On my first-ever trip to Tehran last month, I was struck by the small number of green traffic lights. Tehran does have traffic lights: some flash red arrows, others yellow or red - but few of them turn green.
The traffic lights are an apt metaphor for Iranian politics.
Despite an apparently overwhelming reformist victory in Iran's parliamentary elections last Friday, one must remember the traffic lights. They're a reminder that in Iranian politics all paths are potentially treacherous and must be pursued with caution - although too much caution can be paralyzing.
There is a tendency among some analysts to understate the tremendous challenges that lie before the reformers, a tendency to assume that Iranian politics have moved from clogged city streets to smooth-running highways. Even with their victory, however, the reformists remain mired in traffic.
The rules of the road continue to apply: One needs to create one's own opening.
The elections last week are the second electoral shock in less than three years in Iran. The first was the election of Muhammad Khatami as president in May 1997 - a surprise to both the clerical establishment, which backed another candidate, as well as to the public. Right up until that election, experts were predicting a safe victory for the conservative regime candidate. Perhaps just as surprising for observers of Iran, the ruling elite there demonstrated a healthy respect for the electoral process, despite the numerous restrictions on public and political life.
To cope with heavy traffic, Tehranis take short cuts that soon are heavily traveled, a constant stream of single-file cars quickly passing through back alleys and residential areas, seeking momentary advantage.
Mr. Khatami's election was like the back-alley short cut that suddenly exploded with the traffic of a major thoroughfare. Working from a broad call for "reform," Khatami now presides over an unwieldy coalition led by former revolutionaries, students, wealthy elites, and others seeking change who are presumed to represent the views of a majority.
The challenge of keeping that coalition together will tax Khatami's considerable political skills. The reformers are united in their desire to open the political system, but deeply divided on what a reformed political system should look like. In addition, conservatives maintain control over many aspects of Iranian life. Expect conservatives to moderate their views and continue to be a force in public life. Iranian politics are likely to get more rambunctious in the next few years, not less so.
Political change comes amid persistent reports that Iranians are under stress. Car theft is sharply up, drug use is high, suicide rates are high, and there is a divorce epidemic. Living standards continue to drop despite a rise in the price of oil, and new cars are a rarity on the streets of Tehran.
What is so exciting about Iranian politics now is their fluidity. The state is rolling back its repressive apparatus because of public discontent, but the speed and extent of that rollback remains unclear. The murder of a string of Iranian secularist intellectuals in the fall of 1998 appears to have been a watershed; public revulsion at presumed state involvement in the killings has helped broaden the spectrum of debate while ensuring that no additional killings occur.
In the run-up to the elections, some candidates were disqualified, and the campaigning took place under somewhat restrictive conditions. Remarkably, however, there appears unanimous agreement in Iran that the elections were basically fair, and the results will be adhered to.
But it would be a mistake to concentrate too much on the elections. Change is under way, and it is far harder to control than the mere results of an election.
Most Iranians appear to agree that revolution is too dislocating. Veterans of the past revolution understand the costs and agree that they are too high. Riots last summer petered out quickly because a revolutionary mood simply isn't there.
At the same time, the excesses of the last revolution are proving too much to bear. People are insisting on ending their country's economic and diplomatic isolation, and expanding their personal privacy.
Equally important, people are insisting on competence, transparency, and fair dealing in governance. The economy of Iran is in bad shape, and the incomes of many have been dropping for decades. Increasingly, they are wondering what special insight clerics have into telecommunications policy, infrastructure development, or the creation of capital markets. They want results.
What is most striking about Iranian politics is that what was perceived to be a rigid political system is proving to be highly adaptable.
Thirst for change occurs in a political environment characterized by improvisation and innovation, under a larger rubric of regularized rules. They are drivers in heavy traffic, trying to get to their destination before the others. They weave, they cut off, and they are boxed in. They are all moving down the same road together, hoping to avoid a crash.
*Jon B. Alterman is a program officer at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. He spent a week in Iran last month.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society