The reality of Shiite Iran, as is usual with travel to new places, was different to my expectations.
I had to opt for a “visa on arrival” option because the usual visa requires approval from the Iranian government and an approval number before it can be processed. That approval hadn’t come through before I left Australia. So it was with some trepidation that I fronted up for the visa at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport.
I was redirected to the insurance-verification desk (to confirm I had medical insurance). It had to be in hard copy so it could be stamped, but I only had an electronic copy. The clerk asked: “Where are you from?” When I replied Australia, he obligingly stamped a blank piece of paper so I didn’t need to buy Iranian insurance. I’m sure he wouldn’t have been as helpful had I been American or British.
A street in central Tehran. “People are friendly and helpful, and it’s far more liberal than I’d expected.”
A street in central Tehran. “People are friendly and helpful, and it’s far more liberal than I’d expected.” Photo: Vahid Salemi
From there, getting the visa was relatively plain sailing. The 15-day tourist visa cost $160 compared with the $288 charged of the British, who, unlike Australians, can’t get a visa on arrival and must undergo a far more rigorous approval process, including being fingerprinted. This may be in retaliation for restrictions placed on Iranians travelling to Britain.
Fortunately, Australians are well regarded here. One young lad came up to me to try out his English and asked, as they usually do: “Where are you from?” When I said Australia, he said: “Ah, Iran 2, Australia 2!” – referring to Iran bombing us out of the soccer World Cup qualifiers in 1997 on away goals. It obviously did a lot for our popularity here.
I spent three days in Tehran, where many signs say “Death to the USA”. I also visited the military museum and the “den of espionage”, better known in the West as the former United States embassy that was stormed in 1979 by “students”, and the embassy staff taken hostage. Some were held for 444 days. The matter was only resolved in January 1981 as US president Ronald Reagan was being sworn in to office.
Iran has a long memory of being dominated by outsiders – it was occupied by Arabs for 600 years and then exploited by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which paid Iran very little for its Iranian oil production. In the 1950s, when the company wouldn’t provide details of its accounts to the state, the Mossadegh government made plans to nationalise it. That democratically elected government was then overthrown in a British and US-organised coup in 1953 to safeguard British oil interests and open Iran to American oil companies.
The coup led to shah Reza Pahlavi coming to power and being complicit in protecting the West’s commercial interests until 1979, when the Islamic revolution took place under ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The revolution led to the long-delayed nationalisation of foreign oil company assets.
There has been bad feeling between the US and Iran since the events of 1979, compounded by subsequent Iranian support for the Palestinian cause. The British were more pragmatic and have worked behind the scenes for several years to regain commercial access. Iran’s decision in January this year to buy Airbus aircraft reflects its ongoing irritation with the US’s continuing sanctions against Iran.
Despite the lifting of UN sanctions in January this year, it’s still impossible to use Western credit cards at hotels in Iran. This means you need to take cash – preferably euros or US dollars – to cover your costs.
However, Iran is expecting a tourism boom as a result of the lifting of UN sanctions. It has been renovating historic sites since the 1980s in anticipation. Many are listed for World Heritage status. Iran is rich in ancient sites because it was the first of the great civilisations, dating back to 4000BC.
Iran is surprisingly moderate; people are prepared to criticise the government openly and ignore unpopular regulations.
Tourism has apparently doubled each year for the past three years. Ironically, despite its evil image in the West, Iran is probably the safest place to visit in the Middle East – with no internal terrorism threat and a very low crime rate. People are friendly and helpful, and it’s far more liberal than I’d expected. For example, it’s common here for unmarried people to live together – but having children outside marriage is not permitted.
Women can drive cars and the younger ones are pushing their headscarves further back on their heads. The only women I saw completely covered up were Arabs, who come to shop for items that are cheaper in Iran, such as jewellery and saffron (which sells for $4 per one-gram packet).
Sadly, one of the items that also sells cheaply is heroin. The main trafficking route from Afghanistan to Europe passes through Iran. Every year, several hundred Iranian border guards are killed in shoot-outs with narcotics traffickers.
My destination after Tehran was the desert city of Yazd, which has important archaeological sites. I then travelled to Shiraz along the old Silk Road past what might be the world’s oldest tree – a cypress said to be more than 4000 years old.
Shiraz was once famous for its wine but the guide said that, after the 1979 revolution, which banned alcohol, Shiraz’s famous vines were dug up and sent to Australia and South Africa.
Iranian cities are clean (unlike most Middle East cities) and the climate in central Iran is very pleasant at this time of the year – with a top temperature of 25 to 30 degrees and low humidity.
The main TV news is PressTV, which is very much slanted against Israel and the US. The top item on one broadcast was the “administrative arrest” of 37 Palestinians and Israeli air strikes on Gaza, with supportive commentary by a US human rights expert from Seattle who said Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians breached the Geneva conventions. Another item focussed on the latest mass shooting in the US.
I was initially surprised when shopkeepers offered me free dates or drinks, or people standing at traffic lights handed out free ice creams and other food to passing motorists. Personal generosity is part of the culture; no commercial pressure is placed on the recipients. Iranians are also hospitable in other ways: if you stand on a street corner looking lost, only minutes will pass before someone asks if they can help you.
