Hello from beautiful Kurdistan in Northern Iraq (don’t worry Mum that’s the safe part), when I’d just said goodbye to my French/Japanese companions and crossed the spectacular border with Iran I had a satisfying look round at the snow-capped peaks, whilst I know my time away is running out I also know going home is going to be very difficult…. and having visited Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq in the last few months I’m now undoubtedly on some sort of surveillance list held by Mossad.
I didn’t actually intend to be here yet but for no apparent reason Iran refused to extend my visa so I had to make a dash to the border and after the hassles I had getting in in the first place it was a deeply frustrating way to leave the country as it’s such an enjoyable place to travel in, one month there simply wasn’t enough.
Of countries I’ve been to I think Iran vies with Colombia of having the least deserved ‘bad reputation’; one thing that’s frustrated me in recent years regarding Iran is that unless you read The Economist or similar the Western media only tends to report the country in sensationalist headlines about their nuclear program or covering the largely irrelevant rhetoric about Israel or the US spouted by Ahmadinejad without actually describing their culture or how life is for ordinary people. As a result a lot of Westerners think Iranians are religious nutcases who hate everyone and are crudely lumped together with ‘Arabs’ further West, but in reality the truth is very different. For lots of reasons (ethnically, religiously, linguistically etc.) the country is something of an outlier and can’t be put in the same bracket as its neighbours and the people are some of the warmest you could meet with a handshake and an offer of chai never far away. Beyond that though I came to view Iranians as amongst the most interesting people to converse with from anywhere I’ve travelled; English is widely spoken and they like a good natter so from football to geopolitics nearly everyone you speak to has well-crafted opinions on seemingly most things. The landscape is largely desert and the sights were good rather than great, so I think almost all my most positive memories of Iran will revolve around simply talking to people about their fascinating country and its rich history over a shisha, or perhaps something less legal.
Unfortunately one of the first things people tended to say was how much they hated the government and as a visitor you do get the impression that there can’t be many places with a bigger gap between the government and the populace; however you also realize that the country’s actually very divided at the moment between the very conservative, religious and normally rural part of the population and the better educated, more liberal urbanites (who you’ll have 90% of your contact with). A lot of Iranians are very religious (watch the looks of incomprehension when you say you don’t have a religion) but also vast numbers simply aren’t. Whilst they have to register themselves as Muslims and shockingly it’s the death sentence if they change from Islam, the population is much less interested in religion than the government seems to want. When the deeply unpopular Shah was kicked out in the popular revolution in 1979 it was achieved by a coalition of different groups with different goals; in the immediate aftermath though the countrys top cleric Ayatollah Khomeini showed an impressively Machiavellian streak in managing to execute or imprison any rivals for the new leadership of the country and so it officially became an ‘Islamic Revolution’ rather than a Communist or merely democratic one. Unlike Sunnis, Shiites believe that the Quran and ultimately Islam should be interpreted through a ‘divinely appointed’ leading Imam (a bit like the Pope in the Catholic Church) and Iran’s political system post-revolution reflects that whereby whilst the population can democratically elect a president (currently Ahmadinejad) above him is the supreme leader (top cleric, currently Ayatollah Khamenei) who has the final say on everything.
And unfortunately at the moment both men are not good leaders; whilst Ahmadinejad vies with Berlusconi for the world’s most entertaining leader award and is always highly quotable on international issues, he’s a poor administrator in Iran itself. He got to power largely on the back of simplistic populist rhetoric but once in power the population realized he simply isn’t that bright and openly admits he doesn’t know how to run the economy (“I pray to God I never understand economics”).As a result the economy is structurally in a terrible state with unemployment at around 20% and inflation at around 15%; whilst that might point to an imminent revolution like in the ‘Arab Spring’ this year, like Venezuela and various Arab states to some extent they can get away with not sorting out the economy because the country earns so much from oil.
One of the most memorable things about Iranians is quite how ‘relaxed’ they are about ‘work’ and earning money generally. If you enter a shop you learn to wait several minutes before they bother to serve you and thanks in part to a 3hr siesta the average working week is only 25hrs. And on top of that they get no less than 40 public holidays each year! It’s a far cry from China or Vietnam. Whilst it’s not quite the decadence of Qatar or the UAE the money they receive from oil allows them to heavily subsidize fuel and various welfare programs but means they haven’t tried to diversify the economy enough and create stable jobs in other fields like manufacturing, a situation made far worse by the financial sanctions placed on them by the international community. The quality of life is actually pretty good and the relaxed demeanor of the population can fool you into thinking everyone’s happy but the cost of living is also very high and with the oil meant to run out in 30-40yrs, as several Iranians told me they think the country will have to wake up from its fairly slothful state soon.
