The Real Iran – Behind the Media Veil

by Suzanne Brandt

Several friends asked me to describe my visit to Iran earlier this month. I am not sure where to begin but as I sit in a country where freedom and capitalism isn’t deemed a bad thing, I realize how blessed we are to be in such a wonderful country.  I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into after signing up for this trip. For the first time ever, I was nervous about my safety. Maybe it was because I watched Argo a few weeks earlier on my way home from London or maybe I was allowing our media to shape my view of what to expect.

Some people thought I just wanted to go to Iran to say I went to Iran but my life passion is learning and being able to help others.  This YPO/ Peace Action Network trip satisfied both passions as we connected with local businessmen trying to survive in an economy that has suffered 30% inflation this year alone and the severe devaluation in their currency. A US dollar will buy between 32,000 and 36,000 Iranian rials outside Iran’s central bank. Their official bank rate is closer to 12,000 Iranian rials to the dollar.  I am not sure why the huge disparities in valuation other than the locals want to hold a stable currency and are willing to pay a premium for it.  Their currency fluctuation makes trade with the outside world very difficult, not to mention the numerous sanctions against Iran in an effort to stop them from having nuclear (bomb) capabilities.  Despite the tough sanctions, they have not been deterred. While most businesses are suffering, many have found creative ways around these sanctions. Our credit cards and phones didn’t work in Iran yet we were still able to carry carpets and painted camel bone boxes across the border leaving only a credit card number behind to be run through Dubai, Qatar, and other opportunistic places.

There was no shortage of Western products though they aren’t easy to import. Despite food and beverages being exempt from sanctions, companies like Coke are too high profile to trade directly with Iran and the banks have no ability to clear funds between countries.  There were 37 major Iranian banks before the Revolution in ’79 and now there are only 3 or 4 major banks.  To get around any negative press in supporting Iran, Coke sells their formula to Ireland who in turn sells it to Turkey and Turkey sells Coke to Iran. This way, Coke doesn’t have to admit to selling their product to Iran or a middleman supporting Iran.

We spent several days with top businessmen and thought leaders from the University of Tehran and met with those running the Tehran Stock Exchange. They are looking for investors but hadn’t figured out how to make it attractive to Western investors. The TSE values their stock using the official exchange rate that means the outside investor loses 2/3rds of their value when they pull capital back out of the market.  Besides, it is illegal for Americans to invest in Iran.

We did see several kiosks that looked like a cross between a 1980’s video game and an ATM with crowds of men around each kiosk. When we asked them what they were doing, we learned they were trading stocks.  This is Iran’s version of on line trading.

Everyone was shocked to see Americans in their country but most went out of their way to welcome us. While walking through the Bazaar in Tehran, a man asked where we were from. When we said America, he said “Welcome, we have been waiting over 30 years for you”.  Another time some school girls walked up to us and asked if we wanted some of their snacks eager to share and say hello.  Another man grabbed an old man, pointing at him shouting “terrorist, terrorist” with a big smile on his face when he learned we were American.  I guess they are well aware of our stereotypes.

In general, the reception was surprisingly warm everywhere we went from Tehran to Shiraz other than the few times I found myself questioning my decision to visit Iran especially when we first arrived in Tehran.

Upon arrival, the authorities met us on the jet way and shuffled us away from all of the other (non American) passengers. At first I thought it was because we were with YPO/ WPO and they are used to the red carpet being rolled out but I soon realized it was because the Iranian government is now watching and documenting our every move from this point forward. We were assigned a governmental minder affiliated with the ‘Information Police’ department (their version of the CIA) to keep track of us.  Each night he spent hours writing reports of our daily activities, strange conversations, and documented all of the people we interacted with.  They wanted to be sure we weren’t journalists, spies, or against the Islamic Republic.

Students from a cross-cultural non-profit organization met us several times while in Tehran. On the last day, our minder made them report their personal details. They were surprisingly open about life under such an oppressive regime but didn’t realize our minder worked for the government and became very nervous trying to recount exactly what they said to us once asked for their personal information to log into some central data bank.  By interacting with us they now have a permanent record should they ever do anything against the government.  A justification for whatever punishment the government deems appropriate.  The law seems to change without notice at leaders’ whims even down to the local level. There are 254 Ayatollahs. To become one, you have to have 700 plus followers and publish several books.  The Ayatollahs run their district and help the central government enforce laws.  They also make up their own rules, which must be obeyed in their district.  One Ayatollah said it was illegal to eat caviar so he outlawed caviar.  The next Ayatollah liked Russian caviar so he overturned the previous Ayatollah’s law regarding caviar.  Many rules are senseless and appear to be enacted just because they can.

