A decade ago, I traveled to Iran to better understand a country with whom we seemed perennially on the verge of war. I came home with a one-hour public television special (“Rick Steves Iran: Yesterday and Today”) that attempted to understand the Iranian psyche and humanize the Iranian people. I believe if you’re going to bomb a place, you should know its people first. Even if military force is justified, it should hurt when you kill someone.
Some things just don’t change. America is, once again, on the verge of war with Iran. And, just like a decade ago, we are not prepared for that reality. As a nation, we don’t adequately understand Iran. From my travels there, it’s clear to me that Americans underestimate both Iran’s baggage and its spine.
“Baggage” shapes a country’s response to future challenges. In the USA, our baggage includes the fight against socialism during the Cold War and the tragedy of 9/11. Iran’s baggage has to do with incursions from the West. Examples include 1953, when the US and Britain deposed a popular Iranian prime minister (after he nationalized their oil) and replaced him with the Shah; and the 1980s, when — with US funding — Saddam Hussein and Iraq invaded Iran, leaving hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers on Iran’s Western Front.
Iran is a proud and powerful nation of 80 million people — long a leader in its corner of the world. When I was in Tehran filming my TV special, I went to the National Museum of Iran expecting to film art from the great Persian Empire (the “Empires of Empires” ruled centuries before Christ by great leaders like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes). I found almost nothing. Apologetically, the curator explained, “You’ll need to go to London or Paris. Iran’s patrimony is in the great museums of Europe.” This is baggage.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which deposed the US-friendly Shah, is seen in the USA as a terrible thing. It led to the rise of the ayatollahs and the taking of 52 American hostages (which — speaking of baggage — is why our president recently threatened to bomb 52 targets in Iran). But traveling in Iran, I heard a different narrative: The revolution was a people’s uprising in the context of the Cold War, as Iran’s young generation wanted to be neither East nor West (independent from the USA or USSR realms).
If you don’t know Iran (as, I fear, is the case with our country’s decision-makers), it would be easy to underestimate their spine. Filming there, I was impressed by the caliber and the goodness of the people on the street — and haunted by a feeling that we could easily radicalize them with a reckless foreign policy.
I’m no diplomat, and I realize that Iran is a challenging puzzle to solve. It seems we will always be in conflict with Iran, and the answers will never come easy. But surely whatever we do should be built upon a foundation of understanding: We must get to know Iran on its own terms. We would be foolish not to recognize its baggage — and not to appreciate its spine.
My public television special, “Rick Steves Iran: Yesterday and Today,” is as timely and important today as it was when we first released it in 2009. Back then, when people asked me why on earth I was making a TV show about Iran, I told them, “I believe if you’re going to bomb a place, you should know its people first.” And I believe that now more than ever.