The email arrived in late June from Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance: “Congratulations, your visa has been approved.”
I was now one of only a handful of journalists from the outside world each year to be allowed inside Iran, a nation former President George W. Bush once described as part of the global “axis of evil,” an enemy of the United States.
I was being given one week to wander a country whose relationship with America has been marked by more than 60 years of animosity and acrimony.
There was the CIA’s 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. In Mossadegh’s place, the CIA installed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a pro-U.S. dictator who controlled the country for decades. Then in 1979, in a humiliating chapter in U.S. history, a group of university students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats and embassy workers hostage for 444 days.
The country eventually became ruled by Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. When he died in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took over as supreme leader.
Today, the U.S. and Iran remain distant and suspicious of each other.
That relationship is being tested again by President Donald Trump. He has withdrawn from the nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and world powers in 2015 and reimposed economic sanctions – a move the Iranian government has condemned.
My trip to Iran is a rare one for any journalist, especially one from USA TODAY, which has not had a reporter visit the country in more than a decade.
Iran reportedly prefers to admit journalists who have not written extensively about the country. I suppose I fit the bill. I’m a London-based correspondent for USA TODAY and focus much of my attention on a host of foreign affairs issues.
Iranian authorities insisted that foreign media never – or hardly ever – run into difficulties while reporting in Iran. “Iran is a safe country,” these authorities repeatedly said. “As long as you don’t create any problems for us, we will not create any problems for you.”
Iran did jail a Washington Post reporter with dual Iran-U.S. citizenship in 2015. Jason Rezaian spent 544 days in Tehran’s Evin Prison, a torture plant nicknamed “Evin University” because of the large number of intellectuals and political prisoners housed there. He was convicted of espionage and for “propaganda against the establishment.”
The explicit evidence against him was flimsy.
The main risk for me as a journalist representing a major U.S. media company was that I would somehow inadvertently get on the wrong side of a policeman or someone else in a position of authority through no obvious fault of my own. The U.S. State Department warns against all travel to Iran “due to the very high risk of arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.”
Complicating matters, the U.S. government does not have any diplomatic or consular relations with Iran, so there no longer is a U.S. Embassy.
In fact, what used to house the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is now a monument to American perfidy, known locally as the “U.S. Den of Espionage.”
There is a Danish embassy in Iran. I’m originally from Denmark and have dual U.S.-Danish citizenship, but I learned it really didn’t matter.
A Danish official in Tehran told me over the phone before I left that I would have “a great time in Iran,” then added, “but remember, if you do run into trouble there is virtually nothing we can do to help you.”
The last email I had from my contact at Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York, a kind of quasi embassy that stands in for the lack of formal diplomatic relations, was signed off with a well-traveled message.
“Bon voyage,” it read, a sentiment that struck me as both reassuring and disquieting.
Who does that, I thought? Who just flippantly expresses good wishes to someone about to set off on a journey to an “axis of evil”? Perhaps I was overthinking it.
Still, in Britain, where I live, a separate contact at Iran’s embassy in London had made a point of saying a few times over tea that I should view this trip to Iran, my first, as a relationship-building exercise. “If you do OK, Iran will probably allow you to return.”
- DAY ONE: Massive traffic jams and Iranians’ obsession with white cars. Read journal entry here.
- DAY TWO: Iranians explain their ‘misunderstood’ country and why it’s not North Korea. Read journal entry here.
- DAY THREE: A city where Israel, U.S. are condemned and Trump is mocked as leader of the free world. Read journal entry here.
- DAY FOUR: Talk of Iran’s economic malaise and whispers of whom to – blame. Read journal entry here.
- DAY FIVE: Disoriented Iranian youth, fortified nuclear plants and understanding nose job nation. Read journal entry here.