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Wednesday, 2 December 2009


I’m with Hamid when he fills up his Nissan 4x4 this morning. It’s not an Iranian made car so he isn’t entitled to the government discount card and he should be paying $0.30/litre instead of $0.10. However a friend with a Saba Pride has lent him their card, which is capped at 180 litres a day, so Hamid can brim the tank.

A full tank of fuel costs him £4. In the UK it would cost over £100.

Sammy laughs, it seems like everyone at the filling station is laughing. “This is the result of the sanctions.” he grins, “While you are spending millions helping the environment, we are left with so much oil we are busy destroying it as quickly as we can.”

Sammy knows about trade embargos, He runs an import business via an office in Dubai, importing products from the US and elsewhere; Another reminder that in Iran, for every rule, there is a way around it.

But it’s true that the country has more fuel than it knows what to do with, yet the Iranian made cars they poor it into are 15 years behind the times. The Peugeot 405 is at the nicer end of the showroom choices available, discontinued in the UK in 1996.

The isolationism of Iran’s regime has created a lot of unique surreal snapshots in this country. The road freight is mainly pre-1970, with a lot of American Macks and Internationals still hauling. The gas guzzlers which were died everywhere else after the first fuel crisis are only being driven off the road now that spares are becoming so hard to find. No one sees the irony that the Iranian distribution infrastructure is engineered in Detroit.

Isolationism has also helped foster an innocence of society. In the park at the top of town, families play volleyball together, courting couples benignly knock badminton shuttlecocks back and forth, and wholesome hobbies are heartily indulged in by all.

So what have the Ayatollahs ever done for Iran? Apart from creating powerful family cohesion, moral fibre so strong it could lift the world, night time streets devoid of muggers and evening entertainment free of pissed up binge drinkers.

Now I dare say there might well be slightly less authoritarian ways to achieve these values in society, but regardless of how it got here, Iran really has a unique culture where neighbourliness is next to godliness. When this isolation ends, some of the changes will no doubt be for the worst, like Communist Russia opening up to the free market, there will be moral gains and losses.

But for now there certainly is room for some softening of the moral hardline. The Aziadi Tower was built by the Shah, but in a classic Big Brother move has become a monument to the Revolution. It’s also a secret bunker of some sort, connected to a military installation across the road. It’s built during that brief period when they discovered you could make really funny angles with concrete, and before the novelty of zany structures wore off. If you wanted a setting for the lair of a Bond villain circa 1970, this place has it all, including 12 inch thick concrete doors and impenetrable towers.

Our guide gives us the full doublespeak history of the Revolution in a voice that is grating and far too chipper. At the end I go to shake her hand and she pulls back laughing. “Hahaha No, not allowed in Iran!” It’s happened to me before, many times and in many other countries, and never bothered me, but this time, maybe because I’d just endured an unsophisticated 40minute diatribe on how great the Revolutions is, her gesture really irks me. Heaven forbid that the touch of my hand should send you into uncontrollable orgasmic spasms, or that I might be overcome by the feel of your skin and start dry humping the angular concrete walls.

I realise my perspective on Tehran has been biased by the company I’ve kept, and the company I’ve been able to speak English with. Outside Tehran the demographic and attitudes are different. The educated, non-religious, wealthy middle class that I’ve befriended are politically aware insofar as it suites them to be, but not politically active enough to risk their personal safety or their financial status quo. Why should they be? After all, the political momentum is already in the direction of change at a slow and manageable pace. The opposition party is called Esla Talab, which roughly translates to “Corrections Required”, so not exactly promising radical change.

But the moral changes that could flow in 10-15 years from decisions made now will impact the middle-class’s way of life more than any other, and perhaps they will look back on the happy days when you knew your neighbour and could walk the streets at night without having to step over nightclub vomit. The conservatism of the reform movement will regulate the moral change, with slow steps. It’s another reason why no one wants another Revolution in Iran.

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