Barbara Sofer

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By Barbara Sofer

DECEMBER 22, 2017

Where will you travel in 2018?" asks the beguiling headline in The New York Times.

Tourists planning vacations and even armchair travelers can enjoy contemplating the new and exotic trips offered by the Times. Among those featured: "Murder on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express," the "Biodiversity of Southern Arizona" and… are you ready... "Iran: Tales from Persia!"

Here's the pitch: "For 2,500 years this powerful country has entranced, mystified and beguiled the world… welcome to the once forbidden land of Iran."

"Though Iran often rejects Western ways and is frequently under fire for its positions on human rights, its nuclear program and Israel, its role as a birthplace of civilization cannot be denied. This journey with The New York Times, praised for its intensive and clear-eyed coverage of Iran going back decades, takes you behind the headlines."

Under fire for its positions on human rights? According to Human Rights Watch, an organization never criticized for rightwing leanings, "under Iranian law, many nonviolent crimes such as insulting the Prophet, apostasy, same-sex relations, adultery, and drug-related offenses are punishable by death."

Not to mention that Iran still executes children, flogs them and shocks them into giving up homosexual tendencies. Having sex with children as young as nine isn't illegal in this so-called birthplace of civilization, although they can't marry until they are 13. Once married, a girl bride or woman cannot get a passport without her husband's permission.

Then there's the banning of free speech, the disqualification of reformist political candidates and the blocking of open social media like Facebook. Animal rights? Infamous videos show Iranians smashing dogs' skulls and lethal injections.

Then there's the small matter of the nuclear program. Whether you are for or against the nuclear deal, Iran's aggressive ballistic missile development is making both neighbors and those who live across the sea uneasy. Additionally, according to an October report by Reuters, "Iran has no need to increase the range of its ballistic missiles, as they could already reach US forces stationed in the region." Feel a tad unpatriotic to spend your money there? Why would people want to visit a country that's gleefully gearing up to nuke their children and grandchildren?

Remember the Syrians, who have fallen off the front pages of newspapers? The deaths there are now estimated at more than 400,000. Iranian security and intelligence services have backed up the Syrian military in keeping President Bashar Assad in power to the tune of $6 billion a year. Despite the expense, this support is popular with the Iranian people.

As for being under fire for its "positions on Israel," the differences go beyond weltanschauung. The Iranians already have 100,000 missiles aimed at Israeli citizens by its proxy, Hezbollah. Not to mention Iran's military chief of staff Seyyed Abdolrahim Mousavi's promise to destroy Israel at "lightning speed" and to "turn Tel Aviv and Haifa into dust."

Iran, eager for tourists, now provides visa-on-arrival services – that is if you come from any country other than the United States, Canada and Great Britain, where tourists need to apply in advance. Israelis, of course, are banned. So are women who refuse to comply with the strictures of the Islamic Republic. You don't actually need to order a hijab online. A large kerchief is acceptable, which should be in your carry-on. If you are flying into Iranian air space in an Iranian plane, you will need to cover up on board. No tight jeans, no bare arms or legs – not even if you visit the city of Bandar Mahshahr, which holds a possible world record with a temperature of 74º centigrade factoring in the humidity. Chadors are supplied at religious sites for those who don't own one.

Sound discouraging? None of the above seems to trouble tourists – not the threat to wipe out all the Jews and Arabs in Israel, nor the threat of punishment for not wearing a headdress.

Iranian tourism is flourishing. More than six million tourists visited Iran in the year ending March 2017, up 50% on the previous year and three times the number in 2009, according to official data. That added $8b. to the Iranian economy, covering the training, combat troops and ballistic missiles used in Syria. The surge in tourism follows the 2015 nuclear deal that resulted in lifting of sanctions the following year.

Two of the dates for the "Tales from Persia" trip are already booked, with waiting lists. True, you get to visit Khomein, the home of the Ayatollah Khomeini who instituted the Islamic State, and other sites like the enchanted gardens of Isfahan, and even "a Hebrew settlement" (sic) that dates from the sixth century.

Can you morally justify a visit to Iran if you're not a journalist, a diplomat or a spy? Do tourists really believe they'll get a deep and true understanding of this rogue state by complying with the rules of dress and censorship? Tales of Persia, indeed.

Imagine a trip in the 1930s to see the new and fascinating regime in Nazi Germany. You could take your photo near the Brandenburg Gate and feast on authentic streuselkuchen. You might even get to see actual Nazi roundups in action. There were, in fact, such tourists, curious to see what they described as Hitler's utopia.

The Times trip to Iran will set you back a minimum of $7,995, but the real question is how much will turning this aggressive state into another travel destination on par with Venice and southern Arizona set the world back.

Here's a tip. If you want to visit an ancient-modern land with an abundance of free and frank talk, choose the one that invented the cellphone.



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