Impressions of Iran


You may wonder why 16 Americans, one German and a Puerto Rican set off for ten days in Iran at a time of increasing international hostility toward the country. Rather than a deterrent, this mounting aggression was the impetus for a delegation to the country last December, organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Away from the press and political rhetoric, the delegation hoped to provide an opportunity for citizens of Iran and the United States to learn about one another first-hand. We hoped to exchange ideas about ways to de-escalate tensions and improve relations between members of Iranian and North American civil society. This was before U.N. confrontations, sanctions threats, Bush's "all-options-on-the-table" speeches, and Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denials.

Our program was difficult to organize, and we relied mostly on the efforts of talented FOR staff member Hossein Alizadeh. Official government permission was required for every meeting. "Why can't they just go to Persepolis and the carpet museum and do what all the other tourists do?" Iranian officials asked. Except for two of our group who had been married to Iranians and lived there some years ago, we didn't know much about Iran. We were off on an adventure into the land labeled a point on the "axis of evil" by our president. Needless to say, that didn't scare any of us.

For the first few days, we were tourists-exploring the National Museum in Tehran, the ruins of Persepolis palace, and the tombs of beloved poets Saadi and Hafez. We attracted crowds wherever we went. One 18-year-old student in Shiraz said she had the impression that Americans were "strict," hard-working, and un-romantic-unlike Iranians, who are "warm and romantic." She regretted that we were leaving so soon because she would have liked to host us. Hospitality flowed as we were welcomed and greeted warmly by everyone we met.

Just as some of us were feeling like we were on a vacation, a whirlwind of meetings commenced. We began with a visit to the Vank Armenian Cathedral, where we met Archbishop Gorian Bobian, who gave us a short course on Armenian history in Iran. There are about 100,000 Armenians in Iran, which entitles them to two representatives in the Parliament. At a Zoroastrian Fire Temple, we met with the Guardian of the Fire, a warm and welcoming man whose explanation of this ancient religion was so appealing that some of our group announced an interest in a faith hitherto unknown to them. Zoroastrians also have a representative in the Parliament.

In the holy city of Qom, the only place where women in our group were careful to cover their hair completely, we met with two imams at the Iman Ali Foundation for Translation and Publication. There we heard a long dissertation on Islam and were given a great stack of books on the subject. Sheik Al-Hassoun, the director of the foundation, was born in Najaf, Iraq; Sheik Ahmed Haneef was originally from Trinidad, lived in the United States, converted to Islam under the influence of Malcolm X, and has lived in Iran with his family for 14 years. Although we had requested meetings with Iranian Shi'a clerics, evidently none was willing to meet with us. Our most fulfilling encounters came at the end of the trip. At the School of Media Studies in Tehran, we met with students and had an intense question-and-answer session about the Iraq War, U.S. support of Israel, and sanctions on Iran. We also had lively one-on-one conversations in the computer lab about everything related to computers and freedom of information. Many email addresses were exchanged.

On our last day, we met with the Women's Society against Environmental Pollution. They spoke about their various activities, conferences, and actions, including blocking bulldozers that were working on a highway from Tehran to the Caspian Sea. The women have publicly pushed Iran to sign the Kyoto agreement on global warming.

We weren't ready to leave-there was more to do and many questions left to ask. Our encounters in classrooms, coffeehouses, restaurants, and public places may not have set a new course in international relations, but we built extra-governmental, people-to-people connections. Iranians were eager to talk to North Americans and were surprisingly open in our conversations. As one woman told me, "I don't like your president and I don't like our president." It was one of many things on which we were able to reach agreement. Note: The second FOR delegation in May met with government officials, Iranian clerics, student groups, war veterans, and other NGOs. It is hoped there will be many more delegations to follow.

Virginia Baron

Virginia Baron is a former editor of Fellowship magazine and has served as president of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. She was a member of the first FOR peace delegation to Iran in December 2005. She has devoted her attention to the Middle East for many years and has focused particularly on the practice of nonviolence in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. She is currently on the board of Palestine/Israel Report magazine.