"I just got back from Iran."
In today's America, that's a conversation-stopper. Those of us able to say it become temporary objects of fascination, like our grandparents would have been if they had visited China or the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Traveling to Iran makes one seem like a bold adventurer on a dangerous foray into enemy territory.
The reality is more prosaic. Although few Americans visit Iran, there is in fact no legal obstacle to doing so. I accompanied a group of American tourists on a thousand-mile, two-week trip through the country. We met no government or opposition leaders, but we were free to talk with ordinary Iranians, and did so at every stop. Because the government has made it difficult for Western journalists to work in Iran, traveling the country this way may now be the best way to gauge its people's mood.
The first thing that strikes Americans who visit Iran is how amazingly pro-American its people are. Nowhere else in the Middle East, nowhere else in the Muslim world, and almost nowhere else on earth do people so unreservedly admire the United States. Opinion surveys confirm this phenomenon, and I remembered it from previous visits. Nonetheless it was disorienting, in the heart of the purported axis of evil, to to be surrounded, as I was at Imam Square in Isfahan, by giddy female college students shrieking "We love America so much!" At a Persian garden in Kashan, I met a solemn elder whose only English phrase is "America very good," and who pronounced it with grave reverence.