My One Night in Iran

Recent protests in Iran over the brutal murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini who was beaten to death by the Morality Police for allegedly improperly wearing her hijab.

“In the democracy of the dead all men at last are equal.” — John James Ingalls

“We are all one, but many.” There are a few universal truths about human beings that bind us. When given a choice — truly given a choice — between tyranny and freedom, we choose freedom. When given a choice between democracy and dictatorship, we choose democracy. When given a choice between securing our fundamental rights or having “how to live” shoved down our throats, we choose our rights. Not everyone feels permission to fully be themselves. Not everyone has the freedom to express themselves, speak freely, and dress how they would like. But deep down inside, we all want that freedom. Don’t you?

If you want freedom for yourself, then by extension you have to want that freedom for others or you just might be a power-hungry tyrant. People who want to make others live life just like them, would not want a way of life they disagree with forced on them if they were no longer in power. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” You might not like what someone else wears, what they worship, or who they love, but it certainly does not harm you.

Iranian people and especially Iranian women are challenging this idea that the government, just because they have power over the people, gets to dictate how they live their lives, including how they dress. This is a courageous and dangerous act. Those in power are willing to kill (and they have for years) to stay in power and to prevent progress. Freedom is a threat to their power. Equality is a threat to their power. I got a small glimpse in to the lives of the wonderful Iranian people back in 2003 when I crossed the border for one night that changed my life.

A few months into the Iraq War, an emergency call came in for me and my Farsi linguist to fly to the Iran-Iraq border. We departed in a helicopter, only knowing there was a recent firefight between Marines and Iranians at our destination. At the scene, we deduced a large group of Iranian civilians had snuck across the border and hired an Iraqi local with a large pickup truck to drive them to the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf. Unfortunately, the driver of these religious pilgrims ignored the stop signs at an armed military checkpoint. The Marines followed protocol with warning shots first, but they stupidly aimed the warning shots at the vehicle, instantly killing the Iraqi driver and two front seat passengers, both Iranians.

Several survivors in the bed of the truck, including women, children, and elderly men, did not know their loved ones in the front were dead. Shielding the survivors from the gruesome bodies, I helped load them all into the helicopter for transport back to a military airfield. Once at the airfield, I determined the Iranians were not in Iraq for nefarious reasons. I confirmed they were simply on a religious pilgrimage. I also made sure that those who needed medical attention received it and handed out water and food to the pilgrims. As I gathered my gear to depart and report my findings, two Army Civil Affairs Officers arrived and immediately berated the Iranian civilians for entering Iraq, told them their driver and two family members were dead, and commanded they would all have to go back to Iran without seeing Najaf. The Iranians began to cry and loudly mourn their lost loved ones.

Late that night, I returned to provide assistance in administering bereavement payments to two of the Iranian women. One of the Iranians who was killed was the husband of one of the women and the father of another younger woman. The reserve Marine Corps unit we were attached to at the time did not know what to do with the dead Iranians and the now highly distraught Iranian pilgrims. I happened to have a Farsi linguist
that was assigned to me, a young female Marine whose parents
escaped Iran to the U.S. during the fall of the Shah and she was born in the U.S. as a citizen. I was not surprised when my linguist and I became the lone volunteers to ensure the Iranians’ safe passage, dead loved ones included, back to Iran. Without direction from the State Department, the Marine Corps, or even a senior officer, I led a convoy of light-armored vehicles, a bus of Iranian civilians, and an ambulance carrying two dead Iranians, back to the Iran-Iraq border.

During the drive to the border, I conversed, through my linguist, with the Iranian pilgrims. They seemed relaxed, relieved to be going home, and shared their hopes of progress and freedom in Iran. The women felt safe and comfortable enough to remove their face and head coverings. An older Iranian gentlemen asked me about what Americans thought of Iranians and whether I would ever want to come to Iran. I was honest and said that I had blindly accepted the idea that Iran was a part of the “axis of evil” and an enemy of the U.S. I had never met anyone from Iran. I told him that meeting him, and this group of Iranians had challenged beliefs. These were just people who wanted to go home and have a proper burial for their loved ones. I questioned why the U.S. military was so seemingly unconcerned about innocent people just because they did not know them. If this was the enemy, why did I feel compassion?

We arrived at midnight and for three hours I negotiated with Iraqi and Iranian border guards to secure the Iranians’ safe return. The Iraqi border guards at the border were not aware that the Iraqi Regime had fallen completely to coalition forces. Also, given Iran was a sworn enemy of Iraq, the border guards wanted to imprison all the pilgrims and insisted on taking them off my hands. I refused to let this happen because I knew the bereavement money would be stolen from the women and probably worse would happen to the women and to the men.

After convincing the Iraqi border guards to contact the Iranian border guards, we saw the Iranians were amassing troops on the other side of the border including armored vehicles. To deescalate the situation, I walked, hands raised in the air, with my linguist through a zigzag of razor wire to the Iranian side facing the armed Iranian border guards and had my linguist announce over and over again in Farsi, “we come in peace.”

When we got close enough to talk to the Iranian Guards, who pointed their automatic weapons directly at us, I told them that we had several of their citizens that we wanted to help safely return to Iran. I had instructed the Marine snipers, who were providing overwatch, that if the linguist and I were captured, to shoot to kill us if they had to in order to prevent us from being taken prisoner. Eventually, the Iranians sent over two “medical” officers who were clearly Iranian intelligence officers just wearing white medical coats, as they knew nothing about medicine, but asked a lot of questions an intelligence collector would ask.

As soon as the pilgrims saw these Iranian “doctors” they changed from being relaxed and talkative to tense and silent. The women immediately covered their heads and faces. The men became silent and looked down at the ground. The children hid behind their parents and clung to their legs. After much convincing, they agreed to take all the pilgrims back, but refused to take the two dead bodies. They thought it was some kind of trick or deception we were playing on them. The wife and daughter of the slain father began to cry. I told the “doctors” that I would not let any of them go back into Iran without taking the dead Iranians and I appealed to their sense of giving fellow countrymen proper Muslim burials at home.

They finally agreed to take the dead bodies too and I got the Iraqi border guards, a couple of Marines, and these two Iranian Intelligence Officers to help me carry the dead Iranian men in black plastic body bags back home across the Iraqi border into Iran. As an unlikely assemblage of pallbearers doing something deeply human for strangers, my beliefs about humankind, and our oneness, were changed forever. We all fundamentally want the same thing — to live our lives with freedom, autonomy, and dignity. You do not have to like how I live my life, but if you want me to respect your freedom to live your life how you want to live it, then you need to respect mine. I wrote up our actions from this harrowing incident to make a report to higher command. I was verbally admonished for almost creating an international incident, which is laughable because I believe I prevented one and maybe built some goodwill between Americans, Iraqis, and Iranians.

ONE BUT MANY

One God, many faces.
One family, many races.
One truth, many paths.
One heart, many complexions.
One light, many reflections.
One world, many imperfections.
ONE.
We are all one,
But many.
― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

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Nate Boaz

Nate Boaz

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Dad, dog lover, Marine veteran, Author, Ex-McKinsey Partner, Ex-Accenture SMD, Harvard MBA, USNA alum.