Iranians are almost entirely Shiite; Iran is one of only four countries that are majority Shiite – the others being Azerbaijan, Bahrein and Iraq. Unlike Sunni Muslims, Shiites have shrines to venerate their “saints”. In some Muslim countries, Sunnis attack Shiite because they regard shrines as sacrilegious. In Iraq, at least 28 religious buildings have been looted and destroyed since 2003, including Shiite mosques, tombs and shrines (as well as Christian churches), many by Sunni suicide bombers.
In Iran, the shrine or tomb of grand ayatollah Khomeini, the “first supreme leader of Iran” after the Islamic revolution of 1979, is an imposing structure midway between Tehran and the airport (which is an hour’s drive from downtown Tehran). Khomeini died in 1989 and was succeeded by Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei. Like Khomeini, Khamenei is head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, and is Iran’s most powerful political authority. He also has the title “Sayyid”, meaning he claims direct descent from the prophet Mohammed.
Below the supreme leader, the constitution defines the president of Iran as the highest state authority. The president is elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term and can only be re-elected for one more term. The current President, since 2013, is Hassan Rouhani, who is often described as a moderate. In domestic policy he has encouraged personal freedom and free access to information, and improved women’s rights, and in foreign policy he has improved Iran’s relations with other countries.
Despite external perceptions of strict government control of its citizens, Iran is surprisingly moderate; people are prepared to criticise the government openly and ignore unpopular regulations. For example, TV satellite dishes are banned but no one takes notice; every residential building seems to sprout them. I was told the dishes allow viewers to access up to 1000 TV channels.
Iran’s communications infrastructure is surprisingly good. The highways are better than Australia’s, with three lanes each way the norm between major centres, while the train I took from Tehran to Yazd was better than the train between Canberra and Sydney. On the downside, hotels are not as good as Australia’s (but much cheaper). Hotel internet is often slow and costs extra, while swimming in a hotel pool, if there is one, can cost up to $15 – and could be male-access only.
The 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran seems to have had the same kind of effect in Iran as World War I had in Australia. Iran’s death toll from the eight-year conflict is estimated to be one million people. Every small town and village displays pictures of its war martyrs. In Yazd’s central square, I saw a tomb for eight unknown soldiers; there are similar tombs elsewhere.
Following the 1979 revolution, most of the army’s generals were executed because of concerns they might remain loyal to the shah and pose a threat to the new government. In September 1980, Iraq’s Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein, took advantage of this leadership vacuum to launch a large-scale attack against Iran, with the ambitious intention of defeating Iran within 48 hours. Saddam’s most-immediate aim was to annex the neighbouring, oil-rich, Iranian province of Khuzestan, with its mainly Arab population.
Saddam did not anticipate that Khuzestan’s Arab population would resist the Iraqi invasion, nor its continued loyalty to Iran. He also failed to anticipate the problems his forces faced on the ground and the robust response of Iran’s air force, which had been equipped with modern US combat aircraft under the shah. In the war’s early stages, Iran’s air force destroyed much of Saddam’s air force on the ground through surprise attacks.
During the war, Saddam tried to regain the initiative by using poison gas against Iran’s troops, executing his own military commanders who failed him and re-equipping his forces with modern combat aircraft from the US, France and the Soviet Union.
At the same time, Iran was frozen out of international arms and aircraft spare-parts markets because of its detention of US diplomats between 1979 and 1981. Even so, by 1982, Iran had gained the military upper hand over Iraq and never lost it, thanks largely to the competent and aggressive young officers who had replaced the executed generals, and to volunteer troops who were motivated to defend their country.
Iraq eventually sued for peace and agreed to pay reparations. That payments were never made due to subsequent events – Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the massive US military reaction during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, which led to the destabilisation of Iraq from 1991 onwards.
Arguably the best and most charismatic Iranian general to come out of the Iran-Iraq War was Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps since 1998. The Quds Force is primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. Soleimani is said to be the strategist who personally convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with military forces that turned the battle in Syria in the government’s favour. Soleimani has also been involved in commanding combined Iraqi government and Shiite militia forces in Iraq that have made significant progress against Islamic State during 2014 and 2015.
None of these problems in neighbouring states affect Iran’s internal security or the situation for visitors.
The highlights for visitors to Iran are undoubtedly its archaeological wonders, including the Towers of Silence at Yazd, the bridges and mosques of Isfahan, and the ruins of the ancient capital of Persepolis. Persepolis was founded by Cyrus the Great and was, from 550BC to 330BC, the magnificent capital of the Achaemenid Empire – the largest empire the world had ever known. Alexander the Macedonian’s invading army laid waste to Persepolis in 330BC.
It’s hard to compare archaeological wonders but, in my view, Iran’s historic sites are on a par with those of other, better-known, ancient cultures. Because of Iran’s generally dry climate, most sites are well preserved, or have been sympathetically renovated to gain World Heritage listing. What Iran needs now is a post-sanctions increase in international tourists to appreciate its treasures.
by Clive Williams is an adjunct professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy and an honorary professor at the Australian National University’s Centre for Military and Security Law