Build Bridges of Goodwill and Respect with Iran: 8 Surprises from the Iranian People

By Philip M. Hellmich

I am deeply saddened by the growing tensions between the United States and Iran. The U.S. and Iran will be much safer in the long term by building bridges of goodwill and respect for one another instead of building walls of fear and mistrust.

In October 2016, I made a 14-day trip to Iran that profoundly opened me to a new understanding about one of the oldest civilizations in the world and its people, who received our group with open hearts.

The Shift Network partnered with Cross Cultural Journeys to create a tourist trip to Iran with the intention of helping participants learn more about the people, history, and culture of Iran so we could better support efforts to improve relationships between Iran, the United States, and other Western countries.

Prior to the trip, many friends and family members tried to talk me out of going, saying it was dangerous. My sister cried the day I was leaving, thinking she would never hear from me again.

What I experienced in Iran went far beyond my wildest dreams and shattered all the stereotypes that are so routinely promoted in the U.S. media.

Here are some key discoveries we made while in Iran, some of which you may already know, and others that may surprise you:

1. Many, if not most, Iranians love Americans — Every day while in Iran, we were approached by Iranians asking where we were from. When they heard we were from the United States, the responses were always enthusiastically positive, such as, "Thank you for coming to Iran! You are welcomed here! We love you!" We received several invitations to people’s homes for dinner. It was such an incredible experience of love and goodwill. We did not have any negative comments during our 14 days in Iran. Many people said they loved Americans and they wished our governments could get along better. I was especially impressed how Iranians were able to make a distinction between their love for Americans and concern about U.S. foreign policies. (See # 8 below)

2. Iran is ancient — I was embarrassed to find out how little I knew about Iran’s ancient civilizations and cultures. Even though I loved studying history in high school and college, most of my classes focused on the United States and Europe. As our guide Hadi said, “Western history stops with the ancient Greeks and Romans.” The most that I remember being said in my schools about ancient Iran was that it was the “cradle of civilization.”

I was awe-inspired by Iran’s rich history, which includes Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. Cyrus made decrees in 539 B.C. that are considered the first charter on human rights. We also learned about numerous engineering inventions that greatly impacted the world, including the sophisticated qanat water systems that allowed civilizations to thrive in dry environments for thousands of years. To bring history to life, we visited a Zoroastrian Fire Temple, which housed a fire that had been lit for at least 1,534 years. We also visited Maymand or Meymand, a village estimated to be over 12,000 years old. Meymand has more than 2,600 homes carved into the sides of cliffs, some of which have been inhabited for 3,000 years. While most of the young people of Maymand have moved to urban areas for work, there are still numerous families living in the same homes that their ancestors lived in.

3. Women are an active part of society — I was surprised to learn that Ayatollah Khomenei had encouraged women to become more engaged in society, receive an education, and be part of the workforce. Over 60 percent of college students in Iran today are women. Granted, there is room for improvement for women in Iran — such as being allowed to attend sporting events — but it is safe to say that women in Iran have more rights and opportunities than most women in other Middle Eastern countries, with the possible exception of Israel.

4. Iran has a culture of supporting the homeless and poor — On every street in Iran, we saw numerous boxes where money can be donated to support local organizations in providing support to needy people. We also heard that it’s common for people to anonymously leave money, food, and/or other supplies on the doorsteps of poorer families. We saw very few homeless people on the streets in Iran.

5. Poetry is an integral part of life — One of the most touching aspects about Iranian life is its rich history with poetry, including the great mystic poets Hafez, Saadi, Rumi, and others. Our guide Hadi said that most Iranians learn to recite poetry before beginning kindergarten. While traveling through Iran, we relished reading the mystical poetry that had such depth of heart and soul. When we visited the Mausoleum of Hafez in Shiraz, I was deeply moved to see people with tears in their eyes as they quietly read Hafez’s poetry of love.

6. Islam is peaceful in Iran — Islam as practiced in Iran is relatively peaceful and accepting of people observing other religions. Several people wanted us to know that the deeper essence of Islam is peace and love. We visited Zoroastrian Fire Temples and Greek Orthodox churches that were standing side by side with ancient Mosques.

7. Iran opposes radical Islam — Iran opposes radical Islam, including the Taliban and ISIS. When the Kurds asked for assistance in fighting ISIS, within three hours Iran had troops on the ground. Many Iranian troops have died fighting ISIS and many Iranians have been killed by the Taliban. Iran is determined to help their neighbors as they do not want radical Islam within their borders. The U.S. has a lot of common ground here with Iran and we would do well to work together better.


Philip with his guide Hadi and his wife.

8. Impact of U.S. Foreign Policy on Iranians — One of the most challenging parts of the trip was to learn about the impact of U.S. foreign policy on Iranians, the people who welcomed us with open arms. In the U.S., we hear so much about Iran’s threat to Israel, concerns about terrorism, and human rights violations. What we do not hear about is how the U.S. and Britain, because of oil interests, plotted a coup in 1953 to overthrow Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and restore power to the Shah of Iran. The CIA and Israeli secret police then trained the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, which reigned terror on millions of Iranians from 1957 to 1979. Our guide, Hadi, had a friend in high school who disappeared the day after making a comment in school about the Shah. Seven years later, Hadi’s high school friend was released from prison — just one of many stories we heard about SAVAK’s terror tactics.

The U.S also gave military support to Iraq in its invasion of Iran, including chemical weapons which were used on Iranians troops. The war with Iraq deeply affected people in Iran and mobilized the entire country to save the homeland. People across the country volunteered and women sent their husbands and sons to fight. Every town and village we visited had posters of local men who had been killed during the war.

Given the U.S.’s foreign policy history, it was perplexing to have Iranians in villages, towns, and cities across the country welcome us with open arms. They genuinely loved having us visit.

There is so much that I can write about my time in Iran. It was such a profound, eye-opening experience filled with discoveries, laughter, and new friendships.

While there are many reasons to be concerned about Iran’s foreign policies and human rights violations, the people of Iran reminded me of the basic goodness of humanity. I strongly believe the U.S. would do well to build upon the tremendous goodwill that Iranians have towards Americans and to take a long, hard look at our historical role in the region.

After this journey, I believe all the more strongly that forging relationships based on mutual respect is much more productive than a belligerent policy of building walls of mistrust and fear.

(An edited version of this article was published in HuffPost in January 2017.)

Philip M. Hellmich is Director of Peace at The Shift Network and the lead designer of the World Peace Library. Philip has dedicated most of his life to global and local peacebuilding initiatives, including 14 years with Search for Common Ground. He also served for four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone where he lived and worked in small remote bush villages. Philip is author of God and Conflict: A Search for Peace in a Time of Crisis, which features a Foreword by Lama Surya Das. He also serves as adviser to The Global Peace Initiative of Women. A long-time meditation practitioner, Philip enjoys studying and teaching about the parallels between inner and outer peace.

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This article appears in: 2019 Catalyst, Issue 11: Yoga of Healing and Awakening Summit