Tug of war to win Iran's youths

Anniversary of Islamic revolution shows how conservatives, reformistsare wooing young people.

With Iran's Islamic revolution now 20 years in the past, a young generation has arisen in Iran that doesn't see the 1979 events the same way as their elders. And with young people making up about half of Iran's population, Iran's leaders have taken notice.

Now both sides - reformists, including President Mohamed Khatami, who has a long history of support among the youth, and hard-liners advocating strict Islamic rule - are trying to woo this young generation.

"The clergy feel they are losing ground. They counted on popular support because in the past they had a close link with the masses, but they misjudged that popularity," says Ibrahim Yazdi, an opposition leader today who was chosen by supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to be Iran's foreign minister.

At a Tehran sports hall Tuesday, 12,000 schoolchildren listened to Mr. Khatami. "Poisonous winds are blowing inside and outside the country and enemies are attempting to separate you from the Islamic Revolution," local newspapers quoted him as saying.

"The youth played the most important part in the last presidential election.... Today, the revolution and the system must trust the youths' potential."

Hanging over the students was a banner quoting Ayatollah Khomeini: "With your power, youth, this country must be reformed."

Watershed election

Khatami's landslide election victory in 1997 tapped into dissatisfaction and garnered almost total support among women and young voters. He has called for fostering a "civil society" based on the "rule of law," loosening up strict Islamic social restrictions, and possibly reopening Iran to the West.

Indeed, Khatami has just made plans to make the first trip by an Iranian president to Western Europe since the 1979 revolution. Iran's foreign minister announced Wednesday that Khatami will visit France this spring.

But Khatami's election may have raised hopes of change to almost impossible levels, Iranians say. Khatami's reform promises are seen to have been thwarted by hard-liners who suggest that the young should spend more time in the mosque. Many youths, meanwhile, are increasingly fascinated by Western culture.

Compounding Iran's difficulties is the faltering economy, which is staggering under the lowest oil prices in years. There is also widespread corruption and an impenetrable bureaucracy.

"The oil crisis means that any hope of improvement must be postponed for two to three years," says a Western diplomat. "The feeling of dissatisfaction could send people into the street."

These conditions are the backdrop for the revolution's 20th anniversary - harking back to when Western influence in Iran was snuffed out and the despised US-backed shah of Iran was overthrown.

"It's a joke: What did [the clerics] do for the country?" asks one young professional, as her 3/4-inch painted fingernails rattle across a computer keyboard in her Tehran office. The nails are a semitolerated show of defiance against a strict Islamic dress code that rules out lipstick, as are the designer Chanel buttons on her black chador.

"Now there is revolution again among students," she says. "They have nothing: no money, no jobs, no future."

"The younger generation is now asking 'What was the revolution all about?' " says Sadiq Zibakalam, a political historian at the University of Tehran who was imprisoned during the shah's regime and took part in its overthrow.

"Unfortunately, the official history is so full of rhetoric and superficial, that the young generation does not believe in it," he says. "It has been made into a fantasy, a fairy tale. They just don't buy it.

"They have very high expectations, but I tell them to be realistic," Zibakalam continues. "The amount of freedom they desire is tantamount to that in the West, and it's a bit too early for that in Iran."

The results of the revolution should instead be compared to the repressive days of the shah. In that light, he says, there has been "fantastic progress" for freedoms of the press, association, and speech. When Zibakalam was held for more than two years under the shah, the prison was "like a university," he says, because there were so many academics and poets among the inmates.

Revolution's imperfections

The young do not have such experience, and instead see only the revolution's imperfections: The reign of terror in the 1980s that eliminated opponents of Khomeini; the brutal war against Iraq that left more than 1 million dead and wounded on both sides; and the social restrictions, some repression, and sporadic press crackdowns that continue today.

"It's a problem," says Zibakalam. "[The youths] are not happy with what their parents achieved through the revolution."

Yet not all youths are dissatisfied. "I was waiting for today, not because I lost two brothers," said Sayed Ali Miryounesi, mourning at his brothers' graves at a ceremony for martyrs who died in the war against Iraq in the 1980s. "It is the revolution that is important, because of Islam and the Koran."

But others are undeterred. "People are so upset that there could be another revolution [unless something changes]," says one university student. "People love Khatami, but he is being blocked."

"[The clergy has] lost the hearts and minds of the people," says Mr. Yazdi. "After 20 years, this chapter of our history is not concluded yet."

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