Iran really needs a radical modernizer but when one gets elected by the people (such as president Khatami 10yrs ago) the Ayatollahs cronies in a Guardian Council can and do reject policies they don’t like and even decide who can and can’t stand for MP (they have to pass a morality test). Whilst having a government run by a monarch won’t necessarily work, neither will the replacement one run by untrained religious leaders and the two tier system frequently doesn’t work. Under Khatami only 35% of policies were approved by the council and earlier this year Ahmadinejad simply didn’t turn up to work for 2 weeks in protest at not getting his way enough.
Predictably the Ayatollah is ultra conservative and has set the system up to ensure religious control at all levels of Iranian life. All branches of the civil service down to police stations and universities have a shady religious overseer onsite who reports directly to the Supreme Leader and can basically veto any decision the police chief or chancellor could make if they feel it interferes with ‘correct’ religious thinking. As with other Muslim countries Iran has developed a laughable legal system based largely round a book that’s nearly 1500yrs old; a particularly good law an Iranian guy told me about is how if you drive 30km you can eat during the day during Ramadan, as converted from the old rule about travelling 30km on a camel! So of course there’s a couple of spots outside Tehran people simply drive to so they can go and eat during the day. Aside from the predictable alcohol ban (though it’s easy to get smuggled stuff), and corporal punishment for things like stealing, Sharia law seems largely obsessed with sex. They still stone adulterers to death there, men and women are segregated in most public spaces (classrooms, buses etc.) and indeed women aren’t even allowed to sing but most famously they have to wear the hijab (hair covering veil) by law. It’s utterly detested by 80% of women and as soon as you’re in a remotely private space they all rip them off; at which point all the men in the room fall into wild, uncontrollable lust. However, one consequence of gender segregation at university has meant that many more girls now go as their religious families are happier to send them so amidst a plummeting birth rate no less than 65% of university places are now taken by women - but then only 20% find jobs afterwards as the religious establishment expects them to become wives and Mothers, which doesn’t tend to go down too well when you’ve had a university education. There’s even ‘morality police’ wandering round telling girls off over their appearance but they rebelliously just slap on make-up and Iran has a thriving cosmetic surgery industry so unlike in Pakistan or Afghanistan strict religious laws all feel like a bit of a waste of time.
I think sharia law rigidly sticking to the Quran can work in countries where the majority of the people live simply in the countryside and are often ignorant of life beyond their circumstances but in a country like Iran it’s a total farce. Unlike in many Muslim countries education is fiercely important in Persian culture so it has one of the highest rates of higher education in the developing world and for example in the UK Iranians are the best qualified of any immigrant community. The country has a long history of interacting with other countries and as there’s also a large diaspora across the globe the people are well aware of what goes on in other countries, despite the worlds strictest internet censor and blackouts on much of the media. With their personal freedoms so heavily curtailed and job prospects so poor it’s sad but understandable that Iran has probably the world’s worst ‘brain drain’ problem, some 4m (almost all university educated) Iranians have already moved abroad and speaking to young people they virtually all had an ‘exit plan’ to get to Canada or Australia etc.
I found Iranian television actually offered quite a decent insight into the country; it’s illegal but virtually everybody has a satellite dish and watches TV from abroad whilst the state run channels offer up morality plays and a Big Brother style show of Hosseins shrine in Karbala. So you can watch a few camera on one shrine, 24hrs a day, 365 days a year. Even Big Brother 4 was more entertaining. What’s also noticeable is how much coverage the 1980-88 Iraq war gets despite the fact it ended 23 years ago, everyday there are reenactments of battles, interviews with veterans and a never-ending series of montages featuring images from the war. For Shiites’, due to the murder of a couple of their first Imams the concept of martyrdom is deeply important to them so across Iran there are posters and billboards of dead soldiers to be celebrated in a religious cause. This is because Saddam Hussein was Sunni and after he attacked in the aftermath of the revolution it enabled the regime to claim the issue as an attack on their religion, which was a sure way of uniting the people. By bringing everyone together in a national, religious cause it allowed the regime to cement their hold on power and it’s probably fair to say that if it didn’t happen there’s no way the theocracy could have survived in it’s present form for so long.
Whilst Fox News and Republican senators may try and claim otherwise, the country which has most to fear from Al Qaeda or the Taliban is not the US or Israel but Iran. The Sunni Al Qaeda type terrorists want Taliban style governments to form in Pakistan and in the Arabian Gulf and sweep through Iran converting the population from the Shiite heresy en route.
The history of Shiitism is one of discrimination in the Muslim world and fighting to hold onto what they believe in, there are only a few majority Shiite countries in the world and Iran is by far the biggest so the country and other Shiites see themselves as very much a protector of the religion worldwide. Surrounded by Afghanistan, Pakistan and probably their biggest enemy Saudi Arabia Iran is something of a caged animal constantly feeling they’re about to be attacked by their Sunni neighbors or the Israel/US. They’re permanently on edge and just think the world’s out to get them so have formed an ultra paranoid/defensive complex with a powerful secret service and a half million strong army bolstered by the hated 2yr national service.
