I landed at Tehran airport on a plane full of Chinese businessmen and checked into the hotel as a group of German businessmen were checking out, and an Italian delegation was checking in. I mused how things have changed since my last visit in August 2012, when Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was in power, and Iran was an international pariah. Then, the airport was desolate—except for Iranians themselves boarding flights few and far between. Hotels were in an unforgiving mood, charging the few foreign visitors an arm and a leg to compensate for bad business. It was a year before Iran began the long walk towards rapprochement that led to the 2015 nuclear deal; and the lifting of sanctions in January. Now, the Iranian economy—trying to emerge from stagnation and runaway inflation—is attractive for investors. The IMF predicts a 4-4.5 per cent growth over the medium term with a boost in oil exports. The world has begun clamouring for Iranian crude once again. Its people are hungry for the comforts of our times—fast cars, fine foods, designer clothes and travel. Italy’s biggest designers are opening glittering stores in Tehran’s poplar-lined upmarket neighbourhoods. Many of the 1980s or older Ladas and Peugeots have been replaced with new Hyundais and Kias that tailgate Mercedes, Porsche and BMW cars on jam-packed streets.
“You can feel it in the air,” smiles Nazila Noebashari, who runs the Aaran Art gallery in central Tehran’s cultural hub. “The despair of the Ahmedinejad years has been replaced with optimism, hope and a sense of freedom.” Nazila opened her gallery in those years, and in spite of everyone’s incredulity, she has stuck it out. Maryam Majd, the owner of the older Assar Gallery in the neighbourhood, says there are still rules and regulations (Iranian gallerys don’t display nudes) but “it’s become better, less restricted”. Interestingly, most gallery owners are women. According to Orkideh Daroodi who runs Gallery O, that’s because art was never considered serious, but more a side business set up in homes to occupy the women of Tehran forced to find outlets in a heavily restrictive regime. Hoda Zarbaf, the young artist exhibiting sculpture made from fabric, foam and digital media, has created a show that’s like a personal memoir. Inspired by her grandmother’s pre-revolution stories and her own post-revolution childhood, she juxtaposes nostalgia, memory and everyday life. It is her first solo show back home, after having lived abroad for the last nine years. She says the Iranian art movement is finally in touch with the rest of the world.
It is against this backdrop of massive change in Iran that PM Narendra Modi, president Rouhani and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani signed the Chabahar deal to boost trade and economic ties. While India may have gotten a foothold in the development of the port and free trade zone, it is late in the game. Tehran is unlikely to play favourites when it comes either to the remaining phases of port development, or other major infrastructure projects. The Iranians haven’t ruled out other countries (read Japan, China, even Pakistan) getting involved in future phases. As Professor Reza Eslami, who teaches law at the Shahid Beheshti university, tells me, “Iran wants good relations with all major powers in the region—India in particular. But India doesn’t seem to have a clear policy towards Iran.” The Iranians may have set aside bruises over the vote against Tehran at the IAEA, but they haven’t forgotten. Just as they haven’t forgotten receiving Chinese help in major infrastructure projects—roadways and public transport, for example—during the tough years. Why, four days after sanctions were lifted in January, Xi Jinping was in Tehran, pledging to increase trade to $600 billion over the next decade.
In Tehran’s carpet bazaar last week, I bought myself a gorgeous nomadic carpet. With birds and flowers, it’s a classic tree of life pattern made by members of the Qashqai tribe. The asking price was way over anything I was willing to pay, but Ali, the carpet seller, could tell I was interested. After heavy bargaining, we settled for $1,200, less than what he had first asked for. Still too much money, I said, offering a credit card that I knew wouldn’t work in Iran. No worries, he replied, and wrapped it up, along with a slip of paper with bank details of a relative in France for me to wire payment to. As I took both skeptically, Ali smiled and said, “Our business is based on trust. I trust you to give you the carpet, so why don’t you trust me on the price?”
Two things haven’t changed that much. The high-speed, stomach-churningly crazy traffic has only gotten worse. And international credit cards and bank transfers still don’t work.
Journalist Maya Mirchandani is Foreign Affairs Editor at NDTV.