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Ski diplomacy boosts Swiss-Iran ties
[DARBANDSAR, Iran] As a fierce blizzard sweeps mountains outside Tehran, a team of elite Swiss ski instructors refuses to allow the deep freeze to stand in the way of warming ties with Iran.
"The conditions are... interesting," laughed Vincent Pilet, a member of the Swiss team, as snow whipped sideways into the window of the cafe in Darbandsar resort, a two-hour drive from the Iranian capital.
He said he could handle the weather - the bigger challenge was dealing with the huge numbers of Iranians who had shown up to be tested by the visitors from Switzerland.
Mr Pilet and two other instructors were on a two-week mission, scouting for the best skiers in Iran to receive Swiss-style training and start up a new generation of instructors.
They've been inundated.
"We expected to have maybe 30 to 40 per day, and we've ended up with more like 70, or even 140 on one day," said Loris Ambresin, another member of the Swiss team.
Iran is not an obvious destination for ski afficionados.
Fresh powder, bombing snowboarders and wild apres-ski are not the first images that leap to mind when one thinks of the Islamic republic.
But the Alborz mountains above Tehran are home to a clutch of excellent pistes, even if some of the pre-revolution facilities look somewhat dated.
"The chairlifts are a bit old but that just adds to the charm," said Mr Pilet.
Skiing in Iran dates back around 80 years when Germans arrived to dig coal mines in the mountains north of the capital and introduced locals to the sport.
"The people of the village began carving skis out of tree trunks," said Morteza Saveh Shemshaki, head of education for the Iranian Ski Federation.
Resorts popped up and attracted international investors - at one point in the 1970s, a French-made cable car from northern Tehran was the longest in the world.
But the Islamic revolution of 1979 put the industry on ice.
Skiing has made a comeback. Whereas the pistes were until the mid-1990s divided by a long rope to segregate the sexes, now everyone can ski together, although some controls remain.
Some "don't like the idea that men and women are having fun together, but there's not much they can do about it up here", said one skier, asking not be named.
When international business ties were rekindled by the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, easing sanctions on Iran, one Swiss firm spotted an opportunity.
Andrea Gabus, who heads the investment company SGCH, believes that building a cadre of world-class instructors will attract more skiers and ultimately more business interest, while also strengthening ties between Switzerland and Iran.
"It's currently an elite sport in Iran, but because of the closeness of Tehran to the resorts, there is the potential to make it more democratic and bring it to more than just one social class," he said.
Mr Gabus knows these are tricky times.
Iran's business environment is difficult at best, and US President Donald Trump threatens to spoil Tehran's return to the world stage with fresh sanctions and instability.
"Companies should not be afraid to come to Iran. There are a lot of barriers, but they're not insurmountable," said Mr Gabus.
"Although we might have a few very turbulent years ahead of us in terms of what's happening in the USA... the development of infrastructure for winter sports is very long-term.
"Investment now doesn't mean dealing with the politics we have now. It means dealing with the politics we'll have in 25 years," he said.
Up on the slopes, such concerns seem far away, despite some culture shocks for the ultra-organised Swiss.
"We come from a country where our ski system has been set up for years and years, and we get to a country where they have no structure, nothing. So we've had to adapt quite a lot," said Mr Ambresin.
The overall mood was upbeat, with locals grateful for the chance to train with foreigners and the Swiss planning more such missions in coming years.
"It's very positive," said Alireza Ghotbi, watching from the sidelines because of a leg injury. "Our instructors used to use books to improve, but it's much better with world-class Swiss coaches."