“Come up to the hills outside Tehran with me after your tour. We can have a few drinks, and they don’t bother you in the hills. No one is watching you there.” Thus went my conversation with the very first person I met in Iran.
I just returned from touring the seat of the former Persian Empire on my own. I had wanted to see it for myself during this time of breakthrough nuclear talks. What I found was a nation full of contradictions and mystery. In short, it might not be the nation you think it is.
Here are nine personal surprises from my weeklong visit:
* The nuclear deal is a big deal to the average Iranian. Locals seem to view the nuclear deal as the biggest event in Iranian foreign relations in the 36 years since the 1979 revolution. National Iranian TV was broadcasting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s congressional testimony live — it was even showing in the lobby of my hotel in Isfahan. There are plans to broadcast our congressional hearings on the deal on their national TV. People largely view this deal as a breakthrough to better overall relations with the U.S. I sensed that the deal is a potential coup for the moderates, including President Hassan Rouhani.
* Signs say “Death to America,” but individual gestures say otherwise. Iranians on the street really like Americans. Yes, “Death to America” signs are on display everywhere in Tehran, but when my guide introduced me to the staff of the national archaeological museum as “the Great Satan,” the irony was not lost on them. They smiled; one of them cut me a piece of the plum they were eating and shared it.
* George W. Bush is widely revered. Iranians thank him for ridding them of their most hated rival, Saddam Hussein. Many evidently credit him for eliminating Iraq as a nation-state and, in the process, elevating Iran to superpower status.
* Despite sanctions, American products abound. Products such as Coca-Cola, Tabasco and Apple gadgets are ubiquitous. Western music blares in restaurants and parks.
* Dress codes remain, but people push back. Islamic dress codes, including the required head scarves for women, prevail. Many locals push the scarves far back on their heads and wear bright-colored dresses, makeup and lipstick. For men, Western suits and coats and ties are largely frowned upon. Waiters in one local restaurant sported ties, I was told, in a form of “silent protest.”
* Many in Iran speak in riddles and hidden meanings. Those working on verification of the nuclear accords might ponder the implications for communication. Trial balloons from hardliners and moderates might easily be misinterpreted as dogma. Similarly, our tough talk might marginalize Iran’s moderates and strengthen hardliners.
* People drink alcohol. Although my guidebook says that alcohol is forbidden in Iran, I was invited out for drinks by that first local person I met (I declined). Others confirmed that people indulge fairly routinely.
* Iran looks askance at the Arab world. Sunni Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, have achieved rival — if not enemy — status. One person even told me that he thought Israel would make a natural ally for Iran in opposition to Sunni expansionists in the Middle East.
* Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, to a great extent, has penetrated the economy. In addition to acting as an extremist wing supporting the ayatollah, the guard is reported to control major parts of the construction, telecom, and oil and gas sectors and potentially control a third or more of the non-oil gross domestic product of Iran. My guide suggested that, given my business investment experience, I should set up shop there. But I’m not sure I want to test my luck doing business with the ayatollah’s honor guard.
As a final observation, poetry, the language of paradox, is prized in Iran. I met an old poet on a bench by the Zayandeh River in Isfahan who startled me by pulling out a book of poetry he had written, in Farsi, which extolled the virtues of Islam and the need to do good works. “Give this to your president,” he said, “and tell him we are the real Islam, not the extremists.”
I have the book. We shall see.