Cautiously, Iranian Youths Put Pedal to Metal

For young people living under Iran's strict Islamic rule, fun can be tough to come by. But then again, youth itself is irrepressible.

"It's all a question of timing," says one young Iranian. "If you push too early and make a fuss, everything will be stopped. We have to be patient."

So how are kids getting their kicks in Iran? Motor-car racing.

At Azadi Stadium near Tehran, the crowd is in high gear for the national speed-race finals.

The stench of motor oil fills the nostrils as the snarl of engines cuts through the still afternoon air. Souped-up BMWs and Lancias, engines revved to their red-lines, round the tire-lined circuit. On the final lap, a BMW 2002 emblazoned with decals speeds past the checkered flag.

The scene could be a car race anywhere. But the setting serves up reminders of Iran's religious rule. Men and women are grouped separately in the stand. Loudspeakers blare martial music. The winner receives a gold trophy and no champagne.

Wide interest in racing has encouraged Iran's motor-racing federation, which would like to host the Formula One, the world's most prestigious race, within a decade.

Racing is not the only recreation booming. Soccer is widely played, while the ski slopes at Dizin and Shemshak, resorts in the mountains just an hour from Tehran, are packed each weekend with elegantly dressed youths.

Others choose to climb Mt. Damavand, Iran's highest peak, ride horses at Nowruzabad jockey club, or windsurf at Karaj Dam, an hour west of the city. Iranian women even participated in last year's Summer Olympic Games.

Iran's population has doubled since the 1979 Islamic revolution, so almost half its citizens - 30 million people - have no memory of life before. For them, dogma and the call of the mosque have little appeal.

"I'm only 25, and I'm already living in the past," says Mina, a young professional woman from Tehran. "I live through the few memories I have of how things were before the revolution and through my parents' memories. Everywhere you go, someone is telling you what to do: your family, your school, the police, the komiteh [a plain-clothes force that enforces Islamic social codes]. I have very little to look forward to."

Indeed, for some young Iranians, life has become a battle to find the limit of official social codes, and push a little.

"It's so difficult to do anything interesting here," complains Zoreh, a young, middle-class woman from Tehran. "You can't meet your boyfriend, you can't go to parties, you can't lead a normal life."

Islamic authorities appear to recognize the dangers of that alienation. "Young people are facing very serious problems today, such as unemployment, economic problems, and uncertainty about their future," says Saeid Rajaie Khorasani, former Iranian representative to the United Nations and a candidate in this May's presidential election.

Progressives within the government have taken some action. Faezeh Hashemi, deputy director of the Iranian Olympic Committee, set up an International Islamic Women's Olympic Games, held for the first time in Tehran in 1993. She won the second-most votes in the 1996 parliamentary elections.

Her father, President Hashemi Rafsanjani, has also called for more sensitivity. In 1995, Iranians say, he ordered the komiteh to be lenient in enforcing laws on public dress.

But conservatives within the ruling elite oppose even small concessions. Last year, Ansar-e Hizbollah, a grass-roots pressure group controlled by hard-line clerics, held a series of protests against targets ranging from cultural centers to rap music. The campaign culminated in an attack on women cyclists in a park in west Tehran.

Western diplomats say the highly charged political atmosphere in the run-up to the presidential election makes it unlikely that the government will relax its stance.

Yet some presidential candidates, such as liberal intellectual Mohammed Khatemi, have used the presidential campaign to address the issue. "People are already calling Khatemi 'Ayatollah Gorbachev,' because they hope he will bring political liberalization," says Ibrahim Yazdi, leader of the semi-tolerated opposition group, the Freedom Movement of Iran, and another presidential candidate.

Few believe that Iran's youths can achieve social liberalization overnight. But the Islamic authorities are aware that, just as young Iranians were vital in toppling the shah's regime, so too could they turn against the current regime. "The youth of Iran were the engine of the revolution," Khorasani says. "We have to take their views very seriously."

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