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Analysis: Holiday in the "Axis of Evil"

A postcard from Iran, one of the world's great travel destinations, that only a few determined Americans get to see.

A photo of Isfahan, Iran, taken by photographer Melissa Harris, who traveled through Iran with Stephen Kinzer. (Melissa Harris/GlobalPost)

YAZD, Iran —“You are American?” a surprised Iranian asked me as I sat down near him in a restaurant famous for eggplant and pomegranate stews. “How did you get a visa?”

Ever since 2002, when U.S. President George W. Bush named Iran a member of the world's anti-American “Axis of Evil” — or perhaps since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the searing hostage crisis that followed — the idea that American tourists would visit Iran has seemed to border on the bizarre. Yet an adventurous few do come, and most find a welcome far beyond what they had imagined.

In no other country is there such an imbalance between the wealth of tourist attractions and the dearth of tourists. If Iran were a fully open country, sites like the awe-inspiring ruins at Persepolis or the dazzling mosques of Isfahan would be jammed with visitors from around the world. Instead they are all but empty, offering visitors one of the world's richest travel experiences.

During a two-week trip through Iran in May, I ran across groups of intrepid travelers at almost every stop. All marveled at what they saw.

“It's great to be here before the crowds come,” Jamie Whittington, who came with a tour group from California, said as she surveyed an ancient Zoroastrian “tower of silence,” where corpses were once placed on ceremonial slabs for vultures to consume. “This place is waiting to be discovered.”

In the lobby of a Tehran hotel, I met an 81-year-old woman from Berkeley who said that when she told friends she was traveling to Iran, “they thought I had a screw loose.”

“My husband was more nervous than I was, and he called the State Department to ask their opinion,” she said. “They told him that the two governments don't get along, but Americans are welcome in Iran. I was impressed that the State Department would say that.”

According to reports in the American press, U.S. intelligence agencies are engaged in covert operations against Iran. Perhaps as a result, tourists who come here are not allowed to roam freely. They must travel in groups, engage Iranian guides and stick to established tourist sites. A tour organizer who sought to arrange a visit to the hometown of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a secular democrat who was prime minister from 1951 until he was toppled in a CIA-backed coup in 1953, was told that it is not open to foreigners.

Nonetheless, the variety of sites on the approved list is rich and varied. I met a tour guide from New Zealand, Harry McQuillan, who had just taken his group on a trip through the Zagros Mountains that culminated in a festive tribal wedding.

“When people in New Zealand think of Iran, they think of oil, desert and Arabs,” he told me. “They are absolutely astounded when they get here. The people are wonderful and the sights are some of the most spectacular in the world.”

Americans have the same reaction, compounded by their amazement at how warmly they are greeted. Iranians love to approach foreigners, and when they hear the phrase “We are American,” they often shriek with delight.

“We are so happy to see American people in Iran,” a woman in Kirman, beaming with joy, told the group I traveled with. “We know they say very bad things about us there, but we like Americans so much.”