Last April, the Harvard Museum of Natural History sponsored a trip to a land of “searing beauty” with “a long and remarkable history stretching over 2,500 years,” to “explore [its] fabulous bazaars…and to converse with the people who call it home.” As someone who enjoys traveling, especially to countries rich in history, the trip had caught my interest—until I realized that the destination was Iran. As Harvard programs and organizations plan their travel, they should avoid Iran. The Museum of Natural History’s trip this past year highlighs the broader, persistent case for steering clear.
Although newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has just concluded his “charm offensive” at the United Nations in search of better relations with America and the West, we shouldn’t so easily forget that "Marg bar Amrika!" (Death to America) has long been a common rallying cry in the country. Despite Rouhani’s recent words of conciliation, Iran continues its threatening pursuit of a comprehensive nuclear program.
Nevertheless, it makes complete sense for a vigilant America to give diplomacy with Iran a chance. After all, the deal that the United States, Russia, and Syria recently made to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles seems to be bearing some fruit. But until Iran takes verifiable steps to end its nuclear weapons program, Harvard should not schedule any more trips to Iran.
To do otherwise would send the message that Harvard doesn’t have to abide by the economic sanctions that the United States, its allies, and the United Nations have imposed on Iran due to its truculent pursuit of nuclear weapons. Visiting the bazaars would suggest that Harvard has no problem with Iran’s sending weapons, soldiers, and money to support the Syrian government’s murderous campaign against its own citizens. It would also show that we’re not overly concerned that Iran has a long history of funding terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas or that it has threatened to stop the flow of oil out of the Strait of Hormuz.
Moreover, until our country lifts economic sanctions against Iran, which may very well have been the impetus for Rouhani’s quest for better relations, we should not ease that pressure by supporting Iran’s tourism industry. And although the State Department does not explicitly ban travel to Iran, it does issue ample warnings that “some elements in Iran remain hostile to the United States” and “as a result, U.S. citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran.”
The State Department’s travel warning explicitly cautions U.S. citizens of Iranian origin to “consider the risk of being targeted by authorities” because several Iranian-American citizens such as journalists and academics who have spent time in Iran for personal or professional reasons have been held in the country against their will, sometimes for months.
According to the warning report, American citizens who are not of Iranian descent have also been “unjustly detained or imprisoned on various charges, including espionage and posing a threat to national security.” People of the Bahá'í faith, Arabs, Kurds, and Azeris should also think twice before signing up to visit Iran, due to its government’s long history of repressing these minority groups.
To complete the list of people who may be better off traveling elsewhere, former Muslims who converted to other religions may be subject to “arrest and prosecution” along with people who encourage Muslims to convert. For all these people and every other American, the State Department warns that they should not expect a great deal of assistance from the American government if things go awry, as the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran.
When I called the Harvard Museum last year to see if I’d be permitted to join this trip given that I had traveled to Israel the year before, the spokesperson for the traveling program suggested I get a second passport, because Iran, through the medium of the Pakistani embassy, would not issue me a visa if my passport had been stamped with Israel’s seal.
Intercultural exchange that brings individual Americans and Iranians together is important, especially since the two governments are at odds. However, no one should have to hide his previous travel log in order to participate in this exchange. Iran needs to go far beyond rhetoric in making genuine reforms before trips to Iran can be of any use in mending relations between America and its implacable enemy.
Last year’s trip to Iran was definitely premature. Any future trips must be contingent upon Iran’s concrete implementation of political and humanitarian reforms, especially upon its dismantling of its bellicose nuclear weapons program. I look forward to a time in which Iran greets Americans with more than just welcoming words of peace, and in which Harvard can with good conscience resume arranging its tours to this ancient land.
Ethan S. H. Fried ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Eliot House.
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