WHEN an earthquake shook northwestern Iran last June, Iranian leaders argued at length about whether they should accept the assistance offered by Western countries. President Hashemi Rafsanjani's eventual decision to welcome relief organizations was met in the Iranian press with a spate of anti-European and anti-American editorials.
Less than a year later in early April, when the flow of Iraqi Kurdish refugees began pouring into Iran, Mr. Rafsanjani immediately ordered his minister of foreign affairs to seek international help. Not a single editorialist criticized his decision. Only a handful of parliamentary deputies have so far dared to say that Iran should deal with the refugee problem without international help.
Such moves exemplify Iran's recent rapid evolution. Western observers, diplomats, and Iranian citizens share the same view: Iranian society under Rafsanjani is on the move. It is an evolution with consequences for both Iran's foreign and domestic policies.
Abroad, Iran is step by step breaking its international political isolation. At home, the Islamic regime is rallying support from a growing number of those well-to-do citizens who in the past would have supported a monarchy.
``During the first 10 years of the Islamic era, Rafsanjani proved to be a shrewd politician,'' says an Iranian businessmen. ``Over the past two years he has emerged as a statesman. He is the only man capable of putting this country back on the track.''
Rafsanjani's apparent strategy is to position himself as a man trying to unify the Iranian people after years of turmoil and divisions. In his speeches he insists on traditional Islamic values, but also praises Iran's national past, which attracts middle class support.
On April 20, Rafsanjani became the first post-revolutionary leader to make an official visit to the Persepolis ruins near the southern city of Shiraz. His recognition of Iran's past runs counter to some clerics who, after the revolution had called for destruction of the historic site. On this vestige of the Achaemenian Empire, Rafsanjani asked his countrymen ``to reinforce their national dignity,'' a call with some appeal to the nationalistic middle class.
Pragmatic in his approach, Rafsanjani has taken a series of measures to make Iran more attractive to foreigners, particularly to potential investors.
This was immediately evident during a reporter's first trip to Tehran in three years. On arriving at the airport, the rapidity of custom formalities is striking: Officers who used to search for alcohol or magazines in Western travellers suitcases now refrain.
Laws on monetary exchange have been done away with as well. Travelers entering and leaving the country are no longer asked to fill out forms stating the amount of currency they carry and are free to change money wherever they want. The same regulations apply to Iranians.
Inside the city, roadblocks once manned by revolutionary committees have disappeared replaced by regular policemen. Municipal workers have also in past months scrubbed the frontages of official buildings with the result that most anti-Western slogans and caricatures have disappeared. Thousands of small trees have been planted along Tehran's main avenues. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, for example, has been revamped. The overall effect is to give the city an unusual festive air.
``At rather low cost, Rafsanjani wants to show his people and the rest of the world that things here are changing,'' says a Western diplomat.
Rafsanjani seems eager to make people forget the dark years of war. The strict Islamic dress code remains applicable, but its enforcement is less stringent. Men appear regularly in suits and ties.
In days following the April 16 end of the Ramadan holy season, a softening in the dress rules for women was also apparent: some could be seen wearing makeup, and complying with rules that their head and face be covered only by placing a symbolic piece of fabric on their hair.
Three days later a senior ayatollah complained in a speech of ``the problem of women who don't abide by the code of dressing is getting worse by the day.'' The remarks were followed by the April 23 announcement by the Islamic Republic News Agency that police had clamped down on women violating the code. Most of those arrested were later released.
``Some Westernized Iranian women in uptown Tehran don't realize that they live in an Islamic and prudish country,'' says a diplomat who has spent years in Iran. ``Whenever they feel a relaxation in the rules, they do go too far.''
Then there is Iranian television. Three years ago soap operas portrayed traditional chador-clad women married to bearded men. The characters of that period sat on the floor in the traditional Iranian way and conversations centered on religious matters.
In a recent broadcast, however, a woman character's head was uncovered except for a veil over her hair, and her young daughter sometimes appeared bare headed. The entire family made regular use of tables and chairs.
Iranian TV has also begun airing Japanese movies showing unveiled women. But this new step forward has triggered a wave of protests by several deputies in the parliament.
Despite such changes, and a feeling of new optimism, the mood is tempered by the city's high cost of living.
Inflation is rampant. A television set that might have cost 60,000 rials a year ago now sells for 10 times that amount. Civil servants are hardest hit. The government recently raised the average monthly salary by 20,000 rials to 110,000 rials.
Western commercial attach'es say the inflation has come about because of the government's decision to move slowly from a state- subsidized economy to a free-market system. The Iranian government also wants to make the rial fully convertible to other currencies and has moved to gradually devalue it.
``The Iranian are going through hard days, but their government policy is healthy and in a few months the inflation should slow down,'' says a Western banker. ``The economy will then be ready for recovery.''