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Young Iranians, once avid reformers, leave politics behind

Many who once called for change have turned away from politics altogether and won't be voting in Friday's election.

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But today Tooska, who is 21, could hardly be less political.

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"The Islamic system will exist for all my life, at least," she says in one of her favorite coffee shops. "I oblige myself to tolerate what I can't change. You can't be angry every morning, all the time, with the … country."

So Tooska creates her own parallel universe, separate from Iranian politics and more in line with its semi-underground cultural life. In it, she paints – often nudes and in the middle of the night – and has studied under one of Iran's best-known artists.

"It's not [just] freedom, it's my right," says Tooska. "I can paint whatever I want."

She also won't be voting on Friday.

"There are some rules in Islam they don't follow," she says of the ruling class. "They shouldn't be rich, they shouldn't womanize, they shouldn't lie – moral things. I am not a religious person, and I don't do those things. But they say 'Don't do,' and they do it."

But such contradictions do not impel Tooska to follow Shirin Ebadi, Iran's best-known female human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate. Instead she will focus on commercial law.

"I always wanted to be a lawyer, for moral reasons to help people," says Tooska. "It's much more lovely to do human rights [work], but if you want to earn money don't go into human rights. I don't want to be rich, but I want to travel and have adventures."

Testing the republic's tolerance

Adventurer is one way to describe Siavash, a sales manager at an office supply store who wears a suit and was featured in a Monitor story about young Iranians in 2005. Back then he was doing his military service in Tehran, and delivered pickup lines to young Westernized ladies while stuck in traffic.

At work, the economy hurts. Sales of high-end imports for Siavash, who asked that this pseudonym be used, were down 30 percent in the last half of 2007, and down 200 percent over four years – most of that since Iran was hit with United Nations and American sanctions over its nuclear program.

But the real playing field for him reaches beyond the office. Today he bristles at the label garb-zadeh – the Farsi word for the corrupted, "Westoxicated" youth decried by Iran's religious establishment. "Maybe [I am], but it's not like I have a George Clooney poster on my wall. I don't worship him!" he says. "I like Hollywood, but sometimes I feel like it is propaganda."

Siavash is an example of the level of obsession with Western culture among some young Iranians. He is addicted to "Lost" and orders American films directly on the Web. Even Siavash's cellphone rings out with the Right Said Fred song: "I'm too sexy for my love…"

"I'm still the kid I used to be. I'm still chasing women," says the 28-year-old Persian Casanova with a broad smile. That confidence has enabled Siavash to navigate Iran's fluid social rules while keeping his distance from politics.

But the cultural and security space sometimes blend together during Ahmadinejad's conservative tenure, which last year saw the harshest social crackdown since the 1979 Islamic revolution

"It's difficult now. It's dangerous for me to act like I did [in 2005]," says Siavash. "People are still doing the same but the risk is greater."