Seeing a ‘different’ Iran

By Chandran Nair
South China Morning Post

This article by Chandran Nair appears in the South China Morning Post, 25 October 2008.

For close to thirty years now the international media has depicted Iran as a country run by religious fanatics where women are oppressed and where there is no freedom of any kind. This sentiment has been perpetuated by the Bush administration which nonsensically labeled Iran as part of an axis of evil in 2000.

A whole generation of people around the world have therefore grown up with a distorted view of a great nation which is the home of an ancient culture (heard of Persepolis?), a very educated middle class and some of the most hospitable people in the world.

A visit to the country and conversations with Iranians of diverse backgrounds reveal a very different reality from that portrayed even by the more liberal media. First, Iran is a very safe country to travel in. The road infrastructure between the main cities is world class and the welcome given to foreigners is very generous. Second, one does not sense any brooding oppressiveness and in fact people enjoy a great degree of freedom to move around and talk to anyone as well as engage in fun activities. Third, whilst women are required to cover their heads with the hijab, many do the minimum and do not seem to fear any retribution – and it is not uncommon to witness women smoking in some public places.

The main concern of most Iranians is the economy, jobs and the frustration that international sanctions are having on their quality of life. No one in Iran, even those who dislike the polices of the government, supports the sanctions or believe they will do anything to change the stance of the government on foreign policy issues such as its nuclear energy position. The vast majority are nationalists who may disagree with some policies, but like Chinese and Americans citizens are fully supportive of their nation’s right to develop nuclear technology and are very clear about their willingness to defend their country against aggression. Contrary to media rhetoric the Iranian people do not want to be “freed” by outsiders.

Like any other country, Iranians are split between those who support the government to various degrees and some of its fundamentalist policies and others who are totally opposed. Whilst the state is omnipresent there is a degree of political freedom but the line that must not be crossed is that of criticizing the supreme leadership. Otherwise there is freedom to criticize the economic policies and other issues.

But all Iranians know that even with sound economic policies the country will be held back as long as the international sanctions are in place and Iran is prevented from engaging with other nations. This has created resentment towards the West amongst even the educated elite, who are very well versed with the history of the involvement of the US and UK in thwarting democracy in Iran in 1953 when they helped overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Many see Iran as a victim of a geopolitical game played by the great powers because of its strategic position bridging Asia the Middle East and Europe.

With regard to religion, Iranians are staunch Muslims but the vast majority are tolerant and the middle class certainly have a very liberal approach. There is great religious freedom as is evident by the number of churches to be found especially in cities such as Isfahan where there is a large Christian Armenian community who see themselves as Iranians first before any religious distinction. It may surprise many to learn that the old churches in cities like Isfahan receive state funding for restoration and Muslims frequent them to admire the beautiful old frescos.

Iran is also home to some very good universities and there is a strong tradition of learning and exploration. Students openly express their views on most issues and many speak English. But they do feel a deep sense of frustration about their future prospects given Iran’s current isolation. They know that jobs will be scarce and that if they want to keep in touch with the latest development in technology they will need to leave the country they love. These students are among the true victims of the geo-political games being played by politicians.

Ironically Iranians tend to have a tendency to look towards the West whilst also harbouring a great deal of mistrust about its intentions in Iran. Speaking to Iranians one quickly realises that they see themselves as Asians but have a very limited understanding of the massive changes and opportunities in this part of the world. There is hardly any awareness that one can get a first class education in Asia at a cheaper price than in the West, and at the same time widen their world view. Or that they should consider learning Chinese over French and German. In a session at Iran’s second largest university, no student could name a single Chinese or Indian brand and the common notion they had is that Asian goods are cheap and nasty.

If Asian countries like India, China and Japan can strengthen ties with Iran, numerous economic, cultural and political benefits will result. The Iranians who most want to change their country will welcome these moves which would also go towards weakening the ill thought through and counter productive sanctions regime.

Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow.

Note: This piece is based on encounters the author had with numerous Iranians during a visit to the country in September.