Tehran, Iran — Old and young members of a middle-class Iranian family sit cross-legged on a large rug, sipping cups of hot tea and chatting about their country's economic difficulties and the war. The conversation at this traditional weekend get-together sheds light on some of the differences in today's Iranian society - particularly the ambivalence toward Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's government.
Homa, an elderly woman wearing the traditional veil over her hair, is obviously a devout Muslim. She opposed the imperial regime of the late Shah and welcomed the 1979 revolution in the hope that it would promote Islamic values and some measure of freedom. But, she says, she doesn't feel any better now. ``I wanted an Islamic society, not a clergy-led government.''
Her sister Zohre, who doesn't wear the veil, is even harsher. ``Everything that has happened to us since 1979 is the consequence of our government's policy. If the Shah had remained in power, the Iraqis would have never dared to attack us, because we had a powerful Army and were under the protection of the United States.''
At this, Zohre's four sons look annoyed. They're all ardent supporters of the Islamic regime.
``Mother, you should understand that we made the revolution to free ourselves from the superpowers' trusteeship,'' explains Darius, who has just signed up for a three-month stint at the front. ``This is why both the US and the USSR support the Iraqis. Our present economic problems are the consequences of this war.''
As we talk, the neighborhood sirens start wailing. ``Red alert,'' warns the radio announcer. That means Iraqi aircraft are very close to Tehran. The apartment lights are turned out. Everyone looks anxious, but stays calm. No one seems in a hurry to go to the basement.
``They generally drop 1,000-pound bombs,'' says Darius, ``which means that if one falls on your house, you get killed no matter where you are.''
In the blacked-out room, the conversation continues. Both supporters and detractors of the the Tehran regime criticize Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. After 6 years of brutal warfare, all agree, the Iranians have no alternative but to continue until they defeat Iraq in battle once and for all. Iraq's recent bomb attacks on Iranian cities, I'm told, are merely a desperate attempt to break the morale of the Iranian people.
Even Zohre, Ayatollah Khomeini's avowed foe, speaks proudly of the Iranian forces' recent successes in the southern sector of the war front.
The next morning a Western diplomat says that Iraq actually bombed the holy city of Qom, 100 miles southwest of Tehran, killing dozens of civilians.
The war, he continues, is an important factor in uniting the Iranians. Throughout their history, he adds, Iranians have been very nationalistic.
Even a former official of the imperial regime, who was jailed for several years admits: ``I hate this regime. But when the mullahs give the Iraqis a thrashing I can't prevent myself from feeling proud.''
[Iran claimed Tuesday that an Iranian missile hit Baghdad, in retaliation for Iraqi attacks on its cities. There were few details of fighting on the southern front near Basra, where Iran launched a major ground offensive in the first week of January.] The Iran-US arms scandal
Western observers in Tehran agree that the Iranian government managed the US-Iran arms scandal much better than the US did.
``With no important opposition press here, it was easy for the government to depict the whole affair as a desperate attempt by the US administration to resume relations with the Islamic Republic, which is reemerging as a major power in the Middle East,'' one European ambassador says.
The secret US-Iran contacts appear to have triggered a new wave of anti-American feeling.
Most rank-and-file supporters of the Islamic regime adamantly oppose the idea of resuming relations with the US, which strongly supported the Shah and is perceived as the main enemy of the Islamic revolution.
But even critics of the government are bitter about the US-Iran contacts and arms deals - though for different reasons. Many of these Iranians had the impression that the US had backed movements opposed to the Khomeini regime. Now they feel let down.
``The Great Satan [as Tehran officially refers to the US] turns out to be the Great Friend. I feel betrayed by the West and the USA in particular,'' says a woman in Tehran's better-off neighborhoods. Recent events, she says, have reinforced her feeling that the Western world actually backs the Khomeini regime, seeing it as a powerful bulwark against Soviet expansionism in the Persian Gulf.
Iran's recent military offensives and the arms affair have put the country's economic difficulties somewhat in the shade. But even government officials acknowledge, privately, that popular discontent against the high cost of life is on the rise, especially in urban areas.
Since the war began, these officials say, Iran's major cities have had to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees from the southern war-torn areas. In addition, recent Iraqi air strikes against provincial cities have spurred an exodus to the capital, which until now has been spared any major raids.
The government follows as a ``double market'' policy. Rationed basic commodities can be bought at low prices with food coupons. Better-quality products are found only on the free market - at much higher prices.
``A kilo of rice [which in Iran is the basic food] bought with coupons costs 90 rials [about $1.15] On the free market it's 700 rials [$9],'' a woman says.
Another woman, Jaleh, says these problems compound her burden. ``I have to get up at 5 in order to arrive on time at my work. After my working hours I stand in line to buy food.''
Recently, after a series of successful Iraqi air strikes against the country's refineries, the government rationed gasoline and heating oil. Every car owner is entitled to 30 liters of gas per month. But those wishing to can buy unlimited quantities of fuel on the free market at three times the official price.
The free market prices, says a young man encountered in a Tehran street, are often unpredictable. But, he continues, there is widespread hope here that the war with Iraq will end soon and that the country's economic situation will improve.
In Tehran's poorer southern neighborhoods, where the core of the Islamic Republic's supporters are found, one does not hear as many complaints about the economic restrictions.
``Those people,'' a European diplomat says, ``show an incredible flexibility and ability to tighten their belt.''
Mr. van England was among the group of Western journalists recently allowed into Iran.