Posted May 3, 2016 by Brian Parrott

These are just some personal and selective reflections on my learning, observations and experiences over 3 weeks of travels in Iran in April 2016. I was initially with a Classical Iran group of 10 others from UK, latterly on my own, but with excellent guides close to hand throughout.

Why did I go to Iran? Answer: ‘because it is there’ of course.
  • Politically topical.
  • Richness of pre-history and Islamic history, dynasties through the centuries to the present political and religious leadership.
  • Fantastic mountain and desert scenery, palaces and gardens.
  • Fascinating cities and architecture.
  • Hugely welcoming and interested in ‘you’ people.
  • For those who worry, it’s ‘safe’.

And for travellers like me, it has fewer tourists than many other places – far more German and French visitors than others; and more Italians, Dutch, Chinese, Australians and Swedes than the occasional person or group from the UK, and virtually nobody from the USA. It feels as though the UK has adopted a self-denying gesture towards Iran to both our and Iran’s disadvantage, based on a mix of fact, mythology, ignorance and media exaggeration


First, some qualifications. I am a person who once upon a time chose Geography as my first degree subject and, despite a career doing other things, I continue to renew my subscription as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Maybe it was always that endless fascination with ‘places’, how they relate one to the other, their histories, their people, cultures and politics and, where it is especially pertinent, their religions. Perhaps also in some of the choices as to where I go, aspects of that same ‘on the side of the underdog’ trait which led me into a long career in social services. Hence to Iran…

Of course any traveller can only write from their own perspectives and experiences. This is certainly what I am doing. No two people, even travelling together, see, hear and feel the same things. This one is especially prone to get himself into interesting corners and unlikely conversations. Iran offers enormous opportunities for both of these, subject only to a sufficiently open enough mind and attitude of approach to people about Iran’s history, religion, politics and daily life, asking questions of people only too eager to engage and far more open and willing to speak their mind and share knowledge, thoughts and feelings than I had anticipated.

I set off better prepared than sometimes I have from advance reading, films and accounts of others experiences. I prepared an invaluable two sided postcard crib note of the dynasties from 600BC Achaemenids to C21 Islamic Republic, their main characters and from which direction they arrived in Iran. It helped me avoid too much unhelpful confusion between Sumerians, Seleucids, Sassanids, Seljuks and Safavids. Particular appreciation is due to the three excellent speakers (Diana Darke, Lynette Mitchell and Amy Guttman) at a joint RGS/Travel the Unknown evening in September 2015; to Khodadad Rezakhani’s History of Iran podcast series which took ten half hour episodes to reach Cyrus the Great but provided an immense wealth of background about Elamite, Babylonian, Assyrian and Median early influences on so much else about Iran’s subsequent history; and to Afshin Molavi for his ‘The Soul of Iran’ travels around modern day Iran and many of the places I went to subsequently – local characters, linking history, religion and today’s ordinary lives of people in Iran so vividly and humorously.


Using the terms Iran(ians) and Persia(ns) interchangeably here for convenience, but not ignorant of the differential meanings and histories of both terms, what cannot be avoided in any current political understanding is the sheer size and importance of what ‘Persia’ has represented historically and still feels it represents today. From Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes and others in 500s – 300s BC right up to C19 British and Russian interventions and the political ineptitude of the then Qajar kings, and the bringing to an end the Persian Empire stretching at times through Turkey, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and more; then into C20 with its British world war invasions and other UK and USA interference, Iran has been, and understandably still is, a proud people, with a rich culture, well-educated and globally aware population.

However, the ‘heart’ of Iran today feels far more about its richness of history, art, architecture, language and culture, part Islamic but only part, than anything about its past territorial size or its current strict interpretations and expectations of religion-required behaviour. It is far too simple for Western commentators to focus exclusively on its current clerical political leadership and its teachings – supported meaningfully by perhaps 30% of the population, or its strict Islamic religion when perhaps 50% or 60%, at most, take any part in active religious practice or even pray.

