Is Iran Safe?
The biggest question on people's minds - Is Iran Safe? This most commonly asked question is also the most easy to answer - Yes. So here are some common questions and responses from Westerners who have experienced Iran for themselves, in additional to useful safety information for visitors.
A Cyclist in Iran
I first traveled to Iran in 2012 but not by plane or bus, instead I cycled over the Meghri Pass from southern Armenia. I can tell you at the time my nerves were tense: with approximately $4,000 USD in cash and the Iranian visa I picked up from Budapest, my cycle journey took me to the mighty doorstep of Iran. I didn't know what to expect other then my hardened senses against scams I was so accustomed to after traveling through Morocco, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, La Paz, New York (the list goes on). Never before had I relied so much on cash and consular visas to travel, let alone traveling through what I thought was the most dangerous region in the world - alone on a touring bicycle. However Iran and the rest of Central Asia was a far cry from dangerous. So forget everything you think you know of this region from western media.
A Backpacker in Iran
I was given beds from strangers, meals, smiles and many other forms of hospitality. In fact, the people I had met from Jolfa (Armenia) to Sarakhs (Turkmenistan) I found to be genuinely more hospitable and caring than most other developed regions of the world. With around 80 million people, Iran is a melting pot of Afghani's, Baluchis, Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Iraqis, Persians and a cocktail of Central Asians - Sound scary? Well think again.
A Seasoned Traveler in Iran
Iran is perhaps one of the safest countries in the world, well for genuine travelers anyway. Assuming you avoid political issues, Iran is very safe because the locals are genuinely concerned that nothing negative happens to you.
While not unheard of, assaults and robberies are very rare. It is still recommended to exercise caution in busy and dark places, like everywhere in the world, especially if you are a women alone - it's safe but don't be stupid. While hospitality is bred into the heart of the culture somehow, there is still poverty, drugs and mental illness on the edges of society. But if you have traveled through SE Asia, Brazil's favelas, and Sydney's Kings Cross, then Iran is nothing to worry about. Even for American travelers.
A Brit In Iran
If you travel in Iran you will very soon forget there is any political instability. I have just returned from three weeks and am British (so a country of an embassy was stormed just prior to my trip). Without a single exception, Iranians welcomed me like a long lost friend, genuinely happy to be meeting a British person and, if the issue of the embassy came into discussion, the person usually shook their head and joked that it was nutters who (stormed the embassy), or otherwise expressed shame that this happened in their country. The reality is if you get into Iran, it is not the country the media portrays - it is a fantastic country of welcome.
What is it Like for an Expat Living in Iran?
Iran's cities are busy, the traffic is wild, and the towns are very traditional. Iran might not be very modern and progressive but it makes up for this with it's untouched culture. The food is very unique and healthy, the history is incredible (for the good and bad), and you can genuinely connect to the people on a cultural level.
I have two tips (1) Make trips out of the cities, (2) Avoid political debates and demonstrations. Both for the sake of your own health.
So what are the local laws in Iran?
Heavy Laws in Iran
While Iran is generally safe for travelers, there are some thorns amongst the roses. DO NOT get caught doing any of the following:
- Have sex with minors;
- Have sex with locals (unless married);
- Perform assault, battery or homicide;
- Take photos of military facilities;
- Deal or possess drugs (hashish, opium etc);
- Participate in politically destabilization.
These are likely to be criminal offenses in your home country also, yet perhaps with harsher penalties in Iran. Except for political destabilization, you should probably read about the 1979 Islamic Revolution to understand why you need to be careful. Remember if you do get robbed or are involved in an incident, the Islamic laws are often based on "eye for eye" principals. The principal of 'forgiveness' generally applies in many criminal cases, meaning forgiveness can be weighted against the case. However when affecting the stability of the country as a whole (serial rapists, drug lords, or political destabilization) you'll find Iran's courts to be very heavy handed.
Soft Laws In Iran
The "Morality Police," many Gulf and other Islamic countries have them, and in Iran they are called 'Basij.' Think of them as school prefects enforcing ethos. And if you thought the 10 Commandments were just talk, then Iran just might take you back to school. Basij often wear casual clothes and roam Iran's busy streets (especially squares and bazaars), so they are usually first on the scene to break up political demonstrations. Generally there are no penalties against tourists for fashion, but you might get a friendly reminder if you are wearing something inappropriate. The soft laws might include:
- Men - Suit up, wear pants, and preferably long sleeves;
- Men - Try not to wear singlets and shorts in cities (this applies to many Islamic countries);
- Women - Try to cover your hair, just the back of your crown will do;
- Women - Try to wear loose clothes and cover your arms and legs;
- Religion - If asked by locals, remember Iranians respect all spirituality, just avoid claiming atheism.
- Ethics - Try not to lie, cheat, or steal;
- Alcohol - Many Iranians have black market alcohol at home, but try to avoid it if you can;
- Parties - Public parties along with demonstrations are often broken up. Private parties on the other-hand are plentiful. There are laws protecting the privacy of Iranian homes, however police often want bribes if you make too much noise. You can also find private parties in the desert, out in nature, Caspian Coast, Persian Gulf, some teahouses and even on ski slopes. Parties are just not open to the public eye. Also just be careful which locals you trust, especially around Yazd, some locals attach themselves to tourists and have been known to get tourists in trouble on occasion.
Aren't Iranians All Extremists?
If you have been the watching mainstream media you would probably think Iranians are flag-burning, embassy storming, and religious extremists. But this is probably the greatest misconception of labels, because Iranians will probably redefine your idea of hospitality and love for westerners. Particularly if you travel alone and say "yes" to all the invitations. Just sit down over a chai and a bowel of dates with the locals, you will probably see most Iranians are motivated by very similar things as you: that is stability, health, education, and opportunity for their children.
But What If I'm Arrested in Iran? - A Lonely Planet Experience
In our experience - yes, we have been arrested a couple of times - the primary motives for arresting a foreigner are usually curiosity, mild suspicion, and the desire to appear powerful. In the unlikely event you are arrested:
- Keep cool, you are a tourist (jahangardi) and this is just a misunderstanding.
- It's best not to reply to, or appear to understand, any questions in Farsi.
- When you can understand the questions, they will likely be very detailed and you will be expected to answer. Do so politely, patiently, openly and diplomatically. Be complimentary about Iran and Iranians.
- Answer your interrogators so that their curiosity is satisfied, their suspicion allayed and their sense of self importance flattered.
- Take special care not to incriminate yourself or anyone else, especially anyone Iranian, with a careless statement. Do not volunteer to show your photos if they include images of Iranians, who could be unwittingly dragged into something. Equally, don't actively try to hide them as this would raise suspicions.
- If things get heavy, ask to contact your embassy in Tehran (though we were ignored when we made this request a few years back).
So Are There Any Areas in Iran where I Shouldn't Go?
If you thought all the Middle East was dangerous - well think again. Here is a safety map from the British Government: the areas in Red have a higher risk of danger for tourists, and the areas in Green have regular travel advice.
Inside Iran's Outside Reputation (Short Youtube Film)
This should be enough information to keep you safe in Iran.
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