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Reflections on a visit to Tehran, late 2007

Reflections on a visit to Tehran, late 2007

Background to this article

I am a business person holding a senior position in a company which has, over the past few years, found an increasing market potential for our products in the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent. To explore this potential, I recently traveled to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, other emirates, India and Iran in late 2007. The trip lasted 20 days. It was my second trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2007; the first was to investigate finance options. The following offers comments on certain of my experiences during my November/December visit.

Like any thinking person in the West, I have my own opinions about events and issues concerning the Middle East. I have done my best to keep personal opinions from surfacing in this article, and have focused instead on life as I found it during my trip. Over the course of my career(s) – I've been with a variety of companies in various capacities – I have found myself doing business or working with governments and industry in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and certain South Asian countries, and have always found it best to observe, study, and try to understand the country I might be in, rather than judge it.

This short article will focus on Iran, because at present Iran is the recipient of a great deal of attention – most of it negative, according to the news we see in the West. There will be some comments concerning the UAE, because Iran doesn't exist in a vacuum and the UAE is important to Iran. But the focus will remain on Iran.

I'm a business man, not a writer or a political commentator. For that reason, this article gives my observations under a number of separate categories, rather than as a cohesive whole. It's a format I'm comfortable with, and it allows for what might seem contradictory observations. I'm not trying to build a case for or against Iran in this commentary: I'm simply trying to convey my own observations of Iran as I dealt with Iranian (or Persian: the two terms are virtually identical in meaning, of which more later) businessmen.

Getting there

I flew from North America, non-stop (14hrs) with the national airline of the United Arab Emirates (Etihad Airways), landing in Abu Dhabi. In itself, the flight could be seen as a preparation for the Islamic middle-east. In flight, for example, a flat panel screen offered a constantly changing indication of where Mecca was in relation to the aircraft. 

 
Flat screen display aboard Etihad Airways, showing the direction to Mecca.

More than that, as the aircraft was being backed out for taxiing, there was a five-second pause when the aircraft's nose aligned with Mecca. This provided a brief pause for Islamic passengers to listen to a brief prayer over the PA and offer prayers before take-off. The same procedure was followed when flying from the Emirates to Iran on Iran Air and on all other Etihad flights.

This is, in itself, a sort of object lesson: when you enter the world of Islam, the distinction between religion and secular life is diminished somewhat. You are entering a world where culture, religion, values and behaviour are often closely connected, but sometime quite separate. This experience can be shocking, and it may appear contradictory at times, but it needn't be threatening.

The United Arab Emirates became a political reality only in 1971. Seven emirates, each with considerable autonomy, entered a political alliance under a ruling council presided over by the Emir of Abu Dhabi. His vision and governance are largely considered to have been crucial to the development of UAE. He took the lead in funneling oil revenues into areas such as education, infrastructure and medical care, providing the Emirates a sound base from which to develop. He also encouraged greater toleration of non-Islamic workers, realizing that the UAE would need foreign workers at all levels in its drive for modernization. In fact, at present ex-patriots make up approximately three-quarters of the population of UAE, providing services ranging from basic labour to relatively senior positions in enterprise.

Two Emirates are most prominent: Abu Dhabi, and Dubai. Sheikh Khalifa (Abu Dhabi) and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum (Dubai) are both very highly thought of by the citizens of the UAE. Their friendly photos are proudly (voluntarily) displayed in reception areas of public and private offices, hotels, shops and banks, etc. No good (law abiding) Muslim objects to the quasi-Sharia laws imposed upon them. The laws of Sharia are more of a system of life rather than a codified set of rules. The benefits to the citizens of decisions made by these two men, in concert with the five other Emirate leaders, have been enormous.

At the same time, remember that these two men are, in effect, absolute monarchs. They own their individual emirates; in Abu Dhabi, land can be leased but not purchased. There is no indication that the current strengths and successes of the Emirates might be reversed: the UAE has grown wealthy and successful using the current model of development. But at any time the relatively moderate attitude to foreigners and ex-pats could change. The UAE exists at the whim of seven men, and the wisdom of their advisors.

Abu Dhabi is the centre for government, embassies and most business. Its revenues are still largely oil-based, and these have been used thoughtfully to develop a pleasant city. It is more conservative than Dubai, with fewer facilities (e.g., nightclubs, late-night restaurants) catering to western tastes, but is sufficiently tolerant to be a popular destination point for travelers.

 
From the terrace bar, Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi hotel. Note men and women sunbathing together.

It is recognized as the safest city in the world. Like Dubai, Abu Dhabi is experiencing rapid growth as the emirates assume a more prominent role in the Middle East. At a Cityscape development exposition in Abu Dhabi, there were projects valued at approximately USD400 billion currently under consideration.

 
One of 15 huge development projects in Abu Dhabi seeking foreign investment. UAE businessmen wear white dishdashes. Here they mingle with potential investors from all over the world.

Many of these will be financed with foreign capital: companies from around the world wish to establish themselves in the UAE.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are separated by 140KM of superb highway. With minimal traffic, the drive can be accomplished in just over an hour. Dubai has a long history as a commercial centre; it was built on gold trading. Less than fifteen percent of its current revenues come from oil. Architecturally, it is a showcase city, with much of the building – particularly in the western part of the city – taking place recently.

 
Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai. Ten years ago this was a two-lane road across scrubland.
 