When the facts are pursued about Iran’s supposed involvements and ambitions in relation to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen, or military (even nuclear) ambitions, is it really about wanting to become the regional super-power? Or is it perhaps about:

Iran’s long historic ties with southern Iraq, the ‘home’ of six of the ten past Shia imams not buried in Iran?
Iran’s closeness to and feelings about the protection of Shia minority interests in Lebanon and Yemen?
Iran’s sandwiched state between American occupied and influences in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the face of nuclear threat and much greater military power respectively from Israel and Saudi Arabia?
Iran’s wish to avoid adding to the collapsed civil order and dysfunctional states of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan (and substantially Pakistan)?

These have been just some of the conversations I have had with people – loyal to the Islamic republic regime, and/or religious, as well as those who are strongly rejecting and critical of their existing leaders, mocking them contemptuously and looking desperately for change as soon as possible.


Surprisingly in depth conversations with two Shia clerics, firstly in Isfahan, and then at Friday prayers in the spiritual city of Qom, (and not let it be suggested) without losing my sceptical, critical, cynical and atheistic tendencies, helped me understand more, but still far too little about the modern day relationship between religion and politics in Iran’s leadership. Religion in Iran is though not just about Islam in its various manifestations, including important Sufi influences. It is also the richness of Iran’s pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism, Armenian Christianity and indeed Judaism.

Yes religion and politics are indivisible. The former informs the latter in accord with the values and teaching of Mohammed and the Koran, not anything promoted by or reinterpreted by today’s narrow, fundamentalist and sometimes violent Sunni Islamic sects. ‘The West’ might not like the fact of an Islamic-led politics but for the present it is a fact of life. Although Saudi Arabia comes close, Iran is the only state in the world (except the Vatican) where a religious leader (the Supreme Leader) has the constitutional position of heading the judicial system, appointing commanders of the armed services and (through the Assembly of Experts and Council of Guardians) controlling the whole political structure. Surely the ‘West’ had better engage with it (as post Summer 2015 it is now beginning more to do again) rather than continue a high cost and military risky continuing Cold War.

Many conversations with government supporting or religious people challenged me directly as to why ‘the West’ hates Iran so much and has done so much since 1979 to try to undermine it. And yet on a person to person level, there is pleasure in virtually everyone when you surprise them and say you are ‘from England’. ‘Britain’ clearly instantly means positive things for a great many people. Perhaps any continuing ‘Cold War’, notwithstanding the 2015 ‘P5+ 1’ recent nuclear agreement is really about America’s injured pride, still assaulted by the 1979-81 hostage crisis?

Or, is about ‘nuclear weapons’ when yes, Iran wants new weaponry (like every other country seemingly, Saudi Arabia more than most) and yes, wants nuclear power and the associated advanced technologies. But does this mean it wants, was or is developing nuclear weapons? The Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was recounted to me so often. Could it be similar about Iran? There is such strength of view that the West’s interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and in effect also Syria, Yemen and Egypt has merely served to promote terrorism and more diverse terrorist organisations about which Iran is acutely concerned for itself.

So, is it about oil and wanting to control Iran’s global strength of position about supply and cost?

From some Iranian perspectives ‘the West’s’ attitudes come across as a wish for continued ‘colonialism’ – past experiences of trading disadvantages, concessions in C19 and early C20 exploitation by others of its natural resources, two C20 World War invasions by Britain and Russia, and at least three, depending on how you count, ‘regime changes’ in Iran by interventions of Britain, Russia or USA, from Amir Kabir in 1852, to Reza Shah in 1941 and Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953. Why wouldn’t ‘the West’ want to do it again? Why has America so recently sought to introduce new visa high jumps for anyone from anywhere who has visited Iran? – equating Iran with the lawless and (said to be terrorist exporting states of) Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Somalia.

It is impossible for me to do justice to the complexities of these positions as I have heard and (I think) understood them. I’ve learned a huge amount from many people, probing them, openly questioning, challenging uniform assertions about a homogeneous ‘West’, and testing how Iranians think new confidence and beginning trusting relationships can be engendered.

If apparently German and French tourists can now flow into Iran in the significant numbers so clearly apparent, why ‘won’t’ the British and Americans? Why were people so surprised, indeed momentarily often facially contorted before breaking into a cautious smile, and then a warm welcome when I said ‘England’. This was invariably after they had wrongly guessed German, Australian and Dutch and often others before wanting to give up guessing. For whatever reason Iranians in both cities and rural areas invariably expressed warm feelings about Britain. The prompt of a UK visitor clearly unearths some important latent good feelings.

