- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2000

TEHRAN An armed man rushes out of the guardhouse at the former U.S. Embassy to warn away a foreign photographer a reminder that beneath this capital city's bustle and greenery, a violent power struggle is taking place.
All week long, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, villagers, academics and factory workers had greeted the same visitor with smiles, saying he was welcome and they hoped for an end to Iran's isolation from America.
But although Iranians overwhelmingly voted for reforms in February, and polls indicate 80 percent back reformist President Mohammed Khatami for re-election next year, a powerful, anti-American religious establishment is determined its views will prevail.
"I promise you that within this year, all power will go to Khatami; 20 million young Iranians are behind him," said shopkeeper Islam Shah in a town south of Tehran.
"The reformers promised us that if we supported them, they will make changes. We want a powerful, independent country like in Europe. We want to preserve our religious values but we want to have a free press."
A Western diplomat was less hopeful.
"Things have slowed down in terms of reform, but the majority are adamant they'll continue," he said in a shady enclave north of the crowded center of this city of 12 million people.
"Two years ago, they were killing intellectuals. Now, the conservatives are trying to stop reform newspapers through legal methods. While still not pleasant, it's a definite improvement."
The latest clash between hard-liners and reformers took place Aug. 24 in Khoramabad. A spokesman for the student Office to Consolidate Unity said "basij" volunteer enforcers and Revolutionary Guards controlled by the supreme religious leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sent 60 students to hospitals with injuries.
The militants succeeded in preventing liberal cleric Mohsen Kadivar, recently released after 18 months in jail, and philosopher Abdolkarim Sorush from addressing the students.
People frequently show their fear and contempt for the mullahs. "Hezbollah," they whisper to a visitor, looking over their shoulders to see if anyone is listening.
But eight years ago, couples might be arrested simply for having coffee together if they were unmarried, and now they hold hands in public in liberal areas of north Tehran or while out walking between the tea shops on the arid, mountain trails above the city.

'Bottom-up freedom'

"We're getting our freedom from the feet upwards," laughed one woman. She pointed to a passer-by who, covering her hair with a kerchief and wearing a coat in approved Islamic style, had left her feet bare in open-toe sandals, showing painted nails.
In a step back from the Islamic Revolution law requiring all women and girls to wear black head and body coverings, government officials this year urged parents to dress primary school girls in brightly colored head scarfs.
Iranians say they are angry over reports of corruption by senior clerics whose children marry into the wealthy merchant families that run the economy and they dislike the brutality that backers of the religious establishment unleash on those who challenge its authority to interpret Islam and force compliance with their views.
As a result, support is unraveling for strict interpretation of Islamic laws such as banning alcohol and rules forbidding Western music, foreign media and public shows of affection.
One mullah told a reporter that he removed his turban and the clerical robe covering his suit in order to get a taxi. If he wore clerical garb he either failed to get a ride or was insulted by the driver and other passengers in the communal taxis.
"Do not defile the beauty of these mountains with corrupt music," says a blatantly ignored sign painted on a mud wall leading up to the mountain trails north of Tehran where dozens of young people carried boomboxes blasting music on a recent weekend.

Dancing in the hills

Strolling musicians played native fiddles and drums while people danced, a scene that would have provoked beatings by religious police two or three years ago.
Twenty-one years after Iranians swept the U.S.-installed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi from power, the Islamic Republic that emerged from that power struggle faces major failures:
The economy is a shambles with young people, even those with university degrees, unable to find jobs paying a dollar a day. Islamic hard-liners and their merchant allies dominate markets and choke competition through powerful foundations known as bonyads that run vast industrial and agricultural empires but pay no taxes.
Iran failed to spark a worldwide Islamic revolution despite pouring millions into Islamist movements from the Middle East to Europe. Instead, Saudi Arabia's Wahabi brand of Sunni Islam fundamentalism dominates radical Islamic movements, while Iran's Shi'ite sect remains an often despised, heretical variant.
Iran's support for Islamic revolution has not only provoked hostility in the West but also strained relations with Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinians.
Hostility to birth control has led to a near doubling of Iran's population in 20 years to 60 million one-third of whom are in school, many with no prospect of jobs when they finish. Birth control is now encouraged.
While talking about the rights of minorities, the government has barred Sunni Muslims from building mosques, blocked Jews and Christians from government jobs and prosecuted 10 Jews from Shiraz this year for spying for Israel provoking an exodus of minorities.

Revolution yielded gains

Still, Iran has had some success under the mullahs.
Women's education was strongly supported and half the university seats go to them. They fill the offices and shops, drive cars and even taxis and maintain a sense of equality with men that is perhaps greater than in neighboring Arab countries or Pakistan.
And though sparse Western media coverage of Iran suggests a land of intrigues, where mullahs hide bombs under their cloaks, the reality is far from that. A visitor finds a relatively well-functioning, clean country of businesslike people that resembles Israel more closely than it does the Arab or South Asian lands to its immediate east and west.
Even Iranian movie makers, protected from competition from Western studios and turning from politics to universal human drama, now win international acclaim for films like "The Color of Paradise."
Crime, prostitution and greed, though suppressed, continue under the mullahs. Addiction to opium and heroin flooding from Central Asia has become an epidemic in recent years, but the banning of alcohol, nightclubs and Western-style social life did keep people close to their families.
"I believe that most people, even if they do not vote for us, still believe in the Islamic Revolution," said Hassan Ghafoorifard, former vice president of Iran and now a member of the Senior Council for the Cultural Revolution.

Economic woes recognized

Since the clerics came to power in 1979, illiteracy fell from 75 percent to less than 25 percent, infant mortality fell from 117 per thousand to under 30 per thousand, and university enrollment rose from 150,000 to 1.3 million, of which 54 percent are women, said Mr. Ghafoorifard.
But he concedes he was stunned to lose his parliament seat in February to a reformist.
"Our polls showed we would get 60 percent of the vote in Tehran, and we didn't get a single one of the 30 seats in the city," he said with a rueful smile.
"Those who voted did not vote for us," said Mr. Ghafoorifard, "but that does not mean they are for Western culture." He blamed the defeat on economic and social problems "we couldn't solve."
But Mr. Ghafoorifard, who holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Kansas, rejected the American model of separating politics and religion.
"Under no condition," he said, would the government accept making the female head covering optional.
If head covering were optional, most Iranian women might continue to follow tradition, but many men and women say they don't like mullah's enforcing what they can or cannot do.

'Fed up with mullahs'

"We have had enough of them we are fed up with the mullahs," said one peasant women in a village south of Tehran a refrain echoed by many other Iranians.
"Religion is losing its power and influence in society. The Majlis [parliament] was mainly clerics before, and now there are only a few there," said Davoud Bavand, professor of political science at the University of Supreme National Defense.
But although the majority of Iranians voted for government reform in February, they remain checkmated by hard-line clerics and their supporters.
Broadcast media are controlled by the hard-liners, as is the judiciary, which has closed down almost all the reformist publications since March, when the outgoing Majlis passed laws making it easier to stifle the press.
The resulting tension is growing dangerous. One Western diplomat said that it could lead to an upheaval as powerful as the one that overthrew the shah.
He said many in the army and Revolutionary Guards voted for reform candidates in February elections, and that there is concern among clerical political leaders about whose side they would support in case of a conflict.

Struggle bursts into open

The struggle between reformers and hard-liners burst into the open Aug. 6 when a press freedom law was blocked by the the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme religious leader.
When some reformist parliamentarians questioned his intervention to block debate, militant mobs took to the street in front of parliament.
"We see the hidden hand of America, our most important enemy," said one student religious militant the day after the press bill was shelved.
Several said U.S. and British spy agencies funded the reformist press.
Such accusations are bound to frighten reformists, journalists or free-thinkers in a country where the religious establishment summons up mobs to enforce its views and arrests the victims of their brutal attacks while the attackers go free.
Iran has become the world's largest prison for journalists, Reporters Without Borders said Aug. 16 in Paris, citing the dozens arrested since March.
A man sitting on a milk crate in north Tehran last month was reading one of the reform papers, Behar, or Spring. "This is the only place you can read the truth," he said.
The next day Behar was closed by the courts for airing an interview that displeased hard-liners.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide