I don't think I have ever met an Iranian who was not highly intelligent, good looking and sophisticated.
That's probably because most of the Iranians I meet are students. Be that as it may, Iran is a fascinating culture dating back to the days of the Persian Empire and right up to the modern Islamic Republic. With a population of over 80 million and an Iranian diaspora of some 4-5 million, what happens in Iran is important not just for the surrounding region, including Israel, but also for the whole world.
So it was very interesting that as we entered the New Year word came through of protests taking place in 30 cities in Iran, including the capital Tehran. Could this be the Iranian version of the 'Arab' Spring? (bearing in mind that Iranians are not Arabs – indeed one of the chants being shouted was, 'We are not Arabs'). There have not been protests on this scale since 2009.
Although the protests now seem to have been contained, there are still questions that have to be answered.
Who is protesting? The Iranian government, like all dictatorships faced with a similar situation, immediately played the 'its foreign agitators' card. But this is unlikely. The information coming out of Iran suggests that it is primarily young, educated middle class people who were primarily concerned with the increasingly poor economic conditions in the country. Some 25 per cent of the millions of student graduates are unemployed. Inflation is at 13 per cent and there is rampant corruption.
In 2017 five banks and investment funds collapsed wiping out the savings of some 3 million people. Iran is also one of the most repressive regimes in the world, has the largest number of political prisoners and is the world's leading public executioner after China.
Add to this the unpopularity of Iran being involved in wars in Yemen, Syria and acting as the primary sponsor of the terrorist Hezbollah group in Lebanon and you have a volatile mix which was ripe for explosion.
Who is supporting them? Something that fascinates and puzzles me is why there has been such a relative silence from most Western politicians about these issues (Donald Trump being the notable exception). Perhaps we have learned our lesson after the debacles in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Libya? We interfered in a popular uprising in Libya and thought that we could bomb them into democracy. Having driven out one demon, seven others have taken their place in that failed state. So maybe our politicians are being wise? The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, the MP for Islington, said westerners could not 'simply impose our views' on other countries. 'We don't want to leap to judgment and say, well we don't like the regime in Iran, these people are against it, they must be the guys with white hats, because it doesn't work like that,' she added.
Is this the new wisdom? Let's be silent until we know what's happening? Let's make sure we don't make things worse? If so we should be thankful. But it appears there are other factors at play here. These same politicians are very quick to condemn Saudi Arabia and their involvement in Yemen. They have no difficulty in condemning the treatment of the Rohinga by Myanmar. As for not wanting to impose Western values, that doesn't seem to stop us in other areas.
I suspect that one of the reasons for some people being silent is the fear of being called Islamophobic. And there is also the whiff of hypocrisy. If 20 people were killed in Israel and hundreds of demonstrator imprisoned, can you imagine for one moment that these same politicians would be silent?
If demonstrators were on the streets of New York, Chicago and San Francisco, demonstrating, at no risk to their own lives, against the 'fascism' of Donald Trump, our politicians would be tweeting like mad in support – 'me too' they would hashtag. But when demonstrators are on the streets of Tehran, demonstrating against the real Islamofascism of the Iranian regime – silence. Why? I can understand the government perhaps wanting to maintain good relations because of the prisoner they want released. But what about others? At least one has to admire the consistency of Peter Tatchell who has spoken out strongly in favour of the demonstrators.
The irony for me is that these demonstrators, who are most likely secular and looking for some kind of Western democracy, are not supported by Western politicians who themselves are quick to demonstrate against the 'fascism' of Donald Trump. Meanwhile Trump publicly tweets his support!
Another unknown factor is the role of the Church in Iran and among the Iranian diaspora. Some believe that up to a million Iranians have become Christians in the past decade – it is certainly a phenomenon that many churches in the UK can testify to. Is this having an impact? Will the gospel be responsible for turning the Iranian world upside down as well? Just like the Roman Empire was more frightened of the pacifist Christians who turned out to be the real revolutionaries, maybe the biggest threat to the Iranian dictatorship is not Western politics or revolutionary arms, but rather the life transforming love of Christ.
There is a lesson for the Church here. It's easy to be 'prophetic' about the low hanging fruit of the obvious wrongs that everyone in our circle goes along with. But what about the really prophetic voice – speaking truth to a power which may not like it? Such speech may have consequences and we do need to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, but I suspect that our prophetic voices are largely like the world's – we pick on the easy targets and don't really speak up for the difficult cases, especially when such speaking out may cost us. I would be more inclined to call that pathetic rather than prophetic.
May our politicians be granted the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of Job and the love of Jesus! Pray for them – and pray for the people of Iran.