Tehran has been little like the dusty, smelly pile of whitewashed hovels that my fevered imagination had conjured up. It turns out that Iran as a whole is a developed, stable country, with all the virtues and vices of any other modern state.
Andy’s experiences watching camels and combatants in the southern deserts of Baluchistan seem a world away. Wandering in the streets of central Tehran, it’s impossible not to get swept along by the hordes of people going about their daily lives in the same frantic, anonymous way that they do in other huge metropolises the world over. Swarms of motorbikes infiltrate the gridlocked, honking lanes of Peugeot 405s, bright green and yellow street taxis and buses, with little regard for the one-way system. A shopping mall features over three hundred tiny and identical mobile phone shops spread over 4 cramped and bustling floors. A courier carelessly straps two 42-inch flatscreen televisions to the back of his motorbike and makes off into the fray. Morbid figures in flowing black chadors, only two eyes and half a mouth on show, push past other women in jeans, heels, sunglasses, and barely-concealed hairstyles; dark, flashing eyes slicing through crowds.
Tenny and I are getting on the train this afternoon to continue our adventure through the Middle East. The overnight journey should take us a good enough distance from Tehran to be able to continue at a relaxed pace. With our onward visas finally arranged, we have been able to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Any Westerner who complains about the difficulties of getting visas for certain countries should consider the plight of those who, by an accident of birth, are carrying an Iranian passport.
Tenny has had to supply, in no particular order, her birth certificate (translated with stamped approval from the relevant ministry), several months of bank statements showing that she can afford to travel (translated and stamped), tickets to show her intention not only to arrive in but to leave the country thereafter (forged), letters of invitation from residents of the country (although a letter from a completely unassociated Brit seemed to work), hotel reservations (forged), her full CV, a detailed day-by-day itinerary for her trip, a letter from her employer (translated and stamped), her personal biography, photocopies of all pages of her passport and all visas and stamps for the last 3 years, and more that I expect I’ve forgotten about. Even I had to go to my own Embassy and pay 50 quid for a piece of paper saying “Please let Thomas Allen into your country”. Little wonder it’s taken us nearly 6 weeks to wade through the paperwork!
Why this rigmarole just to spent 30 days in the neighbouring country? Why do Iranians, to take the present example, face such restrictions on free movement around the world?
The answer is a multi-faceted mixture of present-day political blackmail and the consequences of rampant thirst for oil in the West. I still haven’t figured it all out, so I’ll share what few insights have come my way.
A few weeks back, in Yerevan, I was chatting to a family friend of Tenny’s, an ageing Iranian-Armenian. He had landed at Heathrow airport in 1976. Handing over his Iranian passport, he was questioned by the immigration authorities. “How long do you intend to stay in the country?”
“I don’t know… less than one month,” he had replied.
“OK, sir. Here’s a visa for three months. Let us know if you need to stay longer. Welcome to Great Britain!”
What has changed since 1976? Well, the Iranian Revolution of 1978 changed many things. The topic is vast, spanning nearly a hundred years of see-sawing between theocracy and monarchy, secularism and Islamic law, with plenty of Western meddling and the inevitable appearance of oil on the stage. Wikipedia’s article on the subject provides a good introduction.
The king of Iran, prior to the revolution, had ruled since World War II, when Allied forces from the UK and USSR had occupied Iran. He followed in his father’s footsteps in his attempts to modernize and secularize Iran and remove the influence of religious institutions on the government of the country.
The opposition from nationalist and religious against this ‘Westernization’ was heightened after the democratically-elected Prime Minister was overthrown and arrested by a military coup in 1953.
Who had orchestrated this undermining of the democratic process? The CIA and MI6, in a joint covert operation to replace him with a pro-Western prime minister. Why? The newly-elected Prime Minister of Iran had nationalised the country’s privately-owned oil producing company in order that profits from the country’s biggest export went into the domestic economy, not the pockets of foreign investors, as this company had, until then, been owned and managed by foreigners. It had been called the ‘Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’. It is now known as BP.
The West has been fighting for control of the Middle East’s oil fields for much longer than most people realise, resorting in 1953 to covert operations intended to undermine a democratically-elected national leader on the other side of the planet. The West’s thirst for oil was more important than the fundamental rights of the citizens of an entire nation to elect their own Prime Minister. Of course, this is one example of many. Is it any wonder that 25 years later the people decided to take matters into their own hands and throw out the US-sponsored puppet-king?
A year after the revolution, in 1979, the US Embassy in Tehran was invaded by a group of Iranian students who held the staff hostage for a whopping 15 months. From the day that the Embassy closed for the last time until May 2007, not a single face-to-face meeting between an American and an Iranian diplomat ever officially occurred. Whether aware of the irony or not, the US Army raided the Iranian Consulate in Iraq in 2007, thus performing an equivalent violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations towards the government of Iran.
It’s not difficult to see where the conflict arises from. The sad situation today is that Iranians face blockades in all aspects of life in a global world. This has manifested itself in me, an English cyclist, and my girlfriend, Tenny, with her Iranian passport, having to negotiate all the hurdles that foreign governments have put in place to make Iranians’ dealings with them as difficult as possible whilst retaining a very straight bureacratic face, from international trade to the simple process of obtaining a visa.
In reality, trade sanctions against Iran have resulted in a country which is the proud producer of many of its own commodities. The difference between walking into a grocery in Iran, and one in the UK, is startling. Every can, packet and box on the shelves is ‘Made in Iran’. Industry in the country is self-sufficient. And, ironically, it is Iranian financers that are laughing at the current global economic situation – sanctions have isolated Iran’s economy not only from international growth, but also international crisis. Iranians have not batted an eyelid about the unfolding economic chaos in the world around them. Besides, as with every country, they have plenty of their own problems to worry about.
Yesterday I decided to switch on BBC World News to see what was being reported. Before long, I found myself watching a report about how ‘Iran executes more young people than any other country in the world’. A straight-faced BBC reporter interviewed a chador-clad mother whose son was awaiting a decision over punishment for the accidental killing of another young man in a fight outside a school. Under Islamic law, the victim’s family can decree that the culprit pay for his misdeeds with his life.
That may be true, under the Iranian constitution as enforced by the clerical leadership of the country. Yes, many women would no doubt remove their headscarves if it were suddenly made a matter of personal choice, rather than law. But I found myself thinking, is it any wonder that the citizenship of the West associates the name Iran with negative connotations, if reports like this are all they have to found their opinions on? “A little knowledge is dangerous.” Our media seem to have it in their heads that Iran is a country to pick holes in. It’s a feedback loop, because now the people writing these news stories are the ones who’ve lived their adult lives with the same warped impression of the reality of this place.
Where are the reports on the immense and genuine kindness and generosity of the Iranian people, the delicious food, the ancient history and culture of this birthplace of civilization, the way in which today’s Iranian government has, on repeated occasion, appealed to the government of the US for face-to-face dialogues over the so-called ‘Iran nuclear crisis’, for intelligent, diplomatic resolution of differences, to be met by flippant dismissals and silence? Does this ignorance come from arrogance of having too much money and strength, or from the fact that their arguments against Iran’s domestic development of nuclear power might not hold up to much scrutiny?
I have a lot of sympathy for the Iranian people. Some of them choose to escape, paying thousands of dollars to Jewish agencies in Vienna to gain passage to the US as refugees with the promise of residence status a couple of years later. Then they will work in America, land of the free, sending money back to struggling families in Iran whose rising rent is not matched by any increase in wage. People with professions, qualifications and reputations in Iran will become immigrants in the US, working in gas stations and fast food restaurants because it might work out better in the long run. How ironic that they feel the need to escape to the country most responsible for the prolonged bullying inflicted on their home country because 30 years ago its people decided they didn’t want to be ruled by a puppet with Britain and America pulling the strings.
My train leaves in a few hours, so I’d better go. I’ll be in touch once we’re back on the road. Your thoughts on what I’ve written are always welcome, so why not write a comment below?