The only conclusion I can reach from this first part of my reflections is that history, religion and politics in Iran, and in Western perceptions of Iran, are seemingly interwoven in profoundly complex ways:
  • In the positions taken by Iran’s political leadership and also the perspectives of many of its people, regardless of what they might think privately about the nature of the Iranian religious/political government
  • In the lazy reporting, limited thinking and public posturing of much of ‘the West’s’ political leadership and media presentation.
If progress is to be made in building and sustaining a new relationship between Iran and ‘the West’, then surely each of these elements of history, religion and politics need more intelligent unpacking, probing, interpretation and understanding by those who have responsibilities than has so often been the case. It cannot just be left to individual enthused travellers to build relationships in Iran with Iranians, and to be an ambassador for the many good things about Iran and Iranians on return home.


Let me be unequivocal from the outset just in case I am coming across as some sort of apologist for Iran’s current religious/political leadership. The underlying repressive social order and the conformities required, more especially for women, is abhorrent to all of us with the educated, middle class, political freedoms and choices we in ‘the West’ take for granted. The sanctions against those who ‘misbehave’ in relationships, threaten the government (most obviously through media publication or political organisation) or show disrespect towards Islamic religion and practices are huge.

For women, discrimination affects all aspects of daily life as Nina Ansary’s ‘Jewels of Allah’ vividly describes, notwithstanding the perverse improvements, relatively, in female school attendance, academic performance and university education since the Islamic Republic. From the required head covering everywhere to removal of lipstick at Qom shrine the implications for women can feel insulting and demeaning to both Iranians and visitors to the country. I know. I heard how the women felt with whom I travelled.

So postponing, for the moment, this most obvious manifestation of oppression and inequality, what other observations? Some things not seen or felt in any comparable way with UK:
  • smoking in public
  • use of car horns (exceptions)
  • dogs and dog mess in towns and cities
  • argument, loudness, anti-social, alcohol-fuelled or violent behaviour
  • selling hassle (compared with anywhere in Arab Middle East or Asia)
  • begging – individual exceptions in Tehran
  • litter in public places in towns/cities
These welcome features can be combined with:
  • feeling entirely safe, unhassled or threatened on city streets in evenings and late at night
  • absence of any general terrorist threat and all the related precautions and warnings with which UK is so familiar

All is arguably well if you say that if you are a visitor to Iran, or for the most part an Iranian citizen, and you
  • do not challenge authority or use language which threatens or speaks ill publicly of the political leadership
  • you show respect (not agreement) for Islam, it’s teachings and the behaviours required by the mullahs,

On the other hand, secondly though, this means accepting controlling and repressive authority over which there can be no challenge or appeal affecting all aspects of daily living – all aspects of dress (for women), relationships, public behaviour, education, university, internet, media access, writing and publication, civil and judicial punishment, job opportunities in designated areas and more. These things are widely reported globally. But Iran is not Saudi Arabia. In Iran women drive, women travel unaccompanied, women are visible in management and service jobs, and more. In cities there is abundant evidence of women out and about on their own and in female pairs in evening, just like any Western city but without harassment, fear of violence or sexual threat.

But of course there is another dimension. Many of the controls and oppressive social impacts adversely affect poorer and disadvantaged people particularly in cities. These are most graphically explored about Tehran in the short stories of Ramita Navai, ‘City of Lies’, which I found compelling but perhaps a little over-dramatic reading.

I had numerous conversations with younger people who clearly deeply resented the requirements of them, women especially, and the lengths they needed to go to covertly avoid conforming. Younger people and adults in the cities speaking any English or well able to make themselves understood overwhelmingly show contempt for the authority of the mullahs with which they have to live, mocking, ridiculing and joking. But for the most part accepting how it is, but regretting, seeing limited prospect of early change, and often passive in any political sense knowing all too well ‘what happens if…’ The 2009 reaction against the Presidential election outcome demonstrations is all too recent. There is no appetite for civil insurrection and disorder. The tragedy is that there though is a lot of appetite for emigration, especially among highly educated young people, to Australia and Canada especially.