 
Jumeirah area of Dubai: these are the Emirates Towers Dubai on Sheikh Zayed Road.

In fact, the building frenzy of the past few years has far outstripped the city's infrastructure: driving in Dubai is horrendous. There are rising concerns about sustainability, given the demands on utilities and the enormous carbon footprint. But the building boom continues unabated.

There are also some concerns about Russian and Asian sex-workers in the bars and restaurants that cater to western ex-pats. The fear is that this might provide opportunities for organized crime. As yet, Dubai appears to be relatively free of crime: my hotel window, e.g., overlooked a furniture store which displayed many expensive outdoor furniture and patio items on the plaza in front of the store. These items were left outside, unchained and unguarded, from night to night. Nothing is ever vandalized or stolen. According to my regional company rep., this kind of safety exists in all parts of Dubai. I mentioned that Dubai has a history of trading. Along what is called "the Creek" – a narrow inlet of water that divides "old" Dubai from the new, international section of the city – Arab dhows that trade up, down and across the Persian Gulf load goods from open, unpatrolled quays with little fear of pilferage.

 
On the "creek" in Dubai. Dhows (see foreground) carry goods to Iran and to Gulf coastal towns as far away as Yemen.
 
 
"Creekside" loading, Dubai. Cargo is unsecured on the quays, but theft of goods is relatively unknown.

Dubai is striving to be the financial hub of the Middle East – something like a middle-eastern Switzerland. Current economic sanctions by the west are probably helping Dubai to reach this goal, since it is acting as a bi-directional middleman for much of Iran's trade.

 
Dubai International Finance Center. After taking this shot, I was challenged by a security officer, who said government buildings were not to be photographed. I apologized, but explained I thought they were beautiful. He agreed, and simply walked away with no further comment.

The sanctions are having some effect, of course. The world's banks now scrutinize all Dubai transactions, which has slowed international transfer of funds dramatically. But all Iranian banks have Trade Finance offices and commercial branches in the UAE, and Dubai continues to finance Iranian business indirectly. The UAE is fast becoming a world financial center. Even Halliburton has moved to Dubai to capitalize on the opportunities in the region, allowing them to join the growing assembly of multinational corporations who wish to isolate themselves from the US banking sanctions and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737.

Entering Iran

I flew on Iran Air from Dubai to Tehran, landing at Imam Khomeini Airport (IKA). My clearance for entry by customs officials was somewhat surprising: my passport and visa were examined and returned to me almost immediately, together with a "Welcome to Tehran" – in English. My luggage was not subjected to any extraordinary inspection I was aware of; nor was I. There were no shoe checks, no sniffer dogs, no visible automatic weapons: just the requisite ICAO/IATA equipment was in place, and very current. The only thing worth noting – and I found this in India as well – was the existence of separate personal security lines for women only. Incidentally, I received the same treatment when I left Iran some 7 days later. Only typical international airport security procedures were observed.

I was entering Iran on a business visa (30 days), which in my case was required. Without a letter of invitation from Persian colleagues, such a visa is very hard to obtain. My application took a month to process, and was good for one-time entry only. Multiple-entry business visas are not available. At the same time, tourists may show up on 24 hours' notice, and be granted a seven-day tourist visa on the spot. The cost, including transportation from IKA to Tehran, is 50 Euros (about USD70 at the time of writing). The tourist visa option is not extended to nationals of Argentina, Australia, Canada, Korea, UK or USA: hence my need for a business visa.

Tehran: the city itself

Unlike Dubai, Tehran is not a showcase city. In many ways it might best be described as being physically similar to most large western cities. It has problems with heavy traffic and air pollution; it has condos and apartments; it has parks and museums. 

 
Morning rush hour in Tehran.
 
 
Tehran traffic at noon, with the Alborz mountains as backdrop. Traffic is always heavy, and traffic lanes are often ignored. Jay-walking is one of the riskiest things a pedestrian can do. Note the counter until the next green light – a rather sensible idea.
 
 
Niavaran Park, North Tehran. Once the Shah's summer home, the grounds are now a park, and his former residence is a museum.
 
 
Typical North Tehran street scene. Pollution levels are reminiscent of L.A. in the early 1970s.

It has excellent, modern commuter facilities.

 
German built hi-speed commuter train.

It has building construction. 

 
A government building project. The banner describes it as a joint project between the people and Islam, and offers an apology for the construction being behind schedule.
 
 
Modern condo & office towers, a German-UAE joint venture, completed on time and on budget. The fence (foreground) protects a power sub-station.

It has billboards advertising luxury goods.

 
Advertising in Tehran, in this case for expensive watches and cameras. Persians love high end personal items, and can afford them.

In those ways, Tehran is similar to any number of cities in Europe or North America.

In other ways, it makes its own statement as a city. It is clean, safe and pleasant. Its setting against the Alborz mountains is stunning. Many of its streets are lined with shade trees, which often create a boundary between vehicular and pedestrian traffic. 

 
Clean mountain water has been ducted to irrigate decorative trees which line many of Tehran's streets.

Many of its buildings contain murals that are by turn whimsical, decorative, or even just plain fun.

 
Morning activity at a bus stop; central Tehran. Note the whimsical mural covering the stairs in the background.

In fact, many buildings seem to have ornamentation, often for its own sake. Wrought-iron security shutters, for instance, might be unnecessarily intricate in design;

 
An expensive home in North Tehran. Note the elaborate security grills, replicated on the panels of the street wall.

doors and entrances might be ornate.

