Every Friday, which is the Muslims' holy day, thousands of Iranian families leave Tehran's hot southern neighborhoods and go for picnics in the huge parks north of the city. This afternoon, Laleh Park is crowded with people who are resting on the lawns under the shady trees after attending a public prayer meeting at nearby Tehran University.
They are typical supporters of the Islamic regime. Women wear the traditional chador, a large, shapeless garment that covers them from head to toe. Bearded men, seated in circles, sip cups of hot tea. Children play in the fountains.
I am apparently the only Westerner in the park and several men flock around, asking what impression Islamic Iran is making on me. I tell them I'm struck by the very small number of foreigners who remain in the country. Under the imperial regime, Tehran's upper-class neighborhoods seemed similar to Western suburbs, but this is no longer so.
When I explain that I work for an American newspaper, a man tells me the superpowers are the Iranians' main enemies.
``Why do they support Saddam [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] in his war against Iran?'' he asks. ``He is a criminal. He has bombarded our cities, killing our wives and our children.''
Another man breaks into our conversation. ``I spent a year and a half on the war front,'' he says, ``and I'm ready to return to it. That war won't stop until we achieve total victory.'' Since Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, both sides have lost thousands of troops in intense battles in a war that is largely a stalemate.
This is my first stay in Iran in almost two years. In December 1983 I was expelled from the country after being denied a press card by the authorities. This time the civil servants at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance (which replaced the Ministry of Tourism after the 1979 revolution) are apparently more tolerant and have told me that I may walk around without an official guide. But I am under orders not to seek formal interviews with any government leaders.
My first impression after a stroll in Tehran's streets is that the hectic years following the revolution are well over, that life is back to normal, and that Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic government is firmly in control. Everyday life is so quiet that one hardly realizes that this country has been at war for almost five years.
There are no visible signs of opposition to the Islamic regime.
Two weeks ago the late Shah's son issued a call to his fellow countrymen to demonstrate in support of the monarchy but this drew no response from the Iranian people. The Paris-based leftist People's Mojahedin Organization, which leads the armed struggle within Iran against the government, says it will use the current presidential election campaign to mount actions against the regime. But so far no actions have been reported.
Outside of Iran, anti-Khomeini protests continue. A few weeks ago supporters of former Prime Minister Shapur Bakhtiar who lives in exile in Paris staged a small demonstration.
``The Iranian government has let you in,'' a European diplomat says, ``because it wants to show that, contrary to what exiled opponents claim, everyday life is absolutely quiet here and that one hardly notices that this country is at war. They have stabilized their regime, crushed all opposition, and I see no important political change here in the foreseeable future.''
Iranian officials also display a great deal of self-confidence. ``Whether you like it or not,'' says one official, ``we're in power, and for good, and the West has to deal with us.''
The main topic of conversation among Iranians here is the cost of living, which has risen sharply since the revolution.
Basic commodities like sugar, rice, vegetable oil, and soap can be bought at low prices with food coupons distributed by state-owned banks. Neighborhood mosques distribute coupons for eggs, butter, and meat. This system favors poor residents of Tehran's southern neighborhoods who form the core of the Islamic Republic's supporters.
But middle-class families complain about the poor quality of the government-distributed food. ``I can't eat that stuff, so I shop on the parallel free market where everything is incredibly expensive,'' one woman says.
For example, a kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of rice, which is the basic food here, costs about 90 rials ($1) when bought with coupons. On the free market a kilo of long grain Iranian rice can cost up to about 450 rials ($5).
Rents are astronomical, too. A two-bedroom apartment in a middle-class neighborhood costs up to 80,000 rials per month ($880).
When one knows that a skilled worker's average salary is around 45,000 rials a month it becomes apparent how tough life has become in Tehran these days. This explains why many Iranians end up sharing their apartments with their brothers, sisters, or parents.
``When we chopped off America's hands in this country we expected those economic problems,'' says a woman who supports the Islamic revolution. ``But God willing we will solve them in the long run.''