We proceeded to go through 8 separate check points in two separate locations including a stop several miles from the airport.  We were told to leave all of our belongings in the waiting room as we boarded a van and headed several miles down the street. We passed many billboards showing both the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, idolizing them in similar fashion to North Korea’s Dear Leader.  The process to enter Iran as an American was tedious.  It took just over 2 hours to process the 6 of us. I started counting and there were at least 30 different people finger printing, analyzing, asking questions and searching us repeatedly.  One of the girls in our group had a dried apricot with a pit wrapped up in her pocket and they spent a long time dissecting it and asking our new governmental minder what it was and why she had it. She offered to throw it out but they were still very suspicious. It was at this time I realized the depth of the paranoia about Americans. They didn’t say much to us and mainly spoke in Farsi around us to our two guides and minder which was unsettling.

After we made it out of the airport, we started to learn all of the rules and nuances of life in Iran.  Sometimes there is no reason while other times laws are enacted to protect and enforce a strict moral code, which include the following:

*  It is offensive to show public affection regardless of marriage and it is illegal to live together unless you are married. If the government finds out, the couple has to produce a piece of paper showing their union.

*  Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death if you don’t denounce your ‘illness’ and stop that behavior. They actually just hung a man last month because he wouldn’t denounce his sexuality. When they punish someone by death, they hang the person in their front yard so everyone can witness it. It shames the family, which is the worst type of punishment.

*  it is illegal to denounce your religion if you are Muslim and is punishable by death. Muslims are not allowed to marry non-Muslims unless the non-Muslim is willing to convert. It is acceptable not to be a Muslim but if you are a Muslim and switch religion that is a crime punishable by death.

*  Alcohol is illegal (though they do have a high rate of alcoholism).  Marijuana is also illegal.  Surprisingly, they accept marijuana use more than alcohol consumption.  The college kids say everyone parties in their cars, driving around late at night drinking and smoking. They keep carbon paper (the blue stuff from the 80’s) handy so if they get pulled over, they eat it (yes eat it), which ruins the alcohol and drug tests.

*  Outside Internet is illegal but many are using illegal VPN’s to circumvent this and openly joining Facebook.  While we were there the government took an open stance and are working to shut down all unapproved VPN’s.  I hope our new Facebook friends will still be able to Facebook us!

*  It is illegal to dance or become excited in public. All rules are to maintain self-control.

*  It is illegal for women to show anything more than their hands and face. If a woman is seen in public without a headscarf, she can be fined or sent to prison. The belief is the man won’t be able to control himself if he sees a woman’s hair. It is funny because they sell very revealing lingerie in the bazaars.  Hairdressers have private areas to cut women’s hair so no one can see their hair.

*  Women take female taxis (the green ones if you ever visit Iran) while the men take a separate taxi. This is improving but is still a normal occurrence to have women arrive in a separate taxi.

*  Americans are generally not allowed out at night. They have a curfew. We didn’t realize this until the end of the trip but our guide had to ask permission for everything we did and saw. They were much more subtle in this rule than in North Korea where it was made very clear what we could and couldn’t do.

* Americans are not typically allowed to be in a crowd of Iranians and we had regular check points during our long drives where we stopped to report how many Americans were in the group and be sure our driver wasn’t speeding as they compared times between checkpoints.  There weren’t many places to stop between checkpoints.  It was mostly a desert so you couldn’t speed, stop for lunch and make it to the next checkpoint without appearing to speed. Again, we didn’t know and were lucky to have special approval to go to the Bazaar and the concert but more about that later.

*  We could not deviate from our approved travel plans without more government approval.  For instance, if our bus broke down, we would have to remain on the bus until a police report is filed, witnesses verify our whereabouts, and alternative arrangements approved by the Information Officers.

*  It is not appropriate for a woman to touch a man in public and it is illegal to touch or photograph law enforcement officials (all were men from what I could tell). I posed with a policeman outside of the Stock Exchange who was initially happy to let me take his photo until I pointed (and touched) his uniform to get the armband in the picture. He got nervous and said no at the same time my headscarf was falling down. So I broke the law several times in an instant – touching a man much less a policeman, photographing military personnel, and letting my headscarf fall back. I was glad I wasn’t fined or imprisoned and still can’t figure out how the beautiful Iranian women can navigate daily life with such ease while keeping their designer scarves high up on their heads.  Did I mention Iran has the highest cosmetic sales per capita in the world?

*  Women are only allowed to divorce for the following reasons: their husband is on drugs (they must prove this which is hard to do because they can’t force them to take a drug test), they are beaten (again, they must prove it), the husband does not pay the bills, they are not capable of sex, or they are dying which again must be proven.  Despite this, the divorce rate is 65% in Tehran.

*  It is illegal to pretend to eat during the daylight hours of Ramadan if you are a Muslim.  I know, this sounds ridiculous but it is true.

