11th May 2018
So once again I find myself leading a group of international tourists through a country upon which the world's attention is now focused. While this is not as dramatic as being in Pakistan on the Afghan frontier when 9/11 happened, it still feels significant. Quite what the long-term ramifications will be of Donald Trump pulling America out of the nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions, as he did last night, only time will tell. But I fear you'd have to be either extremely ignorant or extremely optimistic to think they will be good.
From a business perspective the last few years have seen unprecedented growth in tourism to Iran. Once Ahmadinejad was gone and Rouhani was in power - shaking hands with Obama at the U.N., orchestrating the talks that would eventually lead to the nuclear deal, generally talking in more conciliatory terms - the perception of Iran changed and suddenly people wanted to travel here. In 2013 we took 40 people to Iran; in 2016 we took over 600. And even on this trip we have all been surprised by the number of international tourists - German, French, Spanish, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean - at each of the major sites. Will that now change, will the rhetoric once more become the bellicose rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad era?
I hope not. I have always believed travel more than anything else breaks down barriers, dilutes prejudice, encourages tolerance. Through it we realise we are all much the same, with similar hopes and fears, the same dreams and nightmares.
And as I have already written in other blogs from this trip, the Iranian people are friendly, honest and hospitable. How many times over the last 10 days have locals said to me, "Welcome to Iran..."? It must be nearly 100. And for many of those we have spoken to this will become a nightmare. For years they lived with crippling sanctions. Then the sanctions were lifted and the economy surged. Since Trump threatened to withdraw from the treaty the economy has slowed and the value of the rial has halved. Those that can have been getting their money out. Seeing little future the young are keen to emigrate.
And so as we drive north from the pretty regional town of Kashan - where we saw yet another stunning mosque, an equally impressive bazaar, another sumptuous garden and saw the rose water distillation for which the town is famous - to Tehran and the end of the tour I can't help but have a heavy heart.
Whatever the current geopolitics that are confusing the world right now, there is no doubt in my mind the average Iranian wants nothing more than to welcome us foreigners, wherever we're from, and shower us in the hospitality for which they are famed.
Iran is still one of the most fascinating and historically rich countries on earth, and you will still be made to feel welcome. It is simply in their blood.