I get this question sometimes. Why the Stans? And the best answer I can come up with is something like "I don't know much about them, and yet, I'm not likely to die of a tropical disease or meet bugs bigger than my head." There are not a ton of countries like that.
But there's a little more to it when I think about Iran. I guess it's partly so that I can pull a personal trump card in the left-vs-right or east-vs-west or consequentialism-vs-deontology debate; I want to have proof that Iranians are regular people, just like us. I guess it's because I have arguments like this:
Someone: well we have to be invading Iraq and spend extraordinary amounts on our military because if we don't, the terrorists will get us.
Me: no we don't; if you want peace, work for justice. (pope quote bonus!)
Him: that's not true. The terrorists hate America. They hate our freedom or our prosperity or something.
Me: even terrorists are not born as crazed creatures who want to kill America for its own sake. Where does that mentality come about? Radical education. Why is there radical education? Because some radicals want things to really change. Why do they want this? Because their lives are not so good. If their lives were better, they wouldn't become radical in the first place.
Him: I disagree. They are fundamentally different.
Me: No they're not!
(the camera zooms out to reveal that we're both driving in a car. pan to a road sign that says "Welcome to Loggerheads!")
So I guess it'd be nice to say "I've met some Iranians, and they're fundamentally the same." Not just so I could win that argument-- well, okay, maybe just so I could win that argument. Say I have that argument three times; if I do convince three people that we're better off helping foreign countries instead of bombing them, maybe that's three (or more) votes that might change in some election someday, and so some concrete good would come out of it.
But it's not about votes, really. It's about compassion. I think I would be the happiest if I had the most compassion for everyone. And knowing people builds compassion. Finally, my compassion can increase others'.
For example: say I call tech support at a big tech company, and get a guy who sounds like me. If he's helpful, great; if not, I'll probably think "well he's just having a bad day, I can imagine myself having a bad day too." If I got an Indian guy a couple years ago, and he was unhelpful, it'd be a little harder to just laugh it off; I might be more likely to think he's a dumb or mean person. But now I know two Indian call center workers, and they're great guys, so I'm more likely to think "this might be my friend, and I can imagine him having a bad day, no worries." And then, say I talk about visiting my friends and how they're great guys, and so MY friends gain empathy for Indian call center workers too.
Iran Iran Iran. Maybe I can build some links of empathy between the US and Iran. This seems worth doing.
(inspired a lot by Rick Steves and his Iranian-American producer Abdi Sami. This interview is pretty on-the-money, except the tourist-berating is a little obnoxious, more on that later. This essay sweats Europe pretty hard and feels a little naive in parts, but I also mostly agree with it.)