RIVER FALLS, Wis. — Reza Rahgozar knew tensions were high when he flew home this month from his native Iran.

Iranian general Qasem Soleimani had been killed by an American airstrike following escalating tensions between the countries, including an attack on the United States embassy in Baghdad that was preceded by a U.S. airstrike against Iranian-backed militia groups.

But Rahgozar was in the air Jan. 8 when the most dramatic developments unfolded: Tehran fired missiles at an American military base in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani, the Iranian general believed responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American service members. Shortly after, a Ukrainian passenger plane was shot down near Tehran in an incident the Iranian government later said was unintentional.

He said there was a two-hour delay between his departure and the next one, which turned out to be the fateful Ukrainian flight.

“Mine was the last plane to get out of there safely,” he recalled Jan. 15.

Rahgozar, a retired University of Wisconsin-River Falls professor, didn’t learn what had transpired in the intervening hours until touching down in Minneapolis. He turned on his phone to find missed calls from family members fearing for his safety after word of the downed plane with no survivors made international headlines.

‘Very dynamic environment’

Rahgozar, who traveled to Tehran in early January for his mother’s funeral, returned home to River Falls, where he shared reflections from interactions with Iranians during the trip.

“They are confused,” said Rahgozar, who retired in 2019 as a professor at UWRF’s College of Business and Economics.

The general Iranian population has historically been supportive of the United States, where many people have relatives, Rahgozar explained.

“The population has not been against the United States — ever,” he said. “The question is, what happened between two governments?”

While the U.S. government assessed Soleimani as a dangerous military leader connected to terrorist operations, the Iranian public viewed him as someone willing to protect their nation, Rahgozar said.

But after the Ukranian plane — carrying 82 Iranians among its 176 occupants — was shot down, he said the pendulum of public support for the Iranian government abruptly swung the other way.

“It is a very dynamic environment there, you see,” he said.

Rahgozar said the Iranian populace is perplexed by the United States’ presence in the Middle East. Iranians he spoke with wonder if the purpose is to support democracy or to generate profit, he explained.

“If it is democracy, why are they supporting Saudi Arabia, which is not a democratic country,” he said, noting sanctions the United States has imposed on Iran. “If it is democracy, why are they not supporting Iran, which has free elections?”

He said the resulting scenario leaves average Iranians with more questions.

“They don’t have answers,” Rahgozar said. “They say, ‘sanctions are hurting us, not the government.’”

Goal: peace

Rahgozar came to the United States to complete his master’s in business before receiving his doctorate in economics from Claremont Graduate University in California. He had expected to return to Iran, but “then the revolution took place.”

Instead, he, along with thousands of other Iranian students, stayed in the United States.

Rahgozar moved to River Falls in 1987 and has called the community home ever since. In his time at UWRF, he chaired the finance department and in 2008 received the College of Business and Economics’ outstanding adviser award. He was honored by the university the following year with a research award.

He said images broadcast from Iran seldom depict the “beautiful, clean” country he knows to be alive with shopping, packed restaurants and tourists from the Middle East, Europe and Asia. While tourism has fallen from its height under the Shah, Rahgozar said the country remains rife with historic sites and vacation-worthy destinations.

Rahgozar said he hopes to see a day when tensions fade and peace lures people back to Iran.

“People love a peaceful environment — any place, any time,” he said.