Tony French reports on his impressions of Iran after a recent visit.
With the recently announced end to Iranian sanctions, a ‘gold rush’ has been predicted. After 30 years of relative international isolation, Iran is suddenly seen as being open for business, the largest untapped emerging market in the world. Countries from Russia through Europe and even Australia, according to a recent article in the Tehran Times, are said to be lining up their trade delegations awaiting the UN ‘starters gun’, and of course the necessary – but not always easily forthcoming – Iranian entry visas.
This good economic news in a time of general world economic drear is really misplaced enthusiasm. Iran has always been open to trade, perhaps not with the USA, but certainly with just about everyone else, particularly China, France, and Germany. Many goods are conveniently ‘re-exported’ to Iran from close-by Dubai. As an illustration of the ineffectiveness of sanctions, one only need observe the Iranian traffic police driving about while on duty in one of their 4000 modern Mercedes Benz sedans. And, in spite of hefty luxury car taxes, there are plenty of local Iranians driving prestige cars, too.
In fact, you can buy just about anything you want in Iran, prices are not at a black-market premium, shops are full of goods, local and imported, with half the population appearing to be a shopkeeper, whether on the high street, in a modern emporium, or in one of hundreds of small shops in hugely spread-out winding bazaars you find in every city. What was that about the English being a nation of shopkeepers?
Paradoxically, sanctions seem to hit the visitor hardest: you can’t use your credit card and then try changing back your fistful of inflated Iranian Rials to another currency. No hope. But the Iranians are happy to take your US dollars; the Great Satan’s currency is the country’s defacto dollar, followed by the euro. The canny Persian ‘carpet’ sellers have online credit card banking facilities based in Dubai, and where, dear valued customer, did you want that carpet sent by international courier?
The other bit of misplaced enthusiasm is that it was the Iranians who went shopping following the end of sanctions. According to recent reports about President Rouhani’s trip to Europe, it was he who took the country’s chequebook with him, and among billion dollar purchases at first-stop Italy, he then spent up a lot more in France, acquiring 118 Airbus aircraft.
I have just spent three weeks in Iran. The initial enthusiasm of the people at the first announcement that an ending of sanctions had been negotiated was much muted, since the sanctions had in fact ended (or largely ended; the US reimposed some new sanctions based on Iran continuing its long-range missile-building program).
Iranians’ concern is that the economy, which is already growing, could easily overheat. Inflation, with consequent higher prices and a devaluing currency, has been a problem, and a problem which could lead to civil unrest. The Iranians want a managed economy, not one subject to inflationary pressures brought on by a sudden surge in foreign investment.
But, clearly, investment is necessary, particularly for aging infrastructure. Russia and Germany are building new rail lines and power stations, and improving oil production. The roads, strangely called autobahns, are very good. In fact, too good; traffic is a major problem, causing choking smog in Tehran (population 14 million), spurred on by the government’s unsustainably subsidised petrol prices. Every Iranian seems to own a car, the older ones being clones of the English Hillman Hunter (remember those?), and traffic is life-threatening, lane markings, including pedestrian crossings, being nothing more than idle road markings.
The Iranian population, already at 76 million, continues to grow, but not at the explosive 3.9 percent a year rate following the Iran/Iraq war. The country has a young population, half under 30 years of age, which is educated (there is a near-90% national level of literacy), and a culture which encourages literacy and higher education. We met many Iranians who were planning to complete their PhDs at local and foreign universities. Iranians said they were free to travel overseas.
And the young want jobs. Yet an educated, but unemployed, youthful population (currently unemployment is 11%) could spell social trouble. The young generation has access to the Internet, everyone has a mobile phone, and there is access to some social media. They all speak some English. They are alert to what is going on in the world, some embarrassingly knowledgeable about Australian movies.
Neither do they seem as observant as their parents of religion, while Iranian movies win international prizes. There are no burkas, and in their tight jeans, young women reveal fashionable hairstyles under their equally fashionable scarves. Remodelled noses are common, public plasters worn with pride. Iran is not a third-world country. It has a limited democracy and a theocratic leadership.
Proud of their 3000-year-old history, Iranians see themselves as heirs of great Persian empires. They retain an empire of the mind, in that they conceive of being a great nation once again, this time as a Shia superpower in the Middle East. They make much of being ‘aryan’, not arab. Being arab, they insist, translates as being lazy, and reliant on petrodollars and guest workers. Instead, ‘Persians’ have their own language (Farsi), with a long and ‘superior’ intellectual and literary culture.
Without being too fuzzily ecumenical, Shia Islam does have some similarities to Christianity. They worship former Imams as ‘saints’, pray at their tombs (now shrines), and even have their haloed paintings adorn their lavishly mirror-decorated mosques. And then there are the emotionally charged Ashura ceremonies recalling the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (the grandson of Muhammad), not at all unlike Christian Passion Week performances. Shi-ism might just be the incomplete ‘persianisation’ of Islam.
If the Iranians do halt their nuclear program and are transparent with international inspections – and there is every expectation that they will be compliant – then we should welcome them back to the international community. They are rational actors with growing awareness of the stabilising role they can play in the Middle East, although burning down the Saudi Embassy recently was not an auspicious beginning, compared to the prompt release of the US sailors.
And it’s a good thing an Australian trade delegation is soon to turn up in Tehran; commerce too engenders comity.