World

A'Tehran spring'

Iran's moderate president reaches out to the world

MICHAEL THEODOULOU December 29 1997
World

A'Tehran spring'

Iran's moderate president reaches out to the world

MICHAEL THEODOULOU December 29 1997

A'Tehran spring'

World

Iran's moderate president reaches out to the world

It was an astonishing scene for Iran. Millions of men and women, normally segregated, brought traffic to a halt in Tehran’s sixlane thoroughfares as they danced until the early hours. Some women, ignoring Iran’s strict Islamic dress code, tossed their head scarves into the air. Others, in a more calculated gesture of defiance, took swigs from bottles of bootleg whisky. In one district, a killjoy police chief tried to stop what the official press would later call “dishonorable” behavior. Instead, he was forced to dance with young women who had literally let their hair down.

On the surface, the occasion was just a sports celebration: Iran had squeaked into next summer’s soccer World Cup. But although no slogans were chanted, the outpouring late last month was widely seen as a deeply political event in an intensifying struggle between hardliners and moderates. Analysts said the celebrations could only have taken place in the more liberal social climate spawned by the country’s reform-minded new president, Mohammad Khatami. He took power in August after unexpectedly winning 70 per cent of the vote from a broad front of young people, women and intellectuals attracted by his promises of tolerance and an end to Iran’s long years of international isolation. ‘The people showed what they really wanted and they’re relying on Khatami to deliver,” said an Iranian documentary film-maker who did not want to be identified. It was, added a European diplomat in Tehran, “a reminder to the old

guard that people want Iran to be more open to the outside world.”

Last week, Khatami, 55, took his boldest step yet in that direction. At a news conference in Tehran, he reached out to the nation long denounced by Iranian leaders as the “Great Satan.” Pointedly declaring his respect for the “great people of the United States,” he called for a “thoughtful dialogue” with Americans. Although Khatami did not speak of official talks, it was Iran’s most forthright move for better relations since the American-backed shah was toppled in the Islamic revolution of 1979. U.S. President Bill Clinton responded in kind, praising Iran’s “great history” and saying he was “very encouraged” by Khatami’s remarks. U.S. officials remained cautious about what the next step would be, but they were clearly intrigued. “We’re hearing things come out of Iran that we haven’t heard for 20 years,” said state department spokesman James Foley.

The new openness has been mirrored on the streets, where the enforcement of restrictions against women is always a barometer of the ideological winds. For weeks, the dreaded baseej—gun-toting moral vigilantes who monitor levels of modesty—have been conspicuously absent from middle-class, Westernized north Tehran. Many women are taking full advantage, flashing ankles, wearing lipstick and allowing locks of highlighted hair to poke out from under cheerful head scarves. Colored contact lenses have become a fad.

Khatami used this month’s Islamic summit in Tehran to showcase the country’s newfound moderation, 18 years after Shia Iran sent alarm bells ringing around the predominantly Sunni Middle East by vowing to export its radical revolution. Gone from the lobbies of the five-star hotels, spruced up for the occasion, were the signs that once proclaimed “Down with America!” Though satellite dishes are officially banned, the 5,000 delegates from 55 countries found CNN available in their bedrooms. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan left the summit clearly impressed, saying Khatami was “a man of his times” who was determined “to work with the rest of the world.” First, however, Khatami has to win the bitter power struggle that has gripped the regime since his election last May. Ranged against the moderate factions allied to him are right-wing conservatives who

have a vested interest in the established order. They are relying on the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to preserve it. The split in the regime was on public display at the Islamic summit when Khamenei, dour-faced and straight-backed, used the opening address to deliver an attack on Israel and the West’s “carnal desires” and “gluttony.” In stark contrast, Khatami, beaming with bonhomie, followed with a conciliatory speech insisting that the Islamic civil soc-

iety he wished to create could learn from its Western counterparts.

