Iran: On the Road Outside the Capital
Updated: Feb 24, 2018
Euromoney, September 2015
Iran is big. Iranians are fond of telling visitors that it experiences four distinct climates at any one time, from snowbound mountains to deserts, and its 80 million people are spread across a multitude of diverse locations outside Tehran; indeed, the tourist industry, should it ever truly take off, will be pretty much everywhere but the traffic-throttled daunting sprawl of the capital.
Seeking to understand this, Euromoney heads south out of Tehran past the international airport and the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini, its gold dome today bedecked in wooden scaffolding (whatever sanctions might do, they don’t stop the maintenance of mosques).
The first impression is the quality of the highways, which are three lanes apiece pretty much all the way to Shiraz 1,000 kilometres south. This motorway seems in consistently better shape than the M6 or the New Jersey Turnpike. We’re reminded of a comment from Central Bank advisor to the governor Ahmad Azizi the previous day, telling us: “Although Iran was under probably the most severe sanctions in history, it doesn’t look like a country under sanctions. People’s standards of living are not poor. It’s not like a country under siege.”
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Driving through the suburbs of Tehran we have passed the site of a planned mall said to be bigger than Dubai’s preposterous Mall of the Emirates (it is characteristically, said to be primarily backed not by a specialist property developer but Ayandeh Bank). “The local dynamics of the economy are powerful enough to sustain an acceptable level of welfare within itself,” he says.
There are frequent signs on the roadside exhorting motorists, in Farsi and English, to wear seat belts, to the widespread mirth of the notoriously free-spirited driving population. But our next lesson comes from the cars drifting happily between the lanes. Many are cheap Chinese imports (alongside a baffling number of French Peugeots) that are a frequent bone of contention with Iranians: imported during the Ahmadinejad administration, they are seen as having helped to undermine Iran’s once-decent automotive industry, whose modern travails have had worrying knock-on effects in the banking sector that serves it.
As the landscape shifts to scrubby deserts, with ubiquitous portraits of the Ayotallohs on the roadside in the sun, we pass Shahab Industrial Park outside the holy city of Qom; a printing and publishing park, it thrives on the ceaseless demand for religious texts from the city’s clergy schools and Islamic research centres. Qom is considered the second most important seat of learning in the country after Mashhad.
This is what American Congressmen, and by extension some investors, most fear about Iran: not so much the prospect of nuclear capability but the zeal of intense religious fervour. In fact, though, it is not what one might expect. Euromoney, clearly a white westerner, is invited in to the Hazrat e-Masumeh shrine, the spiritual heart of Qom and one of the holiest sites in Iran, where the faithful scrum to touch and kiss the ornate silver and gold within, marshaled by guards with incongruous green feather dusters. Women wear the chador sheet and a headscarf, but never the veil. The atmosphere is not oppressive and Euromoney is only stopped to be photographed by small children.
The run in to Qom concludes under a pristine and apparently near-complete monorail complex. The lack of infrastructure that so many Iranians and investors have mentioned is not obvious: it’s increasingly clear that the domestic economy, while limited, has been strong enough to sustain development.
We turn south again, to Kashan, a less frequently visited town about three hours south of Tehran. This brings some useful lessons too. The ancient bazaar, which has been running on this spot for 800 years, gives two: that sanctions don’t stop domestic trade from thriving, and that Iranians are seldom on the wrong side of a bargain. “They are the toughest negotiators I have ever met,” says one banker active in Iran. “And I’m a Qatari.” This is one of the world’s finest centres for the traditional hand-weaving of carpets, and many of the silk-on-silk masterpieces one finds in the stores of Istanbul or Sharjah (or Kensington, for that matter) will have originated here. While the trade of carpets seems impervious to international intervention, there’s still no question a removal of sanctions would aid the national textile industry.
On the outskirts of Kashan, at a place called Tappeh-ye Seyalk, an archeological dig that has unearthed artefacts dating back 8000 years – potentially predating the Mesopotamians – reminds us of the country’s potential for archeological tourism. If we had time to continue south we would reach Persepolis, one of the world’s finest archeological sites, and easily reached from the city of Shiraz, which itself is served by international airlines including Turkish and Qatar Airways.
Also instructive is our hotel (see Front End). This is the Iran that should be on offer for high-spending foreign tourists: luxury boutiques playing every Persian heritage card at their disposal. The traditional mansion that was converted to this hotel, built in the 18th century by Kashan’s governor at a time when the city was on a crucial trade route and once the largest home in Persia, was turning to dust when developers stepped in. Places like this will boom when a return to the SWIFT system allows them to take credit card bookings in advance; today, a reservation is an exercise in trust.
Sunrise brings a drive south flanked by mountains on one side and deserts on the other – deftly avoiding the nuclear enrichment plant that is alleged to exist underground at nearby Natanz – to Esfahan, Iran’s true jewel, with brilliant blue mosques and ancient bridges spanning a scenic park-fringed river.
This more than any other place is the one that will drag the tourists in if life is made easier for them in terms of visas, credit cards, cash, online reservations and flights (the re-opening of the British embassy, and its Iranian counterpart in London, being a clear step in the right direction). But it’s also a lesson in what Iran needs in order for all that to happen. Booking a room is a trial, the availability of rooms insufficient (“We need 50,000 new hotel rooms in Iran”, says one banker; “we haven’t built hotels properly in this country for 30 years,” another) and the ability even to contact them to confirm reservations is deeply problematic.
Esfahan also sways an earlier conclusion that infrastructure development is doing fine; much of the area is a building site as an ambitious metro system is under development, though locals say it has looked this way for years without making any obvious progress.
The final word of our trip goes to a carpet vendor in the bazaar not far from the vivid blues tiles of the Masjed–e Shah mosque. “We take Visa,” he says. How? Iran’s not connected to anything that would allow that. “You just get a number in Dubai. It’s easy if you know how.” Iranians tend to find a way.