An American in Iran: The Misconceptions and Realities

As an American in Iran I was not kidnapped or detained for taking selfies in front of the American Embassy now referred to as “the den of espionage”. Instead my heart was captured by the beautiful people, my stomach pleasured by the delicious food and my values challenged by a unique perspective on religion and social values.

Man praying in a mosque in Iran

This is Iran, and it is worth experiencing it for yourself before you draw your own conclusions. I can only speak from my own experiences and values. This post relays my experience as an American traveling in Iran.

Why do you want to visit Iran?

It invariably was the most asked question when I told where I was going for my vacation. I was asked by friends and family– then again by passport control reentering the United States. Perhaps not totally surprising, it was always followed up by a barrage of questions. It made me realize how little we all know about this country and the day to day lives of it’s people.

Looking through a bush with red berries at the Khaju Bridge in Isfahan Iran
Khaju Bridge in Isfahan Iran

So why did I want to be an American in Iran? …

Simply… I was curious. If my travels have taught me anything, it is that people the world over are more alike than they are different. The average person is simply trying to make it through their every day life, provide for their families and create a better future for generations to come. I also have a fascination with world affairs and politics, which explains my trips to Russia, Tibet, Egypt and yes, even Israel – don’t tell that to the border control agents in Iran!

Iran street with stores and motorcycle

Are you safe as a tourist in Iran?

Ever since the hostage crisis in 1979 and more recently when G.W Bush coined the term “Axis of Evil”, Americans have been leery of visiting Iran. As it turns out, the country is one of the safest to visit with a very low crime rate. As an American in Iran it is best if you avoid taking pictures of government buildings. Women, make sure you bring your head scarf.

American in Iran
Propoganda Graffiti | Former American Embassy in Tehran Iran

Even if you forget your scarf or the photo rules, the hotel staff or a friendly local will remind you. As far as head scarfs go, my travel mates found great joy in shopping for new ones in the bazaars every couple of days.

Bazaar and silver shot Iran

Having said this – it is important to emphasize Iran is a Muslim country governed by very strict rules that guests need to follow – even if you do not agree with them. If you are a homosexual couple, be advised to be careful since it is illegal. You do not want to exhibit any public displays of affection or be open about your orientation.

Generally, it is best to listen and understand the difference in religion, politics and social issues without sharing your opinion – after all, you never know who may be listening and how it is misinterpreted.

American in Iran

Do Americans think we are all terrorists?!

I was on a bus from Isfahan back to Tehran, and sitting next to me was a young college student. She leaned over asking me where I was from. When she found out I was an American in Iran she blurted out “do all Americans think I am a terrorist?” I replied defensively, “of course not”! But in the back of my mind I wondered – do we?

Smoking Hookah around the fire in Iran

This is the most common question from Iranians after “where are you from” then followed by “do you love our country?” Iranians are a passionate and proud people. They earnestly want the Westerners to enjoy the visit, learn about the Iranian people and their lives – and tell our friends about it. They seem to understand that there is a huge gap between their everyday lives and how they are portrayed in the media throughout the world.

The Nuclear Bomb and Hezbollah

Speaking of terrorism and Western fears… the nuclear issue and funding of Hezbollah cannot be avoided. I was hoping that I would learn about a more moderate view, giving me hope for peace – but unfortunately, that was not the case.

“We are surrounded by enemies, Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and they have a Nuclear arms, why not Iran?”

Propoganda Art in Iran
Propoganda Art in Iran

No mincing of words, it was made very clear that Iranians believe that as a sovereign power they deserve the right to develop nuclear arms. They are not shy about it, and never once did I hear “oh it’s only for electricity”. After visiting the cemetery in Tehran and seeing the carnage that the Iran/Iraq war caused (Iraq being backed by Western powers) As an American in Iran I started to understand their point of view.

iran iraq war cemetery in tehran
Iran & Iraq war cemetery | Tehran Iran

But for me there is a more troubling factor that I can not ignore…

Iran supports Hezbollah and Hezbollah is very clear that the “Zionist” State of Israel must be dissolved or destroyed by any and all means. So what does it mean if Iran ends up with nuclear arms– will they use them against Israel or feed them into Gaza? Would it only be used as a deterrent? If Iran is supporting Hezbollah, are they then a supporter of terrorism? These unanswered questions will bother me still… no real answer and no way to truly know. Do we want to hedge any bets to find out?

Propoganda art in Iran

Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians

Zoroastrians – who? Interestingly enough Islam is not the only religion in Iran. There are several communities of Zoroastrians which predate Islam. I also ran across small communities of Armenian Orthodox Christians and Jews, their temples, mosques and churches were surrounded by high walls and peppered with security cameras.

American in Iran with a sunset through a clay vase
Sunset in Iran

So I wanted to know how are other faiths tolerated/treated here? Evidently, as long as they conform to the laws of the society which includes not attempting to convert Muslims to their respective faith, they are free to practice. If they do try to convert a Muslim, both can be severely punished – sentencing to death is not out of the realm of possibilities.

So not exactly the most free environment for other religions, but they are able to practice their faith as it stands now for now. It is not surprising though with such harsh laws on the books that many in these minority communities continue to migrate out of the country.

Looking through the brick entrance of a Mosque in iran

Who stones people to death in the 21st century?

Really? Born into a Catholic family and learning about our past indiscretions, like the Spanish Inquisition, and the beheadings of medieval Europe, can anyone look at stoning as anything more than a medieval practice. Who could ever justify or condone stoning a person to death no matter the crime? This seems truly cruel and unusual punishment to me — and evidently, even regulated…

“The stones are of a specific size and the husband is expected to throw the first stone unless he declines”

Propoganda Graffiti | Former American Embassy Iran

As an American in Iran I did find out that not all forms of adultery are punishable by death. It must be a public act of adultery to lead to the maximum punishment of stoning. Still I remain unconvinced that this can be thought of as a “civilized” form of law. I can only imagine that in the smaller, more conservative communities, the guidelines may not always be followed. Additionally, Iran is a male dominated society so the judgement against woman can be disproportionately harsh.

American in Iran - Persepolis Carvings

So were you let back into the United States?

Of course, yes – after traveling as an American in Iran for fifteen days, entering back into the US was breeze. In some ways, I was hoping for a little more drama, considering the current political climate in the Middle East.

American in Iran

They did ask “why I had visited?” I responded that I was intrigued by the rich history and wanted to take a tour. They simply waved me on through. Needless to say, if you are worried about any hassles – don’t be. Hundreds of people travel to Iran daily – and if you are from a European country (other than the UK) you can get a 15 day visa on arrival – however it is still recommended to apply in advance.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque Isfahan - An American in Iran
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque Isfahan

Yes I visited Iran

I did, and I loved every moment of it – even if my values were challenged at times. But that is what travel is all about for me– learning, celebrating our differences and finding the common good. A mutual sense of respect and curiosity will only open doors to peace and understanding.

Do I recommend visiting Iran? “Hell Yes”

Your friends and family will look at you funny at first, but it will quickly turn to fascination and in some cases a little bit of jealousy. Challenge your misconceptions, and book your trip to Persia. You will not be disappointed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *