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Now the party's over, Tehran faces testing times ahead

TEHRAN, Feb 11 (AFP) - The climax of 10 days of lavish 20th birthday celebrations Thursday highlighted the durability of Iran's Islamic regime, but daunting challenges remain to be tackled if this durability is to give way to real stability.

The mass rallies attended by hundreds of thousands of Iranians in cities across the country displayed the regime's continuing ability to mobilize large numbers of the population 20 years after the revolution.

But the Iranian press grows daily bolder and more open in expressing concern about the declining living standards and mounting disenchantment of ordinary people.

"The faithful Iranian people still adhere wholeheartedly to the ideals and principles of the Islamic Revolution," the English language Tehran Times insisted on the eve of Thursday's final day of celebrations.

But the paper added that the public's commitment is being sorely tested by "the major problems" still facing Iran.

"Unemployment, inflation, financial corruption, nepotism, favouritism and, above all, the lack of expert plans for developing the country's enormous potential," all remain problems, the paper said.

In his keynote anniversary address, the regime's most popular figure -- moderate President Mohammad Khatami -- vowed to tackle the problems by continuing the programme of reforms he launched after his shock election victory in 1997.

The reformist president promised Iranians that after 20 years of uncertainty and isolation the Islamic Republic would settle down..

But each time Khatami holds out the prospect of better times ahead and vows to press on with his reforms, he inevitably also highlights how bad things are at present.

For instance the moderate president never tires of reminding the public of the campaign platform which attracted their support in the presidential election two years ago. "The slogan of this government has been respect for the law and especially the constitution," the president reminded the crowds on Thursday.

But for many people Khatami's repeated references to enforcing the rule of law underlines how little it has been respected in the past.

The president also talks a great deal about the need to look after the interests of women and teenagers, the two sectors of the electorate which secured his election victory over conservative opponent Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, two years ago.

But his trademark call for more attention to be paid to youngsters, now routinely echoed by other officials, only serves to underline how disenchanted many of the nearly 50 percent of Iran's population born after the revolution have become.

Teenagers -- who can vote from the age of 15 -- are more attracted by the capital's growing number of burger bars and the banned youth culture of the hated West than by the politics of the Islamic regime.

Khatami's calls for a massive turnout in Iran's landmark local elections later this month -- the first in the country's history -- are largely directed at the young whose support is seen as vital for the success of his reforms.

The municipal elections pit reformist supporters of Khatami against his conservative opponents as both sides seek to strengthen their local power base ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

Those elections are vital for Khatami as the currently conservative dominated parliament is the biggest obstacle to his reforms.

But the president's ability to retain the support of Iran's rising tide of baby-boomers largely depends on his success in tackling the country's mounting economic crisis and providing them with the prospect of jobs.

And his ability to create employment has been massively curtailed over the past six months by the huge hole in government income left by the plummetting world price for Iran's main export oil.

In his anniversary address Khatami was only able to boast the creation of 35,000 new jobs in a population of 60 million.


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