Travel to Iran with Rick Steves

Flying from Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport to Tehran’s Khomeini Airport, I considered airports others on the flight had used: Reagan, DeGaulle...four great leaders in recent history who have left their mark on entire nations. I was entering a society 30 years into the Islamic revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The lives of 70 million people in the Islamic Republic of Iran have been shaped by this man. More than half the country has no memory of living under anything but a theocracy.

Buckling my seatbelt, it occurred to me that someone could come on the plane’s loudspeaker and say, “We’re taking this plane to Tehran” and no one would be alarmed. The plane was filled with Iranian people — their features were different from mine, but they dressed and acted just like me.

These people were well off — well dressed, healthy. It was horrible to think of fighting them in a war. Then I wondered if it is easier to bomb a society ground down by years of sanctions. Are scruffy, poor looking people are easier to shock and awe? As we all settled into this wide-body jet, I wished the big decision-makers of our world weren’t shielded from an opportunity to share an economy cabin with people like this.

I made this same Istanbul-to-Tehran trip 30 years ago. Last time it took three days on a bus and the Shah was on his last legs. Wandering Iranian towns in 1978, I remember riot squads in the streets and the Shah’s portraits seeming to hang tenuously in market stalls. I also remember being struck by the harsh gap between rich and poor in Tehran. I was 23 years old. I believe that was the first time in my life I was angered by economic injustice.

The trip is quicker this time — three hours rather than three days. And now every main square and street that was named Shah is named Khomeini. Back then all denominations of paper money had once face on today. At the Khomeini International Airport the only hint of the Shah was the clientele (many of those flying in were likely his supporters who’d fled Iran for the West in 1978 and who were flying in today to visit loved ones).

As the pilot began the descent, rich and elegant Persian women put on their scarves. With all that hair suddenly covered, I noticed how striking long hair really does grab a man’s attention. Looking out the window at the lights of Tehran, the sight reminded me of flying into Mexico City at night. Tehran, with 14 million people, is more populous than all of Greece (where I was just traveling).

I’m starting this trip a little bit afraid. I don’t know what’s in store for us. We are anticipating a challenging and extremely productive 10 days here.

For complete Rick Steves Blog from Iran click here!

A friend from the Washington State chapter of the United Nations Association called me six months ago and asked what I could do to help them build understanding between Iran and the US, and to defuse the tension that could be leading to war. I answered, “The only powerful thing would be to produce a TV show on Iran.”

I remember when the bombs first fell on Baghdad, thinking I'd missed an opportunity to make a travel show that could humanize Baghdad and give “collateral damage” a face. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to do this for Iran. My government would let me go. The Islamic Republic of Iran actually wanted the publicity. I threw together a proposal for a TV show — no politics, just travel. The working title: Iran: Its People and Culture, Yesterday and Today.

After months of fitful applications and negotiations, we were given visas and the government’s support for our mission: a 10-day shoot in Iran — Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Persepolis. The permissions were so slow in coming that the project was only a certainty last week when we picked our visas up in Athens. (I had a contingency plan for filming in Istanbul.) Like parents-to-be who want to tell the world but hold back until everything looks okay, I couldn’t announce our plans until we knew for sure the trip was a go.

In the US (where our current policy is not to talk with enemies), the only way we could communicate with Iran was indirectly, via the Pakistani consulate. (The US has more diplomatic dialogue going with North Korea than with Iran.) In Greece, it was strange going into a relaxed, almost no-security Iranian embassy, walking out with visas and knowing we were on our way.

As I prepare to fly to Iran (from Athens via Istanbul) it occurs to me that this is a huge, time-consuming, and expensive headache. Pondering my motivation, I keep thinking of those strong-hearted Americans who enlisted in our military in the days after 9/11. What motivated them? Love, revenge, freedom, a deep-seated male thrill to kill, patriotism? While the fire in my gut is just as hot and the concern in my heart just as real, my choice of weapons is different. Like them, I don’t care about my safety, the cost, or the work...I want to do this. I have to do this.

