more cautious approach toward expectations-setting, I can’t see why any of these should not be possible in the coming years, assuming adherence to the agreement terms.
The most common things Iranians seem to expect as a result of eased sanctions and warmed U.S.-Iran relations:
Iranians will now receive the same educational and professional opportunities available to other immigrants to the United States.
Iran has long prided itself on – and been lauded for – its emphasis on education, literacy, and scholarship. This is evident even in the least likely places: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution – was an avid consumer of Greek philosophy. Today, the proportion of adult Iranians who have completed tertiary education is estimated between 13% and 20%, about on par with Turkey and on the higher end of non-Western countries.
This intellectual bent is apparent everywhere in Iran, and particularly in the autodidactic habits of young people. The number of young Iranians who regularly approached us to practice their English was astounding, especially considering that nearly all non-native English speakers in Iran learn from other non-native speakers or, increasingly commonly, American television, movies, and music. Ever wondered what Iranians rely on the most for their English slang development? My unofficial ranking shows How I Met Your Mother, Bradley Cooper, and Rascal Flatts at the top.
With all this education and exposure to English (not to mention the substantial populations who also study French, German, and Spanish), it’s no wonder Iranians feel unfairly shunned from emigration options. With no U.S. or British embassy in Tehran, Iranians have to travel abroad to even attempt a visa application; when we drove past the German embassy at 7:30am, the line was packed around the block with people clutching dutifully organized folders and documents just hoping for a chance.
It didn’t seem so much that Iranians want out for good. Rather, they at least want a shot at the world beyond the Islamic Republic. One man told us, “You let the Chinese, the Indians, the Nigerians in – why not us? Why are you scared of us?” It’s hard to come up with a good answer to that beyond the typical shrug and “you know, politicians.”
As a skeptical American, though, it was difficult to stomach the hopeful repetitions of “inshallah with negotiations we will come to the United States”. We know immigration policy is not quite that simple. What gives me hope that they’re right is that every Iranian bold enough to ask me for visa support was also invested enough to approach American culture with an open mind.
The market in Iran for entrepreneurial activities will soon be large and lucrative.
Iran looks, feels, and sounds like a country ready for a steep upward development trajectory. However, with limited foreign investment and input as a result of sanctions, adapting to the demands of global tourism and commerce standards will be exhausting. My brother and I are by no means high maintenance travelers, but we were intrigued by Iran’s definition of “three-star” and the occasional misappropriating of Western brands (does Versace really make malt beverages?)
Thankfully, Iranians have grown accustomed to the challenges imposed by sanctions and travel bans. It seemed like nearly everyone we met was either operating a small business or had plans to quickly build one when sanctions are lifted (inshallah). We met a woman who was preparing to export her handmade whipstitched camel-leather wallets to California as soon as it was legal. Zahra, a teenager in Esfagan at whose house we had dinner, is hoping to study photography and eventually open her own studio to sell prints abroad. Even our guide Abdullah was scheming: we were actually his last tour before he embarks on a bureaucratic journey to form his own guide company, which will focus on cultural excursions and village homestays for the anticipated post-negotiations deluge of American visitors.
For a country that currently sees about the same number of annual foreign tourists as Kazakhstan, this might seem a little presumptuous.
Still, the differences between the entrepreneurial confidence in larger Iranian cities like Tabriz and Shiraz and, say, Silicon Valley are smaller than I’d expect. We had dinner with two young men, Hamid and Hamed, who were respectively studying finance and engineering. They acknowledged the current economic headwinds in Iran, including an estimated youth unemployment rate of 25%, and presented a pretty cheerful perspective on the future. “I hear you have stores where you buy bracelets for $50 made by Ghanaian women”, Hamid said. “We will make those for probably cheaper, and much better quality.” Hamed added, “My sisters are really good with computers, they can soon bring virus protection to America.” (Personal anecdote: my brother’s website was recently hacked by Iranians, who implanted an Iranian flag across the homepage with the rolling script, “Your security is very haha”.)
Anyone who’s spent 15 minutes in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood will find these overconfident yet oddly charming proposals familiar.
Essentially, it seemed like everyone is content to hang out on the cusp of personal bankruptcy under the assumption that American investment and economic expansion are imminent. No idea, it seems, is too “Iranian” to be worth a shot. Fashion, gastronomy, IT, hospitality – all of these areas seem to be saturated with independent businesses ready to open doors worldwide.
Iranians will finally be given a fair shot in the U.S. media.
Whether you follow Fox News, the Huffington Post, or Al-Jazeera, you’ve seen some pretty grisly representations of Iranians. You’ve also likely figured out that Americans don’t look so great in Iranian news either. It’s as though our two countries have agreed to issue an embargo on mutually respectful media.