 
The entry doors to this government department demonstrate the Iranian love of ornamentation for its own sake.

There is, quite frankly, much to catch the eye: Tehran is a city of visual stimula.

The other side of this is, of course, the use of banners, murals and images which offer permanent, public reminders of the Islamic revolution. To some extent, I had been prepared to see this side of Iran: the West has lived for decades with huge images of turbaned, bearded clerics with piercing eyes.

 
Building art beside a Tehran freeway. On the left, revolution martyrs; on the right, contemporary design.

To some extent, I imagine these images are designed to keep the primacy of Islam before the people. They are seen everywhere, and are often used for mundane purposes.

 
The large street sign, with an almost obligatory cleric's image, is simply noting that you are entering a different administrative zone in the city. The cleric is an Islamist revolutionary from before Khomeini's time. Note the intricate iron railing on the staircase.

I guess the best-known image of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, particularly in the West, is the face of Ayatollah Khomeini. His importance to the creation of post-Shah Iran has not diminished, as the on-going construction of a massive mosque (at his gravesite) to his memory indicates; his face still appears everywhere.

 
Imam Khomeini mosque. Built over his gravesite, money continues to be provided for additions. One Persian told me he doubted the complex would ever be completed.

What was interesting to me is that his image is used for many reasons and in many contexts: his visage is not merely a reminder of the Islamic revolution.

 
To the West, this image of Ayattolah Khomeini is iconic. The message, in this case, is much less fierce or forbidding: it invites residents of Tehran to participate in an Art, Graphic and Web Design contest.

At a more basic level – a day-to-day living level – Tehran is both similar to and different from whatever norm might exist in North American or European cities. All the name-brand electronic devices found in the west are also often available in Tehran, though some may be of questionable origin and quality. I saw an iPhone offered for sale, for instance, which seems very improbable indeed. The iPhone aside, GSM cellphones are everywhere, with all five networks offering inexpensive long-distance plans. SIM cards are available at most corner stores, without challenge or question – even to an obvious foreigner like me. Strangely enough, I had to travel to Germany just after my return from Iran. When I wanted to buy a T-Mobile SIM card in Germany, I first had to show my passport. No passport, no card!

Consumer packaged goods and durable goods are readily available: familiar names like LG, Panasonic and Bosch are much in evidence. There was, when I was there, a certain trendiness to kitchens using European appliances and plumbing fixtures. The loss to the US as these brand loyalties to European and Asian brands develop is hard to assess.

I ate many meals in restaurants while in Iran, and I was also entertained in private homes for dinners. The quality of the food was uniformly good: water quality was excellent; dairy products were fine; meat was of high quality. A staple meal (kebabs with beef or lamb over rice) was never disappointing, though because imported goods are expensive your kebab may have more or less meat. The Iranian government maintains strict controls on comestibles, which – unlike in other nations – is enforced rather rigidly. I don't know of any foreigner who ever suffered "Tehran Trots" in Tehran, unless he lived on "street-meat"

I was intrigued by all things automotive. Without a doubt, Tehran is a city on wheels.

 
Traffic near an urban mosque in North Tehran

Fuel is cheap by any current world standards (about USD0.45/gallon) and is subsidized because Iran has little or no refining capacity for auto fuel. Vehicle fuels are now rationed, a relatively recent and extremely unpopular decision. The ration is, in truth, rather stingy: each car is allowed 300 litres/quarter – about three-quarters of a gallon of gas per day, good for between 10 and 20 miles per day, depending on the make or type of vehicle you drive. In the west, that might equate to one round-trip between home and a major mall. But the ration applies to the owner of the vehicle, not to the vehicle itself.

The more affluent Iranians have found a solution, of course. They buy a number of "junkers" they would never drive, simply to get the ration card for the junker. They then use their collection of ration cards to fuel their vehicle of choice.

What is a vehicle of choice? There are perfectly decent Iranian-made vehicles available at a decent price: one of them is a Peugeot "Persia", built in Iran and with a sticker price of USD14,000.

 
A Peugeot "Persia", built in Iran and priced under USD15,000.

There are Hyundais and Kias. There are motorcycles in abundance, ridden both by men and women. But more affluent people are interested in imported vehicles, which are – as in the west – easily recognizable symbols of wealth and status. Imported vehicles are outrageously expensive, and the "wait time" can be frustrating. My main Persian contact owns two BMW Series-7 vehicles (at USD250,000 per unit), bought while waiting for his vehicle of choice (a Mercedes 600 series, at USD600,000 with a 6–12 month wait time) to appear. Import duties on luxury vehicles amount to 100%+. Meanwhile, the off-set for doing business in Iran: there is no personal income tax, and there is a flat-rate 10 percent tax on Iranian corporations. This benefit, along with good quality free and accessible healthcare and education is made possible from (you guessed it) oil and gas sales to the west.

There was one other thing which, I must admit, gave me a chuckle. Persians are fully prepared to use a proven formula to their advantage. While on one of my morning walks, I noticed some shop signage which was, I thought, both clever and typical. It was over a pizza place, and read "Pizza Hot".

 
Persians will knock off anything

Iran: a Caucasian in Tehran

My short time in this very large and diverse city (there are around 14 million citizens) suggests that my comments should not be seen as definitive. But I can at least offer some sense of what I experienced, however disjointed my comments might be.

