By Stephanie Lester, Director of Operations
Originally published on the Huffington Post
With the election of Donald J. Trump, now more than ever, it is important to separate truth from fiction, facts from opinion, and to question prejudices and misconceptions. This directive applies in all areas of life, but perhaps no place on earth is more misunderstood, and worth a re-examination, than the country of Iran; particularly as U.S.-Iran relations enter a new phase of uncertainty.
On the whole, Americans tend to view Iran as a backward country, mired in extremism and averse to modernity. Anyone who travels there is considered crazy – or even suspicious.
I should know. I am a Jewish-American woman who recently traveled to Iran alone for 10 days with the express goal of proving that - contrary to expectation - the country is safe, beautiful, and welcoming to Americans. Before my travel, I had to explain to friends and family that there are no roaming hordes of ISIS militants in Iran; upon my return, I had to convince members of U.S. Homeland Security that I was not a terrorist sympathizer during nearly two hours of detention and questioning.
In addition to being a Jewish-American woman, I am also the Director of Operations at the American Iranian Council, a non-profit organization that works to improve U.S.-Iran relations by promoting dialogue and intercultural understanding. In this role, I recognize that a negative public opinion of Iran (exemplified by my experiences with friends, family and members of Homeland Security) can directly affect the course of policy-making, emboldening politicians to use red-meat rhetoric and speak about Iran as our irreconcilable enemy.
Since a more peaceful world starts with strong intercultural understanding and an informed citizenry, combating misinformation about Iran is vital. There are too many misconceptions about Iran to address here, but let me raise a few facts in light of my recent visit, that may be surprising to some readers:
Iranians love American tourists. I cannot express this enough. This was my third visit to Iran, and no different than prior experiences in terms of the overwhelmingly positive response that I received from the Iranian people, who enthusiastically express their hope and strong desire for rapprochement with the West. I often say that if you want to be treated like a rock star, you should travel to Iran as an American tourist. On my first visit in 1999, Iranians regularly requested my autograph; this time it was selfies. While the revolutionary line is officially anti-American, I even met a member of the notorious “Basij” on my latest trip, who - when I told him where I was from - 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.
Iran is a safe place to visit. Contrary to the belief of many Americans (including some of my friends who actually inquired whether my head would be “chopped off in a YouTube video”): ISIS doesn’t hold territory in Iran; ISIS follows a warped version of Sunni Islam, and Iran is a primarily Shia country. They are enemies and Iran has been helping the US in its fight against ISIS. Further, there have been no major terrorist attacks in Iran. Guns are illegal among the general population and violent crime is extremely low. As a woman, I felt comfortable walking around alone at night in the major cities.
Women are educated, drive, vote, and hold senior jobs – many of them in math and science. Iranian women are also incredibly chic; they wear make-up, cute form-fitting manteaus and tight jeans, and many young women barely cover their hair. As a tourist, I have always felt incredibly dowdy by comparison.
Iran has the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel. There are many functioning synagogues in the country, and Iran’s constitution actually requires that there be a Jewish representative in parliament. I described myself as Jewish on my latest visit without experiencing any anti-Semitism; I also visited a synagogue in Tehran and asked members if they had any concerns or problems living in Iran; the response I received was adamant, “Not at all.”
Finally, to the people in U.S. Homeland Security who wondered if I went to Iran to become “radicalized”: After years of government-forced religiosity, Iran is one of the least religious countries in the Middle East with a less than 2% Friday prayer attendance rate.
None of this is intended to excuse or defend the atrocious human rights record of the current Iranian government, its jailing of dual-nationals, its support of Hezbollah, its lack of transparency, or any of the other serious concerns that the U.S. has with Iran. The government is not one that we should be eager to work with; however, ultimately the young, secular, Western-loving, modern population of this country - over 70% of who were born *after* the 1979 revolution – will inherit the country from the aging hardliners. Let’s not squander the opportunity for future reconciliation with the newer generation by viewing the entire country through the lens of decades old resentments and misconceptions. The notion that Iran is our irreconcilable enemy is simply untrue.