Breaking the Golden Rule: Entering Iran by land as a dual citizen

Armenia-Iran border
Armenia-Iran border

Heading to the Agarak-Nordooz border and, presumably, ULTIMATE DOOM

I’m a bad liar and I can’t speak Farsi. Sending me to an immigration checkpoint with two passports (one Iranian and the other from The Great Satan) is like sending hungry lions a gift of a plump little lamb. As that plump little lamb, I’d prefer to avoid the whole issue altogether and travel to countries where both of my nationalities are welcome, or at least tolerated.

There’s not a lot of information out there for Iranian dual citizens on the ins and outs of travel to the Motherland or Fatherland. While there are shitloads of us that come and go, it’s ultimately a grey zone for both Iran and our home country. Who has the right to see which passport? What is the most succinct and acceptable way to explain our situation to immigration officers? When do things get sketchy? What should we say or do then?

The matter gets even more difficult if your primary citizenship is from a country the Iranian government does’t really trust (Murrikuh! Americans are not allowed in Iran unless they are on a tour with a registered tour guide, and a number of Iranian-American and Iranian-British dual citizens have been detained in recent years).

So what are we supposed to do?

I would definitely have chosen another route if it wasn’t for Mook’s interest in experiencing Iran and the fact that it’s easy for German citizens to get tourist visas. I could definitely have done without another visit to a place that, for me, feels so pent up in aggression, anger and oppression. I didn’t want to spend three years in the gulag because some police officer thinks he sniffed out a foreign spy when I get caught doing something like going to a men’s volleyball game or hiking in the wrong place.

But after Mook got his tourist visa in Istanbul, it became clear that this was the way for us to go. I asked around for information on what to tell immigration, and on what kind of problems we might have travelling together as an Iranian-German couple. None of the answers I received were very satisfying.

Finally the big day arrived, and it was with great trepidation that we headed to the Armenian-Iranian border, tourist visa (for him) and passports (for me) in hand.

We first headed into the drab and depressing Armenian customs building to pay our “closing fee”. An unusually helpful guy dressed in unusually casual clothes for a customs officer walked us from one mysterious unlabelled window to another, to another, in order to complete the process. We had to pay our 8,600AMD (€16.50) closing fee, just as described by the dickhead brokers at the Georgia-Armenia border, but the brokers here set us free without any extra payment.

The helpful guy directed me into the immigration area, while Mook went outside to complete the customs process. The two booths in the room were empty, but after a few minutes an immigration officer came out. I handed him my US passport and he flipped through it emotionlessly.

“Where is your Iran visa?” he asked. I explained I had dual citizenship, and he demanded to see the other passport. I’ve always been told the Golden Rule of dual citizenship is, NEVER SHOW ANYONE BOTH OF YOUR PASSPORTS. I didn’t really know what to do. He looked at me impatiently. After further hesitation I pulled out the Iranian passport and set it on the desk. He flipped it open and looked at the ID page, then gave me my exit stamp in the US passport and handed them both back. Finished.

Mook was waiting outside in the no-man’s land between the two borders. The helpful dude stood on the other side of the fence, back in Armenia. “He asked me for a ‘tip’ when we were all finished,” Mook said, “but I refused.” Armenia just isn’t a country of kind favours.

I wrapped my scarf around my head–hello, obnoxious hijab for the next two weeks. We drove through no-man’s land, and halfway through there were spikes in the road between two booths. One side, going into Armenia, had a friendly looking lady with no headscarf. The other side, going into Iran, had an unfriendly-looking dude in a sand-coloured uniform. I didn’t know what nationality he was, but when we got out he spoke Farsi to us. I was nervous as shit.

Mook handed him two passports, one German and one Iranian. The guard flipped through mine quickly and asked in Farsi, “You only have one passport?” I said yes. “Stamp? Where is your stamp? Armenian visa!” he barked. Again, I didn’t know what to do so I disobeyed the Golden Rule and handed him my US passport. “You said you only had one!” he spat angrily, and directed me to go back and sit in the car. Mook came back a few minutes later with all three of our passports. We drove past the spikes and across a bridge.

There was another booth in the centre of the road, with gates on either side. Red, white and green Iranian flags hung elegantly around the building, and pictures of ayatollahs cast serious gazes from the walls inside. There were three guys in the booth, in darker sand-coloured uniforms. They smiled when we approached the booth, and Mook again handed them the same two passports.

They flipped through mine. “Do you speak Farsi?” they asked, in Farsi. I broke out my stock phrase. “Man Farsi nemifahman….” They looked bemused and switched to a mixture of Farsi and English.

One man chided me. “Oh, but you’re Iranian! How could you not understand Farsi?? You must know it!”

“I grew up abroad, and my father didn’t teach me,” I explained. “My father is from Tehran.”

“Oh so your father is Iranian and you are Iranian, but you grew up in some other country? Here is says ‘Washington D.C.’… do you live in America?”

“Uh, now I live in Germany…” I tried to redirect the conversation.

“So you’re American, huh? You have American passport?” They looked serious. “Show me your passport.”

I could have pissed myself right there, as my heart sunk into my stomach and I broke out into a sweat. Are three Iranian soldiers really asking to see my American passport? Just handcuff me now, dudes!

“Show me your passport,” one of the guards said again.

“Do you really need to see it?” I asked weakly.