I know almost nothing about Iran — and that’s still a lot more than the average American knows. With something as tricky as US-Iran relations, the foundation of wisdom is to be aware that we can’t know the truth from news coverage. Just like I had to actually visit the USSR in 1978 and Nicaragua in 1988, I need to visit Iran in 2008. If war is at stake, I want to know the truth. Because, as I’ve said before, as an American taxpayer, I believe that every bullet that flies and every bomb that drops has my name on it.

Preparing for this adventure, I’ve been thinking about the similarities between three countries that are, or have been, notorious thorns in America’s side: Nicaragua, Cuba, and Iran. In each of them, we supported an American-business-friendly dictator who was ultimately thrown out by the poor people in that country: Samoza, Battista and the Shah. Then we proceeded to demonize the dictator’s successor and traumatize their people with economic embargos and noisy saber rattling. In the next 10 days, I hope to learn more about why Iranians chant “Death to America.”

I travel to Iran with plenty of anxiety and questions. How free will we be? Will the hotel rooms be bugged? Is there really absolutely no alcohol — even in fancy hotels? Will crowds gather around us and then suddenly turn angry? We have a good Persian-American friend on our crew with family in Iran. We want to be free-spirited, but don’t want to abuse the trust of the Iranian government and possibly cause problems for our Persian friend’s loved ones.

I’m nervous — we considered leaving our big camera in Greece and just taking the small one. I made sure all my electrical stuff was charged up. Will the food be as bad as my memory from a 1978 backpacker trip through Iran, back in the last days of the Shah?

Why is Iran letting us in? They actually want to boost Western tourism. I would think that since Western tourism would bring in unwanted ideas (like those which threatened the USSR, which prompted its government to keep tourists out), Iran would see no point in allowing tourists in. But they want more visitors nonetheless.

They also believe the Western media have given their society an unfair image. They did lots of research on my work, and apparently my politics gave them faith in my motives. They don’t like Fox News or CNN, but say they’ve had good experiences with PBS crews in the past. (I heard we’ll get the same minder that Ted Koppel got for his Discovery Channel shoot.)

I want to show the state of Iranian women and this will be very delicate. Cafés that allow crews to show women breaking modesty regulations lose their license.

It’s a cash society. Because of the 26-year-old American embargo on Iran, Western credit cards don’t work there. No ATMs for foreigners. We sent our friend ahead with $10,000 for expenses we’ll encounter as we work in Iran for 10 days (for our crew of six: me, director, cameraman, driver, and two guides).

I am tired after 24 relentless days of work (in Portugal — eating, drinking, sightseeing and embracing life there while updating that guidebook; and in Greece — producing two new TV shows). I need to be fresh and quick-minded on camera for interactions with people on the street (we hope for lots of this in Iran) and simply to stay healthy. I’ll lose a night’s sleep as we fly in, arriving at about 4 a.m.

Simon (director), Karel (cameraman) and I vowed to be respectful and keep a professional mindset. We must do nothing cute, clever or flip. (For instance, when our visas were printed with the wrong dates, we couldn’t resist calling it a “clerical error.”) Once in Iran, however, it’s serious business. The tourist board is part of the Department of Guidance.

Who’s paying for this production? Me. I figure this adventure will cost me roughly what each household in the US is already paying for Iraq. If I can help avert an extra war — even just a little bit — this will be a brilliant personal investment — and lots of people will owe me big-time. (Do the math: $3,000,000,000,000 divided by 300,000,000 US citizens; cut the zeros = $10,000 per person...that’s about $40,000 per family. Care for another war?)

This will be a journey of discovery for me. We have a very sketchy script to start with. It will evolve over the next 10 days. Each day, after a long day of shooting, I’ll massage what we’ve shot and learned into the script, print out a new version and come up with a shooting plan for the next day. My hunch: By Day 10, we’ll have a fine show.

I’ll try to send a blog report about every two days. I hope you can travel along.

[Interesting development: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urges more nongovernment contacts with Iran — Reuters, 5/15/08]

Submitted by AIFC on Sun, 05/18/2008 - 7:06pm.