Lost and Found in Iran
I’m just back from eight days in Iran. Before my trip the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accords, and while I was in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Inside Iran I spoke with fearful students, anxious Foreign Ministry officials, and clerics seemingly pleased they’d been right, Americans could not be trusted. We’ve empowered the wrong people, a perfect circle of shouting at the very folks who might have helped lower the nuclear temperature.
Among students there is deep frustration at not participating in the world, and a desire to engage. The universities I visited had foreign students from China, but no one from the United States. One man who had never left Iran spoke English with a scarred Southern accent, admitting he got his start with an DVD of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” his father brought home from an now-ancient business trip. The Trump visa ban which meant he’d never travel, to be able to “sip the water” as he said, was a personal affront to a man who loved from afar. The students I met are not people who’ll take the streets for John Bolton, demanding regime change. Nowhere did I feel any of the sense of panic, crisis or disruption American pundits speak of. These kids want to see LA.
People from the Foreign Ministry expressed frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why the U.S. still questions the legitimacy and stability of Iran’s government. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying,” one said. There was much talk about Russia and China, little confidence the Europeans would fight the American sanctions, and a sad resignation moderates would not be able to overrule the hardliners again on foreign policy for a long time. “The door you came through to Iran,” one said, “is open but it’s Russians and Chinese who seem to want to come in.”
Trump’s terms for a new agreement — basically the old agreement plus restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles plus restrictions on Iran’s overseas military efforts plus extending the nuke terms indefinitely plus unlimited inspections — are the equivalent of pre-burned bridges.
The missiles are central to Iran’s defense. Memories of the 1980s Iran-Iraq missile war, which saw devastation across multiple cities, run 9/11-deep. Detailed talk of Iran’s efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere was too much for our conversations, but the implication was there was no way to curtail such efforts while the U.S. had boots on the ground in the same places. An open-ended treaty to replace one the U.S. reneged on? Unlimited inspections in response to the U.S. breaking a deal negotiated in good faith? Who would accept such terms, the diplomats laughed.
But my search for people empowered by American actions was not a long one. From a reception side-chat, to a fully-sanctioned speech, to a sermon at the central mosque, the clerics conveyed a single message: we told you so. We told you the Americans could not be trusted. We told you not to listen to those in Iran who sought moderation. Regime change? Why, we’re the ones who were right.
The theocratic regime seems intellectually stronger than ever in its position. Trump’s actions frightened America’s natural friends inside Iran. His terms for “progress” are designed instead to force failure abroad to look tough at home. Instead of an era of transition (one builds on previous agreements, not trashes them), Iran may kick-start its nuclear program. Teheran’s hegemonic efforts remain untouched. Iran’s missiles still reach Jerusalem. Russia and China are teed up as the good guys. Europe is wandering circa pre-Iraq invasion 2003. In the streets of Mashhad, there seemed no way forward.
But me, I was at the airport again. Turkish Airlines had lost my luggage, and along with a new German friend I had met at the hotel and an Iranian translator, I had a mission: find my suitcase. It’s not like I was trying to negotiate a nuclear accord or something, I just needed my boxers.
I lost the first round of negotiations after finding Turkish Airlines had no ground staff in Mashhad and the “local” number rang through to a nightmare multilingual phone tree where, after roaming charges approaching the cost of a cruise missile strike, I was told to submit a lost luggage form from a web site I couldn’t access. Technology wasn’t the answer. I was going to have to do this with the Iranians.
The taxi driver sluiced through an airport police checkpoint announcing he had a foreigner with lost luggage, damn the hardliners in the security booth. First stop was the wrong terminal. Most of the lights were out, but there was plenty of parking so we tried there. In fact, the airport was surrounded by miles of parking lots, enough to fill with thousands of cars but mostly filled with puddles from afternoon showers. The terminal doors were unlocked but no one was inside absent a handful of local people who might have arrived and missed their rides, or were waiting for another day, or perhaps just lived there.
Back outside, the taxi driver explained we should try the other terminal, the one with the lights on he hadn’t driven to. It would take him some time to navigate the complex airport roads, so instead he suggested we walk there and he’d follow later in the taxi. Decouple the problems, be practical, got it. Unburdened by luggage of course, we cut across a field and yet another parking lot.
A woman at an information counter, after reacting as if no one had ever asked her for information before, directed our inquiry down several flights of stairs. We stumbled into an office with a lone cop blasting through TV channels so quickly you’d have guessed the button pushing was responsible for keeping his heart beating. The cop paused on a Korean period drama translated into Farsi. Hands up? Nope, we were redirected to the state airline Iran Air. The bureaucrats would know.
Under stern photos of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, three Iran Air employees, two already grinding prayer beads while the third stubbed out a cigarette, stared me down. Tired, I ignored my German friend’s small talk to demand an answer — where the hell was my suitcase!
I might as well have brought up Trump unilaterally pulling the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal or moving the embassy to Jerusalem or George W. Bush lumping Iran into a made-up Axis of Evil or the support for Saddam Hussein in his missile wars against Iran or the 1988 American shoot down of a civilian Iranian airliner killing 290 passengers or the U.S. support for the Shah’s secret police or the 1953 CIA overthrow of Iran’s secular, democratically chosen leader, or…
My German friend stopped me. With the Iran Air staff he brought up mutual goals; a lost suitcase jumbling around the airport was no good for anyone. We didn’t need to be friends, we needed to solve a problem together. There’d be other nights to figure out whose fault it was, why no one answered the phone, why the office to find suitcases was located four stories underground. Sometimes a suitcase is a suitcase and with a little goodwill we found a solution. And my boxers.
If I had a geopolitical wish to make, it’d be that some expensive Trump luggage got misplaced in Mashhad. You can learn a lot there.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell