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Promoting tourism in Iran is not one of the Ayatollah's priorities

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 1985

Tehran, Iran

When most people think of a trip they'd like to take, they imagine a quiet week on Nantucket or a luxurious Club Med vacation in the Caribbean. For me, Iran was one place I'd always dreamed of visiting.

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It is a vast, fascinating, and diverse country -- from the grasslands bordering on the Soviet Union to the shores of the Persian Gulf, where women wear the beak-like masks of Arabia; from the religious city of Qom to Shiraz, the classical city of roses and nightingales -- the poetic soul of Iran.

I wanted to meet the Iranian people and see how life had changed since the 1979 revolution. And I longed to visit Iran's wealth of historical and archaeological sites.

I had my first foretaste of life in the Islamic Republic when I went to get a visa at the Iranian Interests Section of the Algerian Embassy in Washington. The receptionist immediately told me to lower my veil, and I had to have my photos retaken wearing a hijab (head covering). It took four months of waiting before my visa was approved by the authorities in Tehran.

It is easier for Europeans to travel to Iran, than for me, an American. Although I didn't see another foreign traveler during my three months there, I later met several Europeans in Pakistan who had come through Iran on transit visas. Japanese visitors do not even need visas for short trips.

Promoting tourism in Iran is clearly not one of Ayatollah Khomeini's priorities.

``The Shah encouraged tourism as part of his effort to put Iran on the map internationally. We used to get hundreds of thousands of tourists a year,'' explained a former employee of the Ministry of Information and Tourism under the previous regime. ``But this government [the Islamic Republic] sees it as interference in Iranian affairs.

They're trying to cultivate ``religious tourism'' instead -- pilgrims coming to visit the holy cities of Mashhad and Qom.''

Although Iran's pre-Islamic past is now in strong disfavor with the ruling Islamic clerics, the ancient historical sites have not been closed or destroyed.

There were reports after the revolution that some religious leaders wanted to level Persepolis, the world-famous ruins of the capital of ancient Persia. But today, Iranian tourists -- including Iranian Army soldiers on leave and even clerics -- still stroll along the beautiful columns and carved staircases.

However, most references to Iran's 2,500-year-old monarchic tradition have been obliterated or played down in favor of the new order. In a museum, a famous painting of the 18th-century conqueror Nadir Shah, is pointedly surrounded by pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Even mythical kings are not exempt: Name plaques have been torn off the many paintings of Rustam, hero of the Iranian epic, the Shah Namah (Book of Kings).

The Khomeini government has been most intent on eradicating the memory of the last shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted from power in 1979. The ubiquitous ``Pahlavi'' streets, hospitals, and even a port city on the Caspian Sea, were renamed for Khomeini and other leaders of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But paradoxically, the Shah's palaces have not been harmed. In fact, they are open for public viewing.

On holidays, long lines form outside northern Tehran's Niavaran Palace rather than the Peoples' Palace Museum.

Guides explain every detail: the exact dimensions of the enormous Persian rugs, from which European country each of the furnishings was imported, in which room the Shah entertained heads of state, in which room guests sat for appetizers before dinner.