It has been a dream of mine for quite some time to visit Iran. I had always assumed that this would be out of the question in reality – the word ‘Iran’ hardly conjures up an image of safety and stability for British travellers – at least until diplomatic relations between Iran and the West improved. After all, the British Foreign Office officially advises against all but essential travel to Iran, and they are supposed to know what they’re talking about. However, events at the start of this year encouraged me to start to think again about whether an Iranian adventure was as impossible as I had originally thought.
In September 2011, all diplomatic relations between Britain and Iran were suspended following an attack on the British Embassy in Tehran. A protest against British sanctions had got out of hand, and the embassy walls were scaled, and some buildings burnt; both countries closed their embassies in the fall-out to the attack, as Britain suspected that it was supported in some way by the state. Then, as moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated as president of Iran in August 2013, relations began to improve and a preliminary nuclear deal was struck at Geneva in November between Iran and the P5+1 countries (Germany, France, the UK, the US, China and Russia): the first official deal between the US and Iran for thirty-four years. Iran agreed to halt parts of its nuclear programme in exchange for reduced sanctions. These talks have continued, with further discussions held in Vienna in February 2014, the first in a new series designed to move towards a more permanent solution. Both sides have stated clearly that there are still many disagreements and areas of significant difference; even so, it seemed at the start of 2014, that things were on the up. Iran and Britain even exchanged non-resident charges d’affaires in October 2013: seen to be the preliminary stages of re-opening the embassies and re-appointing ambassadors.
At the start of this year, many travel writers started to tip Iran as one of the next biggest tourist destinations: it was featured in the Guardian’s “hotspots for 2014“; it was number one in the FT’s “top destinations for 2014“; Green Traveler Guides said it was in the “world’s 10 best ethical destinations for 2014“. The general trend is clear. Rouhani had made it an election promise to revive the tourism industry in a bid to create jobs (youth unemployment stands at 26%), and his policy seemed to be working. Other commentators have noted that it’s not just the improved political situation which is leading tourists back to Iran, but the fact that other destinations in the Middle East (such as Egypt) have become less popular because of unrest.
In light of all of this, I managed to persuade my family that this was the perfect chance to visit Iran. The Iranian springtime is supposed to be amazingly beautiful and having studied aspects of ancient Persia such as Persepolis (images below), I was dying to go. With 16 UNESCO sites, it is no surprise that Iran had once been a solid part of the hippie trail before the 1979 revolution, and I suspected that if we waited a few years, it would become like any other Middle Eastern tourist destination: still interesting, but certainly less exciting, and the most fascinating sites would be overrun by other snap-happy travellers. On the other hand, the political situation is hardly stable: who knew whether in three years time the nuclear deals would have been overturned and we would have missed the one ‘window’ of opportunity to visit Iran before the region was overcome by another conflict?
So, we began the laborious process of applying for Iranian visas. For British citizens the process is as follows:
1) Apply online through an Iranian tour company such as iranianvisa.com (pay €35 each)
2) The Iranian tour company makes an application on your behalf to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a Visa Code. This essentially means the Iranian government has approved your visit to Iran; the process is supposed to take around 10 working days (though Iran has so rather a lot of ‘holidays’ when visas are not processed so this step can take quite a long time – I wonder if this understaffing issue might be another factor).
3) Once you have received your code, you take this with your passport to your nearest Iranian embassy for them to actually apply the visa. Unfortunately, as there is no embassy in the UK, this means somehow getting your visa documents to Dublin, and the embassy won’t accept them by post. Your choice is either to shell out about £500 for an agency to go to Dublin on your behalf, to find a friendly Irish acquaintance willing to take the documents for you to the embassy, or to book a cheap flight to Dublin and go yourself. The latter is what most travellers decide to do, and apparently it is quite straightforward. This stage is hardly cheap: each visa issued costs an additional £190.
Unfortunately, our application never made it to this point. After we were in the middle of stage 2, the Iranian government announced, quite unexpectedly, that British and Canadian citizens would only be allowed into the country if they took part in an organised tour, or if they had an official guide with them at all times. Neither of these options appealed to us, and so we were forced to withdraw our applications. Iran, it seems, is not QUITE ready to open its doors to tourism; since we had already booked the first leg of our flights (via Istanbul) we will instead be making a Turkish trip. I suspect the sudden change in rules might be something to do with the Crimea situation, as countries on both sides of the Russia-US line that week announced measures against each other designed to ‘make a point’ without actually damaging trade. The Crimea situation certainly puts Iran in a difficult position as the Vienna talks are supposed to be starting on the second round this week, but the Ukrainian dilemma threatens to overshadow the whole process if two of the talks’ participants have other more pressing issues on their minds. So far Russia has been co-operative with the nuclear talks, and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov recently said that Russia had no intention to ‘raise the stakes’ over Iran, but I suspect that that might be exactly what does happen.
I do hope that this isn’t the absolute end to the story of Iran and me – after all, if the visa regulations change back again I have my itinerary already mapped out and am ready to set off!