Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2005


Mach Arom ´89: Rebuilding hope for Thai tsunami victims

Kathryn Bard ´68: Somewhere in Egypt

Who cares about Haiti?

Venturing into Iran: Beyond the warning

Gloria Hollister Anable ’24: Into the deep

Gaida Ozols Fuller ´74: Six months in Uganda

Sarah Trapido ´08: Going 13,000 miles on veggie oil

Yoko Shimada ´99: Fighting the war on AIDS in East Africa

The extra mile: Journeys that make a difference

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Venturing into Iran: Beyond the warning

Venturing into Iran: Beyond the warning
Rebecca Larson ´99, left, with her Iranian guide at the tomb of the poet Sa´adi in Shiraz.

by Rebecca Larson ´99

“What do Americans think of us?”

This is the one question I was asked repeatedly during my visit to Iran last year, often followed by, “Would you please go back to the to the United States and explain that the Iranian people are not terrorists?”

There is a gap between the American people’s knowledge of Iran and the Iranian people’s knowledge of America. This gap exists on multiple levels, socially and politically, and it is demonstrated by leaders in both countries who are often unwilling to have even the most fundamental, human contact with each other. American friends and colleagues wondered why I wasn’t afraid to visit Iran, having already formed their opinions of the country without having been there. Their fears were based largely on misperceptions — promoted in the media and by the U.S. government — that Iran is a dangerous place to visit and a terrorist state.

In the brief time I spent sharing stories and experiences with the Iranian people, I found a country at odds with these negative perceptions. I traveled to Iran to lead an exchange of American higher education officials — a project of Search for Common Ground, an international non-governmental conflict resolution organization. The Iranians I spoke with made a pointed distinction between government and people, both within their own society and between that of the U.S. government and the American people. I found the same to be true of the Vietnamese during my participation in Connecticut College’s 1999 Vietnam Study Away Teach Away program. This mindset of the Vietnamese and the Iranians, which allows for an openness to look beyond history and politics and see others as fellow global citizens, provides an opportunity to bridge the gap through shared dialogue.

In the case of Iran, people-to-people contacts and a sharing of world views could inform Americans and ease their fears about Iran and provide a means for Iranians to share who they are with Americans. This is no small task for those few American and Iranian organizations and individuals working to engage both sides. However, with an absence of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran, and opportunities for Americans to visit and experience Iranian culture being limited, even the smallest step is significant. As we saw with the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, contacts between citizens can have a profound effect on domestic opinion and government policies.

Nevertheless, whatever the intentions of the American and Iranian people to engage in cultural exchange, there still exists the political reality of the U.S.-Iran relationship. In 1998, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for a Dialogue Among Civilizations — encouraging the exchange of professors, scholars, artists, journalists, and tourists. Seven years later, opportunities for Americans and Iranians to visit one another freely are still limited on both sides, and dialogue at the political level is almost entirely absent.

This environment has created a dangerous discord between policy and practice — particularly by U.S. officials toward Iran. An intelligent, culturally sensitive, and effective foreign policy toward another country can only be made by individuals with in-depth knowledge and understanding of that country and its people, their system of livelihood, history and language. As a result, the importance of any exchange between the U.S. and Iran to help inform a rational foreign policy cannot be underestimated.

During my travels in Iran, I saw many young people like me — living their daily lives, spending time with their friends and families, working to make a difference in their country and pursuing a higher education. And yes, there is another side to Iran that I didn’t see — inside the prison cells of detained students and intellectuals, newspapers closed down and citizens protesting on the streets against the government. But what I did experience was an Iranian hospitality like none other. People were willing and eager to drop whatever they were doing to take me shopping or sightseeing, to cook me traditional Iranian food, and to talk with me over tea, bowls of fruit and pastries.

I was in a taxi with a young Iranian woman who had kindly offered to take off work and help me navigate the local bazaar. We passed a building painted white with an American flag — the red stripes tipped with bullets pointing vertically to the ground — that read “Down with the U.S.A.” “Does it make you upset?” she asked tentatively. “No,” I answered, thinking how interesting this moment was — an Iranian and an American woman sharing experiences, talking about our futures, enjoying each other’s company, and maybe even becoming friends — and then seeing this reminder that we are indeed officially “enemies.” I did not interpret her hesitance as an apology for the mural and its message, but rather a resigned acceptance of the political relationship. It reinforced for me the complexity of the situation between the two countries — with each so tied up in politics and rhetoric, unwilling to move or make concessions. However, by simply getting to know each other that afternoon, she and I were willingly defying the officially hostile relationship defined for us by our politicians and murals.

A note from the web site of the U.S. Department of State as of September 2005: “The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran. Due to ongoing tensions, particularly along the border with Iraq, U.S. citizens may be at risk of harassment or kidnapping. ... The U.S. government does not currently have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to American citizens in Iran.”

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