Iranians Seek Contact With Outside World

Shahr-e-ray is one of Tehran’s poorer areas – a working class, conservative bastion.

We had been invited to film Friday prayers in the shrine of Shah Abdol Azim there.

Our very presence was a sign of Iran changing – it is almost unheard of for Western crews to be allowed to film there.

And on this occasion, one of the most senior commanders in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Naser Shabani, was addressing the faithful.

It was almost certainly the first time he’s been filmed at close quarters by a news crew from Britain while preaching.

He had just returned from Syria’s civil war, where he said Iranians are fighting against Islamic State before it threatens them at home.

He told his congregation they were living in one of the most stable countries in the region – with some justification, given the state of Iran’s neighbours.

In the crowd were members of Iran’s elite Quds brigade, the special forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps active in both Iraq and Syria, looking somewhat surprised to see us there.

There were the usual chants of “down with America, down with Britain, down with Israel and down with Saudi Arabia”.

Slightly unsettling but then Iran is a country of paradoxes.

Outside, after prayers, the same anti-Western chants from young people in a rally. But, also, impeccable English and good manners as they apologised.

“Don’t you like England?” I asked one young woman.

“Not so much,” she said. Then, “excuse me, where are you from?”

“England,” I replied.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she smiled.

Another man with thickly American-accented English explained Iranians like people wherever they are.

Filming in Iran is problematic.

Getting a journalist’s visa is not easy and, once you’re in, you need a local who is an expert in securing enough permissions to fill a bulging briefcase.


Video: Iran: How Well Do You Know It?

But it is worth the effort, not least to meet the people here – some of the most genuinely friendly, welcoming and polite people on the planet.

It is also a place of bewildering contrasts where the new is colliding with the old, as Iran opens up to change.

In a brand new shopping mall we found Iranians indulging a love of consumer goods and enthusing about the West.

After decades of isolation, many here feel their country is misunderstood.

I asked a young shopper in jeans and a T-shirt: whatever happened to Iranians regarding America as the Great Satan, and Britain as Little Satan?

He laughed loudly. That is just a political slogan, he told me.

This is a crucial time for Iranians who want closer ties with the outside world.

They voted for a government that did a deal with the West: America, Europe and others would lift some sanctions in return for Iran scrapping much of its nuclear programme.

Iran says it has kept its side of the bargain and the other side is dragging its heels.

They are particularly aggrieved that US banking regulations are still deterring investment from the outside world.

Iranians are increasingly disenchanted with the deal and the West.

If more progress is not made, the current government led by President Hassan Rouhani could lose elections next year.

That could jeopardise the agreement – so could Donald Trump winning the US presidency.

Many Iranians want progress and change.

There is a yearning for more contact with the rest of the planet.

But the window of opportunity may soon be closing.