When the last election took place a few years ago, millions took to the streets in a peaceful protest claiming it wasn’t a fair election. Guards were instructed to shoot to kill those who ran. 25 died during this ‘Green Movement’.  Our tour guide was arrested along with thousands of others. They have full information on everyone. Because our guide’s grandfather was the last Shah’s cook he had to spend 5 days in the infamous underground Evin prison where they take scholars, poets, and political prisoners.  My hotel room in Tehran actually overlooked it on the hill. Initially I thought it was part of the beautiful mountain chain until I asked where Evin was and our guide pointed to the seemingly barren hill.

The other time I was extremely uncomfortable in Iran was during a concert. To set the stage, given the above rules, they don’t let crowds congregate. The government rarely allows concerts to take place for fear someone will speak up against the government.  They reluctantly allowed a friend of our friend’s to perform. He is a famous Iranian musician who left the country when his songs were being censored and many outright banned for fear they evoke too much emotion and could cause one to lose control.  He is very talented and has opened for U2 and other popular musicians outside of Iran.

He went back to his home country recently.  Upon arrival, they took his passport so he will not be able to leave again. He knew this would happen but didn’t care. He loves his country. We had dinner with him earlier in the week and he was nervous about whether or not the government would actually allow him to perform despite his agreement to sing the only 12 songs approved by the government.  We didn’t know this but our friend and guide gave this concert a 5% chance of happening.  2 hours before the show, the government canceled it. We weren’t told this and went anyway. 30 minutes after the show was originally to start, the government reconsidered and allowed the show to go on. He signed the contract and immediately took the stage.  He did exactly as he was allowed to do and security was everywhere.  The Mayor came out to see the show but it turned political and with the elections only months away, he left before the show started. He couldn’t afford to be seen if an incident broke out.

We were not told any of the rules such as no head bobbing, no loud noises or clapping (except at the end of a song), no dancing etc.  We were just nervous enough to take cues from those around us. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife.

Throughout the show, several guards and police were seen quieting the crowd if they said anything above the sound of the music. It was surreal! This was a rock concert yet you could hear a pin drop in the crowd of 200 between songs.  No one dared to get out of his or her seat.  The police were sending hand written notes to the lead singer in the middle of his songs forcing him to read the notes to the audience between songs. This happened at least 4 or 5 times. Sometimes the lead singer would stop and thank the police, security, and government for allowing the concert to happen while other times he stopped to tell people to settle down so he could keep playing. If they didn’t quiet down, security would stop the concert.

At first, I felt honored they trusted us enough to allow us to witness this slice of life in Tehran but it quickly turned to anxiety.  I realized the unpredictability of their rules when a policeman confiscated our photographer’s camera because of a photograph he took. We were in the front row and he inadvertently captured the crowd behind us while snapping a picture of us. We even bought a pass for him to take photos that was openly displayed around his neck.  Security wanted to take his camera but after 20 minutes of harassing him, the guard settled on deleting all of the pictures from the past few days he spent with us. Luckily he backed them all up and was able to retrieve them after the altercation.

Overall, I had a wonderful experience and met many fascinating people along the way from the Ambassadors to Germany and Austria to the leaders of the Tehran Stock Exchange and passionate young students all wanting to make a positive change in the way their government operates.  Nearly everyone went out of their way to welcome us and was incredibly friendly.  Throughout the country, the people consistently seem to support the belief that their government doesn’t want to harm people and only want nuclear capabilities for energy and to be able to defend their country. They don’t trust the US government citing what we did to Libya after they gave up their nuclear capability and how we turned on Iraq after being such an ally.  Constant reminders of their mistrust appear around town from the American flag shaped as a gun and the Statue of Liberty skeleton in front of the old US Embassy to the 10 story building painted as an American flag using skulls for stars and bombs for stripes. ‘Down with the USA’ is boldly painted over top. The government goes to great lengths to paint a fresh coat each year.

The locals do believe their government will soon make peace with America and other estranged countries though Israel may be the exception.  They think both governments are just posturing and truly believe their leaders will come around and negotiate with us. I don’t sense many really back their leaders and with the bulk of their population being under 30, I can see the new generation won’t stand for the status quo. You can feel the energy and hope in the streets from the main boulevards in Tehran to the small towns of Yadz and Isfahan.  People rushed to welcome us everywhere we went.  The locals are really gentle, kind and loving. I do believe they will push their government to see that the benefits of open trade outweigh the power they currently have as a semi isolated radical society.  There seems to be a lot of energy in the younger generation to bring about change including relaxing the strict laws back to how Iran was before the revolution.  Iran is a very thoughtful, well-educated country.  I believe they are in for a drastic, positive shift in the very near future.