'Portals' Opens New Channel Between U.S. and Iran

06/24/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

I "visited" Iran the other day, but didn't need a visa or a plane ticket.

Through the magic of the Internet and sophisticated audiovisual technology, I chatted for 20 minutes with a young man in Tehran about the mood in society in anticipation of a historic nuclear agreement with the U.S. and five other nations.

Instead of enduring a cramped overnight flight with a stopover in Europe en route, I stood inside an air-conditioned shipping container in Washington, D.C. plaza and faced a life-sized image of the young man, who was actually standing in a room in an art gallery in central Tehran. He saw an equally vivid image of me; the sensation was of being in a room together, separated not by thousands of miles and years of political division, but by only a few feet.

The project, known as "Portals," was organized by an innovative art, design and technology collective, Shared Studios. It is the brainchild of a young Indian-American, Amar Bakshi, who once produced a video blog for the Washington Post called "How the World Sees America."

Since the Portals project opened late last year, more than 3,000 people have connected between Herat, Afghanistan, Tehran, Havana, New York, New Haven and Washington, said Michelle Moghtader, Shared Studio's director of global development.

There have been some touching moments. Iranian Americans who have stayed away from Iran for decades have had reunions with family members, she said. An Iranian American dancer performed for her relatives in the safety of the container and two sculptors collaborated on a joint piece of art, she said.

On Friday (June 19) night, organizers tried to expand the experience, inviting about 50 people to sit in the Woodrow Wilson Plaza to hear a live concert of traditional musicians from Tehran. But slow Internet speeds in Iran knocked out the signal just a few minutes after the music began, and the audience had to be satisfied with a song recorded a few days earlier in anticipation of such glitches.

Moghtader said Internet speeds had been reduced dramatically in the past few days in Iran and attributed that to government concerns about possible unrest on the anniversary of 2009 Green Movement protests. Bakshi told the audience that, "Tehran is by far the hardest connection to sustain and Herat and Havana are a breeze by comparison."

Eventually, Bakshi was able to get Tehran back on line so that audience members could chat with the musicians and hear one of them sing a song by Ray Charles. But then the signal dropped again, and the Iranians disappeared into the ether.

In Iran, the portal is situated in a room on the third floor of an avant-garde gallery, the Sazmanab Center for Contemporary Art, in downtown Tehran not far from the grounds of the old U.S. Embassy.

The young video artist who founded the gallery, Sohrab Kashani, is skilled at turning adversity into advantage. Turned down a few years ago for a U.S. visa, he got a friend to walk around New York City wearing Google glasses and introducing himself as Sohrab as a sort of avatar, Bakshi said. Through Portals, the organizers hope to expand and deepen the experience. "This whole project is about making mundane connections more meaningful," Bakshi said.

Moghtader, a former journalist who previously covered Iran for Reuters from Dubai, said that Iranians who have showed up to talk to Americans range from teen-aged film students to a philosophy professor who decided that meeting an American this way would be a great way to celebrate her 50th birthday.

The conversations are not recorded but some of the American participants have written their impressions in an album adjacent to the shipping container.

"Today, I met my first person from Tehran," wrote one participant, who signed his first name, Jason. "I find that people are the same more than they are different. It was a good experience."

Moghtader, who translates for Americans and Iranians when necessary, said there have been some awkward moments, but also mentorships and relationships that have blossomed from the conversations inside the container, which is padded with grey carpeting inside and painted dark gold on the outside.

Sometimes, Moghtader says, people start out talking about politics and then shift quickly to more personal matters. "They want to learn something else about each other's cultures," she said.

The young man I spoke with said he was born in Iran, but raised abroad, and had come home for the summer to work on an art project. While life is reasonably pleasant for the upper middle class and the rich, he said he found other Iranians to be "broken" in spirit and depressed about the future despite the prospect of a better relationship with the United States and the West. He said he was also surprised to find considerable popular support for the Iranian nuclear program, which he doubted would bring any benefits for Iran.

The Portals project got initial funding from a Kickstarter campaign as well as a nonprofit organization, Bridges of Understanding, that promotes better relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. Moghtader said Portals accepts no U.S. government support.

The shipping container cost about $3000 plus an additional $20,000-$30,000 for the audiovisual and other technical equipment, she said, and is extremely costly to move because it is not on wheels. Bakshi said they are looking for a permanent home for the container in Washington. The current run ended on Sunday (June 21).