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Sehaty Foreign Exchange

    News & views

Change in Iran slow but assured

By Gelareh Asayesh
February 23, 2000

I know a young woman in Iran who got into trouble for eating a cheese puff. It came from a bag held by a member of the opposite sex. Those running the film club where this moral calamity occurred told her to make sure it never happened again.

I know a civil servant in his 20s who had to answer complicated questions on what circumstances would invalidate a fast in the eyes of God -- in order to get a job.

I know a housewife who followed every word of a newspaper editor's trial for political heresy -- and the culture minister's impeachment debate and the Tehran mayor's corruption trial before that. The tribulations and triumphs of these leading voices for reform were as fascinating to her as her TV soaps.

These were the people who went to the polls Friday in the first round of the Iranian elections for parliament: women tired of restrictions large and small, the unemployed young and average Iranians inspired by the promise of change.

Dissatisfaction among Iran's citizens spans the traditional divide between its secular elite and religious majority. It runs deepest among young people, who helped elect Mohammad Khatami president in 1997. Their votes Friday catapulted a reformist majority into parliament, opening the way for Khatami to turn Iran into a kinder, gentler theocracy.

Unfortunately, supreme power in Iran is centralized in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khamenei has lost control of parliament, but he controls the courts, the military, radio and television, leading to a tug-of-war characteristic of today's Iranian politics.

Nowhere is the tug-of-war more vividly illustrated than in the battle for a freer press. Clerical courts close down newspapers almost as fast as Khatami's culture minister licenses them. For every Khatami gain, there is a backlash from conservatives, and the elections are likely to be no exception.

Tentative, tenuous relations

This divided rule has the broadest implications for Iran-U.S. relations. As long as Iran is bound by Khomeini's legacy of a supreme leader, Khatami cannot hope to renew diplomatic ties. The best the two countries can hope for in this era of revolutionary transition is de facto relations clothed in obligatory anti-American rhetoric. Khatami will be permitted to achieve dialogue, trade and cultural exchanges. Khamenei will prevent diplomatic ties and a conciliatory stand on the Mideast peace process. Relations will improve, but slowly.

The reality that often eludes observers of Iran is that its clerical rulers, while adept at wielding fanaticism, are boundlessly pragmatic. Canny operators in a centuries-old Iranian tradition of the politics of survival, they recognize that the rhetoric of martyrdom and death to America has lost its resonance.

More than half of Iran's population is under 25. These children of the revolution grew up with the annual black banners offering condolences on Khomeini's death, airplanes lifting off only after a prayer for Iran's war "martyrs," the call to prayer piped into department stores. But the "Khomeini is Leader" slogan scrawled on a wall has less meaning to them than the phone number of the plumber scribbled next to it. Young Iranians are interested in pizza parlors and the Internet and a job that pays enough so they can get married and live on their own.

So it is no accident that the conservatives' Newt Gingrich, Majlis speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, did not run for reelection, but former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani did. Rafsanjani's party is in the reformist coalition, but his name headed the conservatives' list of candidates. Conservatives no longer hope to stem the tide of reform; they hope to co-opt it. But Rafsanjani's poor showing in the elections makes that unlikely.

Key revolutionary values remain

This is not to say that the masses who walked barefoot behind Khomeini's body at his funeral have turned against him. Iran remains a country where the name of God is said with reverence. The central revolutionary values of Islamic covering for women, freedom from foreign (especially American) influence and an Islamic Republic still hold among the Iranian majority who have kept the clerics in power for 20 years.

But Iran's reformists are led by clerics like Khatami and Nouri, who offer Iranians a chance to voice their disaffection and pursue democratic ideals, and do it all in the name of God.

The Shah tried to purge Islam from Iran, and it was his downfall. Khatami, however, seeks to bring both Iran and Islam into this millennium, in the process taming Iran's revolution into a mature evolution. That's why, conservative backlashes notwithstanding, change in Iran is ultimately inexorable.

-- Gelareh Asayesh, a journalist in St. Petersburg, Fla., is the author of Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America.


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