September 28, 2015


'It's not like Argo': the trials of a tour guide in Iran : As Iran stands on the brink of a deal over its nuclear programme, a party of tourists tests the limit of the country's new openness (Christopher de Bellaigue, 7 July 2015, The Guardian)

Inside the airport, the members of the group shuffled uneasily forward to show their passports to young, unshaven men in bottle-green uniforms, or to their female counterparts, hooded and pale under the strip lighting. But these immigration officials turned out to be far from hostile, seeking only a virgin page, and some of them even smiled and made little jokes about being tired.

I was along as the tour "expert" - so-called because I have lived in Iran, written about it and speak the language. Before the flight from Istanbul, one of the party had asked me if he should delete photos of a recent trip he had made to Israel. He feared his hard drive might be inspected at customs. I shook my head and said: "That's not the way they operate in Iran." [...]

I began by stating the obvious: we were in Iran at a pivotal moment. Only weeks before, Iran and the world powers had struck a provisional deal limiting the Iranian nuclear programme and setting up further negotiations, with the potential to end one of the most enduring geopolitical enmities of recent decades.

At the same time, I went on, as Iran and the US edged together, Shia, Persian-speaking Iran and its Sunni, Arabic-speaking rival, Saudi Arabia, were engaged in struggles through their regional clients for influence over Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Islamic State had been able to exploit the authority vacuum that had ensued. Although Isis was undoubtedly an anti-western organisation, it was animated above all by hatred of fellow Muslims - the Shia Muslims it regards as heretics. "So," I went on, "the defeat of Isis is probably even more important for Iran than it is for the west."

Finally (as the griffin-capped columns of Persepolis came stupendously into view), I described Iran's current, liberalising president, Hassan Rouhani, and his determination to turn the isolated, resource-squandering oligarchy he had inherited from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, into a diversified regional producer and trade hub. The president's goal, I said, was not only to increase oil sales after the lifting of sanctions, but also to attract foreign investment on an unprecedented scale. This would affect the culture and even the appearance of the country.

"Who knows?" I concluded, "Next time you're here, there could be a McDonald's on every corner."

Posted by at September 28, 2015 1:08 PM