TEHRAN, Iran — In 1946 Winston Churchill famously said that an "iron curtain" had descended on Europe.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.”
That barrier between the capitalist and communist worlds dominated Europe’s balance of power for decades until it rusted away.
Today, political scientists say an equally divisive “Green Curtain,” green being the color of Islam, has fallen over the Middle East. Like its predecessor, this dividing line may set the tone for the region well after American troops are ordered back to their bases in Iraq and, most likely, forgotten.
A sophisticated, complex culture
The two sides are locked in a bitter cold war and fighting a proxy war in Iraq. But peel back the Green Curtain and you’ll see a vibrant, troubled, dynamic, sophisticated and ancient society here in Iran, frustrated at the political standoff and fed up with being demonized by the United States and its mainstream media.
Walking through Tehran’s labyrinth of bazaars, drinking tea with the men selling silk and wool hand-woven carpets (in Iran you put the sugar cube in your mouth and let it melt on your tongue or between your teeth as you sip the strong amber tea), or walk with fashionable women past Benetton in trendy north Tehran, one hears the same expression time and time again.Video: The life of Iranian women
“We do not ride camels or live in the desert. This is Persia, an ancient civilization.”
In an abandoned and crumbling movie theater in Tehran — where the once grand mirrored ceiling panels are all chipped and frayed posters of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Ana Karenina” peel off the walls along with the paint — we met Iran’s top movie star, Bahram Radan, filming a tragedy loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The blue-eyed 28-year-old Iranian actor is considered such a heartthrob here that authorities have ordered his billboards taken down from overpasses on Iran’s packed highways. Like Elvis in his heyday, Iranian authorities say images of Radan are too arousing for Iranian woman to handle.
Like many here, Radan said Iranians want more open relations with the United States and to get beyond the political deadlock between Washington and Tehran.
Many Iranians say they want dialogue, but complain so far, few in the west seem ready to talk to them.
Richard Engel is NBC News' Middle East Bureau Chief based in Beirut, Lebanon. He is on assignment in Tehran, Iran.