I felt entirely safe and comfortable during my stay. I was, admittedly, in a hotel in North Tehran, which (thanks in large part to Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted in Feb., 1979) has one of the highest concentrations of millionaires in the world. But I traveled to all parts of Tehran during my visit; I was never made to feel unwelcome, and never felt threatened simply because I was a visible minority or a foreigner. An early riser, I was fully comfortable walking the streets around my hotel in the hours of the morning before shops opened. To some extent, of course, the legal system keeps people in check, though I was never aware of a heavy police presence and never saw any automatic weapons. I also never found myself "looking over my shoulder" or "checking my six", as I have felt compelled to do from time to time in various North American and European cities. I felt safe.

I shopped in Tehran. I ate in restaurants. I met with business people in the private sector, as well as with government bureaucrats. Shopkeepers, service staff and office workers were, almost without exception, not only polite but friendly. Most were comfortable speaking some English and/or German – this does not apply to the aged – so language was seldom a barrier.

To move about this large city, I found that it was worth either calling a taxi (you can request an English-speaking driver when you call) or hiring a car and driver for the day. Neither is expensive, and they are honest. Interestingly, most drivers (taxi or otherwise) are proud of their city, and if you have the time and inclination will drive you by a route that allows you to see landmarks. I never had the impression this was done "by order": there is virtually no tourist infrastructure, so any foreigner is assumed to be there on business. They simply attempt to show you highlights of their city, while accommodating your needs. One driver took me past Tehran's version of Toronto's CN Tower.

 
Melad Tower (1425 feet tall) will provide 95% of Tehran's communication.

He was proud of the structure because it was a visible symbol of Tehran's communication infrastructure, and because it provided more TV channels for him to watch!

There is only one thing that, because I was obviously Caucasian, I was advised against doing, and that was sensible advice though personally frustrating. Every Friday, (which is a Holy Day, beginning Thursday from 12:00 for government workers), an Iranian leader (it might even be Ahmadinejad or Rafsanjani) speaks to students at the University of Tehran. I felt that it would be exciting and interesting to experience one of these gatherings, though I spoke no Farsi. But I was advised that this could be dangerous, given radical elements in the audience. I took that advice. Sensible, but disappointing.

Iran: dealing with government officials

At least some of my time was spent in meetings with Iranian government officials and bureaucrats, including female bureaucrats. Invariably, these were formal, detailed and well-run. They are also productive regarding immediate actions and decisions within their span of control; yet their follow-up leaves much to be desired. This could be that it is not culturally acceptable to tell someone that something is not possible. Persians hate to disappoint.

Meetings in Iran, as in most countries, follow certain protocols. Neckties are not worn: a necktie is seen as a symbol of Western capitalism. In fact, this applies to most business meetings, including those in the private sector.

 
Typical business dress for Iranian men in both government and private sectors.

Foreign participants at such meetings are made aware that shaking hands with, or expressing pleasure in meeting female attendees is not acceptable conduct. By custom, chairs beside females attending such meetings are not occupied by men. Meetings do not get down to business immediately; pleasantries are exchanged for about five minutes, and will often include questions about family. In both government and private sectors, Persians place great weight on "family": they recognize family commitment as a value shared by all people.

Most government offices are in south Tehran – the poor part of the city – and are not, typically, appealing or attractive. Little attention is paid to the "trappings" of office, unlike western business or government practices. Reception areas, meeting rooms and offices are liberally decorated with photos and paintings of political and religious leaders, a practice that extends to a lesser degree to the streets of Tehran and to many private businesses as well. In fact, one street sign I passed a number of times during my stay in Tehran might go some distance to explaining the location and quality of government offices. It shows a stylized rendering of President Ahmadinejad (hardly recognizable to Western eyes) and a caption reading "Islam wants government to be the people's servant".

 
The portrait is of President Ahmadinejad; the message – five storeys high – reads: "Islam wants Government to be the people's servant".

That may be a fine sentiment, and may echo the ideals of Islamic rule. Whether it actually reflects the reality of government in Iran is a different matter. I am sufficiently jaundiced to believe that the current Iranian regime is no different than any other government, including those of most western democracies. They are concerned with gaining power, and holding power.

Iran: the political situation

Iran is a theocracy – an Islamic republic. For that reason alone, it is difficult to separate faith from politics or custom (church and state, if you wish). Iranians do not speak about their government in public, though they will discuss the "international political situation" since it affects many aspects of their lives. In some ways, this is little different from much political discussion in the West: we seldom debate the principles of democracy, but only the way those principles are applied.

But there is an underlying current in Iran that makes the separation of public and private opinion slightly "edgier". At the risk of sounding like a professor offering "Iran 101", Iranians are less than happy with the influence of Arab culture on their own. Most of the Iranians I met were fiercely proud of being Persian, with all that that can mean to any cultural entity. There are other ethnic groups in Iran, of course, including Turks and Kurds, but the predominant culture – the predominant way of thinking and acting – is Persian, and it stretches back thousands of years. It did not begin in 700 AD. While Persians adopted Islam centuries ago, they remain less than accepting of the cultural accoutrements which came with Islam – many of them Arabic in origin. For many Persians I met, the current Islamic government is just the most recent challenge to their Persian heritage. There are too many restrictions which they feel are being imposed on them by the theocracy they live under. Islam is not the issue: they are comfortably and decidedly Muslim. Their issues are with the Arabic influences which come with a more fundamental Islam than they have accepted into their culture in the past.

For this reason, amongst others, with trusted friends and colleagues Iranians are more open about and caustic in their views. At least amongst Iranians I met – and keep in mind that I was dealing with business/professional people in Tehran, a very large and sophisticated city – there is considerable displeasure with the current regime, which is seen as somewhat hysterical and definitely non-supportive of traditional Persian values. There were interesting political comparisons between Iranian and US leaders (Ahmadinejad and Bush), both considered to be rather unstable and leading their respective countries in the wrong directions. There were also comparisons of seconds-in-command (Rafsanjani and Cheney), who are both seen primarily as keen, successful businessmen with significant international holdings.

Privately, Persians are also prepared to talk about the precarious situation their nation holds in the world. This goes far beyond the current issues surrounding sanctions and the continuing verbal assaults they face from the West. In one way or the other, they must monitor borders with 18 different countries, with whom they try to maintain decent diplomatic relations. They have to deal with a host of issues, ranging from illicit drugs to money laundering, weapons smuggling, refugee trafficking, illegal fishing and caviar trafficking, oil-related water pollution, and the like. They share land borders with two nations under invasion (Iraq and Afghanistan), and with a nation in major crisis (Pakistan); they share Kurdish issues with Iraq and Turkey. They don't share values with these nations: they share only different versions of Islam. They feel under pressure to maintain good relations in this very complex corner of the world, without losing their own national and cultural identity.

It is worth noting, for the record, that Iranians are not living in isolation from or ignorance of world events. In my hotel, cable channels offered CNN World, BBC World, Al Jazeera (both Arabic and English) and Deutsche Welle, along with several local stations and an Islamic religious channel. Iranians have relatively ready access to the same channels I did in my hotel, via satellite dishes they buy from Turkish traders, though such dishes are officially illegal. Most dish owners hide them in bushes or on roofs. From time to time, the paramilitary scoop the dishes up and confiscate them, hitting owners with a minimal fine. Rumor has it that the paramilitary then sells the collected dishes back to the Turks, who then offer them for sale again. In truth, very few satellite dishes are purchased "in-the-box" new: this may be the source of the rumors. Iranians rely on the information they glean from satellite TV to keep them informed about world events. Persians are much more curious about and conversant with events and politics in the West than Westerners are concerning events in Iran. The fact that owning, and viewing programs available by, satellite is treated as a minor transgression suggests that the Iranian government has little real concern about news from the "outside world" reaching its citizens.

Nor are Iranians physically isolated. Travel to and from other Islamic nations, while less convenient than travel in the West, is far from impossible. An Iranian I met one evening – he is in the construction business, with offices in Tehran, Dubai and Washington DC – was flying to Baghdad the next day, something he does on a regular basis. Scheduling makes it impossible to make the return trip in a single day, but he finds "over-nighting" in Baghdad pleasant: he said the hotels are good and the restaurants excellent.

Iranians in the private sector are, of course, under some constraints because of the tensions inherent in the current international political arena. In particular, the financial sanctions imposed by the US create difficulties. Currency flow both in and out is difficult. Iran's Central Bank – the equivalent of the Bank of Canada or the US Federal Reserve – controls the trade balance and flow of Iranian currency, so most business trade is now done in Euros and Yen. The U.S. dollar was abandoned mid-2007. The American banks are trying to control the flow of funds out of Iran, which presents additional challenges regarding the payment for all goods into Iran, though oil and gas, – and related equipment – remain immune. Persian businessmen typically hold large quantities of foreign cash to facilitate trade and as a hedge against local inflation, as interest rates on borrowed Iranian currency exceed 20 percent. In the mean time, Dubai has been their "storefront" through the various periods of sanctions and embargos, yet even it has come under scrutiny in the past months. Persians who remember the commercial heyday of the Shah long for a return to the simplicity of that trade environment. My impression is that Iranians will find a means to adapt to whatever they must. Persians have always been traders, and traders must be adaptable.

Iranians and Islam

Everyone I associated with in Iran practiced some form of Islam. I note this because, from what I could see, Islam per se is not an issue. There are public rules which reflect official, public laws in Iran, based on Islamic codes of conduct and behaviour. Some Iranians follow these fully, both publicly and privately. Some do not. But this isn't a question of embracing or rejecting Islam. It's a question of accommodating cultural and behavioural values of official Islam with one's private life and beliefs. And because the laws are written largely in accord with current Islamic revivalism, there is an issue about balancing excessively repressive government controls both with more relaxed interpretations of Islam and with more pragmatic considerations most Persians are comfortable with.

The most obvious issue is the distinction between public and private conduct. Officially, for instance, there is no alcohol available in Iran, and publicly the Iranians I knew did not drink. Yet alcohol was available, from Turkish traders, so I was informed. In the privacy of their own homes, or when visiting intimate friends, nobody was concerned if someone accepted alcohol. A host might offer his guests "refreshments". If a guest asked for something alcoholic, the drink would be presented with no commentary from anyone. Private behaviour and public acquiescence to the law are, quite frankly, separate issues.

The same might apply to the covering of women. No woman, except one who was clearly flaunting Islamic laws, would be seen publicly without a head scarf (hijab) of some sort, though she may be challenged by the "religious police" if the way she wears it is considered not within the spirit of Islam.

