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
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.
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
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
From the terrace bar, Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi hotel. Note men and women
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
Jumeirah area of Dubai: these are the Emirates Towers Dubai on Sheikh Zayed
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I was intrigued by all things automotive. Without a doubt, Tehran is a city on
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published online: 02/17/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.