I can’t quite decide what’s more awkward: the fact that Iranian news outlets that display Americans as bloodthirsty racists are government-run, or the fact that American news outlets that display Iranians as uneducated terrorists are independent. However, as in America, people in Iran do have access to multiple news sources and can consume whatever information they so choose (within admittedly tighter boundaries, of course – free speech that criticizes the Iranian government or religious heritage is not exactly tolerated).
The thing is, Iranians have a lot more to lose from negative media. So what if we Americans are painted as evil abroad? We still have all of the economic, cultural, and political capital we need to excel, at least for now. For the average Iranian, however, an unfairly and unrealistically cruel reputation can limit social and professional opportunities. On a more macro level, when these images are extrapolated to the nation as a whole, the Iranian public could fall victim to an uninformed, hawkish political whim (see Scott Walker’s attitude toward the agreement).
It was therefore encouraging and humbling to see so many Iranians clamoring for an opportunity to set the record straight. More than once, someone we met would follow an introduction with “you see, we are not terrorists.” Zahra’s family spent a good half hour condemning ISIS unprompted, without any discernible resentment or condescension. Our guide asked if we would be willing to be put in contact with other Westerners curious about travel, saying “they are afraid of safety, but you were safe, yes?”
In case anyone needs the record set straight – the homicide rate in Iran is well below that of the U.S., and the proliferation of guns per civilian is microscopic in comparison to my home.
Along with easier travel and advantageous business opportunities, Iranian citizens hope the freshly minted agreement will also bear a chance to re-set American attitudes toward their country. In an era of nuclear insecurity and hegemonic arrogance, they perhaps see this as a near-last chance to prove the value of Persian history, Iranian kindness, and Muslim forgiveness, while simultaneously dissociating from the corruption, violent regime changes, and social intolerance that has provided fodder for Western criticisms.
Just as one positive trip to Iran hasn’t convinced me to fly the Islamic Republic’s flag in my apartment, one agreement will not instantaneously produce rose-colored glasses for every foreign country, politician, and citizen who looks at Iran. At least the agreement will hopefully reduce the palate for intolerance and ignorance.
Of course, as appetizing as closer relations to America might be for many Iranians, this is a stubborn, passionate country with a lot to be proud of and a lot to protect. Some people harbored at least a little appreciation for the Iranian political and religious leadership’s dedication to upholding Iran’s autonomy. While we Americans may have seen the Supreme Leader’s bargaining tactics as absurd, our guide Abdullah pointed out that Iranian citizens might view this stubbornness as a dedication to upholding national dignity. This seemed particularly true among people from lower economic strata; over dinner, Zahra’s father blew kisses at the framed image of Ayatollah Ali Khameini in between his welcoming questions about America.
Iran’s wealth of natural resources and human talents have not gone unnoticed internally, and even the kindest, most deferential people wanted to remind us of one important consideration:
Iran is a sophisticated, educated, and culturally rich country, and should be treated as such.
While many Iranians may not wish to be associated with the strict Islamic culture of post-1979 Iran, neither do they want to be cast as barbarians or troglodytes incapable of being a responsible nation. As the terms of the ultimate agreement were being hashed out, I sensed some frustration that America might not take Iran “seriously”, or was disregarding Iran’s right to its own demands. Likewise, whenever I mentioned Yemen, ISIS, or any other contemporary Middle Eastern political challenge that frequents American airwaves, the reaction was usually a dismissive “this is [our] problem, not America’s, and we’ll find the solution, not America.”
After our awkward experience shuffling through the Death to America march, I asked Abdullah why so many of the participants – including burning flag guy – were excited and happy to talk to us Americans. Shouldn’t they have snubbed us? Or, shouldn’t they at least try to hide their propaganda before asking about a visa?
His response: “Iranians want to show they will not tolerate being treated like children. It is maybe easier to send this message with shock and awe than just hoping a powerful country like America will be considerate with its policies.”
That logic actually makes sense, in an angsty kind of way. I’d like to believe that the Iranian government isn’t crazy enough to build a nuclear weapon, much less use one, especially not with the new agreement. But I can understand why they’d want to create the illusion of capability and deep vendetta, as if to say “see, we’re on your level.” Last time the Iranians let themselves be bossed around, the second half of the 20th century happened, and no one really wants a repeat.
I suppose the largest takeaway I got from our trip is that Iranians want to have the same opportunities and exalted treatment as Americans, and are struggling to find the right path toward this development. Too deferential to their own government, and they risk becoming Saudi Arabia; too aggressively progressive, and they might face another implosion. It’s not an easy line to walk, especially with such forceful politicians at home and abroad. At the very least, I don’t doubt the population will continue to hone and honor their intelligence and adaptability. I sincerely hope this agreement opens a door for the rest of the world to see these qualities.
And for anyone with even the slightest interest in Iran – I recommend you visit now before everyone else figures out how great it is. I personally can’t wait to get back there.
By Anna Thomas
*Editor’s note: Inshallah literally translates to “If God is Willing [it will be done]” but is commonly used as a way to absolve the speaker of any responsibility. A sort of lazy fatalism.
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