The popularity of the “people’s president” remains formidable, even among those who fear the hardliners will turn him into a lame duck. While huge, stern-faced murals of Khamenei and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, dominate major road junctions, Khatami has refused to have his portrait displayed in public. Instead, his genial face looks out from small pictures people voluntarily display in their homes. “The election showed that people want smiling, kind faces,” said Farideh Farhi, an American-educated political analyst.

At the same time, Khatami’s religious credentials—an accepted descendant of the prophet and a son of a grand ayatollah—are unimpeachable. Close family members are also married into the family of Ayatollah Khomeini. Unsurprisingly, his enemies have not yet challenged him directly, choosing instead to move against his allies or those who have taken advantage of the freer intellectual climate to question Khamenei’s authority. Tehran’s immensely popular mayor, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a staunch supporter of the president, is facing corruption charges, while senior ayatollahs in the holy

city of Qom who have criticized Khamenei are under house arrest.

Khamenei controls most organs of power, including the security forces and the judiciary. With state radio and television under his sway, he also has an iron grip on the state propaganda machinery. Even so, political analysts and diplomats in Tehran are now willing to bet that Khatami will win the power struggle. There is even talk that Khamenei, in a bid to preserve some influence, could move closer to Khatami’s camp, transferring some of his powers to the executive in the process. “Khamenei is becoming more isolated,” said a European diplomat. “I do not rule out some sort of gentleman’s agreement between the two to share power more evenly. Khamenei would dearly love a slice of the president’s popularity.”

While the old guard is determined to turn the clock back to before May’s elections, many analysts believe the only way would be through violent repression. Even then, there is no guarantee the security forces would obey any orders to crush what people are calling Khatami’s ‘Tehran spring.” Some 90 per cent of the Revolutionary Guards, the all-important guardians of Khomeini’s revolution, voted for Khatami. ‘The democratic forces in our society are now so strong that they may be too powerful to resist,” said analyst Farhi. The surest sign of Khatami’s confidence was his dramatic approach to the United States. Relations were severed shortly after Iranian stu-

dents stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held its American staff hostage for 444 days, an event most Americans still find hard to forgive. Washington also considers Iran a “rogue state” for backing Islamic militant groups internationally, and for allegedly trying to build a nuclear bomb. Iranians, meanwhile, remember the tens of thousands of “martyrs,” many of them young teenagers, who died in the eight-year war with Iraq—an enemy most believe was aided and abetted by Washington. Yet despite that history, Khatami’s call for dialogue has widespread support. Whether it is pop music, fashion, fast food or soft drinks, young Iranians are perversely fascinated by the country they have been encouraged to hate. Winston and Marlboro are the brands they like to smoke. In the snowcovered mountains north of Tehran, where the young go to enjoy the clean, crisp air and flirt with the opposite sex, middle-class women wear baseball caps under their scarves, while men sport Nikes and T-shirts emblazoned with the names of American rock groups. A world apart, in squalid southern Tehran, families who cannot understand English cluster around televisions hooked

to illegal satellite dishes and watch programs like Baywatch and The Bold and the Beautiful. The United States embodies what many long for: color, excitement and personal freedom. Few have any time for the lurid anti-Western rhetoric beamed by the state-run media. “It’s sad that most Americans swallow their government’s propaganda about Iran being the world’s worst bogeyman while so few of us accept the propaganda we hear about America,” said a 52-year-old Iranian engineer who recently returned after 16 years in California.

Many European envoys in Tehran believe Washington should rethink its policy of using economic and diplomatic sanctions to contain Iran, a strategic powerhouse straddling the vast oil reserves of the Middle East and the Caspian Sea. “It could be a long time before another opportunity like this presents itself,” said one senior diplomat. Iranian hardliners were quick to capitalize on failed attempts by the last president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, to woo the West. Now, in Khatami, many Iranians see a leader charismatic enough to shrug off the yoke of Khomeini’s anti-Western legacy and end Iran’s long isolation.

MICHAEL THEODOULOU in Tehran