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.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Entrepreneur: Alireza Mahfouzian stands in front of his 'Kase' fast -food restaurant in Tehran. The one-time rebellious youth is focused on keeping his business alive in touch economic times and has little interest in Friday's parliamentary election.

Alireza Mahfouzian knows how it feels on the front line of Iran's culture wars. When he graduated from high school, the police shaved off his too-radical long hair. He has been in court 20 times for social infractions and boasts that he knew the courthouse "room by room."

Caught drinking alcohol years ago, he received 75 lashes to his back – all the price, he says, of growing up and testing limits in the Islamic Republic.

But Mr. Mahfouzian is now older and wiser and has come to terms with the restrictions of Iran. Like many here in their late 20s and early 30s who were once foot soldiers in Iran's reform movement, he has given up on politics and has little interest in Friday's vote for the 290-seat parliament. Hundreds of reformists have been disqualified in an election that amounts to a referendum on this country's conservative leadership.

"They are walking away from the state. They are pushing away politics," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a sociologist at Tehran University. "I call this the 'Era of Rethinking.' These days Iranians are thinking how they can find a better way."

Few doubt that conservatives – many loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – will maintain their majority in parliament. But past reform icons, such as former President Mohammad Khatami, are calling for high turnout anyway, arguing that every reformist seat chips away at hard-line dominance.

"The vote is the ultimate criteria," he said Tuesday. "Those who do not believe in the vote are not the friends of the people."

But Mahfouzian, 28, and many like him, does not even plan on going to the polls. The one-time rule-breaker, who the Monitor met in 2000 sneaking a kiss with his girlfriend on the ski slopes not far from Tehran, is too busy trying to save his new fast-food restaurant.

"Business is not so good. There is no optimism," says Mahfouzian, whose take-out menu includes sandwiches with sheep brain and tongue salad. Inflation has eaten away any profits; erratic supply means items like tongue aren't available every day ("The cows are cold," was one supplier's excuse.)

He says he'll have to close his restaurant "unless there is a miracle" and has already increased the price of a pizza nearly 60 percent, from $2.40 to $3.80. His dream of starting a fast-food chain inside and outside Iran is gone.

The vast demographic that once dominated electoral politics in Iran is now marked by a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Iran's young people make up two-thirds of the population, but have been battered by a poor economy, by the triumph of hard-line conservatives, and the conviction that their vote changes nothing.

"Our country is moving ahead with these [conservative] beliefs," says Mahfouzian. "We can either move with them, or move out. We have no other choice."

The apolitical law student

Political choice is something that Tooska, a Tehran law student who asked that her real name not be used, says she gave up long ago. Like a number of Western-leaning young Iranians who supported the reform movement but were fed up with its ineffectiveness, she last voted in 2005 to prevent the archconservative Mr. Ahmadinejad from coming to power.

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

"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."

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