 
This woman – wearing a hijab far back on her head – holds a doctorate in the sciences and is head of research for her company. Her education and position might protect her from excessive abuse from religious zealots during periodic crack-downs on dress.

But if, in private with close friends, she chooses to discard her head covering, no one would normally be shocked or upset. Nor would they comment on her actions, or take her to task. Private and public practices are very different.

Most government workers (I am not speaking about government officials here) are very poorly paid. In minor matters (traffic fines, parking violations, satellite dish ownership, etc.), it is often possible to avoid "unnecessary difficulties" by offering them a small cash gift for the leniency they may be prepared to show. The same may be said for the woman pictured above. For a number of reasons, including her own status and the status of her employers, it is unlikely that she would be challenged for her appearance. If she were, a small cash exchange would normally bring the issue to a close. For many living in Iran today, such an exchange is both a way of life – they are inveterate traders – and a means of meeting private needs without insulting Islam. The "gift" can be seen by both sides of the exchange as immediate acknowledgement of and compensation for the reminder that an infringement of the law had been observed. Note: such a practice would never be attempted when dealing with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. For them, any infraction can be seen as an insult to Islam.

Iranian women and Islam

Clearly, Islamic women are seen by the west to be much more restricted and controlled than their western counterparts. It would be interesting to debate this issue philosophically, but that falls outside this commentary. I can only note instances of behaviour I observed or was told about when in Iran (and, to a lesser, but telling extent) in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Where I offer more generalized comments about women in Iran, I had to seek the information from men. It would have been incorrect and impolite to ask most women (there are some exceptions) about issues such as marriage, divorce, independent living and the like.

It's important, however, to keep some things in mind. Primary amongst these is the distinction between Islamic law and Islamic custom or tradition. In addition, it is important to recognize that Islamic law is not a single entity, but a series of interpretations of Islamic teachings. There are, it is worth noting, three separate judicial systems in Iran. Iranian law is extremely complex.

Iran is, of course, an Islamic state, whose laws are enforced by a judiciary that is almost completely but not entirely composed of clerics who have demonstrated, through study and examination, their understanding of the laws of Islam. In theory, a judge in Iran is as qualified as a judge in Canada, the UK, or the USA, though his role is very different from his western colleagues. And because Iran's justice system is based on Islam, any judicial ruling can be overturned by the true head of state. These days, that is Ayatolla Khameni.

Iran is also the only Islamic nation whose judicial system is founded on Shi'ite Islamic beliefs. My point is that there are vast areas of difference between Iranian law and other Islamic legal systems. However controlling Iranian Islamic law may appear when it comes to women, we are not talking about Taliban law or attitudes to women.

The role of women under Iran's Islam is as much concerned with Arab Islamic culture as it is with actual Islamic law. This may be hair-splitting, since both custom and law, officially, have the same basis: Shi'a Islam. Let me note some observations concerning a woman's role in Iranian society, together with some specific issues under Iranian law. The issues may or not appear be related. Some may seem offensive to western men and women; some may seem to make no sense. Some may also strike a chord with some western beliefs. But they might indicate the complexity of a woman's place in Iran.

Much of the controversy, both in the west and in Iran, stems from decisions which demand and enforce the public separation of men from women. I mentioned earlier the separate security lines for men and women at Imam Kohmenei Airport. This extends also to separate rooms for prayer at the airport. On public transit, there are separate seating areas; on articulated buses, one carriage will be for women only. Inevitably, it is the back carriage. It is hard not to have words like "segregation" and "apartheid" come to mind.

This separation carries over to codes of behaviour which exist for both men and women. A man must not sit beside a woman in public, a restriction which, as I mentioned earlier, carries over to public and private meetings. It is forbidden for men to photograph Muslim women, or to acknowledge them on the street in any familiar way. It is inadvisable for a man to express pleasure at meeting a woman in public.

For women, there are also rules of behaviour or conduct. A woman should not act or dress inappropriately in public. A woman is expected to wear either a "hijab" or a "chador" in public, both out of respect for Islam and because covering the head or face draws attention away from her hair. A woman should not ride in a vehicle such as a taxi or private unless she is accompanied by her employer, her husband, or a male family member. A woman should not make eye contact with men when passing them in the streets.

Men are restricted in their behaviour toward women, and women are required to refrain from behaviour which might "entice" men. Both men and women have their own areas of responsibility in their public conduct, and can be held accountable at law for their behaviour, in the severest way. Keep in mind that, under Islamic law, certain crimes are considered more heinous than others: crimes of rape (male on female/male on male), adultery and child molestation are almost inevitably punished by death. The behavioural restrictions on both men and women, while much more extreme than in the west, reflect both religious and cultural taboos against breaking the rules of acceptable conduct in this Islamic republic.

How do Iranian women feel about such restrictions? It would have been both ill-advised and rude of me to ask that question of those women I came in contact with. My understanding is that most Iranian women feel safe under current restrictions, but that many feel "controlled", and unable to express themselves as women under current policies. Those feelings are exascerbated when – as happened during my visit – the religious police stage one of their periodic crack-downs on "public immodesty", berating women for using too much makeup, or for wearing their hijabs incorrectly. Other women, going by the number of chadors seen on the streets, appear to be comfortable with their ability to "disappear" behind the chador: they seem to feel they are safe from the prying eyes of men. How do men feel about the restrictions on women? To my shame, I didn't ask.

