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To Iran, with love

Locals seek to foster peace with “evil” nation

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Last year, according to the Iranian Interests Section (the closest thing to an embassy for a country that does not have one), only about 300 tourists from the United States visited their country. In hopes of encouraging peace between the two nations, Whitefish residents Sam and Ruth Neff intend to lead a trip this spring that will bump that number up significantly.

With help from Jerry Dekker, a humanities professor at New College of California, the Neffs plan to lead a 10-day tour of Iran this April, traveling to the cities of Tehran and Esfahan.

Dekker, who says he has led more than 20 trips to Iran over the last 11 years, believes unreasonable fears, encouraged by the administration of U.S. President George Bush, needlessly keep Americans away from Iran.

In a travel advisory on its website, the U.S. State Department cautions, “American citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran. Recently, Iranian authorities prevented a number of Iranian-American citizen academics, journalists, and others who traveled to Iran for personal reasons from leaving for several months, and in some cases detained and imprisoned them on various charges, including espionage and posing a threat to national security.”

The State Department’s warnings are not without some basis. In May of 2007, an Iranian-American academic was arrested, imprisoned and interrogated for six weeks while on a trip to Iran to visit her mother.

And although a National Intelligence Estimate refuting Bush administration claims that the country is developing nuclear weaponry would seem to have cooled tensions between the nations, as recently as Jan. 9, Bush referred to Iran as a “threat to the world.”

Not surprisingly, the Neffs have received fearful responses from fellow Americans. “We were on the ski lift with two guys from Florida who said I’ve got a lot of my life ahead of me I don’t want to go over there and get beheaded,” Sam says.

But Dekker insists American perspectives and policy on Iran are based on distortions and propaganda.

“When Americans get over there, usually after their second or third day, they go into incredible shock,” says Dekker. “[They] go through this incredible shock of feeling that they’ve been duped, feeling that something seriously has happened in their own education, and they begin to doubt a lot of things.”

Although the Neffs have never been to Iran themselves, they have experience leading trips to countries perceived to be unfriendly to the United States and its citizens. Back in 1983, when the United States teetered on the brink of grave conflict with the Soviet Union, they began making trips to that country with a group of friends.

“I remember when we first started talking with [Soviet] people in ’83,” Neff recalls. “They’d say, ‘Well, we know the Americans love us and we love the Americans, it’s just our leaders that are having problems.’”

They weren’t so sure their fellow Americans shared the same perspective as their Soviet counterparts, but they started working to bridge the gap. In 1985, they went over with a total of 35 people, and on their last night, after crossing Red Square in Moscow, they decided they needed to do more to educate others that despite the differences between the Soviet and United States governments, the ordinary citizens of both nations wanted peace.

Thus Neighbors East and West (NEW) was born, a group that promoted trips to the Soviet Union, sister city relationships between American and Soviet cities, and cultural education.

The Neffs themselves led eight trips to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and starting in 1992, they began leading groups tours of Cuba, and establishing sister city relationships there.

“It was when Reagan made the statement about the evil empire,” says Sam, that he and Ruth got interested in visiting the Soviet Union and Cuba. And it was when “George Bush used the phrase “Axis of Evil” that they got interested in Iran.

Inspired by the president’s harsh rhetoric, the Neffs began discussing plans with friends from Neighbors East and West, including Pam Haglund, a Kalispell resident who made a trip to Iran with Dekker’s group in the fall.

“The people were very warm and very welcoming,” Haglund tells the Independent. “I certainly didn’t feel unsafe in any way.

“At one point we were up near the Caspian Sea,” she recalls, “and as we were coming off the boat we were kind of attracting a crowd, and one young man leaned over the railing and said, ‘Tell Bush not to bomb us.’”

The Neffs hope to lead 15 people on their trip to Iran, and say they have seven signed up right now. “We hope that it will provide some propaganda of our own,” Sam says, laughing.

“Truth,” Ruth says, countering Sam’s use of the word propaganda. “More truth.”

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