EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran. Women look at jewellery at a shop window in a bazaar in northern Tehran in this February 29, 2012 file photo. Sanctions are clearly having an impact; the country's oil revenue has been slashed and other trade disrupted; a weak currency has sent the prices of some imports soaring, destroying jobs as some factories using imported parts have folded. But they are not close to having the "crippling" effect envisaged by Washington. The Iranian government has found ways to soften the impact, and Iran's economy is large and diverse enough to absorb a lot of punishment. To match Analysis IRAN-ECONOMY/SANCTIONS REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/Files (IRAN - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS SOCIETY BUSINESS)

Far from being a zone of conflict, the Middle Eastern country is tolerant and peaceful and the public services function well

I recently visited Iran for 12 days and it was a perception-shattering experience for me.

With sanctions in place for more than 20 years and the noose being tightened more and more after Iran has been made the bogeyman of the region at the behest of Israel and its key ally, the US, I thought I would find a country in dire straits, with failing infrastructure, poverty, religious intolerance and the like.

Instead I found a country well on its feet, the people resilient enough to be self-sufficient in terms of their food and other locally produced goods, manufacturing whatever they need, even a local car - their Pekay (our Hillman Vogue of the 1970s!)

I thought I would find a domestic airline that had rickety, ancient planes, only to find modern, well-serviced fleets in the three local airlines it runs besides Iran Air, its international airline.

I expected roads in disrepair but looked hard to find potholed roads or even traffic lights that did not work.

The lights are on, the water is running and trade is on the go, even though their oil exports have trickled to a mere 10 percent of their capacity.

Although sanctions are hurting, I found only four beggars in the four cities over the course of my stay.

In every city there are special boxes for charity collection, and through the Khomeini Foundation the poor are catered for adequately. The cities are clean and services are functional.

While Shias are in the majority (90 percent) there are substantial communities of Sunnis, Armenian Christians and Jews, each being catered for in terms of their religious practices and places of worship.

They are even represented in parliament on a proportional basis. The Jewish community prefer living here, rather than emigrating to Israel.

There was also no Shia-Sunni conflict and no suicide bombers, and the country is peaceful and a haven of religious tolerance.

I travelled extensively both by air and road. All truck and bus drivers make mandatory stops at toll plazas. They physically stop their vehicles at a police check point, their driver’s licences are checked, and time between stops measured to calculate their average speed covered (and if found speeding, are dealt with), and also to assess how many hours they have been at the wheel. If this is more than eight, they are not allowed to carry on travelling on the same day. Great rules we could do with in South Africa to stop some of the carnage.

The taxi driving is world class, not cutting barrier lines or any hooting. Public bus services are in good condition, and Tehran has five operational metro lines, with two more planned to open shortly.

Kish Island in the Persian Gulf is their economic free zone, where every conceivable product can be found, even American cars. The island is developing like Sentosa (in Singapore), with one theme park operational and a variety of water sports you find in the best of resorts in Malaysia.

The cities of Shiraz and Isfahan have beautiful palaces, mosque complexes and ancient historical landmarks. Persepolis and Necropolis can be compared to Petra to some degree, and are beautiful reminders of the fall of once strong and ancient civilisations - a possible reminder to the strong and powerful of today.

These two cities are also renowned for their top plastic surgeons, who do mainly cosmetic surgery and hair implants. People come from all over the world specifically for this surgery.

Tehran has the Dizin and Shemshak ski resorts, about two hours’ drive to the north.

Not being a skier myself, I watched some of the few Europeans who travel to Iran enjoying the quality of the snow, the various gradients of the slopes, and the four cableway routes the resort has going up the mountains in various directions.

The skiers admitted these slopes compared to the best in Switzerland and Austria, and at a fraction of the price for the hire of the equipment and the day pass.

There is even a good hotel at the base for those wanting to spend an extended period here.

I learnt to do some snow-boarding. My instructor was an Iranian national ski champ who took me through the paces of a beginner. If I had two more hours I could have been on my way.

Overall I found it a pleasant destination even in winter, with both snow-covered mountains and warm beaches available on different sides of the country.

It is easy to get there with Emirates or Qatar airways. In South Africa, Fact International does guided group tours, even though I found other South Africans doing their own thing at their own pace.

With very few tourists having discovered this gem, it is still a good time to go.

Their currency is very cheap, and I felt a millionaire after converting $50 (R533).

Cash dollars are accepted throughout for any purchases. The only inconvenience was that Visa and MasterCard cannot be used for purchases, except in the high-end carpet shops, which have branches in other parts of the Middle East and so could process the sale.

Iran is a leader in nano-technology and in other specialist research fields. They host many world-famous conferences and congresses. The literacy levels are high, and even women have made a positive mark in many fields of endeavour.

As for their nuclear programme, I think it is far away from materialising, so I don’t understand the panic that Israel and the West have about this programme. In any case, Iran has stated it is for peaceful intents, rather than for war.

The locals have lots of respect for South Africans, and Mandela is even a household name in rural Iran! They welcome trade and investment, and because the country is now opening up, it has great potential.

For me it was an eye-opening experience, and it is there for you to discover for yourself.

* Mahomed is a reader of The Star

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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