In truth, the rules of conduct and behaviour noted above are often just guidelines in Iran, and they come nowhere close to describing Persian culture as I found it. Iranian women find their way within the restrictions. I was entertained one evening at an "edgy" restaurant which serves excellent, beautifully presented Mediterranean/fusion food such as you might find in any Western urban setting. Owned by a woman,the eatery is constantly being shut down by authorities for breaches of orderly or correct Islamic conduct. Her restaurant allows women to dine together without male companions. More, she allows them to smoke at their tables. So the authorities shut her restaurant down, she pays her minimal fine, and in a few days she reopens.

The owner herself pushes the current laws to some extent: her hijab rests largely on her shoulders, leaving her hair relatively free; she has a wine bottle on display on the bar (though it was filled with coloured water: alcohol is officially taboo!); she works quite comfortably with male diners.

 
This woman’s restaurant is often shut down by the religious police, who are irritated by her liberal attitudes towards her guests.

She doesn't see herself as a rebel or a trouble-maker She sees herself as a host, offering traditional Persian (and Islamic) hospitality to her guests. These are subtle differences, of course. Most cultural distinctions are.

At a much different level, I found that – perhaps because I was an anomaly, a Caucasian male with curly dark hair and blue-green eyes – many acceptably covered Iranian women would make brief eye contact with me on the street, and some times even offer a tentative smile.

The behavioural/cultural issues aside, Iranian women have considerable control over their lives, if they choose to take it. Increasingly, they believe that their way out of being marginalized by Arabic elements in Islamic law is through education and politics, which strikes an accord with Persian values in Iran. There is nothing in Iranian law that limits women from participating in education or politics, though always at the whim of the guardians of law: the Imams.

Persian women are not just eligible for post-secondary education, they are encouraged to follow this route. Many women have realized that this is one way to assure their independence and to define a place for themselves in Persian culture. In truth, sixty-five percent of university students in Iran are female. Iran's Islam doesn't find this offensive, and nor do most Iranian males (though some men feel inadequate if their wives earn more than they do, an attitude not all that unfamiliar for many men in the West). Since 1998, there has been major discussion in government about creating female "quotas", often below the current male/female percentages, in various post-secondary fields, particularly in the fields of medicine, science and education.

The official conundrum in dealing with this type of issue is one of Islamic law and culture. The cost to the country of creating a safe, two-gender structure for such education, whether it be housing of the students or separate labs and classes for males and females, is enormous. In addition, for a number of reasons, including the traditional relationship between a man and his wife, training women in many areas (medicine and education in particular) will not alleviate the need for doctors and teachers in more rural areas. If the husband decides to move to a location better suited to his prospects, his wife is expected to move with him.

In the 2005 general election (the one in which Mr Ahmadinejad was elected President), a small number of women were elected to parliament, despite restrictions placed on reformist candidates by the conservative Guardian Council. Of these few, some have since been ejected from parliament for refusing to wear hijabs or chadors while in parliament. Frankly, while one must admire their courage in such defiance, this could simply make it more difficult for women to run for office in the future.

In the mean time, the Persians seem to be solving the problem within Islamic strictures. Increasingly, a single woman can create a decent career for herself. This wouldn't have happened 40-50 years ago; even 10-15 years ago it would have been rare. But – at least in the major cities of Iran – women are finding it easier to live singly and independently, and even to live with lovers, without being unduly bothered by Islamic "watchdogs". In many instances, the degree to which a woman can achieve this level of independence depends more on her own family than it does on Islamic law. It may be an indication of how Islam is viewed within Iran when I say that, the further one moves from Tehran or the major regional capitals (e.g., Mashad, Esfahan, Shiraz, Kerman or Bandar Abbas), the less acceptable such behaviour would be.

It is also increasingly possible for a woman to be the principle "bread winner" for a family, though this creates problems for many husbands, who have been raised to believe they should be the principal support for their families.

It is also increasingly possible for both men and women to obtain a divorce in Iran, though divorce is by no means as easy, simple or kind to Iranian women as in the west. I mentioned earlier, in a very different context, that "family" remains a very important value to Persians. A breakdown in a marriage almost inevitably leads to the woman losing custody of her children: traditionally, the children would stay with the "head of the family" – inevitably, the man – while the divorced wife would return to the "protection" of her father's house. In some instances still, a marriage breakdown is considered as an embarrassment to both families. This is slowly changing, as more and more divorces occur in Iran or amongst Iranians abroad. Like many other values in Iran, a woman's right to divorce is becoming more and more acceptable, and less and less an "insult" to her family.

In the mean time, many Iranian women, like many Iranian men, make do as they can. On my return flight from Iran (IKA) to Dubai (DXB), I witnessed an amazing metamorphosis amongst at least half of the female passengers during the two-hour flight. Head scarves (hijabs) were lowered or removed. Many women visited the washroom, returning in fashionable, often somewhat revealing western attire. Certainly, after seven days in Iran, it appeared to be somewhat revealing! Most found at least some time to apply makeup and generally "primp" themselves. Several even took advantage of the free in-flight bar service.

The women who disembarked in the shopping "Mecca" of Dubai appeared very different from those who boarded in Tehran. But of course that is only appearance. They were the same women, being given an opportunity to express themselves more individually and more openly. That too is something I assume Iranian government officials are aware of, and must take into account.

And the rest of Iran?...

