Iran: a door opens

Iran's culture is deep. Its people are complex. Its doors have for too long shut out the rest of the world. A Monitor reporter who returned to Iran after being barred for more than four years found Iranians eager to talk.

Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images
Tehran, Iran: Scott Peterson takes a portrait of himself with a young Iranian man in a mirror at a fast-food shwarma restaurant.

The Monitor’s Scott Peterson had been in and out of Iran 30 times since the mid-1990s. He has Iranian friends; knows Iranian officials; enjoys Iranian food, music, movies, and literature. In 2009, the Iranian government closed the door on all that.

Although a few reporters were allowed in over the years, they were kept on a short leash. Economic sanctions tied to the Iranian nuclear program furthered the isolation of Iranians. Phone, e-mail, social media, and travelers’ accounts provided Scott and others glimpses of Iranian life during the four-year deep freeze, but nuance and texture, color and laughter were lost. Iran and Iranians became sketchy in our thinking. A nation of 76 million was, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the world.

And Iran is not just any nation. It is a pillar of civilization. In its 2,700-year history, Persian culture has contributed richly to human knowledge in math, medicine, chemistry, religion, philosophy, poetry, agriculture, and architecture. Modern Iranians prize education, intellect, science, and the arts. However divided Iranians may be about the course their nation should take, however drawn to Western ideas and values many are, there is no doubt within Iran about Iran’s worth and dignity. 

Under Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian government has been opening up. The changes have been quick. No one knows how deeply they are rooted. Iran has agreed to a first-phase deal to ease sanctions in return for nuclear inspections. It has welcomed back Scott and other reporters. If the opening lasts – even expands – the effect could be felt far beyond the Middle East.

Scott’s diary of seven days in Tehran lets us ride along with him on a journey of both rediscovery and discovery. As everywhere, there are millions of points of view, some warm, some angry, and many that are both wary and willing to suspend judgment for now. 

 The opening with Iran may be temporary and tactical. As with the Arab Spring, today’s new thinking could be followed by tomorrow’s second thoughts. No one is sure, maybe not even Mr. Rouhani. Skepticism is understandable. But it is equally possible that something is happening, that a small thaw could become a bigger warm-up.

Every breakthrough, every softening of a heart or opening of a mind, starts small. It can be dismissed or ignored, questioned or attacked. It can also be nurtured and encouraged. That’s our choice.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at editor@CSMonitor.com.

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