They nodded. I really didn’t know what to do, so with shaking hands I again broke the Golden Rule and slid my USA passport through the window. They stared at it like it was a dead fish, until the guy standing furthest in the back picked it up and began flipping through it, marvelling at all the stamps. They passed it around.

“Americaaaahhh haaah,” the one in the front said. “What are you doing in Iran?”

We explained that we were travelling by car (gesturing at Jagger for emphasis) from Germany to Kazakhstan, and had come to Iran to visit my family. “I want to show him how beautiful Iran is,” I stressed, hands still shaking. “I really want to see Iran!” Mook pleaded.

They had grim poker faces on, but the guy in the back’s eyes sparkled, and the corner of his mouth twitched.

“Americaaaah haahhh,” the guy in the front repeated to himself a few times, thinking. Seconds ticked by. My palms were so sweaty, had they tried to grab my hand I would have been able to slip out like a greased pig.

Finally he threw the dark blue passport on the desk. “Welcome to Iran!” he cheered, and all three of the guards smiled widely. We slowly but quickly snatched our documents back and thanked them with the smiles of marathon runners who had just crossed the finish line. We were in!!

We hopped back in the car and drove through the gate into a deserted parking lot. In front of us was a building that said “Passenger Terminal” and to the right was a small building with two gates on either side, one of them open. The terminal looked closed and empty, and there were no signs in English or Farsi anywhere. So we went towards the open gate.

On the other side was a man who motioned us through and told us to park the car. He didn’t speak any English but it was clear he was asking for car documents. We were supposed to be met somewhere at the border by a guy who would help us bring our car into the country without a Carnet du Passage, an expensive and rather useless document often described as a “passport for your car”. We couldn’t see the dude anywhere, but the customs guy kept demanding the documents in an increasingly angry tone of voice. We coughed up the car registration, but he handed it back and told us to park Jagger on the side.

Minutes later our contact showed up. He spoke with the customs officer then led us to his office where he took our passports and explained that it would take a few hours to complete the paperwork. In the meantime we’d just have to wait at the border. We passed the time cleaning out the car (again), chatting with some European travellers, and congratulating ourselves on how easy it had been to cross a border that we’d agonised over so much.

A few hours later, the guy handling our car calls us into his office. Where are your immigration stamps?! he asks. Whoops…! He pointed at the Passenger Hall and handed us our passports.

We ran out of the customs office, across a parking lot and back through the customs gate. The Passenger Hall looked pretty dead, but when we stood close enough to its two black glass doors (which looked exactly the same as the windows.. how were we to know?) to almost kiss them, they opened. Inside were immigration booths. Whoops indeed.

There was only one booth with someone inside, so we both went up and turned in our passports. I got instructed to go stand in the waiting area while the immigration dude checked Mook’s passport and tapped away at his computer for a good 10 minutes.

When he was finished, he signalled Mook to join me. Suddenly a man appeared out of an office that had a sign above the door saying “Presidential Institution”. He was wearing cleanly-pressed black trousers and a white button-up shirt–much better dressed than the other immigration officers. He invited us into his office, where we took off our shoes and sat in two chairs facing each other around a small coffee table. The carpet was Persian-style, plush and red, and stern-looking ayatollahs again watched down on us from the wall.

The man introduced himself and, taking out a sheet of blank A4 paper, sat at the head of the table. He began asking us questions, in a very kind manner and alway with a friendly smile. But the questions were serious, and we could tell what he was looking for.

The questions started with us: Where did you meet? How long have you been together? Do you live together? Where? Why did you decide to be together?

We answered, smiling as best we could.

Then he drew a line down the centre of the paper and, in Farsi, wrote one of our names at the top of each column. From there the real questions began: What is your father’s name? What is his job? What is your mother’s name? What is her job? Do you know anyone who works for the government in the USA? What about in Iran? Do you know anyone who has ever done military service? What are the names of your siblings? Where do they live? What are their jobs?

The questioning went on for probably about 10 or 15 minutes. The immigration officer memoed each answer down carefully. It felt like it would never end… No, I’ve never worked for the government. Do you want to know what my cousins do too? Are you going to quiz me on names of the ayatollahs? His questions and probing were grave, but I didn’t feel as nervous as I had with the trio of guys in uniform earlier. Here it was more a feeling of disbelief. Is this really happening to me? Is this how it happens? When am I going to be carted away?

But the questioning ended abruptly. For his final request, all he wanted was an address and phone number for us in Germany and in Iran. Easy! Except I had left my Iranian contact details in the car…

As we ran (literally ran, my hijab flapping in the mountain wind) back to the car to get the info, we wondered. The questioning seemed over, but what now? Was he furiously typing our information into Google, trying to glean some clue that we’re spies from the USA, Germany, or even the UK? Are we going to be entered into some big Iranian government database—do we get put on a watch list?

But when I brought an Iranian address and phone number back to the office, he just noted it down on the same A4 paper, and told us to give our passports to an officer to be stamped. That final “KA-CHUNK” sound of rubber and ink on paper was a sound of so much relief.

And so we were through immigration at a border I had repeatedly had nightmares about. No gulag, no inspections, and relatively little trouble. We still wonder what database our information was entered into, if Big Brother was watching us throughout our trip (probably not), and if Big Brother is reading this right now (maybe). And now that we’ve made it back out (at time of writing), I don’t know if I’d ever really want to go through the whole interview process again.

But to give a little transparency to an incredibly murky subject, this was our experience.


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