Clearly, my comments to this point are based on personal observations in Tehran together with personal contacts with sophisticated, wealthy Persians with an interest in trade and a distaste for the current regime because of the negative impact on trade. Nevertheless, many Persians continue to return to their home country to take advantage of the significant business and financial opportunities that abound in major Iranian centers. Outside those major centres – Tehran, Mashad, Esfahan and Shiraz –cultural values are somewhat more conservative, and the business opportunities are diminished. I was advised not to travel on my own outside these centres, or anywhere in the south, or (obviously) near the Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan borders. And at any rate I had no opportunity, or desire, to do so.

It's tempting to talk about events in the rest of Iran, because to some extent the escape valves of affluent Persians seem to exist as well for the less affluent and more conservative elements of Iranian society.

I have heard about the "free trade" islands (Kish Island, e.g.) in the Strait of Hormuz (in the Bandar Abbas area) where many of the strictures of Islam are relaxed, and where foreign goods are available to Iranians on the grey market. In other words, for those who can't fly to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, there is a place where the less affluent can let their hair down, perhaps find an alcoholic beverage if they wish, and purchase items not officially available in Iran.

I have heard that even industrial equipment, unavailable because of US/UN sanctions, can be found on the grey market, or can be ordered for delivery by those dhows sailing out of ports such as Dubai. I talked with a Caucasian – he too was there on business, but could not qualify for a business visa – who claims to have entered Iran through one of these ports, for heaven's sake. But I can't verify such things, even by the relaxed methods of verification I set myself in writing this commentary. I think it would be dishonest for me to explore what I haven't actually seen – or at least extrapolated from what I have seen.

A conclusion of sorts

I enjoyed my time in Iran. I found the people to be friendly, the hospitality to be generous, and the city of Tehran to be charming. Were there down-sides? Of course. On most days, the pollution was appalling. On occasion, it would have been nice to relax with a glass of beer in a restaurant, rather than the strong, black tea that is the staple. I also regret not having the time to travel to my host's vacation home on the Caspian Sea, or the chance to travel to other cities. Next time.

Tehran is far less intimidating than most cities in North America and many in Europe, and is certainly worth a visit at some point: I would return without hesitation, were my nationality not a limitation. Iran is becoming a tourist destination for many Europeans and Turks, both for its archaeological and historical treasures and for skiing. I found the Persian culture to be rich and enjoyable, and quickly came to understand the pride that Iranians feel in a language, history and culture which goes back millennia. 

 
Office in a private residence. The owner is a history buff, in this case of ancient Persia. The size of this wall decoration can be judged by the door to the right.

Did I find anything that surprised me, or made me question my overall opinion? Yes, of course, though most were minor issues. I noted, for instance, some door mats decorated with the American flag. I was assured that this was not threatening: it was merely extremist rhetoric and not the opinion of most Iranians: it might almost be seen as a joke.

And, on an evening when I was deep in discussions about tensions in the middle east, one of my hosts talked about Israel. His comment, as far as I can remember it, went something like this: "You know, if we could move all the people out of Israel/Gaza and Palestine, the best solution might be to nuke the whole area. That would allow us to start again, and this time get it right!"

That was shocking, of course. But it reflects one Iranian's viewpoint, offered over tea and "nibblies"; it was not an official Iranian comment but a personal viewpoint. It is not in any way associated with Mr Ahmadinejad's oft-quoted suggestion that Israel should simply disappear. The Western nations (including the UN) didn't get the creation of Israel right, and – if it weren't for the history of the past 60 years and the entrenched, contradictory values of Israeli and Palestinian states – things could be resolved much more effectively now.

At a deeper level, I found it offensive that I was warned against photographing certain sites or buildings that were in plain view, and that in theory I could simply "disappear" for doing so, much as Zhara Kazemi (a Canadian photo-journalist) did on June 23, 2003. She died while under interrogation; her death was announced 19 days after her arrest. The manner of her death cannot be determined.

Such incidents – which are, without any doubt, horrifying – remind a visitor that this is an Islamic republic, and that there are rules and regulations, however strange or bizarre they might seem, which one must live within. This is the darker side of the initial indication I had – that flat-screen image of the location of Mecca – that I was moving into a different culture with different values.

I'm not comfortable ending this commentary on such a negative note, because I don't think it represents a fair commentary on either Iran or Persians. But I would be remiss if I didn't recognize that there are some scary restrictions in Iran, and that they can be enacted with devastating consequences.

Iran holds a central place in the middle-east map, both policitally and geographically. I honestly believe that the country should be re-assessed by most western nations. I also think it would be beneficial for the west to view Iran without the pre-descriptor of "Terrorist nation", or "Rogue nation", or the like. In my eyes, Iran is not the threat that the US and others are trying to suggest. Iranians are an ancient culture that adopted Islam 1300 years ago, without sacrificing their history or culture. Persians are NOT Arabs, are family oriented, and are proud. They are also keen and resilient business folks at all levels. Consider how successful any of us would be operating under the restrictions imposed by their current regime and the North American banking community. Despite some contradictions, and some hesitations concerning some aspects of their current government, I found myself drawn to Iranians, and look forward to both an opportunity for a return visit and a time when geo-political tensions ease. I strongly believe Iran will at some point become, like Vietnam, a country of great interest to the more adventurous traveller.

* * *

Edited by Brian Grafton. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Brian Grafton at: bg@briangrafton.com.

Published online: 02/17/2007.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.

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