Since the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis of 1979, Iran has had antagonistic relations with the U.S. and other Western nations, with little official communication between heads of state, fierce rhetoric on opposing sides, and increasing sanctions.
Given this history, it’s not surprising that many Westerners fail to appreciate ways in which Iran is a relatively advanced and even liberal state.
I observed some of these incongruities myself when I traveled to Iran myself in 2013 from my native Australia.
1) A Positive Opinion Of Westerners
If you’ve heard former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad describe the U.S. as the “Great Satan,” then the warm feelings most Iranians have for Westerners may come as a surprise. In fact, opinion polls show the majority of Iranians hold a favourable opinion of Americans, making Iran second only to Israel as the most supportive country in the Middle East.
To travel as a Westerner in Iran is to be routinely stopped on the street and welcomed by curious and generous strangers. You will be given cool drinks, invited to parties, and offered free tours of anything nearby.
Young Iranians get their hands on iPhones despite the sanctions, use VPN software to hack past their regime’s ban on Facebook, and watch American TV shows and movies online.
As reported in The Atlantic, a clear majority of Iranians want the current Iranian — U.S. nuclear talks to succeed. If talks fail, however, many expect that moderates like the current president would lose power to religious hardliners.
Reuters / Eduardo Munoz
2) A World Leader in Sex Changes
Iran had the second highest number of sex-change operations per year as of 2008, beating every country except Thailand, which may seem surprising in a country where homosexuality is still punishable by death.
Sex changes are legal because the leader of the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, passed a religious ruling authorizing the procedure more than 30 years ago. The ruling allowed effeminate men or masculine women to undergo the physical changes to be accepted in their preferred role.
The government subsidizes the operation by up to 50% and it’s mandatory for insurance companies to cover the rest, the BBC reported. New birth certificates and other documents are issued to reflect the changes.
The religious cleric responsible for gender reassignment (yes, there is such a person) told the BBC that, “Islam has a cure for people suffering from this problem. If they want to change their gender, the path is open,” saying the operation was no more a sin than “changing wheat to flour to bread.”
Iran is also a leader in cosmetic surgery, with the world’s highest nose surgery rate.
3) Better Gender Equality Than Some Countries
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, women in Iran have the right to vote, drive, and travel alone. Women have served in parliament and in cabinet, though they are banned from running in presidential elections, and they attend universities, though they are banned from taking certain courses.
The issue of women’s rights highlights the conflict between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — who is on the more moderate end of the country’s religious-conservative ruling clique — and the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On International Women’s Day in April, Rouhani spoke live on television and criticised those who consider women a threat, saying Iran had “a long way to go” and that he “will not accept the culture of sexual discrimination.”
“According to the Islamic rules, man is not the stronger sex and woman is not the weaker one,” he said.
However, the religiously conservative Supreme Leader, who holds a higher position than the President, called gender equality “one of the biggest Mistakes of Western thought.” While justice was a right, he said, “equality is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.”
Reuters / Morteza Nikoubazl
4) Condoms And Birth Control
After the Iran — Iraq war, when focus shifted from conflict to the economy in 1988, the same Ayatollah who legalized sex-changes issued a ruling making birth control free and widely available. He was convinced a high birth-rate would be bad for the economy.
With family planning sessions provided to all newlyweds, the birth-rate fell more than half, allowing parents to invest more in their children’s education and giving women the chance to gain ground in the workforce. More than 60% of Iranian university students are now women, with numbers even higher in some science and engineering courses, the BBC reported.
The measures have been too successful for some. Last month the parliament prohibited vasectomies and contraception advertising in an effort to boost population growth.
AP / Jerome Delay
5) An American Ally?
As the leading Shia Muslim power, Iran has found itself partially aligned with the West in fighting Sunni groups like Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
After 9/11, Iran supported overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and assisted NATO with strategy and the formation of a new government.
Iran also had no great love for Iraq’s Sunni regime, having fought a brutal war against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. Backed by the Regan Administration at the time, Hussein used sarin gas and other chemical weapons on thousands of Iranian soldiers.
Since the fall of Baghdad in 2003, however, Iran has been supplying weapons to insurgents in both Afghanistan and Iraq in attempts to accelerate American withdrawal from the region.
Iran has also been pushing ahead with its nuclear energy program, building new facilities and using new technology.
The country has been playing cat and mouse diplomacy with Europe and the U.S. who have slapped Iran with sanctions, fearing the program is a front for developing nuclear weapons.
The dynamic changed in 2013, however, when Iranians elected President Rouhani, a reformist who has staked his presidency on mending ties with America.
Iranian policy in Iraq has now also refocused with the rise of Sunni ISIS jihadists. Iran worries that ISIS is destabilizing the region and jeopardizing the current pro-Iranian governments in Iraq and Syria.
Kurds battling ISIS in northern Iraq report that Iran was the first country to respond when they requested support. Although they’re not publicizing it, reports from al Arabiya show the country has been has been supplying weapons and even ground forces to fight against ISIS for more than a month.
While this puts Tehran on the same side as the U.S. in Iraq, the country still has a history of providing weapons, manpower, and other forms of direct support to its beleagured ally in Syria, the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. also lists Iran as a state sponsor of terorrism, a distinction the country’s government has held since 1984.
The current regional instability puts increased pressure on both Iran and the U.S. to reach a deal in their ongoing nuclear negotiations. Iran has offered coordinated support in Iraq and may be able to bring the Syrians to the negotiating table; in return, Tehran wants sanctions to be lifted to boost its flagging economy.
All things considered, a deal could be closer than it may seem.