Landing in Iran

In light of the political environment, Mirza Khan writes about his trip to Iran and the people there.

The landscape of Tehran. Source: Times Higher Education

My experience of Iran started even before I set foot in the country. Women passengers on our flight from Sharjah to Tehran, most of whom had not covered their heads, started pulling out scarves from their bags and draping them over their heads as soon as we landed. A strict regime, and people conforming when in the country—this manifests itself in most scenarios in Iran.
The only functioning currency exchange booth at the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran was more than willing to buy dollars, pounds, and euros (declining the Indian rupee). So did the bank outlets, which also politely declined exchanging the rupee. Language proved to be a huge barrier, and if not for some very helpful airport staff who helped contact our tour guide and driver, we could have very well been stranded for quite a while.
As in most oil-fuelled economies in the Middle East, the roads in Iran are sprawling and well maintained. The drive from the airport to the religious-seminary city of Qom hardly took two hours, and the entire highway was dotted with rest-stops, hotels, and departmental stores. This is where yours truly was introduced to Iran’s robust domestic manufacturing.

Consumer goods such as biscuits, wafers, chips, chocolates, candies, cola, drinking water, etc were all indigenously manufactured. A heavily devalued Iranian rial meant I could buy quite a handful of these for quite less. (The exchange rate with local touts was fetching us 2,50,000 rials for 500 rupees.) Cheap fuel meant a lot of automobiles on the road, most of which, however, looked quite dated. Most cars were manufactured by Peugeot and Saipa (an Iranian automaker), with a few KIAs and Hyundais. Bajaj and TVS, Indian two-wheeler makers, also seemed to be prominent alongside the Hondas.

Two-wheelers were not the only Indian presence, in Qom. A number of aspiring Indian Shia clerics head to the seminary in Qom to study Islam. Iran, being a Shia Muslim country, has established itself as the seat of learning for those pursuing a study of the Shia orientation to Islam. Qom is also home to the shrine of the sister of the eighth Shia Imam, Imam Reza, and the symbolic Masjid-e-Jamkaran. It is thus a major destination for pilgrims from all over the world. Shops with eager and ever-smiling shopkeepers dot the area around the shrine, selling everything, from exotic perfumes to Irani desserts.

It isn’t just the shopkeepers who have the beaming smiles. Iranian people in general play the perfect hosts—friendly, helpful, and welcoming. They seem to have a special affinity with Indians and simply cannot get enough of Bollywood, excitedly rattling off names of Indian actors and starlets, the moment you tell them you’re from India. Evidently, Yoga and Sanskrit aren’t our only manifestations of Indian ‘soft power’.

My visit coincided with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day official visit to Iran, and a lot of conversations I had with Iranians centered around India-Iran relations under Modi. Most informed Iranians were optimistic, and talked about how they see India as an important partner for Iran, now and in the future. Notably, India has traded extensively with Iran even when Iran was under sanctions, trade that is only bound to increase exponentially, in the post-sanctions era. With India developing the Chabahar port in Iran, strategic cooperation between the two nations is also becoming increasingly significant.

Iran’s relations with India also extend to education, with a lot of Iranians pursuing higher studies in India. A lot of such India-returned Iranis I interacted with were full of praise for the education system and the Indian quality of life. Also, India plays host to a significant Iranian diaspora, with a lot of them having settled here after coming to trade. A lesser-known fact is that Ayatollah Khomeini, the spearhead of the Islamic revolution in Iran, has an Indian connection, with his ancestors having lived in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh before his grandfather moved back to Iran.

The 10-day trip was a revelation, about a country that has been shrouded in mystery to an extent, owing to its relative isolation from the rest of the world and the west, in particular. In a series of articles, this being the first, I will be describing a few interesting aspects, exclusively for the Initiative for Policy Research and Analysis.

Zahaan Khan

Zahaan Khan

Mirza Mohammed Ali Khan (Zahaan) is a senior journalist with a leading Indian national daily. His areas of interest are India's foreign policy and Asian geopolitical relations. He tweets at @ZahaanAliKhan
Zahaan Khan

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