Iran's Next Revolution? Not by Zeal Alone

In the Islamic Republic, resistance to youth-driven democracy is strong

On a quiet sidestreet, a young man in jeans and T-shirt steps out of pizza restaurant and into the middle of the street. He scans every parked car and every shadow, first one direction, then the other, before motioning for a young woman - covered head to foot in a dark, formless robe - to follow him out onto the sidewalk.

A few corners away, several young men in fatigues stand in a huddle, ready for an evening of enforcing fines on unmarried couples, women wearing makeup, or other such infractions of Islamic law. There are specific fines for wearing lipstick or nail polish, although Iranians say the fines usually take the form of a bribe.

In a large, basement restaurant across town, young couples in their 20s nudge each other and giggle at a table until the waiter comes over and demands that the men and women sit on opposite sides of the table.

Young Iranians, especially in big cities, are weary of many of the social strictures of their fundamentalist country, ruled by religious clerics. They are chafing, too, at the flagrant corruption and the arbitrary nature of police power.

The most powerful sign of this is the new president, Mohammed Khatami, elected three months ago. As a candidate, he was denounced as too tolerant of the West, soft, for example, on the illegal satellite dishes people use to see foreign television. But he found those charges working to his advantage.

He was also perceived to be uncorrupt. (He left a major Cabinet ministry post in the early 1990s without even owning a house; ministers more typically set themselves up for life.) He won 69.5 percent of the vote, and more than 80 percent of the youth vote.

Just last week, Iran's parliament approved all of President Khatami's 22 Cabinet nominees, including his candidate for the prominent post of culture minister who has advocated direct talks with the United States. On Saturday, Khatami named a woman, Massumeh Ebtekar, as vice president. She has promised new roles for Iranian women.

Khatami "is a symbol of modernity," says Hadi Samati, a political science professor at the University of Tehran and once an Islamic revolutionary himself.

'A sense of the future'

For young Iranians, relaxing social restrictions is only part of the issue. "It's not just satellite dishes to watch Talking Heads, Michael Jackson, Madonna, or whomever," Dr. Samati says. "They just want a sense of the future that could work."

Arash Ardvalon, a university student, is full of the kind of frustration and despair heard among the young. He and his friends, he says, want to leave this country "as soon as possible" - even though he says they know that wherever they go outside Iran, they will only get low-level jobs and be regarded as terrorists.

Mr. Ardvalon and his friends fear that their jobs will not support them, even though they see others - "uneducated merchants" with strong connections to the regime - getting rich. "We can adjust economically, but not socially," he says.

To go for a walk in the evening is asking for trouble. Recently, Ardvalon was with some schoolmates walking back to their dormitory. A car of other young men slowed to say something to some girls on the other side of the street. The girls ignored them, and they drove on. But a security squad stopped Ardvalon and his friends and detained them for two hours, questioning them and searching their pockets. They were just hoping for some bribes, he says cynically.

Other young adults in Tehran cite the risk of having friends over for dinner in groups that include single men and women. On occasion, security officers have knocked on the doors of young diners and arrested them, sometimes resulting in lashes, as prescribed by Islamic law.

The pressure in the dorms is intense, he says. "We can't play cards in our rooms, and we have to listen to music secretly. A lot of our friends have been busted in the shopping mall for walking with women.

"They think this country is very good and there are no sins in it. But there's more corruption even than in America."

The enforcers of the Islamic code are both regular security forces and irregulars called Hizbullahi, often lower-middle-class young men, veterans or the sons of veterans of the war against Iraq during the 1980s. They form club-like groups that detractors call semiofficial gangs. "Ninety percent are very simple, genuine kids," says Samati.

Until 1991, Iran's religious codes were enforced by more aggressive irregulars in the Revolutionary Guard called komiteh. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani brought the komiteh under the more official control of the security services and put them in uniform. This seems to have checked some of their most arbitrary actions and abuses.

Khatami was minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance (known simply as "Guidance" here) in the early 1990s, and he gained a reputation as a liberalizer with his allowance of previously banned books and film.

But in 1993 and 1994, conservatives lashed back. They launched a move to Islamicize the universities, and - more important to masses of Iranians - outlawed satellite dishes. Many people gave them up, fearing the roughly $200 fines. Others have learned to hide them, especially when word spreads that patrols are combing the neighborhood.

Satellite television meant open access to foreign news and entertainment. One former AWACs officer in the pre-revolutionary Iranian Air Force, who does not want to give his name, now deals in Asian electronics. A big-selling item is the illegal satellite dish. At home in western Iran, on his own dish, his favorite channels are among the 15 he tunes in from Turkey. This exposure to secular, Western culture is a matter of serious concern to conservative Iranians.

Life has become noticeably tougher for writers since the backlash began. A couple of intellectual journals have been closed for political incorrectness, says Iranian journalist Ramin Jahanbegloo. "You have to work within a framework," he says, yet he also adds that the limits are not nearly as repressive as early in the revolution.

Needed: more than idealism

The new president, together with the old one - Mr. Rafsanjani - who will now head the so-called Expediency Council, will together try to open up Iran further. "They've already started," says Mr. Jahanbegloo. But he is not optimistic. The women and youths that want more freedom and progress hold a majority view, but they are not well-organized. The conservatives are entrenched in power and very well-organized.

Samati, the professor, recalls his idealistic days as a young Islamic revolutionary. They studied the Koran but learned revolution from reading Lenin. Now, he says, "we've matured. We've learned it's not just commitment that makes things happen. You need structures and institutions."

So he and others are wrestling with the role of Islam in modern democracy. He welcomes the move toward openness, but he is also disturbed that he sees students today who know nothing of what the revolution was about, what was negative about pre-revolutionary Iran and the influence of the West. "They soak up Michael Jackson and see only the negative side of control and containment," he says.

"This place can never be as free as Western countries, but there are some freedoms we should have," says Ardvalon. He says he could accept Islamic government if it had a balanced morality, "but here they turn everything to their own advantage. Not everything in Islam should be tied to blood and violence."

* Tomorrow: Slow progress in gas-rich Turkmenistan.

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