EARLIER THIS MONTH, renowned chef and author Anthony Bourdain Tweeted* enthusiastically of the great treatment he received from total strangers while he was in Iran, ‘of all the countries in the world’.
Such a reception took him by surprise, but anyone who is familiar with the reality of Iran and Iranians would most likely say ‘well, derr’ (to use a standard Australian response to a statement of the blindingly obvious).
In the popular imagination, Iran remains unpopular, regarded with suspicion, if not active dislike, by many. A survey conducted earlier this year in over 20 countries shows that it is the world’s most negatively viewed country.
Yet as Bourdain’s Tweet bears out, those who travel to Iran are generally overwhelmed by the friendliness and hospitality of Iranians, by the richness of their culture, art and cuisine, and the physical beauty of Iranian landscapes and architecture. For those in the know, Iran is diverse, challenging and intriguing in equal measure, but above all welcoming.
Iranians, for their part, are aware that their country is not particularly fondly regarded. During my time in Iran I was constantly asked if I was not concerned about Axis of Evil rhetoric. The whole ‘axis’ notion is utter tosh, of course, but that’s not to say that the regime that runs Iran isn’t very savoury. And there’s the rub: the government – and the hardliners who prop it up, and profit from its various dealings – is not truly representative of the people, of their interests, material, artistic or otherwise.
Iranian art boasts a depth of tradition and history that may well be unsurpassed, and the modern art scene, despite tight censorship and curmudgeonly official oversight, is vibrant and engaged in global dialogue. Iranians are eager consumers of culture from the – supposedly decadent – West. This can incur the wrath of regime Grinchs as was seen recently with the arrest of several young Iranians who had posted online a video of themselves singing and dancing along to Pharrell Williams’ Happy.
Official killjoys, labelling the video as ‘obscene’, detained six young people before releasing them on bail and making them recant on state-run TV. These actions speak volumes about the disconnect between the regime and the people. They reveal, yet again, an official paranoia about Western influence, and a lack of understanding on the part of the regime of Iranian youth’s hunger for engagement, of their aspirations and interests. Most of all, the arrests had the effect of bringing the video – obscene dancing or not – to a wider audience that would never had been reached if it was left as just another video upload amongst untold millions.
The arrests prompted a huge outcry on social media, including an apparent defence of the dancers from the Twitter account of no less a personality than President Hassan Rouhani. It’s ironic that the president should have a Twitter account, when it is officially banned in Iran. But this in itself is indicative of an ongoing struggle within the Islamic Republic between conservative and progressive, or reformist, forces.
The Iranian political arena has been locked in a conservative-progressive see-sawing stoush for decades, whereby progressive political forces assume power, on the basis of popular approval won at elections, then as they attempt to create a more open society, conservative elements in the judiciary, media and within the political apparatus hinder, hobble and obstruct them. This was most clearly apparent during the Khatami presidency from 1997-2005, and it’s odds-on that the same will occur during President Rouhani’s incumbency.
That said, the arrival of Rouhani in the presidential palace presents an opportunity for rapprochement between Iran and the West. He is noted for his liberal disposition and has stated that he seeks better relations globally. In fact, as has been argued by Stephen Kinzer, Iran has many attributes that make it a natural ally for the West in the Middle East.
I would wager that a majority of Iranians want improved relations with the West, too. I’d also punt that the majority of the Iranian populace does not want to be ruled by the Islamic regime, or at least not in the strict, rigid and unforgiving form that it currently assumes. Iranians of all stripes hanker for greater opportunities and freedoms; they find sly and subtle ways to subvert the strictures that hover over them, a recent example being the My Stealthy Freedom campaign whereby Iranian women post images of themselves online sans hijab.
My encounters with Iranians in Iran certainly indicate both a desire to engage more broadly and a displeasure with the conditions under which they continue to live. Interactions within academic and institutional forums also lend weight to the argument that Iranians wish to be done with an isolationist position. Years of sanctions and being cast as pariahs do not sit well with a well-educated, cultured, literate, engaged population. Better relations would be welcomed by many segments of Iranian society – youth, intelligentsia, artists – but whether regime hardliners/power-holders would entertain such a prospect remains to be seen.
Happily, recent developments mean that rapprochement is looking possible in some shape or form. With some progress in nuclear negotiations early this year and subsequent easing of trade restrictions, Western companies are looking to Iran for business opportunities. Meanwhile, following the shenanigans in Ukraine and Russia’s erratic behaviour, Iran, and its gas reserves, may emerge as a solution to Europe’s energy woes should Russia withhold gas supplies to the West. And with the rapid advance of the thoroughly nasty ISIS/ISIL in Iraq, it appears that Iran is in a position where it is willing to , or in fact needs to, engage with the US, and the West, more broadly and more productively.
So will Iran open up and unclench its fist? Let’s watch this space.
*Technical incompetence prevents me from embedding the actual Tweet into the page. Yes, it is frustrating…