As Iran begins to open up to the West, its neighbours wonder if a once-great empire will rise again

If the British and others are right, then much of what has looked immovable in the Middle East is going to be very different.

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It may come as a surprise to you, but Tehran can feel relaxed. I am not forgetting that Iran has a dire human rights record, and security police who can crack down very hard on dissent, or that some of its neighbours see the country as a potentially deadly threat. But Tehran is a city full of unexpected moments. Anyone whose view of Iran includes unsmiling men and women punching the air and chanting slogans needs to think again. Yes, those people exist and you can see them at prayers on a Friday at Tehran University, calling for death to America. But many Iranians are far more secular than their leaders and most I have met over the years have been friendly.

Tehran is big and bustling, even though the economy has been hit very hard by sanctions; that is one of the reasons the Iranians were keen to trade autonomy over their nuclear programme for sanctions relief. The signs are that the Iranian entrepreneurial spirit, bottled up by sanctions, is waiting for its moment. The city doesn’t seem to me as isolated as Baghdad did under Saddam Hussein during the 1990s. You can fly to Tehran, for a start, but travelling to Saddam’s Baghdad involved hurtling down the straight desert highway from Jordan at 100mph for much of the day. To pass the time, I used to imagine speeding down a long concrete tunnel, or down a terrestrial wormhole into a parallel universe.

 

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When I first visited Iran in 1991 the rules on women’s dress were strictly enforced. That doesn’t happen in the same way now. Morality police still patrol, but President Hassan Rowhani, who was elected on a mandate of change, has criticised them, saying the police exist to enforce the law, not to rule on Islam. Plenty of headscarves are arranged to show off hair, not to cover it, and I saw couples holding hands much more often than in most Arab cities. Similarly, in Cairo, Amman, Tripoli or Sana’a, the call to prayer is part of the soundtrack of life, echoing around the rooftops five times a day. In Arab Jerusalem mosque loudspeakers are cranked up so that the call reaches Israeli ears, too. In Saudi Arabia shops close during prayers. But in Tehran I barely heard the muezzin, taped or live.

I am not saying that Iranians are less religious than Arabs. Religion suffuses the Middle East in a way that many who live in secular north-western Europe would find deeply alien. But I saw much less overt religiosity in Tehran than in Cairo or any number of Arab cities and towns where devout men have bruises and callouses on their foreheads from pressing them into the ground when they pray; or in the ultra-religious Jewish communities in Jerusalem.

 

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The atmosphere was very different from my last visit, in the aftermath of the disputed elections of 2009. Then, protests were being crushed by the power of the Islamic Republic’s security services. Valiasr Street, said to be the longest avenue in the Middle East, is lined by thousands of sycamore trees; where it runs through the city centre, beefy men stood under every tree, carrying trunk-like clubs. These were the Basij, the militia that is a part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not far behind them were policemen armed with automatic weapons. Most foreign journalists who had been given visas to cover the elections had left. A colleague, the late Jon Leyne, had been expelled, but my visa had a couple of weeks more to run and the authorities decided to let me stay.

Not long after I arrived I received a stern phone call from an official reminding me that no reporting from the streets was allowed. So I went for long walks instead, watching and listening, asking a few discreet questions, but not using a microphone, any kind of camera or even a notebook. I went with an Iranian friend, a woman who made a point of changing out of her strappy sandals into trainers the first time we took an afternoon stroll past the columns of Basij. I asked her why; would we have to run? “No,” she said. “But if we’re arrested, it will go much worse for me if they see that I have painted toenails.”

 

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On the way back to London from Iran I stopped for the night in Kuwait. No wonder some rich Kuwaitis prefer the drizzle of Knightsbridge to staying at home in high summer. The temperature was in the high forties and it was so humid that I started to sweat standing still. Just after dawn I went for a swim in the Gulf, the neutral name for the sea that some prefer to call Persian, others Arabian. The water was so warm that it felt like a different liquid from the one I’d plunged into with my children on an icy Welsh beach earlier in the summer.

As I wallowed in the shallow seawater, I could see why the Arabs who live opposite Iran are nervous about the signs that it might be getting closer to the world’s mainstream. Their new buildings and roads have not made them feel much more secure, nor helped them forget that Iran was once one of the world’s great empires. The Gulf city states, and Saudi Arabia, are spending vast amounts on sophisticated western weapons systems. Some are being used in Yemen, as part of the cold war against what senior Saudis have told me are Iranian ambitions to undermine them. These days Iran is a big and serious country, with huge potential. It has as much natural gas as Russia, about as many people as Turkey, or Germany – and they are well educated.

The Saudis, and their Sunni Arab neighbours, as well as the Israelis, believe that it is dangerous and naive to think that the Islamic Republic of Iran will ever change for the better. In Tehran, hardliners warn that foreigners want Iran to open up so it can be swamped and destroyed.

But if the British and others are right, and the Iranian government is serious about ­re-entering the world, then much of what has looked immovable in the Middle East is going to be very different.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. Follow him on Twitter: @BowenBBC

This article appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses