Don’t believe all the stereotypes: the mood inside Iran is hopeful for change and increased positive engagement with the West…
When I told my friends I was travelling to Iran they didn’t believe me.
“That’s the sort of place people go missing and don’t come back,” they said.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured them, “I’m white and Jewish, nobody will be able to miss me, and they won’t be wanting me to stay.”
I was right on the first count, wrong on the second.
Despite a sophisticated English-language tourist infrastructure, there are almost no Western visitors, so Iranians are especially excited to meet Europeans or North Americans. Seemingly insecure, many would ask us whether we were enjoying Iran, responding with scepticism when we said yes.
In a dusty desert town in the centre of the country, a father encouraged his young daughter to ask my Dutch colleague for a photo with him.
“You look just like Louis Tomlinson from One Direction,” she told him excitedly.
People on the street were constantly stopping us, they would ask where we were from, give us drinks, and generously welcome us to their country.
The image of Iran as being full of wild-eyed Arabs chanting ‘death to America’ is wrong on many levels, not least of all because Iranians aren’t actually Arab (and they’re sick of pointing that out).
In the cafes of Tehran the headscarves are skimpy and men and women laugh together over cans of coke, you’re more likely to see iPhones in the streets than AK-47s, and while it’s true that you’d better keep homosexuality behind well-padlocked doors, the prosecution and persecution of gay people isn’t a popular public sport the way it is in a number of other countries.
Don’t get me wrong, Iran is no liberal Mecca, but it’s no worse than many other countries where the West has chosen to use engagement, rather than isolation, to encourage progress.
Don’t Believe the Hype
Tehran itself has a lively and well-educated youth population which bucks at the regime at every turn.
Iranians have access to illegal alcohol, openly mount banned satellite dishes, hold lively house parties, and hack their way around internet restrictions on social media.
Indeed, when we spoke with a group of young Iranians, the only topics off limits were spoilers to the season finale of Game of Thrones.
Even on Israel, the views we encountered were surprisingly moderate. Broaching the subject with one group made them bashful. They thought that as Westerners we would be offended by their ‘extreme’ views.
They supported a two-state solution based on the 1967 border agreement. Imagine their surprise when I told them this was roughly official US policy.
Misunderstanding, it seems, goes both ways.
Western leaders talk tough on Iran to make themselves look strong and Israeli politicians exploit Iran’s nuclear intentions to gain traction internationally.
We have short memories in international affairs, only 35 years ago Iran was ruled by a relatively liberal dictatorship and was a key Western ally, but our distorted perceptions are not entirely our fault. Stereotypes have been encouraged not only by films like Argo, but by authority figures with their own agendas.
Western leaders talk tough on Iran to make themselves look strong and Israeli politicians exploit Iran’s nuclear intentions and poor engagement to gain traction internationally.
Even Iran’s own leaders are prone to spout hatred of the West to pander to their own support bases of hardliners and clerics.
Such statements will gladly be emphasised and taken out of context by those on the other side, and so the cycle continues.
One Iranian told me when he was a kid they were offered the day off school if they would take a bus to Tehran to shout anti-western slogans for international cameras. The kids were enthusiastic because they got the day off school, but when the cameras were off even adults went up to journalists to ask about US culture and tell them how much they wanted to visit New York.
The gap between the rhetoric on Iran and the reality amongst Iranians is perhaps best demonstrated by this month’s inauguration of the country’s new president.
Hassan Rohani was the most liberal of the six candidates permitted to run, and he won just over 50 per cent of the vote.
Rohani is a former nuclear negotiator, has appointed numerous women to high-level government positions, and spoke of the US-Iranian relationship as a ‘wound which must be healed’.
The mood inside Iran is hopeful for change and increased positive engagement with the West, but it would be wrong to say most are optimistic.
A Narrow Path
Iranians have had their hopes crushed before. Every young person we met in Tehran had a friend who was killed in the green movement protests against the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election.
The demonstrations were brutally crushed by the regime, and many of the protestors who weren’t killed have simply vanished, their friends have no idea where they’ve gone.
Iran is a proud country with many sophisticated and well-educated people who remember their liberal past, but it is also a country with a clandestine religious government, not impervious to its own internal power struggles.
With Rohani assuming the presidency, and still holding the goodwill of the people and the religious leadership, now is an opportune moment for the West and for Iran.
The path to a peaceful resolution of tensions is narrow but walkable, and will and restraint is required from both sides.
Remaining cool and rising above provocation isn’t naïve and it doesn’t excuse the often brutal Iranian government, but it does offer the best chance of progress for both the West, and the millions of Iranians who suffer from their regime’s intransigence.
Information about the author:
Ben Winsor is a Law and International Studies graduate currently undertaking a placement with the Presidency of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He is studying a Masters in Law at the Australian National University. All views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of his employer. View his full profile here.