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Local group hopes to de-escalate Middle East tensions by forming a sister city with Iran

SEATTLE — The United States and Iran have had a contentious relationship for decades and, with President Trump’s travel ban signed in January, tensions have heightened.

A Seattle group, the Seattle Isfahan Sister City Association,  is looking to form a relationship with Esphahan, Iran. It’s the country’s third largest city, a popular tourist destination but also the site of Iran’s largest nuclear research facility, which has been the focus on both U.S and U.N. sanctions.

“As soon as I would start playing piano, everyone suddenly looked past my age, what my ethnicity was, what religion I was,” said music teacher and University of Washington graduate student Payam Khastkhodaei.

As an Iranian-American, this piece, Bittersweet Memories, composed by Khastkhodaei, mimics the ups and downs of being Middle Eastern in America.

“Politically, Iran and the U.S don’t have great relations so if you see that on the news, you’re like, that’s not a country we want to mess with or talk with those people,” said Khastkhodaei.

It's a narrative escalated by President Trump’s travel ban on Muslim majority countries, including Iran.

“It’s extremely frustrating when your own narrative about your life, your people, your culture, your background, you have ... no control over it,” said Danyal Lotfi, a board member of the Seattle Esphahan Sister City Association (SISCA).

Taking back their story, a small group of volunteers hope to reverse decades of hostility between the U.S and Iran by creating a sister city relationship between Seattle and Esphahan, Iran.

"The more you know the others, the less likely you are to accept a warped version of that culture,” said Cathia Geller, SISCA board president.

Esphahan, Iran’s third largest city, has a population of 1.8 million people and is a mosaic of a place with a designated UNESCO Heritage site.

Culturally, Esphahan is a widely regarded tourist destination known for its Persian architecture, centuries-old bridges and mosques.

“Esfahan is the magical place in the Middle East,” said Fred Noland, founder of the Seattle Esphahan Sister City Association.

“Surrounded by mosques and bazaars, fabulous,” recalled Noland, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Esphahan 51 years ago. At the age of 28 he taught history at the University of Esphahan.

Now 76, Noland, a retired King County lawyer, thought this sister city relationship could make a dent in relations between the U.S and the Middle East.

Noland, who was a part of the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association, which was formed at the height of the Cold War, and which he says helped change the perception of Soviets by Americans once they got to know each other through sister cities. He said the same principle can apply with the U.S and Middle East through a sister city relationship with Esphahan.

Noland traveled back to Esphahan in 2015 and informally pitched the sister city idea to the mayor’s office there. He says they were very interested in the prospect of an official relationship with Seattle.

“We’ve been waging a campaign to make this idea visible,” said Noland.

Operating as a nonprofit now, the group hopes to become an official sister city, building a community in Seattle that will support and foster non-political, people-to-people collaborations with Esphahan -- collaborations like cultural and academic exchanges that can lead to larger efforts of business relationships and tourism.

An official status, however, won’t come easy. The city of Seattle has 21 sister cities. A moratorium placed in 1993 has prevented forming any new relationships. Still, forging ahead, the group says, Seattle is open and accepting and is the perfect city to spearhead this effort.

“Seattle has a history of opening up to others,” said SISCA board member Cathia Geller.

“You can’t go to war with people if you demonize them, and that’s what we’ve always tended to do is demonize them, and we’re trying to humanize them,” said Noland.

The board put together a Persian New Year event, Noruz, at Seattle City Hall that drew close to 1,000 people. They say they are getting the word out about their organization and have a petition with hundreds of signatures to present to the Seattle City Council.

"Creating opportunities where people of Esphahan and people of Seattle can talk directly,” said Lotfi.

Like any relationship, getting to know each other starts on a personal level, people-to-people connections that are at the heart of sister cities, which works to foster diplomacy through regular people connecting with one another.

This group hopes to rewrite a narrative, of an ordinary Iranian story, hoping to transcend the political tensions and help tell a new story.

"A new image beyond negativity about terrorism, the nuclear program and all that, just giving them the narrative of an ordinary Iranian,” said Lotfi.

A new narrative, hoping to take the crescendo of this contentious relationship down to a softer melody.