The French need their fax

Word comes from Tehran that the president wants to do an interview. Unsurprisingly, there are no dir

I am decked out in blue with gold spaghetti, as befits a University chancellor. It is degree day at Oxford Brookes. Ahead of me is the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, even more spectacularly turned out, as if for battle. Suddenly I feel something under my foot. I look down to see a silver spur glistening on the blue carpet. M'lud has dropped one.

The next day, Sunday, I am on a BA flight to Washington to witness General David Petraeus's Capitol Hill appearance to discuss the results of the surge in Baghdad. The microphones fail at the very moment Petraeus starts to speak. The most powerful nation on earth invites the most powerful general it can find to address the most powerful legislature on earth, and for fully 15 minutes simply cannot get the mikes to work.

Cheap at the price

No sooner have I landed than word comes from Tehran that my bid to interview President Ahmadinejad has finally born fruit. It is Monday, he wants to do live on Channel Four News on Wednesday. Unsurprisingly, there are no direct flights between the US and Iran. The quickest way is via Paris. So few people wish to make such a journey that tickets are going begging at $900 apiece. We have been assured that our visas will be in Tehran when we land.

That is not good enough for the people of Air France; they want proof. We tell them there will be a fax in Paris from Tehran. But Paris is shut for the night. No visa, no go. The tickets are worthless. We must buy new ones and there's 35 minutes till take-off - $2,800 each later we have economy tickets for Washington-Paris, Paris-Tehran.

We land in Paris on Tuesday at noon. We find no fax waiting. In the end we cajole a contact in Tehran to send any old fax mentioning our names and the word "visa". With two minutes to the gate closing, it does the trick. We hurtle up the line waiting for security, crash through the metal detector; no one says boo.

We are on an Airbus to Tehran. Gradually, America and France evaporate. We have arrived in this beguiling, bustling, spectacular country, populated by some of the most dynamic, charming and complex people in the world. What an exhilarating place this is. It is extraordinary to see women playing so dominant a role in a country so beholden to male mullahs and their bearded revolutionary guardsmen.

Every time I come here I am struck by the irrationality of our ostracism of Iran. Virtually the only thing that seems to bind the people to the theocracy is fear of war with America. Every time a UN sanction is threatened, every time the term "axis of evil" is coined, the people hunker down to support the very government that they most despair of.

In Petraeus's hour of need, full engagement with Iran is the one card no one, beyond James Baker and his courageous Iraq Study Group, has ever thought of playing. Persians are proud people. They were writing letters when we were still crawling about on our bellies. A little respect, an unconditional engagement, and one suspects the nuclear issues between us would become part of a much more interesting and confidence-building dialogue.

Unfortunately, Iranian TV want to broadcast our live interview on its channel too. Without telling us, it conveniently drops the English translation to avoid confusing its viewers. A passing interpreter in London thus struggles manfully over a 4,000-mile divide to interpret the fast-talking, much-smiling president.

Perfect fit

Back in London, two old friends from Boston are visiting. Wally has brought his wife Celia here for her 75th birthday. She is complaining about her feet. I ask what the problem is. "Bunions," she says. I suggest she has some shoes made for her at John Lobb. I've cycled past the Queen's shoemaker in St James's a thousand times. It even has the casts for Frank Sinatra's shoes, Emperor Haile Selassie's and, of course, the Shah of Iran's . Yes they can do Celia's feet very nicely.

As they measure them, my eyes light upon a glass case full of spurs. Here is the very model of the lord lieutenant's that I had trodden on. Did someone say a week is a long time in international politics?

Jon Snow presents Channel 4 News

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown