Yes, Iran is safe. Stop being such a fretful ninny.
When I told my friends that I got a visa for Iran, and was thus a step closer to fulfilling a dream I’ve had for almost twenty years, most of them were happy for me. One friend, however, hinted darkly that I might be imprisoned (I hope they let you out, he said) and several years earlier had referred to tourism to Iran as “irresponsible.”
Why did this irritate me? Perhaps it’s because I’m actually pretty risk-averse: For most of my life I’ve been too scared to learn to drive, and riding a bicycle terrifies me. I spent a few days in Van in eastern Turkey before crossing into Iran and decided not to go to see Van Castle, pretty much the only sight in town, because the Lonely Planet guidebook and an anecdote on the internet suggested that it might not be safe for unaccompanied women due to the castle’s relative isolation. Also, stray dogs: Kind of a thing in rural eastern Turkey. Sadly, I ended up doing not much of anything when I was in Van, precisely because I am risk-averse.
It’s uncontroversial to observe that a few highly-publicized, spectacular incidents can give people an exaggerated sense of danger (and as it happens, Bruce Schneier has some excellent thoughts on this phenomenon, apropos of Monday’s Boston marathon bombing). So someone who reads the news and learns about the three American hikers imprisoned for allegedly crossing into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan but doesn’t actually know anyone who has traveled utterly unmolested in Iran will likely have a distorted view of what’s likely to happen on a garden-variety vacation.
What goes into my assessment of how dangerous a place is likely to be?
Mainly, I get opinions from people who know the country. For almost twenty years I’ve been talking to people who’ve traveled to Iran, and have yet to encounter one single person whose overall impression of the country was negative, and in fact the majority say it’s among their most favorite countries to visit. I’ve met people who’ve stayed for months, including Americans. And now, after going there and meeting tons of foreign tourists, as well as Iranians who’ve hosted foreigners or who work in tourism, I still have heard precious few stories of foreigners subjected to abuse or mistreatment. I heard one second-hand account involving a tourist in Shiraz who had his camera stolen from out of his hand by a thief on a motorbike, and I have one friend who was arrested and questioned (at great length albeit more or less respectfully) because the police were suspicious of her camera’s massive telephoto lens.
So Iran has never struck me as a dangerous place to travel, and the knee-jerk assumption that it’s dangerous to travel there because it has a crappy regime seems to me to stem in part from the demonization of Iran in our media.
By contrast, let’s consider Egypt, where I live. Granted, these days Egypt has a reputation for being unsafe as a result of the post-uprising security vacuum, and there is something to this: Crime is up, the police don’t do shit, and when the authorities can’t protect their five-star hotels–and by extension, their entire tourism industry, one of the major sources of the precious foreign currency desperately needed to keep pound devaluation at bay–you know something is deeply wrong. However, the two most horrible things that have happened to me in this country took place during a period in which the country was viewed as “safe”– well before the revolution, and before even the massive terrorist attacks such as the one at Luxor in 1997. In one case, I was sexually assaulted (though thankfully not outright raped) in broad daylight in a pharaonic temple, an attack so serious the police actually undertook a manhunt and the perpetrator was caught and went to jail. In the other, I was harassed by the police for having a (clothed) Egyptian man in my room in Sinai; we were loaded into a truck and headed out on the road, ostensibly to the police station. I wouldn’t pay a bribe, and so we were driven back to camp. Nevertheless, in those days, no one raised an eyebrow at anyone’s plans to travel to Egypt.
I guess this is all to say that 1) there is a fluky aspect to personal safety abroad, and 2) I worry much more about ordinary crime and petty police harassment than I do about the terrorist attacks or arbitrary detention that would attract the media’s attention, since the latter are vanishingly rare. And so you will be unsurprised to hear that aside from a couple of business-like half-hour interrogations early in my trip that ended up not being a big deal, I had absolutely no issues with the authorities. Furthermore, crime is low, Iranian cities are lively well past dark, and I only experienced verbal harassment once (“sexy,” when I was in Tehran), so I didn’t feel nervous when walking around by myself.