In the almost two weeks since President Barack Obama has been inaugurated there has been much speculation and debate on the strategy that he will pursue with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Countless bloggers, analysts, and talking heads each have their own personal solution for how and when the new President should approach the Iranian leadership, about whether or not he should impose preconditions, and even about how far Iran is from producing a nuclear weapon.  Among all of this important and worthwhile debate, a different story caught my eye this week (although I did find Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune to be particularly insightful).  The key player in this story was neither a policy analyst nor a political operative; it was the well known travel writer Rick Steves.

Steves is the host of his own travel television show on PBS and he recently filmed an episode about Iran in an attempt to promote understanding between the U.S. and Iran.  I have not yet viewed the show itself but Steve’s travel blog describes his experiences and insights.  Some of his observations are cliché to the point of almost being insensitive, for example when he notes, “when I travel, I’m struck by how people—regardless of the shapes of their noses—are so similar the world over”.  One would hope that, as a travel writer, Steves would have stopped making assumptions about people based on their physical appearance a long time ago.  However, despite the occasional platitude, I found Steve’s description of his trip to be very interesting.  He appears to have made a genuine effort to explore Iran beyond the usual tourist sites and to connect with ordinary, every-day Iranians. He also seems to have tried to portray Iran completely and fairly (a rare occurrence in American media coverage of Iran): filming the anti-American murals but also stating, “I have never traveled to a place where I had such an easy and enjoyable time connecting with people”.

Steve’s most touching insight comes from his trip to a Martyrs’ Cemetery, one of the burial places of the millions of young men who died in the Iran-Iraq war.  Observing the profound loss suffered by Iran during that conflict he reflects, “it would be dangerously naive for America to think we could “shock & awe” those people”.

Steves concludes by focusing on the similarities between Iranian and American society, noting that “[p]oliticians come and go, but the people are here to stay”.  This message of commanalities rather than differences and of dialogue rather than the “us versus them” mentality is an important one.  I am glad that Steves has brought this perspective to American television viewers and I hope that it will be the begining of an increased interest in cultural sharing and dialogue with Iran.