I spent much of today inside an Iranian prison. Fortunately it is a former prison that has now been turned into a museum about the abuses committed by the Shah. The prison was built with assistance from the German Nazis during the 1930s and it opened in 1941, however it became notorious after 1953 when the American CIA overthrew Mossadegh's secular democratic government and brought in Mohammed Reza Shah. Mohammed Reza Shah was an American oil puppet who used Iran's oil wealth to benefit himself and his American oil company benefactors. He had little popular support and stayed in power through brutality.
The Shah used the prison to hold and torture people he saw as political threats, including allies of the previous democratic government (including Mossadegh himself). pro-democracy activists, and religious leaders (including Khomeini). The torturers were trained and assisted by the American CIA.
We were given a guided tour of the prison by a former inmate. Many rooms contained waxworks depicting the various torture methods that were used. Other rooms had information about the people who had been held there. To emphasise the US connection, many of the torturers were depicted wearing ties. We were told that the US continues to run similar prisons in other countries, where it tortures those who oppose the American regime.
I felt somewhat awkward as the sole westerner present, particularly as it was mentioned that the UK had also helped train torturers. At the end of the tour, the guide asked me if I could write a note saying what I thought about what I had seen. I wrote that I was deeply moved by what I had seen and felt ashamed that my country had played a part in it. I was then somewhat surprised to be told that my note was going to be translated into Farsi, framed, and included as part of the exhibition.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour was a video about the recent history of Iran. It talked about how Iran had been oppressed by a brutal American-backed dictatorship, but had been liberated by the revolution and was now a free democracy. America had then struck back with the horrendous American-funded Iran-Iraq war (cue the standard film of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein), but Iran had survived and was now a free democracy (yes, Iran considers itself a free democracy). At the end of the tour we were shown a big sign saying "Freedom is not free" - attributed as a quote by Khomeini. It seems ironic that America now uses the same slogan itself.
As an aside. I wonder how many Americans know that the US built a military base (camp Alpha) on the site of the ancient city of Babylon and largely destroyed it in the process? I hadn't known before I came to Iran, but I bet most Iranians know. It's hard to emphasise how offensive this is. It is as if an invading army gang raped the Queen or used the US constitution to wipe their arses - but far far worse. If America really wished to win "hearts and minds" would they have destroyed Iraq's greatest symbol of what they are as a nation?
The logical next step after the torture museum was the Iraq war memorial. This is without doubt the saddest, most emotionally moving place I have ever been. Each person who died is honoured by a glass box containing a photograph and personal effects such as a letter, a watch, of a symbol of their personal interests. Just one of these displays would have been heart-wrenching, but there were 200,000 of them (300,000 died in the war, but not all have memorials here). Persians are naturally quite photogrnic people, and most of the photos were of young happy smiling people wearing casual western clothes. All around me, families were gathering to pay their respects to particular family members, often just sitting in silence, looking at the face of someone they lost. I don't think anyone truly human could come hear and not break out in tears. I haven't cried properly for a long long time, but this time I completely broke down and cried like a hurt toddler. This is a place where grown men are supposed to cry.
I also visited the National Museum if Iran. This place has what must be one of the most amazing collections anywhere in the world, but I was the only westerner inside. The museum is filled with amazing pieces from the ancient Persian civilisation, some of then thousands of years old. It seems strange that people talk so much about the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians, but forget about the Persians, despite the fact that they were contemporaries and seem to have been a fascinating culture. I've only been here two days, but right now Iran is definitely by far the most interesting place I've ever been.