Stories in this Iran Travel Series:
I smile when friends write, “hope you’re safe,” because I feel safer living in Iran than in many other places, despite the insane traffic I explained in the Part 1 of this series.
Travel safety in Iran: arrests of tourist visitors are actually rare
I realize that to an outsider, it’s ironic to say I feel safer living in Iran. After all, we’ve all seen the headlines about Europeans or Americans arrested in Iran.
But it would be a mistake that to assume the same could happen to you if you visited Iran. The vast majority of arrests of foreign nationals are of binational Iranians, not tourists.
These are people who were born in Iran and then moved abroad and gained a second citizenship. Most were living in Iran when they were accused of national security offenses. They make the news abroad because they also hold citizenship of other countries and not because they are tourists.
Travel safety in Iran: You get arrested in Iran for certain things – but not without a cause
I personally have nothing to fear because I don’t do risky things.
- I don’t fly drones. But if I did, wouldn’t do it without a permit.
- I don’t ride a mountain bike literally across the frontier and claim injustice when I’m jailed.
- I don’t play foreign correspondent or attempt to contact journalists.
- I don’t meet with activists, unionists and political dissidents.
- I don’t photograph street protests or law enforcement and military sites.
- I complain profusely. It’s a national sport here. But I don’t broadcast my complaints on social media (except for bitching about the traffic).
The most important unwritten law in Iran, I’ve been told countless times: don’t opine on religion and politics to groups of people.
For me, living in Iran is a privilege
I choose to live in Iran for good reasons:
- For my Iranian wife (she is happier here close to her family)
- The country’s countless natural phenomenon (so many that I will not see them all even if I lived multiple lifetimes)
- The amazing food
- The affordable cost of living (because of the favorable currency exchange rates)
- The active social life. People here truly thrive on socializing and it’s infectious; it’s changing my personality!
Just the food alone is a great source of comfort here. I am talking about the traditional restaurants, the access to the great variety of recipes and locally produced foods, and the way Iranians use to food to connect.
All of this was on my mind as I took the picture below yesterday of Saeideh. You just can’t recreate all this outside of Iran: nibbling on oven-fresh sangak bread and locally produced (aka organic) yogurt served to us on Persian rugs in a traditional restaurant.
It’s a privilege to live in Iran. Therefore, I don’t risk it.
What if a visitor to Iran breaks a rule inadvertently?
There are cultural norms visitors (and yours truly) regularly violate. But that doesn’t affect your security traveling in Iran.
Say, you walk into a mosque with your shoes on (personal experience). Or shake hands with the opposite sex (multiple personal experiences, to the chagrin of my wife). Or ignore repeated requests to stop taking pictures by a museum volunteer, who then calls security (embarrassing attempt to push the envelope). Or get into a fight with a devious shopkeeper who grabs you and screams bloody murder (another personal fiasco).
No, these are not national security things that the authorities are sensitive about. And people cannot bother you with impunity.
The shopkeeper who targeted me got his ass kicked after the mall manager investigated. The museum personnel let me go after checking my phone and the delivery of a thorough tongue lashing.
In fact, I am surprised how much tourists can get away with. I get screamed at when I forget to take my shoes off. When the gringo does it, suddenly it’s funny.
Travel safety in Iran: Could authorities use an inadvertent mistake to lock me up?
What you are really asking about are corrupt cops and prosecutors – because everyone knows tourists make mistakes.
Experienced travelers know you should not violate local laws out in the open – because the tourist is at a natural disadvantage.
You don’t buy joints on the street, even in Jamaica! Or follow drunk German tourists to pick magic mushrooms in Oaxaca. Or skip paying bus fare in Switzerland. Or urinate out of a moving train in Ecuador. Crooked or particularly angry cops could really mess up your trip. The same goes in Iran.
But no one is arrested in Iran without cause. The cop who grabs a tourist eventually has to justify it.
Yes, the definition of national security offenses here are far wider than back home. And the penalties are harsh and the judicial process is opaque compared to Western standards.
And if you commit a serious offense, of course, you could be used as a pawn in a prisoner-exchange scheme, just as is the case in other countries.
But despite what travel advisories make it sound like, the offense has to be real and meet the criteria. Tourists – real tourists – have nothing to fear. The government is far more interested in the foreign currency tourists bring in.
So why are there warning about tourist travel to Iran? I think about this all the time. Here’s my take.