Notwithstanding any of this, Iranian people are staunchly proud of their country. The country is not the mullahs. Or the hijab. It is so much more. If I expected people to be more reluctant to ‘speak their mind’ with me, how wrong I was.

As I have said, much of what I say is about more educated people living in cities, including the places I went – Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan and Tehran, and with too little time to discover much on shorter visits to Kashan, Qazvin and Qom. What is though obvious, away from the central part of the cities and in rural areas, particularly after several days in the Assassins valley villages of the Alborz mountains, is the deeply conservative order, demeanour and dress code of most women, and especially older women, with their all-covering chadors kept tightly in place. Clearly much of Iran is a deeply conservative Muslim country, reluctant about many of the social changes wanted by others. This does not mean that these people actively support the mullahs but it does mean it keeps them in place and powerful.

Even for a visitor who looks into corners and starts conversations with strangers readily, the direct impact for the visitor of the worst excesses of autocratic religious and state political power was minimal. The worst examples I saw of directive police intervention were along the riverbank gardens in Isfahan – firstly, three young men directed to stop smoking shisha, to clear up and move on. They did without question. Just a resigned smile in my direction. Secondly, couples together and hidden as far as they could be from the path but obviously in a highly watchful state. Traffic police, ordinary police patrolling and military people wandering about off duty were no more apparent than in many other countries. The nearest I came to discovering the true internal security system was a village in the Alborz mountains when three on duty basij security militia in very serious demeanour stopped my guide and myself and wanted to know why I was there. They were easily appeased but in very serious minded manner.

Apart from this I saw and felt no direct impact of the state internal security machine. It may well be that it is powerfully in place just behind the scenes – and not just in regulating access to selected websites and any unwelcome internal Iran or international media. This included the BBC but not the Guardian I discovered, as well as social media including Facebook and Twitter, all it seemed readily bypassed by virtually everyone by one means or another.

Circumventing state regulations is obviously alive and well generally in Iran. It is the way educated people in the country live daily. So too has been circumventing international economic sanctions – with help from banking arrangements in Dubai and good trading relationships with China, India and Russia. Having said this, the cost of sanctions on trade, investment both private and in public infrastructure and services, job availability, incomes, education abroad…and more, has been huge and continues to be. Again, I had a sense of resignation about these constraints, limited optimism about the future but surprisingly little anger, at least to my hearing.

Lastly to the hijab, in whatever colour or form. After I was advised half seriously to judge a woman’s religious commitment and willing compliance with government regulations by how much of a woman’s hair is visible, I could not but look out. The range is total – from tight round the face, to half-heartedly repeatedly tugging forward, to clearly adjusted to stay on – but minimally so, often together with exaggerated hair colouring, facial and nail make up, the latter in Tehran especially. Comical or offensive it may seem to some outside much of the Muslim world, but wearing head covering is an established and accepted part of life. For many it represents an aspect of their important religious faith. As such a symbolic issue now, change in Iran will need to come carefully if counter-revolutionary reactions which follow are not to be more damaging. The lack of any such check on male dress is so dramatically discriminatory.


As will be obvious from the above about Iran’s internal social order and daily life, as with its religious and political leadership discussed earlier, telling ‘the Iran story’ is complex and difficult. In places I am likely to be wrong. Things stated in or about Iran are never fully true. There are always exceptions, variations and circumventions writ large.

Additionally I must emphasise, all of the above is founded on just under three weeks in Iran as well as whatever preparation I was able to do in advance. Hopefully though what I have said, even where it is complex or perhaps contradictory, will have some interest to people who read this. The underlying message is clear. Understanding Iran is hugely and almost impossibly complex. But visiting Iran as a tourist or traveller is enormously rewarding. It increases knowledge, familiarity, friendship and a more balanced understanding of what it is possible to simplify. It also communicates to Iranians that they are friends and equals of those who visit, as people and as nations, especially from such places as the UK. The personal message from me is to ‘go now’ or to ‘go soon’, but don’t go if you feel you cannot conform or will be unduly irritated and critical because of the requirements of you while you are there.

But remember most of all, Iran is not an Arab state. It is not a Sunni Islamic state. It is ‘Persia’ with a huge richness of history, archaeology, scenic views, buildings, gardens, culture, warmth and friendship awaiting you.

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