7 Sep 2014

Iran begins to emerge from three decades of isolation

So a charter plane carrying US military contractors en route from Afghanistan to Dubai crosses unscheduled into Iranian airspace.

Within minutes it is revealed to be the flight-plan mistake that it is. In times that included the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by US naval forces – another accident – the consequences of Friday night’s mistake could have been a long stand-off in which passengers and crew could have found themselves political pawns.

No longer. The plane was quickly on its way and no one the worse for wear. This is perhaps just one signal that Iran has re-entered the family of nations.

But a far bigger one surrounds the extraordinary dialogue under way between the US and Iran at one level and between Iran and the Permanent five nations on the UN Security Council plus the EU. The subject is Iran’s nuclear programme.

Iran’s Chief Negotiator Abbas Araghchi told me that there is a genuine negotiating bond of respect between them, but the negotiations are hard.

Indeed the International atomic energy Agency has revealed failures on the Iranian side – confidence building steps, and access to research papers were cited in their report last week. But Mr Araghchi says these problems can be overcome. What is more serious is what I learnt from other sources in Iran.

The Americans I was told, are determined to prove that Iran WAS trying to develop a military dimension to its nuclear programme. Something that no amount of inspections and leaks has yet managed to establish.

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And if it cannot be proved, the Americans want the Iranians to admit it. That’s something they are steadfastly refusing to do. This represents by far the greatest stumbling block in the negotiations.

Even at the political level the improvement in relations is on a continuing basis. But at the last Friday Prayers here in Tehran, you could be forgiven for wondering whether anything had improved since the break in US/Iranian relations in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution over three decades ago.


‘Death to America, Death to America’, they chanted. But I noticed that the fervour of the shouts was mixed indeed, and the voices raised belonged to men and women who had been born before the revolution. The younger generation appears much less interested.

The hunger for western product and culture in Iran is palpable, but so is the pride in Iran itself together with pride in Iranian sovereignty and culture Amid the rise in Isis in Syria and Iraq, Iran’s stability is marked. Every time I come here, folks in London say “do take care”, “be safe”, and the rest. Certainly this can be a frustrating place to work. As other journalists have discovered you can never be quite sure when you have been seen in some way to over step the mark. And there are currently two journalists working for foreign publications being detained.

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Despite those concerns, it is a charming place to move about, eat in a café, or restaurant, or shop in the bazaar. The bureaucracy is tangled indeed; the layers of administration are complex, and the interaction between religion and politics sometimes hard to follow. But the atmosphere is undoubtedly changing, and improving dramatically.

The sanctions are hard, though the ingenuity in getting round them is extraordinary. There appears to be no import than cannot be secured, providing the customer is prepared to pay, and be patient. Mr Araghchi refused to contemplate failure in the nuclear talks “I don’t even want to think about it”, he said.

If and when the opening with Iran comes, business looks likely to boom. What is harder to predict is how quickly the years of slogan shouting and distrust of Britain and America, in particular, will take to work through. British Airways, once dominant here, is gone, Lufthansa and Air France are come. China, Turkey and the Gulf States have reaped a rich harvest here during sanctions.

Iran is potentially a land of vast opportunity. Britain and America look well placed to miss out on the first wave if and when it comes.

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