The Islamic Republic of Iran has strong associations in the minds of many in Germany. People think of human rights violations and a religious regime that is defying huge international pressure in order to stick with a nuclear programme that many seriously doubt is peaceful. However, Iran is a country that comprises many different realities – as our colleague Maria Adebahr knows. She works at the German Embassy in Tehran as a desk officer for human rights and legal issues and has provided this report as a glimpse into her working life.
I’m on the road very early today, just a few moments after the muezzin’s morning call to prayer. This is a significant day, as it will centre around providing aid for the more than two million Afghan refugees living in Iran. An international congress of non‑governmental organizations, or NGOs, is taking place in Tehran today, the first such conference to be held here in the 30‑odd years since the Islamic Revolution. More than 50 participants from relief agencies – ranging from big international bodies to small private organizations from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq – are coming together to establish a network in the fight against refugee hardship.
A miracle or a sign of cautious opening up?
I am greeted by a euphoric Setareh, the woman behind the congress. “What a miracle!” she says, her eyes shining. It is indeed something of a miracle that the Iranian Ministry for the Interior has not only given permission for the conference but has even become actively involved. NGOs have a hard time in Iran, often being denied work permits and complaining of government checks that go so far as to prevent their activities. Maybe things are changing now; maybe this conference is a sign that things are cautiously becoming more open. It will be important to make use of that openness. The German Embassy in Tehran has worked alongside the NGOs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to make today possible.
The conference starts. As is obligatory at all official events, we begin with quotations from the Koran and the Iranian national anthem. Everyone in the room gets to their feet. Like all the other women here, I am wearing a long gown. I rearrange the folds of my headscarf. It took a while for me to get used to wearing the hijab when I first came here – but this dress code is an essential prerequisite for any woman wanting to take part in public life in Tehran.
Building bridges – in spite of difficulties
What is diplomacy? My Ambassador once told me, “It’s easy to talk to friends. Diplomacy starts at the point where bridges need to be built, where dialogue has to be maintained even when times get tough.” That is what’s happening here. Hijab or no, the conference participants engage in lively debate and don’t shy away from open criticism. There is interest in the opinion from the German Embassy. For the NGOs, Germany’s presence here today signifies international attention and recognition.
I head for the Embassy in the afternoon, taking my positive impressions of the conference atmosphere with me. The Tehran legal and consular section is one of the ten largest within the Federal Foreign Office system. More than 50,000 visas are issued here every year, and more than 150,000 Iranians live and work in Germany. Relations are multifaceted and close. Today, for example, we register an announcement of marriage, an important step and a meaningful moment for the young German‑Iranian couple. There are visa applications to sort out, and a German citizen has lost his passport in Isfahan – so we make phone calls and organize help.
In the evening, I meet the little Afghan boy with the merry eyes in front of my house again. He lives on the building site opposite, in a shack he shares with his family. We exchange shy greetings in the light of the setting sun. Today I have tried to play a small part in making things better for families like his. It has been a good day – on my posting to Iran.