Story Publication logo June 16, 2003

Change in the Wind



The following article ran as part of a six-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 14-17, 2003.

After quick victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. armed forces are suddenly on both sides of Iran's Islamic republic, the country that gave Americans their first taste of Islamic extremism a generation ago.

Iran's continued support for anti-Israel resistance organizations, its alleged harboring of al-Qaida operatives and a suspect nuclear technology program make it a prime target for U.S. pressure - and a prime opportunity as well, judging from renewed student demonstrations this past week.

In the view of key officials in President George W. Bush's administration and some of its outside advisers, the clerics who rule Iran are more ripe for toppling now than at any moment in the republic's quarter-century history.

But that is not the view of the great majority of those fighting for change from within Iran.

In a reporting trip to Iran over the past two weeks, the Post-Dispatch found turbulence aplenty:

Young people fed up with a poor economy and social restrictions.

Journalists lashing out at government policies despite jail terms and newspaper closures.

Muslim mullahs openly debating whether rule by clerics should ever have been enacted.

Missing was the sense of a dramatic breakthrough anytime soon. But very apparent was a deep concern that American intervention could make things worse.

Among those who have stood up to the current government and to clerical authorities - journalists and liberal clerics and opposition leaders in parliament, some of them jailed and others banned from work because of their views - there is the conviction that Iran is slowly, painfully, but surely finding its way toward greater freedom and more democracy.

"We are experiencing our 1968 social revolution right now," said Ziba Jalali, an editor at the journal Goftegoo ("Dialogue"), who has written extensively on the struggle for women's rights in Iran.

Student demonstrations began Tuesday in protest against a proposal to privatize Tehran University but then swelled into more generalized complaints against Iran's poor economy, the lack of jobs and the failure of President Mohammad Khatami to deliver on the reforms he has repeatedly pledged during six years in office.

The demonstrations were an echo of similar protests last summer and fall and a possible prelude to something bigger by early next month, the fourth anniversary of another clash at Tehran University that produced the biggest popular protests since the 1979 revolution.

Yet support for overthrowing the government remains scattered and unorganized, according to Jalali and other activists, while resentment against past U.S. interventions runs deep.

The last thing Iranian reformers need now, they say, is American pressure. "You can't democratize a country with violence, with rockets and bombs," says Jalali. "It's a contradiction in terms."

The message of these activists? Iran is not Iraq. To proceed as if it were, they warn, is to play with fire.

There's nothing monolithic about Iranians themselves - from the every-man-for-himself chaos of Tehran's traffic to the dozens of ideologically driven newspapers that boisterously compete each day for attention and sales.

In a country that bans alcohol, young people flock to food courts and coffee shops instead - and find plenty of alcohol at private parties of mixed gender where women quickly shed the over-garments they are required by law to wear in public.

In Tehran, the fashionable Gandhi Street boasts six of the coffee shops side by side on the plaza level of a single shopping center. Out front there's a pizza parlor, with attractive tables overlooking the street, but on three recent evenings that area was empty. The 20-somethings crowded instead among the shops in the rear, less visible and therefore less subject to the roving basij militia whose mission, it sometimes appears, is to beat back the very idea of youth.

It is a losing battle, at least for now.

Islamic dress codes that were intended to shield feminine identities are now observed by the wearing of the sheerest, most brightly colored scarves, and by "overcoats" that cling to curves and barely reach the thighs, with daring slits on the side.

"It is an irony of history that this scarf and covering, which in the beginning was supposed to suppress femininity and sexual differences, is now the means of strengthening those lines," said Jalali, the feminist editor. "The comment I hear from so many people coming from abroad is, 'Iranian women are so seductive!'"

In many ways this is not the country that rose up against America, the "Great Satan," a generation ago.

The population has doubled, to nearly 70 million today from around 35 million in 1979. It is better educated - 83 percent literacy today compared to just under 50 percent in 1979 - and women play an increasingly visible role. Total university enrollment today, in fact, is 60 percent female.

Two-thirds of Iranians are under the age of 30, with no recollection of life under the Shah or the bloodletting that followed, and only vague impressions of the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s that claimed nearly half a million lives. It is making the most of their own lives, now, that matters most.

In the central Iranian city of Isfahan, families by the hundreds gathered recently at Emam Khomeini, the exquisite 17th-century Safavid Dynasty mosque and palace on an open plaza that dwarfs Moscow's Red Square.

The square was renamed in honor of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founding father of the Islamic republic. The famously rigid Khomeini would surely have been taken aback by the scene there this month, on the 14th anniversary of his death.

Families savored the holiday moment, spreading out oriental rugs for picnics and heating huge vats of ahsh, the savory stew of vegetables, garlic and yogurt. Couples and families cruised the square on motorcycles, some of the women still in head-and-body chadors but many of those wearing makeup, lipstick and jeans.

A group of four boys sprawled on the ground, lost in a game of cards, oblivious to the fact that in the Islamic republic, card-playing remains taboo.

A few blocks away, couples strolled the riverbank between the astonishing 17th-century stone bridges of Isfahan, holding hands as evening fell or stopping in one of the water-level tea houses beneath the bridges, overflowing with smoke, chatter and young people flouting the rules.

