DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Utah state senator who traveled to Iran last week has set off a firestorm there, where hard-liners accuse him of being “part of a major Western project to infiltrate” the country as authorities imprison others with ties abroad.
And that was even before knowing that Sen. Jim Dabakis is gay — a crime in Iran that can carry the death penalty.
For his part, the Salt Lake City-based art dealer said such cross-cultural exchanges will help relations between Iran and the U.S., which have been tense since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
“You don’t make peace with your friends,” Dabakis told The Associated Press on Monday. “Rather than rubbing up against each other in the Strait of Hormuz and having tension because of domestic political affairs in both countries… let there be this people-to-people beginning of understanding.”
Dabakis said he and his partner traveled to Tehran and Isfahan for six days after being invited by the Iranian travel industry. He said he got a visa through the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, which handles Iranian affairs. He added that he listed his occupation on the application as both an art dealer and a state lawmaker in Utah’s part-time legislature.
“Sometimes diplomacy is too important to be left up to the diplomats,” Dabakis said.
But things have grown rather undiplomatic since the Democrat returned home and gave an interview about his trip to local Salt Lake City television station KUTV .
The semi-official Iranian news agency Tasnim, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard, seized on the interview. It quoted a hard-line lawmaker on Sunday who described Dabakis’ visit as “part of a major Western project to infiltrate into the country.”
On Monday, the pro-reform newspaper Arman quoted Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, as saying his committee was not told of Dabakis’ visit.
Responding to Dabakis’ description of being welcomed by average Iranians on his trip, Boroujerdi offered this: “Iranians’ main slogan is ‘Down with the USA,’ and it shows Iranians do not love Americans.”
Dabakis said since he traveled as a private individual, he didn’t feel like he needed to inform “the Ministry of Anything,” though he said he “felt bad” about the growing mess his visit caused. He said a previous visit he made in 2010 caused no problem and he hoped a planned trip in May would still happen.
Iran, a nation of 80 million people governed by a democracy overseen by Shiite clerics, isn’t a monolith. Many Iranians enjoy aspects of Western culture, seen through illegal satellite dishes or over internet connections that subvert government censorship.
But many are still waiting to see any of the benefits of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers — including the U.S. — trickle down to them. A majority of Iranians believe relations with America have not improved since the deal and nearly three-fourths of Iranians hold very unfavorable views of the U.S. government, according to poll results released in July by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies.
Meanwhile, tense encounters have increased between Iranian forces and U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf . Iran’s security services also have arrested dual nationals in the country, accusing them of spying based on secret evidence.
Asked about his own chances of being detained on the trip, Dabakis said “a person would have to be an idiot not to recognize there is some risk.” He also said gay rights issues did not come up on his trip and were “not on the agenda.”
But he stressed his own experience moving to the Soviet Union and brokering art deals and culture exchanges during the fall of Communism.
Asked how he’d respond to those who’d consider him naive for entering the realm of tense international diplomacy, Dabakis offered this: “Remember, it was pingpong that broke that wall of tension with the Chinese.”
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.