If you only read one thing today, make sure it is Peter Hitchens account of his recent trip to Iran. Read it - then pass it along to others, because as Hitchens says the danger is that the West will "be tumbling into yet another foolish trap, devised by silly, ignorant politicians, from which it will take decades to escape."
When I told my friends and family I was going to Tehran, they looked at me as if I were taking a short break in Mordor, and expected that the next time they saw me I would be being paraded by Revolutionary Guards after confessing to espionage, and then publicly hanged from a large crane at a busy traffic intersection.That's just a taste of a travel through a nation that is complex and varied, not the heartless darkness of evil some would paint it as.
Well, not quite. The people of Iran are probably the most pro-Western in the world, though that will not stop them fighting like hell if we are foolish enough to attack them. Not that they will do so with nuclear weapons any time soon. Iran is rather bad at grand projects. Its sole nuclear power station has never produced a watt of electricity in more than three decades, the capital's TV tower is unfinished after 20 years of work and Tehran's airport took 30 years to build.
By bringing this information back to you I expect to annoy the frowning mullahs, who want their people to fear us as much as George W. Bush and Anthony Blair want us to fear Iran. That is why they constantly tease us about their inadequate nuclear programme. They long for our rage and threats.
Again and again, Iranians told me Western hostility was the main force that could push them into the arms of a regime they did not much like. The last thing the ayatollahs need is for the peoples of Europe and America to know much about their country and its people, or to realise the truth - that Iran is our natural ally in the Middle East, a European civilisation trapped by history and geography in the midst of Arabia. It does not belong there, culturally or religiously.
We treat Turkey like a brother, when it is a militant Islamic state kept secular only by a disguised military dictatorship. And we treat Iran like a pariah, when it's a largely secular nation kept Islamic only by an ageing and discredited, but open, despotism.
In the past ten days I have travelled across beautiful, hospitable Persia and talked to many of its people, unsupervised, unmonitored and unofficially. I have been inside private homes and found out what Iranian people think and why. I have met citizens who voted for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, citizens who now wish they hadn't and those who think he is a sick joke.
I have sat among hot-eyed zealots at Friday prayers in Tehran as they chanted 'Death to England'. I have seen the melodramatic anti-aircraft defences round the nuclear plant at Natanz. I have met supporters of the regime and endangered, persecuted dissenters, as well as plenty in between. I am under no illusions about how barbaric the government can be to those who challenge it openly in the Press or other public forums. But I think its power is waning, and can be kept alive only if we are fool enough to fall for the propaganda of the people who brought us the Iraq War.
...On the streets the women walk and stand like Parisians. Somehow, with a belt here and an adjustment there, they manage to make the modest 'manteau' jackets look chic. They laugh and chatter. The days when public laughter was a criminal offence are long gone.
About one in 50 seems to have had recent plastic surgery on her nose. They wear their bandages with pride and some even stick plaster on their faces to pretend that they have undergone this subversive surgery.
The desire among lovely Persian women to look like Snow White is strange but it is a direct reaction to authority's attempts to make them look like bats and crows.
...I went on to the glorious city of Esfahan, a treasure-house of art and architecture that would be on every tourist itinerary were it in Europe. In the great square, I was accosted by several Iranians anxious to talk. I met two contrasting groups of schoolgirls. One group, all equipped with the coolest possible mobile phones, were deeply worried. One said: 'We are all sure there will be war with the West this summer.' This is specially frightening here, since the city hosts one of Iran's nuclear sites.
The other trio - one severely veiled, one more adventurous and one positively brazen with inches of hair exposed - were angered by Western threats of sanctions and worse. 'The more you threaten us,' the severe one said, 'the more we will rally round our government and the closer we will be to them.' In this they echoed almost every conversation I had had in Iran.
As one veteran of the Iran-Iraq War had said: 'If you had come here before the Iraq invasion, lots of us would have said, 'Please, come and invade us, come and save us.' America was the most popular country in Iran then. But we have seen what liberation has brought to Iraq and Afghanistan, and if you came now we would certainly fight, not like the Iraqis, but from the very start.'
It's a long article, but well worth a read. Hitchens is no leftie - he is to the Right of his brother Christopher on most social issues - but as someone closest to the "paleoconservative" tendency in US politics was against the war in Iraq. His viewpoint is a refreshing alternative to neocon warmongery.
Update Reuters reports that the annual summer "crackdown" on dress codes, mentioned by Hitchens in his article as more observed by disobedience and looking the other way than by any real crackdown, has now begun.
Police in Iran's capital, Tehran, have so far stopped more than 1,300 women and warned them against breaching the dress code, Ahmadi said, adding "the cases of 59 women have been referred to the court".Is there a nation on earth where mouthing off or messing with "the man" doesn't get you in more trouble than simply saying "ok, officer" up until you are around the next corner?
The fate of women who police decide are "badly veiled" depends on the officers concerned. They may be released with a caution, or taken to a police station and freed on bail, said the Kargozaran daily.
"Those women who resist the guidance of police may be detained," it quoted a senior police official as saying.