Inside Tehran: how Iran is changing, one year on from the landmark nuclear deal

A report from one of the Iranian capital’s poorest and most conservative areas, and a trip around a new shopping mall in the north of the city.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It should have made us nervous. We were filming Friday prayers in Tehran’s most conservative mosque and had made it to the front of the congregation when the chanting began.

Our lranian producer whispered to me, “They are shouting, ‘Death to America! Death to Britain!’ Don’t worry, this is normal.”

All photos: Sky

We had wanted pictures of conservative Iran and this place delivered. A Kalashnikov-clutching cleric led prayers, the warm-up man before him an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander giving a fiery speech denouncing western decadence.

In the front row, khaki-clad military officers and members of Iran’s elite Quds special forces alongside imams and other clergyman.

It is the Iran we have known for almost 40 years. But even here there is a sense of change. Next to me a cleric sat hunched over his smartphone. And our very presence here filming would have been unthinkable not long ago.

The mosque was in Shahr e Ray, a working class, conservative bastion on the edge of Tehran. After prayers, women marched through its streets to proclaim their love of the Islamic head scarf. Again the same full-throated chants against the West but this time, with impeccable politeness, an apology too.

“You shout ‘Down with America! Down with England!’ Don’t you like England?” I asked one teenage demonstrator clad head to toe in a black chador.

“No, not that much. We like Iran, of course.”

Then an awkward pause before: “Sorry where are you from?”

“We’re from England,” I replied.

“Ah,” she smiled a little awkwardly. “Sorry.”

Others pushed towards us. There was no animosity, just curiosity. What were we doing here? What did we think of Iran?

It was the same wherever we went. Stand anywhere in Tehran and you are quickly accosted by strangers and welcomed. Iranians are among the friendliest people on Earth, proud of their hospitality. But it is more than that. After years of isolation, there is an insatiable appetite for information about the outside world. Some of the questioning can be completely exhausting!

In north Tehran, a world away from the chadors and clerics of Shahr e Ray, a brand new shopping mall shiny and exciting enough to put most of ours to shame. In Kourosh Mall Iranians can indulge a love of western brands and consumerism and take in a movie after eating burgers and pizza.

Whatever happened to all that anti-western stuff about “America the Great Satan” and “Britain the Little Satan”, I asked one man wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

He and his friends laughed out loud. “It’s a political slogan. But my people love western culture. My friends love America and love Britain.”

Outside such places, much of Iran remains deeply conservative but it is a place of bewildering contradictions. On the roadside, huge “Down with the USA” murals jostle with adverts for Lamborghini sunglasses and drive-through “Iran-Burger” joints. Revolutionary military authorities may rail against western culture from the pulpit but the government tolerates it all the same.

Supporters of the nuclear deal with Iran in the West hoped it would exploit all that and help open up Iran, strengthening so-called moderates in its government and weakening hardliners. Not so far, as far as we could see.

Iranians on the street are not feeling much benefit, it seems, and are growing increasingly disillusioned with the deal and its architects.

Mehdi Ghazvinian, a carpet seller in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, was typical of many voicing his disillusionment with Iran’s grand bargain with the West.

“It was a small hope for the future, but until now nothing happens. Not much difference. It was just some words, there’s nothing doing.”

Fuad Izadi is a political analyst with good connections with hardliners in the Iranian government. His words were an ominous warning to the West.

“What they should realise is that if this agreement fails, Iran will go back to its previous nuclear policy,” he told me. “Some people in Washington are not going to like that. The question of military confrontation will be on the table again and that’s not really good for anyone.”

Debate about who is to blame goes on. Unilateral US sanctions remain in place, particularly banking restrictions are killing off planned investment. Iranian corruption and impenetrable regulations are deterring it too.

But in a week’s filming, this extraordinary and intriguing country we encountered a yearning for more contact with the west and a deeply held desire to be better understood by the outside world.

Outside powers have only a few months left to fulfil the promise of the nuclear deal before elections in the US and Iran threaten to kill it off for good.

Dominic Waghorn is Diplomatic Editor of Sky News. He tweets @DominicWaghorn. You can watch his special report from inside Iran here.