Steve Madgwick on the joys of travelling through everyone's favourite enemy.
It is a lesser lamb in a flock of governments that believes pretty much anything the powerful overlord from the promised land spoon-feeds it.
The little lamb wants to be one of the big boys, so often it uncritically passes on these half-chewed truths to its citizens verbatim.
This is my government, the Australian Government, which officially advised me to "reconsider your need to travel" to Iran — the second most severe travel warning at its disposal.
If you slurp up the slop Fox News and the like discharge, this is just good governance. But I prefer to sift through that slop. You see, Australia's authorities have a history of sycophantically shadowing US foreign policy, even when it is Tweeted out by Supreme Dim-Wit Donald.
"But I don't understand why they say not to come here," says clearly perplexed Maryam, owner of a (technically illegal) home-stay in a handsome city on the fringes of Iran's Dasht-e Kavir (Great Sandy Desert).
Surprisingly, Maryam speaks even more critically of her own government than she does of The Great Orange One or whoever's at 'Straya's helm this month. Calling BS on authority is what intelligent people the world over do; regardless of race or religion.
I sit at her kitchen table, on my third tea and thousandth date, mentally summarising my journey around this infamous republic over the past month. And, quite simply, the political hype and the travelling truth as I see it don't align.
Luckily, reality is propaganda's archest of enemies. The onslaught begins the moment I clear customs at Imam Khomeini Airport and hop on the thoroughly modern metro, bound for central Tehran (for about 10c).
An English-speaking stranger makes it his mission to ensure I find my way to my guesthouse. He stays on the train past his stop, gets off at mine, walks me six big blocks, buys me some smoked almonds, then hand-on-heart welcomes me to Persia. There is not a hint of commerce in his intensions.
This surreal hyper-hospitality show replays relentlessly. Keen to witness Tehran's fiercely reputed soccer derby, I snap up a last-minute scalper's ticket.
One-hundred-thousand Iranians, plus me, cram into the 76,000-capacity Azadi Stadium: red fans one end, blue the other. Half a battalion of police survey the vuvuzala-ing human hornets' nest.
On paper, this is the textbook powder-keg that my government would advise me to "reconsider" or run like billy-o away from.
Nonsense. It's just like watching a game of rugby writ large: ordinary Iranians (men-only) blowing off steam, screaming at the other team, feeling part of something bigger for a few hours.
Post final-whistle, I surf the human tide that flash-floods from the gigantic concrete temple and lose my bearings. Right on cue, the Persian-hospitality magic carpet flys into action: a young family swoops me up, drive me most of the way back to my guesthouse, plying me with Iranian sweet after Iranian sweet along the way.
There are a formidable number of other reasons to visit Everyone's Favourite Enemy, not least all that goes with being one of the world's oldest civilisations, including the likes of ancient wonder, Persepolis (Google it now), and mosques of utterly uncommon splendour.
There are fascinating desert outposts ringed by horizon-owning networks of rippled dunes; imposing snow-crowned mountains to ski and hike, unusually close to sophisticated cosmopolitan cities where a flowing coffee culture threaten's tea's stranglehold. There are even stunning islands with cultures all their own.
And, please, don't get me started on the rich cuisine, where exotic spices such as saffron are bandied around like salt and pepper.
"Tell people about the way it is here," Maryam says, "even the not-so good bits" by which she means the unrelenting restrictions that women face.
Urban Iran is relatively moderate compared with some Islamic regimes I've passed through, but the freedom-chasm between the sexes is still so capacious that Maryam is actively researching avenues into havens such as Canada and New Zealand. Not so much for her, she says, as to free up her 16-year-old daughter's stifled future.
Mostly Maryam feels a deep sadness that strangers in far, far away lands could possibly equate her with her (undemocratically elected) government and hardline religious authorities.
I think the New Zealand Government's current Iran travel advisory — "exercise increased caution" — shows a much deeper understanding of circumstances here.
Why "caution"? Because it's not all tea and rosewater in Iran. Of course there has been political strife; not specifically directed at tourists though. And, yes, Iran's powers have many a dodgy allegiance from a Western perspective.
But as a visitor, you soon discover Iran is a hugely diverse country with a hugely open heart. Respect the culture and stay away from a couple of very obvious no-go zones and you have nothing out of the ordinary to fear. (You would have to be a gurning imbecile to travel close to the Iraq border)
"When politicians have problems, people pay the price," goes a Farsi saying. Ordinary Iranians like Maryam are already crippled by hyper-inflation thanks to US-led economic sanctions. An undeservedly stern travel warning is just a sanction by another name.
I admit I was slightly shitting bricks as I stepped off the 16-hour combination of flights, and sat waiting in that uber-fluorescent room for my visa. But that was the last time.
The average Iranian just wants to be part of the world again.
I am so glad I saw past the politics from my own supreme leaders so I could be part of their beguiling world, if only fleetingly.
's 14-day Iran Adventure starts and ends in Tehran. Highlights include exploring Persepolis and a local homestay with a Qashqai family. The trip costs from $3551 pp, twin share.
Kiwis are eligible to apply for an e-visa for Iran or you can apply for a "visa on arrival" (have your papers in order).