Voicing caution

Some U.S. officials and Iran experts say the nation is ripe for regime change, that more pressure on issues like nuclear weapons and terrorism along with vocal support for demonstrations like the one this week will push Iran's conservative clerics over the edge. Others disagree.

"The situation is that if the Americans let us do things by ourselves, without interference, then very soon the reformists here will have the victory," said Fatemeh Rakei, a poet turned parliamentarian who is one of just 14 women elected to Iran's 270-member parliament.

Rakei was among the 135 members of parliament who signed an open letter last month to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, demanding action on the reforms. The open rebellion by nearly half of the parliament was unprecedented - as was the reaction by President Khatami's national security council, which banned publication of the letter on the ground that the issues it raised were too sensitive and might inflame public opinion.

The letter has circulated widely all the same, as behind-the-scenes negotiations continue over the two main reform bills. One would expand the powers of the presidency, in a system that now gives clerical authorities control of the judiciary and military and the right of veto against any parliamentary measure. The second would limit the clerics' current power to review - and block - all candidates for public office.

If the impasse persists, Rakei said, parliament might resign - and so might President Khatami, she said.

"Maybe this is the last card he can play," she said. "Khatami has tried hard to avoid crisis in the country, but everyone thinks this is not a situation that can be tolerated any longer."

Rakei warned that the current moment is highly sensitive and that any intervention by U.S. officials would be counterproductive.

"If America says the reformists are very good, or that the United States would protect us, this is very dangerous, because the conservatives will misuse it - to say that we have secret relations with the American superpower, that we don't want to have Islam, that we would sell our country to someone else," she said.

"Every expression of support for reform by America would just postpone the reforms. If Mr. Bush wants to do something for the people of Iran, let him solve his own problems, not ours."

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Khatami's longtime chief of staff, now serves as his appointed vice president in charge of parliamentary and legal affairs.

Abtahi said Khatami is determined to give America no excuse for taking military or other action against Iran. Khatami proved his bona fides during the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and again this year in the war on Iraq, providing surprisingly extensive help on each occasion and agreeing to secret meetings with U.S. officials in Geneva to guard against any misunderstandings as the military operations began.

Iran's reward for that cooperation, Abtahi says, was to be labeled part of the "axis of evil" by Bush (in his State of the Union address last year) and to be singled out for attack again this spring when the dust from the Iraq war had barely settled. The about-face on Iran, using what Iranians consider trumped-up accusations about nuclear weapons and terrorism, "was one of the worst mistakes in U.S. policy," Abtahi said.

"The logic of Mr. Bush is very similar to the logic of Osama bin Laden," Abtahi said. "Bush says 'Those who are not with us are against us.' Bin Laden says 'Those who are not with us are pagans.'

"But we live in a world where we should consider different voices," Abtahi said.

Reality transformed

While internal Iranian reformists and dissidents are generally opposed to any U.S. intervention here, they acknowledge that America's suddenly robust military presence in the region - and its toppling of regimes to the east and west, in Afghanistan and Iraq - have changed the terms of internal debate.

"There's no doubt that U.S. military action in Iraq has had an impact on neighboring states, including Iran," said Davoud Bavand, a political analyst who served at the United Nations during the Shah's government. "Most Iranians believe that action has accelerated the pace of change here."

Bavand dismisses concerns voiced in Washington about Iran's alleged efforts to insinuate an Iranian-style Islamic government on postwar Iraq.

While about two-thirds of Iraqis profess Shiism, the strain of Islam practiced by nearly all Iranians, it is the differences between the two countries that are most pronounced, Bavand said. "For Iraqi Shiites, the connection to Arabism is much stronger than their ties to Shiism," Bavand said. "If the Shiites come to power in Iraq, the honeymoon with Iran will be very short."

The real question for Iranians is what will having America next door - or a reformed Iraq and Afghanistan - mean for Iran itself, and especially for the reformist and conservative camps vying for power within Iran's government.

Reformists say they fear that the United States will cut a deal with the conservative clerics, getting Iranian concessions on issues like the nuclear program and Israel in exchange for ignoring a crackdown on dissidents by the clerics at home. Others say it's more likely that Khatami himself will dispense with reforms, pulling closer to conservatives in the face of a perceived threat to national security.

Ibrahim Yazdi chairs the Iraq Freedom Movement, one of the "religious nationalist" opposition groups that has pressed the government to move faster on reforms. A pharmacologist who lived for many years in Houston, Yazdi also served as the first foreign minister for the interim revolutionary government. He resigned that post after the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in November 1979.

To understand the mood of Iran today, he said, it's necessary to recall what a deep impression the 1979 revolution made - both the exhilaration at displacing a widely loathed dictator and the shock, to many, of the oppressive clerical rule that followed.

"In 1979 many of us said the Shah must go, even if it meant that someone worse might come," said Yazdi, the only member of his party's executive board not currently under arrest.

"Now people know that that was a mistake," he adds. "Now they want to know for sure what the replacement would be."

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