Our Director of Operations, Stephanie Lester, recently traveled to Iran and answered questions about her trip for curious Redditors. See excerpts from her AMA below.
Q: Would you want to live in Iran and what do the people really think of the USA?
A: Re: Perceptions of the US -- Americans are treated like rock stars in Iran. With my first visit in 1999 I was constantly asked for my autograph. On my last two visits, the request was for selfies. People love America; I cannot emphasize that enough. With something like 70% of the population having been born after 1979, the population is young; they love American culture and many have family who emigrated to America after the revolution. Many want rapprochement with the West; they want to study here and live here. And while the revolutionary line is officially anti-American, I can say that the viewpoint doesn’t even seem to touch the military. I met a member of the notorious “Basij” on my latest trip, and when I told him where I was from – he was so excited he gave me a free jar of honey (which he was selling), to express his affection for the United States and hope that I would view Iran more positively.
Re: Living in Iran – For pure beauty and interest in the culture, I would definitely consider retiring there when I’m older. Hesitations would be pollution (it’s particularly atrocious in Tehran), and getting accustomed to the social system of ta’arof. I met a lovely woman from the UK who had moved to Tehran for a year while handling her divorce, and she said it was extremely difficult to transition from the “straight-forward” way that business transactions are handled in the West, with the round-about way that transactions are handled in Iran. For example, said she had no idea where to start when renovating her house, regarding how much ‘extra’ she needed to pay the contractor over the agreed-upon amount, for him to actually do the work.
Q: What was your third trip to Iran like? Did you run into any problems? Did you do anything for fun while there?
A: The biggest issue I had was being detained and interrogated by Homeland Security for nearly 2 hours on my return. They kept referring to “San Bernadino,” and asking “who I met with” in Iran. I kept trying to explain that no one goes to Iran to become radicalized (they’re some of the least religious people in the Middle East with a Friday prayer attendance rate of less than 2%) – and by the way, everyone there loves Americans. This didn’t speed up my questioning process, unfortunately.
In Iran, I didn’t have any issues. Last time my husband and I were fingerprinted upon entry, but this time they just let me go right through.
As for fun: Since it was my third trip, I didn’t feel the pressure to “see all the sights.” Instead, I spent the first two days casually wandering Tehran with my friend (someone I had met on my first visit in 1999). We spent most of our time shopping, walking around some parks (including the zoo), getting food, etc. I really enjoyed seeing how regular Iranians spend their time. For instance, I spent my second-to-last day in Namak Abrud where people were picnicking and ziplining. In Gorgon, I enjoyed watching people smoke hookah next to some gorgeous waterfalls.
Q: How is the war in Syria handled in their press? How do you think you would be treated if you were from Israel?
A: Good question; I didn’t get to watch a lot of the news while I was there, but I did catch a bit of PressTV (the English language government propaganda ‘news’ channel). I didn’t see anything specific to Syria that I can recall; most of the time the newscasters were just railing against Saudi Arabia (re: Yemen, their handling of the Hajj, and one of the top Saudi clerics suggesting that Iranians weren’t Muslim).
Re: Israel - I don’t think Israelis are allowed into Iran. I was told on all my trips to ensure that my passport did not have a stamp to Israel, and if it does, to make sure to get a new one.
Q: Hi! Thank you for doing this. Right now, it seems Iran is in the midst of a historic political fight that will decide the future trajectory of the Islamic Republic. As you know, the main splitting point is on relations with the United States, with the pro-détente/rapprochement camp currently in control of the presidency and the “hardliners” opposed to any normalization in charge of most other centers of power (IRGC, judiciary, national media, Friday prayer leaders, etc.)
The Supreme Leader is also in the latter camp and has since the JCPOA was struck emphatically opposed further talks with the US and accused the US of not following through on its JCPOA commitments. He has also introduced the issue of U.S. infiltration; warning of American-tied elements that are seeking to undermine and topple the Islamic Republic from within.
Of course, a lot of this has to do with the Iranian presidential election next year and an effort by hardliners to weaken Rouhani and those around him. With that said, the new target for Iran’s security establishment are those trying to foster U.S.-Iran engagement and better ties (which the Supreme Leader gave license for with his infiltration warning). All the recent arrests of dual nationals, especially people like Siamak Namazi, give credence to this.
As such, AIC would seem to be a prime target. Were you at all concerned during your recent trip about potentially being arrested given this volatile environment? Seems you had ample reason to be so.
A: That’s a good question. As a normal tourist I wouldn’t have had any concerns. As you mentioned, the people who typically get detained are either journalists or dual-nationals. (For those who don't know: Since Iran doesn’t recognize the concept of dual-citizenship, Iranian Americans who visit Iran are always in danger of the government claiming that they are only Iranian, and not allowing them to leave. Or requiring that they stay to do military service (or pay it off)).
My new association with AIC – and as you mentioned, the current political environment - gave me slightly more pause, but our president, Dr. Amirahmadi, had just traveled there a few weeks earlier without any issue.
Since I wasn’t there on official AIC business, I didn’t think I had too much to worry about. Additionally, as an American tourist, I was accompanied by a guide for most of the trip, who would have fended off any aggressive inquiries in public. Finally – and perhaps its naive - but I also felt that my intentions for travelling there were so positive (to show Americans that Iran is not how they envision it) – that explaining this purpose for my trip would have given even the most ardent revolutionary some pause in detaining me.
Q: Sounds like you had no issues, but you also are probably more informed than most as far as how to carry yourself; what is something considered relatively innocuous here in America that could get you in trouble if you do it in Iran?
A: Well, the most obvious one is that you can’t drink alcohol in public. Second, there’s the dress code, so women always have to cover their hair, though that has relaxed a lot since I was there first in 1999 (nowadays many women show about half of their head, with their scarves dangling off of ponytails in the back).
For me, the strangest requirement that seems relatively innocuous, is that Americans can’t (technically) go into the homes of Iranians. (This rule only applies for Americans, Canadians and UK citizens). This created some headaches for me in terms of coordinating with my friend Nastaran and her family in Tehran. They kept asking me to stay in their home vs. a hotel, and I kept saying I wasn’t allowed (I don’t think they believed me). I also needed to list every person I was going to meet with on my visa application, but I had only listed my friend’s name and not also her family. This caused some issues, where the tour agency claimed I wasn’t allowed to (technically) meet with her family since they weren’t listed on the visa app.
Q: Did you interact with any Iranian Jews? If so, did they have any interesting opinions on world affairs?
A: Yes; briefly! I went to the main synagogue in Tehran (Synagogue of Yousef Abad – some pictures of it towards the end of the picture album linked above).
After some effort in finding it (no one seems to use Google maps in Iran), I saw a guy with a yarmulke and I literally yelled after him to ask where the synagogue was. He pointed where he was going and I was thrilled to have found it. Service was starting, so I had to use most of my limited Farsi skills to plead my case for a photo (“I’m American and Jewish and want to show people there are synagogues in Iran!”), but I did have a chance to ask a few people if it was hard being Jewish in Iran, and they all said “No, not at all.” I would have loved to chat more, but didn’t want to bother them too much, and none of them spoke any English, so communication would have been slow-going.