It is past midnight and the news is keeping me awake with joy. After a quarter century my country of birth, Iran, is easing (undeclared) travel restrictions this week for the citizens of my adopted home, the United States. As I embark on a speaking tour in America's Northeast to counter George Bush's unnecessary hostility towards Iran, the Iranian government has announced even a $20 incentive for any travel agent who books a tour to Iran for a U.S. citizen.
According to the official Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, Iran's deputy director of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Administration, Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, said Monday “the scheme has been made possible through a clear order of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who last month invited foreigners to come and see Iran's nuclear sites.” The Associated Press opined the same day, “The proposal is Iran's latest bid to reach out to ordinary Americans in an attempt by the Islamic Republic's leadership to show that its quarrel is with the U.S. administration – not U.S. citizens.”
The unprecedented public welcome extended to American tourists is only the latest in a series of overtures from Tehran. Earlier this year Iranian authorities quietly upgraded America from “the Great Satan” to the friendlier “Global Arrogance” in their rhetoric and Ahmadinejad sent a personal letter to George Bush (which went unanswered). Last week the Iranian president publicly opposed a bill introduced in the Iranian parliament to require that American visitors be fingerprinted upon arrival. The legislation which he rejected was intended as a tit-for-tat against routine similar humiliation of Iranians traveling to the United States. Ahmadinejad's gesture for increased tourism came only weeks after dozens of Iranian scholars – alumni of Iran's prestigious Sharif University headed for a reunion in California – either had their visa applications rejected or were deported after arriving here with valid US visas.
Hundreds of American journalists, veterans, athletes, theologians, scientists, skiers, stargazers, archaeologists, and others who have taken the trouble to visit Iran in recent years have reported feeling especially welcome by the public there. Welcome BECAUSE they identified themselves as Americans, not in spite of it. Occasional delegations of American visitors in recent years have rarely drawn criticism from the country's leading dailies and never on the state-controlled radio and television broadcasts. A delegation of 21 Western visitors – almost all U.S. citizens assembled with my help by the interfaith Fellowship of Reconciliation – even had a two-hour audience last May with Iran's Minister of tourism.
Further courting of American tourists this week is a sign that Iranian authorities have decided to reach past the Bush administration and reassure the U.S. public amidst intense mutual distrust. Few developments could be better news in these tense times as the two governments battle each other at the UN and the US Navy is conducting provocative war games off Iran's southern coast.
In the lead up to this week's decision, Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran announced earlier this year that international visitors – presumably including Americans -- could for the first time receive one-week renewable visas upon arrival. Now the authorities have further decided to offer visas online, according to IRNA. It is not clear whether the requirement that a tour group must have its itinerary and contact list approved in advance will persist.
Jewish visa applicants and visitors have not complained of receiving discriminatory treatment from Iranian authorities or citizens. Still, for the foreseeable future anyone with an Israeli visa stamped in his/her passport will have to use a replacement passport lacking evidence of past travel to the Zionist state. Iran's current government apparently feels secure enough about its core constituency to reach out to Americans, but will lose considerable domestic support if it appears to be relaxing its non-recognition of Israel.
Until now, only Fellowship of Reconciliation, Global Exchange, and the New College of California have regularly organized tours to Iran. Each receives more applications than it can accommodate. Let us hope that with Iran's new overture, hundreds and then thousands of Americans interested in traveling to Iran will entice more tour operators to offer opportunities to experience what the Bush administration has described as “the axis of evil.”