With visitor numbers rising and hotel chains circling, Iran is reinventing itself but the change is too fast for some
Standing in the blue-tiled shadows of one of Irans greatest mosques, armed with a dish of sesame caramel snacks, Mohammed Reza Zamani is a cleric on a mission to repair the countrys image in the west, one tourist at a time.
Free Friendly Talks a billboard announces in English, at the entrance to a historic religious seminary-turned-museum, in the central city of Isfahan, a former imperial capital so beautiful that even today Iranians describe the city as half the world.
Tourism brings both money and a more positive international image for Iran, says Zamani, 36, a theology student, who is keen to ensure that visitors who might once have been alarmed by his clerical turban and robes feel welcome in his city.
I think the moment they set foot in Iran [foreigners] find it totally different from what they expect, and their minds are changed by the people when visitors talk to us, he said, as he took a short break between explaining marriage and circumcision traditions to a group of Italians and discussing millenarian religious beliefs with a man from the Netherlands.
Irans reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, staked his government and reputation on opening Iran to the world, sealing a nuclear deal that ended sanctions and courting foreign investment in its wake.
Rouhani was re-elected for a second term in a landslide victory last weekend, a sweeping endorsement of his policy from the Iranian people. And for many Iranians the growing flood of foreigners armed with guidebooks and selfie sticks is one of the most visible signs of change and re-engagement.
Isfahan lives by tourists, said Masood Mohamedian, a former lorry driver who this year gambled all his savings on opening a small cafe serving traditional snacks just off the main square. I am 100% happy with Rouhani as president.
Tourism to Iran might seem like a hard sell. The initial problem is the countrys reputation, tied up inextricably for many in the west with dramatic television images of the US embassy hostage crisis from 1979-81, and the fatwa issued in 1989 against Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses. More recently, the crackdown that followed disputed 2009 elections, and arrests of figures such as Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, have done little to soften that image. And the countrys conservative religious and social rules, which visitors must observe along with citizens, might deter some westerners.
There is little public nightlife, no alcohol, men and women cannot kiss or embrace in public, and women in particular must observe a relatively strict dress code, wearing a headscarf and covering their arms and legs. But tens of thousands of people have decided that Irans attractions far outweigh those constraints. And Iran has tried to encourage them by easing restrictions on travel.
Europeans from countries including France, Italy and Germany, who account for the majority of western tourists, can now get visas on arrival in Tehran, and at the main sites they mingle with sightseers from China, Japan and elsewhere.
When the sanctions were lifted, I decided to come as soon as possible, said Simonetta Marfoglia, an Italian tourist who was halfway through a two-week trip. I had read a lot of Iranian poetry, and I am very interested in the history of the region. I am really very happy to be visiting: the people are wonderful, there is great hospitality, and its very friendly.