I have a number of Iranian friends. I have met them in different countries and different circumstances.
The most bizarre was perhaps one night in a Geneva restaurant. I arrived on my own to find a restaurant without a spare seat for a lonely traveller. When asking the waiter if there was a space for one he replied: “There is if you don’t mind sharing a table with two beautiful ladies.”
What is a traveller to do?
I was shown to the table to find two sisters, Samar and Saman. The elder sister worked for a large corporate in Switzerland while the younger was finishing her university studies. Both were Iranian born but both left the Islamic Revolution behind. Their parents were pistachio farmers in Iran and clearly came from a well-to-do family. Neither were particularly religious and indeed the younger sister has since married an American and moved to the southern United States.
Given President Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order banning immigration from “terror-prone” nations, the elder sister may no longer visit her niece or nephew. The younger sister cannot visit the elder sister in Switzerland for fear of not being allowed to return. These two sisters have a barrier placed between them by a metaphorical wall.
This is not an isolated story.
My Iranian friends come from diverse backgrounds and I met them in very different circumstances. I have eaten chicken with some in a restaurant in Geneva. I’ve played backgammon in Melbourne over coffee with a friend I used to work with. I sat next to one who was hungover on a flight out of Hong Kong. During my years as an international aid worker, I saw the heroism of Iranian humanitarians who always seemed to arrive first.
As part of the study into earthquake preparedness, a Pakistan army general and I were hosted in Tehran by Professor Ashtiani, a brilliant man who then headed the Iranian Institute of Earthquake Engineering and Seismology. There’s a lot of advice he could give Californians.
Later that night we met up with some of my cousin’s friends and I sat in on a fascinating discussion between the Pakistanis and Iranians comparing the application of Islam in the two respective countries. It was one of the most enjoyable dinners of my life.
Many years ago, my uncle married an Iranian beauty I am now proud to call my aunt. I have cousins born in Iran. They love Australia and have an uncle who lives in the US. When will they ever see him again?
With none of these friends can I any longer do one of my favourite things. Not my aunt. Not my cousins. Not the financier, not the engineer nor journalist. Neither aid worker, humanitarian nor miner. They are all good people.
Yet I can no longer share one pleasure with them – steak. And the best steak in the world is served by Bobby Van’s restaurant. My favourite Bobby Van’s is behind Grand Central Station in New York. In the United States. This country that has now banned my friends, my family, in the name of security and safety.
How does it make you safer to ban people who like your culture? How does it make you more secure to tell friends that they are not welcome? How does it make you safer to give your enemy a huge propaganda tool? Can any of you now imagine Islamic State saying “see the Americans hate all Muslims”?
Of course they will. How does this make you safer?
Unlike some, I do not dispute Mr Trump’s objective in trying to make the United States more secure. As the US President, I don’t even take from him the objective to ‘Make America Great Again’.
But I do dispute his methodology.
By fostering alienation, bitterness and negativity he may only create and encourage the very hate he wants to defeat. That does not make you safer.
Andrew Macleod is a former senior official of both the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross and past CEO of the Committee for Melbourne. He is the author of A Life Half Lived by New Holland Press.