It’s time for this victim of propaganda to go and see for himself.
My career as a journalist was just starting when the Iranian Revolution took place in 1979. One of the major stories that immediately flowed from this was the US hostage crisis. Some 52 diplomats and other US citizens were held in the US Embassy in Tehran for 444 days, between November 1979 and January 1981. It was a grim period, and many of the hostages later testified to terrifying and inhumane treatment by their captors. The United States immediately imposed sanctions on Iran and relations between the two nations plummeted.
It’s fair to say that until the last couple of months, they have never really recovered.
Modern, Islamic Iran had been cast as the ‘Bad Guy’, most western governments issued dire warnings about travelling to the country, and thriller-writers like Gerald Seymour would use the Iranians as a decent proxy for Germany’s World War Two Nazis or the evil Soviets and the KGB. Our hero, usually a fading MI6 man or ex-SAS operative with a drinking problem, is sent to Iran on an unlikely quest. Once there, he is captured by the evil Dr. Unpronounceable, beaten up and tortured, only to escape with the nuclear secrets, and a beautiful girl in tow.
Ian Fleming was long dead by the time of the 1979 Revolution, but he would definitely have used Iran as the backdrop for a James Bond novel.
In fairness, the Iranians haven’t done a vast amount to change perceptions about their nation.
It was only very recently that firebrand politician and religious hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in charge, haranguing Washington, London, Riyadh and Jerusalem alike on every vitriolic occasion. On his watch, there is strong evidence to suggest that human rights were badly abused, to say nothing of corruption and nepotism.
But times change, Ahmadinejad was replaced in 2013 by Hassan Rouhani, and this week, Iran, the United States and five other major nations signed a far-reaching agreement limiting Iranian nuclear activity in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.
As an aside, there’s a fair chance that US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, will win the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Be that as it may, multinationals have already begun despatching executives from their headquarters in places like Dubai to sniff out business opportunities. There’s an air of caution, of course. The notoriously dysfunctional American government might still block the deal, although President Barack Obama has said he will veto any such attempt.
Which brings it back to me.
Iran is a country that for nearly all of my working life has been demonised and propagandised. I have absolutely no doubt that even as a supposedly objective journalist (a mythical concept, let me assure you) I have swallowed a fair amount of that propaganda.
Now, while the skies are clear and while the post-agreement euphoria is still around, it’s time to go and see for myself. It probably won’t be this year – what’s left of it is already heavily committed and includes a big family wedding – but it will be as early next year as I can make it.
There can be few countries on this planet which have been so effectively closed off, but which hold out the prospect of delightful travel. Archaeological sites abound, including the legendary city of Persepolis. There’s a new culture to consider, and cities like Tehran and Shiraz, which until now, have been no more than writing on a map. What about Iran’s cuisine? Or wildlife?
Iran shouldn’t be terra incognita, but for me it certainly is and I am very excited at the prospect of going there. Yes, I know that as a South African citizen, I could have just as easily visited last month or last year. But at a personal level, that’s the importance of an agreement like the one just signed. It changes perceptions and forces people like me to lift our gaze, change our thinking and reach for the passport.