Despite hearing plenty of stories of foreigners being arrested and detained for several days on suspicion of spying we didn’t have any problems from the police until our last stop in Tabriz at the end. We’d met a former professional footballer and after we’d played 5 a side (very badly) with him and had an Iranian night out (ie dinner and shisha) he took us to the big game on Friday. We were celebrities going to the stadium as everyone wanted their photo taken with us and I even got interviewed on the radio. Iranian football has the reputation for being one of the most passionate in the world and the atmosphere was magnificent in a cracking game (4 goals, 2 pens and a sending off) but unfortunately we missed half of it. As we were entering the stadium the cops saw us and took us to a cell; they then brought a couple of secret service agents in from town who spent an hour questioning us and going through our cameras etc. about what we were doing in Iran. Whilst they eventually let us in to the stadium to watch the 2nd half our Iranian friend had to go and be interviewed again the next day and he was really scared. He said not to make any contact with him as he’d have to give up his phone and all email accounts and essentially I think they wanted to know why he was with foreigners. The fact they’d arrest him at a football match of all things underlines just how paranoid the government is and we were left wondering why they even bother to grant tourist visas if they’re that worried about foreigners mixing with the population.
This attitude of ‘the world is against us’ means the government doesn’t really care what the rest of the world thinks and is much of the reason why it’s come to be known as ‘the pariah state’.
On the Israel issue I think most Muslims around the world applaud the Iranian stance and their refusal to shut up and let the Palestinian cause go whilst they take American oil money, like most of the states in the Arabian Gulf have done. But I think Western attitudes to Iran are deeply hypocritical; whilst the American government has been bitterly moaning about (probably state backed) cyber attacks from China (and indeed recently congress declared them acts of war) at the same time they and Israel launched the Stuxnet worm which is probably the biggest and most successful cyber attack in history. It basically sent many of the rods which Iran was testing into a frenzy causing them to collapse and setting back the Iranian nuclear program back as much as 5years. Iranians are quite defensive about getting nuclear power, not many ordinary Iranians want the bomb but they do want nuclear power, unfortunately the technology needed to generate nuclear power can be easily modified to further enrich uranium to use in nuclear bombs. Despite having the oil, Iran’s refineries are hopelessly out of date so they often have to export oil to other countries only to have to reimport it in refined form afterwards costing them far too much, so they feel they need nuclear power as an alternative source of energy. The West doesn’t accept this as an excuse so even with heavy financial sanctions and Hilary Clinton threatening to obliterate them Ahmadinejad seems determined to get it so the issue seems likely to run. Most Iranians also feel that America simply doesn’t have the right to say who can and can’t have the bomb, as Ahmadinejad once said to an American reporter: “If it’s a good thing why can’t I have it and if it’s a bad thing why do you have it?” Also in recent years several times the likes of Turkey and Egypt have made the eminently sensible proposal of creating a nuclear free Middle East so Iran would have to abandon it’s nuclear programme and in return Israel would have to destroy the 80 or so nukes it’s believed to hold. The US consistently shot it down straight away under Bush and whilst the Obama administration has finally made tenuous beginnings to even discuss the proposal it’s unlikely they’ll issue Israel with any sort of ultimatum. I think it’s this perceived double standards which makes progress for Americas reputation in this part of the world so difficult
Tony Blair also recently gave a fairly bizarre interview blaming Iran as the major sponsor of terror attacks worldwide (not Iraq then?) and demanding regime change. But a quick look at the nationalities of attackers in 9/11 and 7/7 for example reveal a grand total of 0 Iranians involved whilst the Western allies of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt contributed all but one of the attackers. Buoyed by Ahmadinejad’s iconoclastic statements on the international stage Iran makes a good bogeyman to aim at but Islamic terrorism is clearly more complicated and if Western countries really want to stop attacks then they need to focus more on the influence of the radical Mullahs in Egypt and the state backed Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia than anything in Iran.
But the ‘no one likes us but we don’t care’ attitude taken by its leaders is not shared by Iranian people at all, I actually found them very insecure about their place in the world. Another of the opening questions you’re sure to be asked by the people is “Iran is good?” or “Iranian people are good? When you answer positively you can see the relief in their faces and they follow it up by asking several questions about Iran’s reputation globally. The culture of hospitality is vitally important and whilst on a couple of holidays we were bombarded with cakes and sweets from strangers it’s the everyday hospitality and generosity of the people which make it such a rewarding place to visit. I didn’t see anywhere near enough of the country and it’s somewhere I definitely want to return to in the future, though under the current political system that may be difficult. The Iranians I spoke to all gave the same view that a revolution will take place in 2-5yrs, the Ayatollah is 72 yrs old and believed to have prostate cancer. The common wisdom is that there’s no way the population will accept another supreme leader after he dies and as the international financial sanctions increasingly hit it’s hard to see how the current system can survive. And if the revolution does happen Iran really could be one of the most likable countries in the world to visit. I hope so.